Buying your first kayak or canoe can be a daunting task when confronted with the wide variety of models available these days. For many prospective paddlers it may be wise to rent a few times to get a feel for what attributes are most important. Taking a lesson or two can not only get you off to a good start and save years of trial and error but also expose you to factors that you may not have given any thought. This guide should hopefully demystify the buying decision process.
Kayaks can be separated into 4 use categories: whitewater, recreational, light (or day) touring and touring (or sea). Whitewater kayaks are designed with maximum maneuverability and safety in mind – they sell for $800 to $1,200 and standard accessories (paddle, PFD, spray-skirt, flotation bags & helmet) will add $300 or more. Unless you have a levelheaded friend to learn from it is best to get some professional instruction before purchasing. Whitewater kayaks do not track (go in a straight line) well & will be a handful for most paddlers on flat water.
Recreational kayaks tend to be short (9”-12’) and wide (26”-30”) and generally sell for $300 and up. These are designed for use on calm & protected waters although they can be used on the easiest of whitewater especially if outfitted with additional flotation. Their general lack of flotation becomes a detriment after a capsize because rescue & recovery is difficult with a kayak full of water. Sealed storage hatches also serve as flotation. Recreational kayaks as a group tend to be very stable & quite maneuverable but most do not track as well or glide as efficiently as longer touring kayaks. Recreational kayaks are recommended for fishing, photography, bird watching & short trips. Many are outfitted with higher seat backs that offer more support when just sitting around although they do inhibit good paddling technique. Large cockpit and sit-on-top kayaks are available for those who don’t like the idea of being too enclosed.
Light or day touring kayaks tend to be 12’-15’ long, 23”-26” wide and generally sell for $600 and up. These often track better & glide more efficiently than recreational kayaks with only a slight sacrifice in stability that most people easily get used to. One or two sealed storage hatches offer extra flotation in addition to places to put your stuff (like lunch or a change of clothing). Light touring kayaks are a good choice for paddlers who like to go 5 to 15 miles on lakes and flat-water rivers. Some may come with a rudder or skeg that help with tracking especially in wind or currents. Beginners and less-skilled paddlers benefit from a rudder or skeg more than skilled paddlers do.
Touring or sea kayaks are 15’ and longer, 20”-24” wide and typically sell for over $1,000. These are the most efficient designs and work well for paddlers who often like to go over 10 miles in a day. Longer kayaks handle waves better and make for good choices for paddling large lakes (Champlain), wide rivers (the lower Hudson) and the coast. Most are equipped with rudders or skegs. Lower stability demands better technique getting in and out of the kayak but many paddlers find once they are seated that stability is acceptable. Two hatches are common and kayaks are designed to make rescue and recovery easier.
If you would like to progress to be an intermediate kayaker or better look for a smaller (e.g. 33”x19”) cockpit opening with thigh braces which help you “wear” the kayak – a loose fit will make you feel less in control. Width and length at the waterline are a better determinant of potential stability and top speed than overall width and length – greater waterline width generally makes for better stability on calm water and greater waterline length generally translates into greater top speed.
Most commercially made kayaks are constructed one of three ways. Rotomolded polyethylene is the least expensive & reasonably durable. Because polyethylene softens when exposed to the hot summer sun these kayaks are the most prone to warping. The larger kayaks can be quite heavy. Composite kayaks are made of fiberglass, Kevlar, carbon fiber or a combination of these materials. Composites can be made in fine shapes producing some of the best performing and lightweight kayaks. These take time to lay up by hand and thus tend to be expensive. Thermoformed plastic (ABS/acrylic) produces a very durable kayak lighter than polyethylene but with the good looks and performance of composites - prices fall between the other two constructions.
Canoes have similar performance characteristics to kayaks when it comes to waterline width and length. The average general-purpose tandem canoe is about 16’ long and 36” wide. A deeper canoe may have a higher weight capacity but also can be more affected by wind. Prices generally range from $500 to $2,500. Whitewater canoes are usually shorter, turn easily and are made deeper and fuller to divert waves. On flat water they would be slow, easily affected by wind and may be harder to keep in a straight line. Sport canoes are short and wide and are often preferred by fishermen for their stability in calm waters. The flat-bottomed hulls on these canoes can allow wind to send them skittering over the water so keels are often added. Recreational canoes are often in the 14’ to 16’ range and tend to favor stability in calm waters over efficient glide. Touring canoes (16’ to 18’) usually have more sophisticated hull shapes (a shallow V or arch) allowing for better glide. Modern asymmetric designs combine good tracking with good maneuverability. Stability and performance in waves are enhanced. Cruisers or racing canoes are typically 18’6” long, track very well, may be hard to turn and performance in waves and wind may be compromised for maximum top speed.
Polyethylene is again the least expensive and heaviest canoe construction material - warping and UV degradation can sometimes be a problem. Then comes fiberglass (can be made in a wide variety of hull shapes) and aluminum (durable). Royalex is a 5 layer (ABS plastic and vinyl) thermoformable material. Most whitewater canoes and many recreational and touring canoes are made of Royalex. Its high durability combined with moderate price and weight have made aluminum canoes practically obsolete these days. Royalex can also be formed into a wider variety of shapes than aluminum. Kevlar (sometimes combined with carbon fiber) construction offers lightest weights but at a premium price.
If you can’t decide whether you would like a canoe or a kayak then here are some thoughts. Canoes are easier to pack with gear and to access it while on the water. They are generally easier to carry and are lighter in weight in relation to storage capacity. Canoes are easier to get in and out of especially on steep or rocky shorelines, beaver dams, etc. The higher paddling position allows for better nature observation. A greater variety of paddling positions and styles can be less tiring. The paddle is lighter and you don’t have to hold it up in front of you. Canoeing while in a kneeling position leads to less back problems. There is a reason native North Americans paddled canoes.
Many people find kayaking easier to learn and enjoy being closer to the water. Kayaks are often faster than canoes. Rudders and skegs help in windy conditions and kayaks are rollable and can be more seaworthy in extreme conditions like large waves and whitewater. Sprayskirts will keep the paddler drier in rain. There’s a reason Eskimos paddled kayaks.
Whether you go for a canoe or kayak you will also need a paddle (lightweight but durable is good), a PFD (personal flotation device or life jacket; get one that fits comfortably) and a means to transport the boat. Car-topping can be done using inexpensive foam pads and straps or existing or aftermarket car and truck racks – paddlesport dealers can often assist you with the choices.
Whether you choose a kayak or canoe there are a few things you may want to give some thought to. I can’t think of anyone who ever regretted buying a lighter boat. If the kayak or canoe is easy to get on and off your car you will end up using it more often. Conversely, if it is heavy and you have a difficult time getting to the water then it will more than likely remain a fixture in your garage. Most people who like to do Adirondack style trips that require portages or carries which may be as long as 3 miles will go for a Kevlar model.
Tandem canoes and kayaks (sometimes referred to as “divorce boats”) can be great if you have a regular partner but most people will be happier in solos. Tandems are a good option when one paddler is much stronger than the other such as an adult and a child. Polyethylene tandems can be quite heavy to transport.
If you desire to paddle with friends then it is wise to get a boat similar in size and function as theirs. A 10’ kayak is just not going to be able to keep up with a 16 footer; a 14’ recreational canoe will lag behind a 17’ tourer. Length can give you an indication of potential top speed but at a lower speed a well-designed shorter boat can be just as efficient. For example, a 17’ kayak may have a top speed of 8mph and a 14’ kayak may have a top speed of 7mph but each may require the same amount of effort to maintain a speed of 3mph.
I often get people asking for a “beginner” boat – my answer is usually “how long do you want to be a beginner?” I have met many people who bought an inexpensive recreational kayak who after a time wanted to learn to Eskimo roll it – well, recreational kayaks were never designed to be rolled, they resist rolling back up as much as they resist tipping over in the first place; they lack thigh braces and hip support which aid the paddler in performing the technique; their cockpits are too large for the paddler . Most recreational kayakers have no interest in rolling but the skill should be learned by those venturing out on whitewater or out to sea (or possibly even large lakes).
There is nothing like a good kayak/canoe shop where you can spend time with an enthusiast who can explain the differences in the variety of offerings. Ask the salesperson if they have paddled the boats you are considering – you can usually tell if he or she is just spewing the manufacturer’s propaganda or relating from personal experience. Good shops offer instruction from beginner to advanced levels. I’d rather paddle with a good paddler in a bad boat than a bad paddler in a good boat. Too many folks blame the boat when lack of skill is the culprit. Take advantage of lessons and tours offered – these are a great opportunity to spend time in boats you are considering – you will learn much more about the boat after a 2 hour paddle than after a 10 minute try-out. There are also good educational videos available to buy or rent. Rent a boat and take it to a place you would like to paddle regularly – many shops may even allow you to put the rental fee toward a purchase.
After buying your boat a little extra care will assure that it gives you many years of paddling pleasure. To avoid fading and UV degradation do not store it in the sun. Wipe on a non-toxic, biodegradable UV protectant like 303 Aerospace Protectant. Unfinished wood trim on canoes should be oiled at least once a year.
There is no feeling like being out on the water on a sunny day under your own power – the sounds, smells & sights are a treat to the senses. Many people have said to me that they have been thinking about taking up canoeing or kayaking – my advice is “quit thinking and start doing!”
Copyright 2005/2010 Richard Macha, Adirondack Paddle'n'Pole
CANOE OR KAYAK? THAT IS THE QUESTION.
One can find a plethora of paddling destinations in the Adirondacks, some less adventurous, some more adventurous. Some folks might portage from pond to pond in the St. Regis Canoe Area, some might want to take on the whitewater of the Hudson River Gorge. Others may load up the gear and paddle out to a backcountry campsite on Little Tupper Lake or just bring along a fishing rod and poke around Thirteenth Lake. A few may want to do it all!
There are many models of canoes and kayaks to choose from, none of which is perfect for all types of paddling. I am lucky that I own several canoes and kayaks and can use the one best suited to the task. When buying your first kayak or canoe you should pick a model best suited to the type of paddling you plan to do the most of. Your choice may change as you gain experience and skill so don't get hung up thinking that your first canoe/kayak will be your last. You might want to start with a general purpose canoe/kayak then with time other need