A Beginner’s Guide to the Types of Kayak

Here we are providing the absolute last word on the difference between canoes and kayaks but that is only the start, this time we’re going to examine the difference between different types of kayak and totally nail it down beyond question so no one will ever have to ponder the difference between a Sit on Top and a sea kayak again. Never ever - apart from the wide range of kayak types which I completely omit.

Just to jog your memory, roughly speaking, in the broadest terms, canoes can generally be sat in OR knelt in and are usually propelled with a single bladed paddle; kayaks are generally just sat in and usually propelled with a double-bladed paddle so we’ll stick with that as a starting place. However it’s not difficult to observe that although a Sit on Top and a sea kayak are both kayaks (according to the loose definition above) they look very different:

South Coast Canoes - Sit on Top vs Sea Kayak

Yet they are still both kayaks. There is more that unites them than divides them and it is this overlapping and blurring of divisions that is both confusing and fascinating when trying to choose the perfect kayak for your adventures.

In some ways it’s easy, if you’re just interested in one very specific aspect of kayaking such as Wild Water racing then you’re pretty much limited to choosing a wild water racing boat - long, fast, high volume, very tippy and with funny looking wings behind the cockpit:

South Coast Canoes - Wild Water Kayak

But if your interests are only just a tiny bit broader such as pottering up and down a bay on a calm sunny day or sometimes paddling along a flat river then suddenly your choice is very much greater - Sit onTop, touring kayak, inflatable… - and a keener understanding of intended use and environment is necessary.

So, that’s what it comes down to, where do you want to go, what do you want to do? All kayak designs are simply a response to changing human needs and interests. Indeed, the first kayaks of Greenland and Alaska were just a response to the need to travel, hunt and fish in a very demanding and unforgiving environment so I’ll do my best to explain the differences between the different kinds of kayaks and you can spend happy hours planning your post lockdown paddling adventures and ponder which might suit you best:

1. Sea Kayaks

This is the design that looks most like the original skin on wood boats of the frozen north. Long, thin and pointy at both ends, sea kayaks tend to be 15 feet long up to about 22 feet (or longer if a tandem) because they are built to go in a straight line efficiently and comfortably for long hours behind the paddle. They usually have two, three or four hatches to store everything from sun bloc and sandwiches for a day trip to two weeks’ food and kit for a gnarly expedition. They have bits of string and bungee attached to the deck for stowing bits and bobs you might need in a hurry such as spare paddles.

They’re designed to cope with the whole range of sea conditions, from flat calm to hoolie with bows that cut through or over waves and decks that shed water. Their length gives you speed and efficiency for long journeys and their narrow, V-shaped hulls provide stability (counter intuitive as this may seem) in bouncy conditions. The trade-off between length and speed is manoeuvrability and this is the compromise which designers spend time trying to solve and which the customer must choose. A longer, faster boat will be more ‘directionally stable and efficient’ a shorter boat will be easier to turn - which matters more to you?

sea kayaks also tend to be the most beautiful of boats; whether built of either plastic or an increasing range of fancy composites, they look sleek and purposeful. The plastic boats are heavier and cheaper, the composite are lighter, pricier and are said to feel more responsive with an urge to be paddled fast. Plastic isn’t necessarily more robust either, you will frequently see 20+ year old boats which are still perfectly sea worthy and like mine, covered in battle scars from a lifetime of hard use which means that your very expensive composite sea kayak works out at very good value for money.

Sea kayak recommendations:

- P&H Scorpio - classic plastic sea kayak

- Tiderace Pace Action - fast and responsive composite sea kayak

2. Touring Kayaks

Touring kayaks overlap with sea kayaks in many ways. They tend to be shorter 15 feet down to around 10 feet often with slightly beamier hulls, roomier cockpits and less fully featured decks than pedigree sea kayaks with fewer hatches, bungees and decklines. This doesn’t mean they can’t go out to sea and they frequently do but they’re happier in slightly less challenging environments than big bouncy waves on the open ocean so they have to be a bit more selective about conditions. Touring kayaks are ideal for estuaries and sheltered bays and will happily transition to open rivers and are great for pottering. Being more stable than their sea kayak cousins makes touring kayaks great platforms for bird watching and wildlife spotting too. Mostly made of plastic, these are highly versatile and fun craft, ideal for situations where a traditional sea kayak would be overkill.

Touring kayak recommendations:

- P&H Virgo - shorter than a traditional sea kayak but still capable of full days out on the water.

- Dagger Axis - shorter, wider day tripper, ideal for pottering on the local harbours and estuaries

3. Crossover Kayaks

These originally seemed to be one of those designs that filled a niche no one knew was a niche. The trouble with touring kayaks and sea kayaks is that they’re long and they don’t fit down little wiggly water ways very well but that’s fine because for narrower and rocky rivers you’d use a river boat which is short and rounded and designed to twiddle around obstacles. The trouble with river boats though is they’re short and a bit of a pig to paddle on open water. They’re an effort to keep straight and because of the hull design you’re effectively paddling uphill if you try to go at any speed.

So what’s the problem I hear you cry? Well, nothing until you want to go on a journey from the River Dart Country Park on the River Dart all the way down to Dartmouth with an overnight bivvy en route. The first section is twiddly and bouncy grade two - ideal river boat territory but then it flattens out and the pace eases until it becomes tidal below Totnes, ideal touring boat or sea kayak territory so which boat do you use?

Well, an open canoe would work admirably but as this is an article about kayaks the obvious answer is a crossover kayak. Short and nimble enough to cope with the grade 2 sections of the Lower Dart but with enough length and a drop down skeg to paddle the tidal river and estuary - especially if you’ve done your homework and have got the ebbing tide pushing you along - and enough space, usually in a rear hatch to pack your tarp, hammock and ghillie kettle for your overnight camp.

Crossover kayak recommendations:

- Dagger Katana - some people say they’re not particularly good at either flat or moving water; we think they’re great on both

- Pyranha Fusion Duo - What’s better than paddling on your own? Paddling with your partner / buddy / offspring / sibling / grandparent...

4. River boats, GP boats, play boats, creek boats etc.

If you asked most people to draw a kayak they would probably draw a cigar shape with a hole in the middle, the forerunner of a river boat which, made of fibreglass or plastic were many people’s first experience of a kayak with such models as the Perception Dancer popularising paddlesports for many newbies. Modern river boats in all their variety are largely descended from these; mostly made of plastic, tough, comfortable, highly manoeuvrable and highly technical these boats have pushed the limits of what is paddleable to every corner of the globe with consequent drip down in materials, equipment, safety & skills development for all paddlers everywhere.

Neoprene spraydecks, dry tops, pants and suits, river classification, rescue techniques, carbon crankshaft paddles…all developments from river paddlers or their close relatives, the slalomists. In very general and not at all comprehensive terms they can be classified as: River Runners / GP boats = short, comfy, manoeuvrable for all day fun on moving water of increasing speed and difficulty; Playboats / Freestyle boats = short (sometimes very short) technical, twitchy, acrobatic boats for flicks and tricks on fast white water; Creek boats = big, tough, chunky boats for the gnarliest white water. (This is what I use, even though I go nowhere near the gnarliest white water but because it feels nice and safe and I can carry lots of flasks of soup and coffee).


- Dagger Axiom - All round river runner with a playful edge

- Pyranha Machno - Big, bouncy, boofy, banana of a boat for maximum fun in big bouncy water

- Pyranha Jed - Short and twiddly for showing off…I mean displaying extraordinary levels of acrobatic and athletic skill and I’m in no way jealous

5. Sit on Top Kayaks

Sit on Top Kayaks have probably done more to democratise paddlesports than any other boat; back in the bad old days of cigar shaped fibreglass kayaks materials weren’t very strong and spraydecks were particularly useless so the solution was to make the cockpit as small as possible which meant that many people’s first capsize was a terrifying experience of feeling trapped upside down underwater.

With Sit on Top Kayaks all that terror simply disappears, you sit on it, not in it so you simply fall off in a capsize and can clamber back on and although they can be highly technical craft, you can hop aboard and pootle around without any specific skills or instruction at all. Since the early days of generic Sit on Top Kayaks they have diversified to fill every ecological niche from very fancy and specialised fishing kayaks to long distance, ocean racing craft as well as still meeting most people’s need for a do it all craft with room for two paddlers and a dog and a picnic - the ultimate boat for all round use. My own is a crossover Sit on Top which can be paddled on white water because it’s got thigh straps, flat water because it has a drop down skeg, bouncy seas and surf (if I were any use at surfing)

Sit on top kayak recommendations:

- Islander Calypso - The Ford Focus of family paddling; good quality, well designed, ideal for most people for most paddling adventures

- Wilderness Systems Tarpon 130 - What’s better than Sit on Top paddling on your own? Paddling with your partner / buddy / offspring / sibling / grandparent / dog

- Pyranha Surf Jet - Surfilicious fun dudes.

6. Inflatable Kayaks

The popularity of inflatables has ballooned (geddit?) since the start of lockdown. Materials and designs have improved such that modern, decent quality inflatable kayaks are robust and firm enough to be paddled on moving water, even quite serious white water and open water as long as it’s sheltered as having little draught and high freeboard (less boat under the water and more above) they get blown around a lot which is a pain unless the wind is blowing the way you want to go.

The biggest advantage of inflatable kayaks is their pack and portability of course. They fit into a rucksack or suitcase along with paddles and pump, can be stored in the cupboard under the stairs and can be carried around in the boot of most cars to a suitable launching spot. Inflatables are now branching out to fill all available niches in the same way Sit on Tops have. One specialised form is the packraft. Originally based on the survival rafts of downed WW2 airmen, these were designed primarily for wilderness exploration in Alaska with toughness, field repairability, packability and light weight being the core design features. Packrafts will pack away to tiny sizes, the smallest being about 4.5lbs in weight but will carry huge payloads; bikes and expedition equipment in wild and remote locations. They are expensive but with a bike and a packraft you can achieve optimal adventure potential.

There is a health warning with inflatables though, several budget supermarkets sell cheap inflatable kayaks. Now, I’m not a boat snob and I think that these are a great way to get afloat and have fun in a safe environment but they’re not very firm and they’re not very tough and they’re difficult to manage in the wind so they’re best not used on the sea with an off shore breeze and I know people have paddled them around Portland Bill without any hiccups but the RNLI and Coastguard also have to spend more time rescuing these type of kayak than any other and other boats are more suitable for more out-there adventures.

Inflatable kayak recommendations:

- Sevylor Madison - Tough and perennially popular inflatables

- Verano Cayman - Firm single seater which handles well

Right, that’s a very quick canter through different kinds of kayak mostly based on the boats we sell and the ones we gat asked about, I know I’ve largely ignored racing boats such as marathon and sprint boats and esoteric outliers such as squirt boats so apologies to all you racers and squirters. If you’d like to know more though contact us or come and see us and we’ll happily talk about the merits of different boats for hours…and hours…and hours.