Experienced Novice's Guide to Buying/Building a Touring Kayak
In our Beginner's Guide, we tell people to hold off on buying a kayak - ... "the best advice anyone can give you is to take a lesson first." So you know we're not trying to push people into buying kayaks, but if you've had some lessons, the best advice we can give is to stop shopping and go buy a decent kayak that fits you.
Owning your own kayak will allow you to do many things: get out more and have fun, get in better shape for paddling, practice what you've learned in lessons, and go on some trips with clubs or friends who are willing to lead novices. So if you’ve taken some intro kayaking lessons, done wet exits, and learned how to do re-entry rescues, it's time to buy your first kayak. The operative word here is your "first" kayak. Think of your first kayak as being one you'll use to learn in for the next year or two. After that, plan to upgrade to a higher performance kayak - one that's probably too tippy for you now and would slow down your learning curve if you try to "grow into it". This approach simplifies the process of buying your first kayak because such kayaks actually do exits. If you plan to make your first kayak one that does everything well and will be the last kayak you'll ever buy, you'll end up wasting time shopping for something that doesn't exist. In the mean time you'll miss out on lots of fun and maybe even a whole paddling season.
Avoid wasting money on unseaworthy (i.e. lacking proper floatation) rec. kayaks that you'll outgrow in a day or two, but don't buy the most expensive kayak either. When people spend a lot of money, they tend to stick with their mistakes too long. Remember that you'll also need to budget for a good roof rack with kayak cradles, wet suit and/or dry suit, booties, a paddle and spare paddle, pfd, etc.
One of the worst mistakes first time kayak buyers make is thinking that they can find a kayak that is both right for them now and will also be everything they'll ever want in a kayak. This mentality usually leads to spending too much on a kayak that's too big for your size, hard to learn in and isn't right for the trips you're likely to ever go on. Even if you knew enough about kayak design and your future kayaking interests to pick a really good one, you're skill level probably is not ready for a sea kayak with the performance you'll want later on. In fact a kayak that is too advanced (too long, too tippy, too maneuverable) for your current skill level can actually slow down your progression just as much as a cheap, tubby, rec. kayak.
Another common mistake first time buyers make is looking for a kayak that is fast AND stable. Such kayaks exist, but they are a lot of work to paddle and don't hold their resale value. Your first kayak doesn't need to be fast, in fact a "fast" kayak may actually slow you down (learn about "wetted surface area" and "skin friction"). It's better to start with a kayak that is efficient at realistic touring speeds and easy to maneuver. As with cars, there's a difference between fast and efficient. When you go on a trip, an efficient kayak makes it easier to keep up, and a maneuverable kayak is easier to handle in wind and waves. If you are into racing, you'll sacrifice efficiency and ease of control to gain a little more top end speed, but this is not what you want in a sea kayak for touring or developing your skills.
You don't need to test hundreds of kayaks or read the reviews of every kayak ever built (most reviews aren't worth the time it takes to download them). Your fist kayak should be stable enough that you can relax in calm water (don't worry about stability for rough water because you're not ready for that), easy to maneuver yet track well enough that you can keep it going straight in calm conditions, and be good for learning to roll in (if you aren't yet rolling, you'll have to trust other instructor's recommendations on this). A low rear deck makes re-entry rescues easier, and it also makes lay-back rolls easier. Tall seat backs and seat backs that flop forward easily make it harder to get in the kayak, both from shore and during re-entry rescues off shore. Tall seat backs are also bad for efficient paddling and rolling. Seats without hip support (no "hip braces") and cockpits that lack knee braces (i.e. rec. boat's) make edging, leaning, bracing, hip-snapping, and rolling harder. Same for kayaks with sliding rudder pedals. Kayaks under 13' tend to be noticeably slow and inefficient, kayaks over 17' tend to be hard to maneuver and inefficient at typical touring speeds. In general, the lower the fore deck, the more efficiently you can paddle, but your feet have to be comfortable so be sure the fore deck is tall enough for foot comfort when wearing kayak style neoprene booties. If you want more specifics on what to consider, take a peek at the next section which is for intermediates (who are likely buying their second or third kayak).
Kayaks come in different sizes to fit different sized people. One of the most important things about choosing a kayak is finding one that fits your body well. Don't buy a "high volume" kayak because you plan to go on a long expedition. "High volume" kayaks are for big people (either long legged or big, stocky build). Buy a kayak that is sized to fit your body and then learn to pack your gear so it fits in the kayak that fits you. If you have trouble fitting your camping gear into a kayak that is right for you, you need to upgrade your camping gear. Over the years camping gear has become smaller, lighter, and more comfortable.
The shorter (14'-15'), roto-molded (RM) touring kayaks (but not rec boats) mentioned in the beginner's guide above not only work well for novices learning to paddle but are also good for advanced paddlers who want a kayak for playing in surf and rock gardens (where short, tough roto-molded plastic kayaks have advantages). So while your first kayak shouldn't be thought of as the only kayak you'll ever buy, there are a some that are worth keeping even after you buy your second kayak. A well designed, short touring kayak can also be handy for pool practice sessions and as a spare kayak for taking friends paddling. The limitations of these kayaks are their speed and cargo capacity.
A lot of kayakers still turn their nose up at RM kayaks, but if you buy a well designed, plastic, retractable skeg kayak that fits you well, you'll be far better off than if you bought some poorly designed or ill fitting fiberglass kayak just because it was fiberglass. Until recently, few of the RM sea kayaks in the 16'-17' range were high enough quality or designed well enough to recommend for people wanting to take lessons and go on longer trips, but times have changed. For RM retractable skeg kayaks in this range, Wilderness Systems (WS) almost got it right with their RM Tempest 165 and 170 sea kayaks. Unfortunately when WS first introduced the RM versions of the Tempest they had a rear hatch that could implode or fall off. RM Tempests got a black eye for this. WS redesigned this hatch for 2009 and later models, but you'll still read reviews that haven't been updated to reflect the improved hatch. The newer model RM Tempests will work well for someone buying their first sea kayak, just be sure to purchase yours from a caring and knowledgeable shop. P& H and Valley Sea Kayaks have been building high quality RM sea kayaks for years. Both these brands now make RM sea kayaks are stiffer and less prone to warping than most other RM kayaks because of their "Triple Layer" polyethylene construction, and they come with the same top quality hatches as their fiberglass kayaks. Valley's RM sea kayaks come with welded in polyethylene bulkheads rather than caulked in foam bulkheads like most RM kayaks. Check out the RM Etain (17.7 & 17.5) and Sirona by Valley as well as the RM Scorpio and Delphin by P&H. These kayaks set a new standard for polyethylene roto-molded sea kayaks with everything a student needs plus the performance to make it tough to "outgrow". RM Valley and P&H kayaks cost a little more than most RM kayaks, but you get what you pay for.
If your budget allows for a fiberglass sea kayak with a skeg, there are a lot of good models to choose from. Finding one with good cockpit ergonomics that fits you well is a top priority. The fit generally reduces the number of kayaks you need to consider down to 1-5 models total from all the brands in the world.
There's no perfect kayak, there never will be, and there's no new model in the works for next year that is worth waiting for if waiting means not owning a kayak or making do with one that is holding you back from advancing your skills and pleasure this year.
Our store stocks RM kayaks by Wilderness Systems, Dagger, P&H and Valley that meet the above criteria and are in the $1,300 - $2,100 range. If you can't buy your kayak here, then at least buy one from your local specialty kayak shop - not some big sporting goods store or big box store where the staff knows less than you do. Find a sales person who is an expert sea kayakers with experience teaching kayaking 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 sea kayaks, and we have them to fit almost all paddlers from child sized on up to very large adults. We also carry all the best fiberglass retractable skeg type sea kayaks from several leading manufacturers including Tiderace, Valley, Current Designs, Eddyline, Dagger, and Wilderness Systems. Remember it's not what you buy that matters, it's where you buy your kayak. A good specialty kayak shop that cares about it's customers and will want you to buy a kayak that is the right size and type for your needs. And even the same model kayak won't be the same if you buy it from a store that is all about the bottom line.
Call (206) 527-1825 or email us to arrange a demo/test paddle.
Prices and specifications are on our Kayak Store web page.