Whether you’re exploring wild coastal shorelines or paddling down an urban river, kayaking is one of the best ways to get out on the water—it’s a hobby that can suit people of almost all ages, athletic abilities and interests. You can spend a quiet morning paddling in pursuit of fish, or you can chase the adrenaline rush of surging down Class VI rapids. Perhaps you’d prefer to load your camping gear into the hull and cruise until you find the perfect place to set up basecamp for a couple days. The beauty of this sport is that once you’re equipped with the best kayak for your needs and abilities, you choose the intensity, the physical effort and the scenery.
While kayaks are arguably the most ubiquitous of water sport vessels, they are far from cookie-cutter clones of one another. They can be incredibly versatile watercraft and depending on the type, capacity, and features, they can be suitable for adventures, exercise, leisure, or as a means to catch some fish.
We know that finding the right one for you can be daunting—there are just so many options—but we’re here to help. Read on for our list of the best kayaks for all sorts of paddlers and activities. We’ll see you out there.
Best Recreational Kayak
Wilderness Systems Pungo 120
While not suited to whitewater, this kayak is about as close to a one-size-fits all as you can get. The 29-inch wide hull is broad enough for easy stability, even in choppy conditions (important for peace of mind if you’re just starting out). And its 12-foot length balances steady tracking with nimbleness in turns. It’s highly maneuverable, so docking and avoiding rocks isn’t a problem. Plus it can also get up a decent bit of speed on open water. And it displaces enough water for a maximum capacity of 320 pounds.
You’ll have the best experience with the Pungo 120 in calm or slow moving waters, and has a wealth of conveniences. There’s a customizable dashboard, for exmaple, with a removable drybox, two cup holders, SlideTrax mounts for phones, fishing rods and other accessories, and two additional customizable mounting platforms. And while most kayaks tend to come with minimal seating, the Pungo has comfortably padded seats to help you make the most of your leisurely trek on smooth waters.
Best Clear Kayak
Crystal Explorer Kayak
If you want your adventure on the water to also come with a clear look at what’s under the water, then a unique see-through kayak from Crystal Kayak is the way to go. These broad-hulled kayaks are stable, steady and perfect for use on lakes, ponds, calm ocean waters and lazy rivers.
Though not the fastest boat around, you’ll be happy to float in the Crystal Explorer and simply take in the view around (and below) you. And while designed for one paddler, the Explorer is large enough for a passenger to hop aboard. You’re covered when it comes to displacement; the kayak has a 425-pound weight capacity. The polycarbonate resin hull (the branded name of the material is “Lexan”) should stand up to bumps against rocks, logs, and so on with ease, but you’ll probably be able to easily avoid those anyway because, just as if you were in Wonder Woman’s plane, you’ll be able to see them right through the boat. Bonus: it’s surprisingly lightweight and has removable components for easy storage and transportation.
Best Kayak for Beginners
L.L.Bean Manatee Kayak
Kayaks are designed for both fitness and adventure—two of the main reasons newbies list as why they’re interested in getting into the sport. But the sticker shock of getting a kayak—along with the additional required gear like personal flotation devices, paddles and tools to transport the vessel—can be a deterrent. This kayak from L.L. Bean is not only stable and durable enough for beginners, but is also fairly affordable at $399.
This kayak is well worth its modest price and should last for many years even with heavy use thanks to the rugged rotomolded polyethylene construction hull. It has storage to accommodate gear, a drink holder to keep drinking water within reach and an adjustable footrest to accommodate differently sized paddlers. And if you decide that kayaking just isn’t for you, the brand offers a generous one-year return policy.
Best Kayak for Ocean Touring
Delta Kayaks Delta 17
If you’re going to be heading out on an Arctic paddling expedition, this boat is up to the challenge. It will also serve for decidedly less frigid paddling, such as a multi-day trip down the Florida coast. At 17 feet long, the hull will slice through chop with ease and keep you heading on a steady line.
As one reviewer noted, you can “drop the rudder in a strong wind and know your work just got easier.” Another mentioned there is “good speed for a boat of this length,” and that it is good for paddling wherever you can. There is plenty of dry storage, with a fore day hatch and two dry storage areas, as well as bungee deck rigging at both the bow and stern for extra gear. Owners of this best-seller rave about how easy the kayak is to maneuver, and use words like “stable, durable and easy to use” to describe it in online reviews.
Best Kayak for Whitewater
Dagger Rewind Kayak
According to Tennessee-based Red Bull athlete Dane Jackson, a celebrated kayaker whose dad was an Olympic paddler, if you’ll only be getting one kayak for whitewater, look for one that offers a combination. You want something that is both “good for running down rivers with confidence if you have some experience, while at the same time having a freestyle aspect to it that allows you to do tricks and fun moves down even the simplest of whitewater.”
This colorful kayak is also fun to simply paddle down a lazy river with no rapids to rattle your hull. The compact size means it maneuvers nimbly and quickly. Also worth noting: the seat and hip pads can be adjusted and the hull is sized to accommodate larger adults.
Best Two-Person Kayak
Ocean Kayak Malibu Two XL Tandem Kayak
A reliable two-person kayak like this one is ideal whether you’re “out to have a fun time with a friend, or taking someone out for their first time” on the water, says Jackson. However, considering the seats are moveable, you could alternatively sit in the middle and use that extra space could accommodate your four-legged friend or child.
Ideal for calm, open water, this stable kayak comes with supportive seating, cargo bays with tie-downs, and side paddle keepers. While it would make for great exercise, it’s also a good choice for those looking to land some fish.
Best Pedal Kayak
Perception Pescador Pilot 12
A word of warning: pedaling a kayak is not as easy as you might expect. In fact, it’s a pretty serious quad workout, and it takes a while to get used to the level of effort needed to push it through the water. The good news? Pedal kayaks like this top-rated vessel from Perception can zip you along at speeds fast enough to create a little wake and a lot of excitement.
Also, you can always use a paddle when your legs get tired or paddle and pedal at the same time for top speed. This boat has plenty of storage and plenty of special features, like recesses to keep fishing rods perched upright for storage or for trolling, a raised seat that keeps you drier and cooler thanks to airflow, and a hand-operated rudder.
Best Inflatable Kayak
Intex Explorer K2 Kayak
If you’re a bit wary of hopping into an inflatable kayak and heading out to sea, you really don’t have to be. This rugged kayak has gobs of positive reviews—despite a rock-bottom price tag that has more in common with a pool float than a rig you can take into open water.
The rigidity of most hard-sided kayaks is often what newbie kayakers complain about—they’re just not that comfortable to sit in. That’s not the case here. The cockpit is spacious, even for two people, and the seat and backrest can easily be adjusted. Beyond that, it’s an affordable, convenient kayak that can be quickly deflated thanks to Boston valves on each side, and it can be tucked into a closet when not in use. Despite all that, the Intex can support paddlers up to a combined weight of 400 pounds, and is well-suited to any calm water environment. The hull consists of three different air compartments, so even in the unlikely event that one gets punctured, you’ll still stay afloat and can paddle back to shore, albeit awkwardly.