Buying a Kayak, Part 1: Some Research


Canoeing is something I’ve done for years and years, as I previously wrote. But now, kayaking has caught my interest. Last summer I had a taste of it and am looking forward to getting in more of them and finding the one that I want to own. And since I research things to death, the kayak is no different. So, this post will serve as a reference for me (and may be interesting to you, too).

Finding a Kayak

Last year I was able to try a few different kayaks and see the differences in them, as well as consider what I wanted to do with a kayak. This led me to the conclusion that a light touring kayak was probably the right choice.

A few weeks back I was at the North Cove Outfitters kayak demo day where I got to try many kayaks (I believe I tried nine different ones). One clearly stood out as my favorite: the Elite Series Strait 140. I also tried the XE model with the rudder, which was very much the same, though the whole rudder aspect threw me off.

The fact that the rudder gave me trouble highlights why this is a long process for me: I need to get some skills. I want to try more kayaks this year, become at least mildly proficient and comfortable, and perhaps even take a lesson or two. I don’t have a strong feeling for what makes a kayak right for me, just what I like right now. And so, next year I want to try the same kayak and see how I feel about it. What kind of shortcomings stand out after I have some experience under my belt? Is it still my favorite kayak? Can my skills grow with it? If the answer is “yes” then it’s a good kayak for me to purchase.

A few things I’ve been able to decide based on my experience so far:

  • A small recreational kayak isn’t for me. The lack of a clear keel and short length means they can’t track straight. That means trying to get anywhere will be more challenging because I have less control, and activities like river, big lake, or sea kayaking are completely impossible.
  • The rec/touring “crossover” like the Pungo 120 and 140 are interesting options: the more obvious keel helps the kayak track straighter and the 12-14 foot length gets into a good range to help the kayak track better. These are wide kayaks, good for photography. But not as good for covering any distance.
  • Slightly narrower touring kayaks track a little easier still, and playing in these convinces me that the 14-foot length is the size I want. 12-foot doesn’t displace enough water for me to feel stable, and 16-foot is too much of a compromise on maneuverability. The narrower design has less initial stability so isn’t as good for photography — however I hope to work past that concern with increased skill.
  • The relatively hard chine design of the Strait kayak offered a lot of secondary stability, which I really liked.

Don’t Forget the Paddle

Something I was surprised to find at the demo weekend was how different paddles can be. Yes, there are a huge variety of paddles for different styles of paddling, but even within the low-angle style (what I want) there is a lot of variation.

Starting at the bottom, the basic polycarbonate/aluminum paddles from lesser-quality brands that weigh several pounds drain my strength and energy so quickly that I would never want to attempt a full day of kayaking, let alone anything longer.

It’s really amazing what a reduction of just a few ounces does to make the paddle more enjoyable to use. I don’t have enough knowledge to say for sure, but I suspect the weight of the blades is where the weight is really felt (and this would jive with the “swing weight” manufacturers talk about). Stepping up to an entry-level paddle from a known brand (I played with the Werner Paddles Skagit) is a substantially more enjoyable paddle. I suspect a large part of this is that the blade design is scooped slightly, making it more effective at moving water. That said, the Camano felt significantly better still, and seems like a fair compromise between price and weight. The Camano is what I used for most of the demo day and I feel like it fit me very well.

So, now I just need to get out more to rent and try some kayaks! I have been out canoeing the past few weekends to build up my strength and endurance for my upcoming trip on the Allagash Wilderness Waterway in Maine with my Scout Troop. I’ll certainly be able to get out in a kayak after that!

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Thank you for your perceptive comments. Very helpful.

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