Beginner’s Guide to Buying/Building Your First Sea Kayak

Beginner’s think they can use what they read on the Internet to make an informed choice for their first kayak. Like moths to a flame they end up attracted to the least seaworthy, most inefficient, poorly designed boats with bad ergonomics (vessels that kayakers call coffins). In addition to having serious safety problems, the boats beginners usually choose hinder their learning and just plain aren't much fun to paddle. Here's a tip: if a new sit-inside touring kayak sells for less than $1000.00, it's not worth owning -- not even for a beginner, not even if that's all you can afford (look for a used kayak instead). Even if it's only $100, it ain't no bargain. There are reasons why some kayaks are so cheap, and you don't want to find out the hard way what's wrong with these boats. The only exceptions to this that I know of are Sit-On-Top style kayaks (open deck), but if you are looking for a closed cockpit kayak, forget the cheap junk -- at best they'll give you a bad impression of kayaking.

If you don’t yet own a kayak, but are thinking about buying or building one, the best advice anyone can give you is to take a safety lesson first. See our SK101 Beginning Sea Kayak Safety Skills course. If you can't take one of our lessons, be sure the lesson you take includes actual practice tipping over and getting out of a kayak while upside down (with an instructor supervising). When you’ve done enough wet-exit practice to overcome your fear of capsizing, come take our SK115 Training Camp. This course covers the many ways to steer without ruddering (i.e. leaned turns, carved turns, sweep strokes, sequentially combined strokes, etc.) as well as bracing and rolling. If you have already learned to roll, brace, etc., see our "Experience Novice’s Guide to Buying a Kayak", or click here. The more you’ve learned about paddling technique (and I don’t mean from watching YouTube), rescues and safety, the smarter you’ll be about choosing your first kayak. If you buy a kayak before taking lessons you'll regret it after your first lesson if not sooner. Lessons aren't an expense, they're a money saving investment (which may save your life too).

If you are dying to buy something now, buy a roof-rack and kayak carrying cradles/saddles for your car. Regardless of what kayak you end up with or even if you just rent kayaks for a while, you will need a sturdy roof rack with cradles (see our "Buyers Guide for Kayak Roof Racks and Cradles"). And if you happen to be in the market for a new car, be sure to consider how suitable your next car will be for carrying kayaks. Is the roof of an SUV too high for you to load a kayak onto? Is the roof of a two-seat sports car too short to keep a kayak from teeter-tottering? Do the rack manufacturers even make a roof rack solution suitable for carrying kayaks that fits the car you are thinking about buying? (Tip: check the rack fit guides on and for before buying a car. If they don't list a rack system then the car isn't designed for adding a rack). The Kayak Academy sells Thule racks and accessories and can help you get a roof rack and kayak cradle system that is right for you and your vehicle.

Another little item you will need before renting or demoing a kayak or taking lessons is some appropriate kayaking footwear -- not sandals. Sandals can be dangerous if a foot peg slips between your foot and the sandal or a strap or buckle gets caught on a seat. At best, sandals are uncomfortable in a kayak ... your heels get sore from rubbing against the bottom of the kayak. Sport sandals are so bulky they lead people to buy an oversized kayak, and then they wonder why they can't keep up to their friends. Wetsuit booties are the standard footwear for kayaking, and they are a versatile first choice as they are good for rafting, snorkeling, sail-boarding, SUP paddle boarding, etc. Some high end water shoes on the market work okay for warm weather paddling, but the mesh water sock/shoes under $100 fill up with sand while getting in a kayak and fall off in the water when you capsize, so generally wet suit booties are the best solution. Invest in booties with a medium thickness sole (not too bulky, but thick enough so you can walk on rocks without hurting your feet). A lot of water shoes and booties on the market are so narrow that they are not comfortable for average width feet, especially if you will be wearing neoprene socks or dry-socks inside the shoe for warmth. At the Kayak Academy we go to great lengths to offer you a selection of footwear we've tested and found to work well for kayaking, and we give you sizing tips to help you find booties that fit you right for kayaking whether or not you will be wearing a dry suit.

Why not start with a "recreational kayak"?

Most "recreational kayaks" (and some low-end fiberglass touring kayaks) lack basic safety features such as sufficient buoyancy (in both ends), perimeter safety lines for holding onto the kayak in the event of a capsize, and handles that won't take your finger off when the kayak rolls over. A touring/sea kayak with proper buoyancy will float horizontally with the cockpit coaming above the water - even when completely swamped and with the weight of the paddler in the kayak. This means the kayak can be bailed out -- assuming you carry a bilge pump. In contrast, most "recreational kayaks" tend to go vertical or float in a bow down attitude when swamped (especially those under 12' long and any without front AND rear bulkheads). Generally, the cockpit coaming on a swamped "recreational kayak" will be under water -- making it impossible to pump or bail out. Any kayak, no matter how stable, can capsize - even on a small lake. Buoyancy can be provided by front and rear bulkheads or float bags. Unfortunately most "recreational kayaks" lack front bulkheads, and it is impractical to use float bags in them because their short stubby shape makes the air bags slip out of the cockpit when swamped. For Rec kayaks shorter than 12', even if they were fitted with front and rear bulkheads, there's just too little volume in the bow of a kayak this size to make it float horizontal when swamped with the person in the kayak. If you must go out in one of these boats, stay within a short swimming distance to shore at all times. Note most everyone over-estimates their swimming distance, and one's swimming distance will be further shortened if the water is cold.

What about building a kayak?

People who build a kayak before taking lessons make many of the same mistakes as people who buy a kayak first. In some ways these problems are even worse for people who build their own kayak because they invest so much time and labor into building their kayak that their emotional attachment to it leads them to suffer with their mistakes longer than someone who just lost money on their mistake. Furthermore, when a beginner builds a kayak in their garage, they are out of the loop for meeting knowledgeable paddlers who can mentor them, and they miss out on the free advice that others get from networking with their local specialty kayak shop - advice that could help keep them out of trouble as well as inspire them to get out more. If you decide to build your own kayak, remember that the more you know about paddling, kayak safety and rescues, the smarter you'll be about choosing which kayak model to build and what details (deck rigging etc.) you can improve on while making it. So take good lessons first.

What about buying a "beginner's kayak"?

We used to say that there was no such thing as a "beginner's kayak" ... what usually passes as a beginner's kayak are boats so poorly designed that only a beginner would be foolish enough to waste their money on one. However, lately this has begun to change. Ideally, in addition to being affordable, a beginner's kayak would be designed well enough that a beginner could actually use it to learn kayaking fundamentals (including re-entry rescues and rolling), and do so with the same level of safety as in a full-fledged sea kayak. A few touring kayaks that fit this criteria are the: Dagger Stratos, P&H Virgo, North Shore Aspect, and Eddyline Kayaks Sitka (all of these are available in two or more sizes to fit most people). Such kayaks are starting to define a new genre, sometimes called "rec-touring kayaks", because they bridge the gap between the rec kayaks and full-fledged sea kayaks. The term "rec-touring", however, lacks a formal definition which makes it ripe for marketing abuse so watch out for what other brands and stores may call "rec touring" (Does it have adequate safety features and does it make learning to roll easy?). For your safety and long term enjoyment of the sport we still recommend taking a lesson first, but for those who can't wait to buy a their first kayak, come see us and we'll help you find a good beginner's kayak that fits you right.

If you have to buy a kayak NOW, then at least buy it from a specialty shop like K.A. - not some big box store or sporting goods store where the staff know less than you about kayaking. Find a sales person who is an expert sea kayaker with experience teaching beginners so you'll get good help choosing a kayak that fits you right. The best school for sea kayak lessons is also the best place to buy your kayak -- at the Kayak Academy we don't simply sell boats, we inspect them, tune them, give them our free dealer prep and put a little bit of the Kayak Academy into every kayak you buy from us. The Kayak Academy carries a variety of kayaks that fit almost all sizes of paddlers and meet the above safety criteria for beginner kayaks. We also carry the best sea kayaks from several leading manufacturers. It's not just which kayak you buy that matters, it's where you buy it. A good specialty kayak shop cares about its customers and will help you buy a kayak that is the right size and type for your needs.

See our SK101 Beginning Sea Kayak Safety Skills course to get started.

Kayak prices and specifications are on our Kayak Store web page.