Types of Kayaks – What is the Difference

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Kayaking can be done for numerous reasons.

Whether you’re planning on spending the day touring protected waters, fighting against choppy waters, racing against a fleet of other vessels, or enjoying a cold drink while fishing or shredding the waves in a competition – you’re going to need to proper kayak.

There is a multitude of kayaks created for a myriad of different reasons so that each paddler, angler, and extreme sports enthusiast can get the most out of their experience using the proper vessel:

Kayak Types

Recreational kayaks

Recreational kayak

Recreational kayaks are some of the heavier, less agile of the classes. These kayaks are generally larger and can come with large or small storage areas which is helpful for longer day outings. They do best on calm water and aren’t meant for flipping or rolling as they would be difficult to get out of. The seating in these kayaks is generally less comfortable than others and is generally wider and more stable than its counterparts. As far as transporting these kayaks to the water, they are heavier than other vessels because of the hard, plastic material that they are commonly made out of.

Sea kayaks

Sea kayaks

Sea kayaks are longer and thinner and are quite a bit more agile. These kayaks can be rolled and tipped easily. The sea kayak is typically used in waters that are considered “unpredictable and unstable.” These kayaks have two sealed bulkheads on the front and back, making it easier for the vessel to cut through choppy and unsettled waters. The seating on this kayak is also enclosed, meaning the paddlers legs are enclosed making it easier to maneuver and paddle against harsher currents.

Touring kayaks

The touring kayak is used for slow paddling along large, protected bodies of water. These kayaks are generally more comfortable and can be paddled for long periods of time without excessive fatigue. They have one bulkhead located behind the paddler. Touring kayaks easily track in a straight line making it easy to coast and enjoy scenery without much maneuvering from the paddler. This kayak has seating that is a bit more comfortable, however if the kayak is flipped it will take on water rather quickly so it’s not recommended for unpredictable waters.

Whitewater kayaks

The whitewater kayak

The whitewater kayak is used for waters such as rivers, streams, and creeks – anywhere there is “white water.” White water indicates that the water is rough and/or hitting against something such as rocks, fallen trees, or debris. These kayaks have a rounded bottom and are between 4-10 feet in length. White water can be very dangerous and white water kayaks can be quite pricey. While manning these vessels, it is recommended that the paddler be knowledgeable on a variety of different paddling techniques due to the nature of the water.

The racing kayak

Racing kayaks

The racing kayak has a simple task, to race. Racing is about speed, which is why this kayak tends to be the lighter of the bunch in terms of weight. These kayaks are the most distinct in shape, some even providing a semi-enclosed seating area as opposed to simply “sit-in” or “sit-on-top.” The front and back of the racing kayak is sharp and pointed, allowing it to easily cut through the water at a high rate of speed. This kayak also has no special features such as storage, netting, drink or fishing pole holders or specialized seating due to weight restrictions.

Fishing kayaks

Fishing kayaks

Fishing kayaks don’t vary to much from the other types of kayaks – it really just depends on the type of fishing you are planning to do. These kayaks come with fishing rod holders to mount your poles too, but it will be your choice as to what size you are looking for. These kayaks tend to be a lot more stable which allows the angler to stand and move around without a huge flip risk. You will also find that these kayaks come with a small cooler area for drinks and a small section for your bait and tackle.

Surfing kayak

The surfing kayak

The surfing kayak is a kayak similar to the white water kayak. This kayak has the same upward tilting front and back end and has a sit-in area for the paddler to help better control the vessel. What is interesting about surf kayaking is that it’s basically just like surfing on a surfboard, except you are using a kayak. One might choose to use certain types of paddles depending on the waves and the speed of the current, however, surf kayaking is not for beginners. These kayaks allow for easy flipping, tilting, and maneuvering which could be dangerous for someone who doesn’t know how to properly exit the vessel in case of capsizing.

Broader Kayaking Categories

Kayaks aren’t only categorized by use; they are also categorized based on personal preference. Some paddlers prefer to have their legs exposed while others prefer the confined seating area. The broader categories aren’t as critical as making sure you have the right vessel for your activities, but they are important for other aspects.

Sit-in kayak


The sit-in kayak is one of the most common kayaks. This kayak has the paddler climb into the boat and sit in a confined area as opposed to having your legs out. These kayaks are better for colder weather and colder water because they provide some protection from the elements. These kayaks also tend to be a bit more comfortable because you can purchase your own seat, the angle provides a better, more stable seating position and you have more control over the vessel. The sit-in kayak isn’t limited to one category, it can be used for recreation and sport, it depends solely on the buyer.

Sit-on-top kayaks

Sit-on-top kayaks

Kayaks are typically “Sit-in,” however according to About Sports, 1 in 5 kayaks purchased are “Sit-on-top.” Sit-on-top kayaks mean that instead of the paddler sitting with their legs enclosed, the enclosure is nonexistent and the paddlers legs are exposed. These kayaks can be used for either recreation or other specific purposes like hunting, fishing and diving. The paddler isn’t enclosed which means almost anyone can paddle one of these and it also makes this kayak next to impossible to sink.

Inflatable kayaks

The inflatable kayak

The inflatable kayak is one of the cheapest vessels and allows for the easiest transport and storage due to its versatility. Although this kayak isn’t the MOST durable of the kayaks, its PVC coated material allows for a surprisingly sturdy vessel.This vessel is blown up using an air pump and can get as long as 15 feet. Because this vessel is so light, they can easily be maneuvered on the water and allow for a lot of versatility in uses on the water.

Folding kayaks

The folding kayak

The folding kayak is a kayak that can be folded up and transported, then put back together and launched on the water. The same versatility principle is used with this kayak and the inflatable kayak – they are both easily transportable and storable. These kayaks are best used as a touring kayak and only take around 15-20 minutes to put together after being stored.

Pedal kayaks

The pedal kayak

The pedal kayak is a kayak that has pedals to propel the vessel forward as opposed to using paddles. These kayaks are wonderful for people who are unable to paddle for whatever reason and they provide the option of a higher rate of speed when paired with a paddle. These kayaks are also great for people who want to fish while kayaking and not have to worry about bringing a paddle along with them.

Twin hull kayaks

The twin hull kayak

The twin hull kayak is one of the most stable fishing kayaks currently on the market. This kayak is shaped as two kayaks side by side with a grove on either side to allow for easy standing and fishing without risk of tipping. This kayak is much too large to use recreationally outside of fishing and diving.

Outriggers can be added to a kayak to increase stability or add additional room to rest items. Outriggers can be purchased or can be made at home depending on what materials you plan to use and how much stability you are looking for.

Final Words

As stated above, the proper kayak for each person varies greatly depending on the intended use. You wouldn’t choose a surfing kayak for touring and you wouldn’t pick a fishing kayak for racing. Understanding the different kayaks and their uses is critical in shopping for your kayak; the knowledge will save you frustration and hassle.

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Sammy Garrard

I am the Founder and Chief Editor of soutdoors.com and a prepper with over 15 years of experience. I’m excited to my knowledge and the things I learn while travelling in British Columbia, Canada where I live and around the world. Feel free to follow me on Twitter!

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