Taking the plunge and deciding to get a kayak can be both exciting and daunting at the same time, especially if you’re a relatively new paddler. But finding a good beginner’s kayak isn’t that difficult if you know what to look for. 

This guide will offer tips and advice on different features and qualities to look for in a good beginner’s kayak and at the end of the guide, you’ll find the top picks for the best kayaks for beginners.

best kayak for beginners

The first part of this guide is full of information and tips to help you know what to look for in a good beginner’s kayak. If you want to skip ahead to the punchline, you can read up on the top picks in the reviews section.

What makes a good beginner kayak?

Stability

Arguably, the single most important quality for good beginner kayak is having good stability on the water. New paddlers are still getting their sea legs and learning to balance their weight in a kayak – it’s not hard and anybody can do it, but it does take some getting used to.

You’ll also be working on getting your paddling technique down while enjoying yourself and taking in the sights while you’re out on the water.

The last thing you need when getting started is a ‘tippy’ kayak that can put you in the water if you’re not paying attention.

The good news is there are plenty of kayaks out there that are nice and stable and well suited to new paddlers.

Performance

Expecting good performance from a beginner’s kayak might be a bit counterintuitive. After all, if you’re just getting started you’re probably more concerned with finding something easy to use that’ll get you out on the water and having fun. But here’s the reason.

If your kayak doesn’t handle well and it feels like you’re moving at a snail’s pace while paddling, it’ll seriously impact the fun factor of being out on the water. Anybody that’s paddled in a poor-performing kayak can tell you how frustrating it can be, especially if you’re trying to keep up with your friends.

Having said that, you definitely don’t need something that’s built purely for speed and efficiency. It’s about finding something that won’t hold you back and will allow you to get the most out of your time on the water.

Affordability

There are two schools of thought when it comes to the price of a beginner’s kayak.

  1. Find a budget kayak that’s good enough to get you started. Upgrade your kayak later if you feel like it’s holding you back.
  2. Find a slightly more expensive and higher quality kayak that will take you from the beginning stages through to more intermediate level paddling.

Both of these are totally valid approaches and your take on it mostly comes down to personal preference, how committed you are, and of course your budget.

If you’re just testing the waters and not sure whether kayaking will become a regular activity for you, it might make sense to lean toward more of a budget model. If you don’t get out as often as you think it won’t be a huge loss.

On the other hand, if you’re committed and plan to do a fair bit of kayaking, you’ll save yourself money down the road if you spend a bit extra upfront on a kayak that you’ll still enjoy using once you become a more experienced paddler.

Types of Kayaks

Types of Beginner Kayaks

There are several different styles of kayaks that are suitable for beginners, each with their own advantages. Here’s an overview of how they compare.

Sit on top vs Sit in

One of the easiest ways to start narrowing down your options is to consider whether you’d prefer a sit on top or a sit in kayak.

Sit ins are the traditional design most people think of when they think of a kayak, while sit on tops are a newer design but have grown in popularity due to their ease of use.

Sit on top

Wilderness Systems 9750215054 Tarpon 120 Kayaks, Mango, 12'

Sit in

Wilderness Systems 9730505054 PUNGO 120 Kayaks, Mango, 12'

Sit on top

Pros

  • Easier to get on and off of (even in the water)
  • Self bailing
  • Easy capsize recovery

Cons

  • Practically guaranteed to get wet
  • Tend to be a bit heavier

Ideal for: Casual use in warm water. Fishing, swimming, and diving. Families.

Sit on tops are some of the most user-friendly kayaks you’ll find. They’re self bailing, which means excess water inside the kayak drains out through ‘scupper holes’ in the bottom of the kayak. You won’t have to manually pump it out with a bilge pump like you would with a sit in kayak. This also makes capsize recovery much easier. All you have to do is flip the kayak over and scramble back onboard.

Sit on tops don’t have a cockpit, so getting on board is just a matter of sitting down on it. They also tend to be on the wider side, so they’re typically more stable than sit in kayaks.

The downside to sit on tops is that you’re all but guaranteed to get wet. This isn’t an issue if you’re in warm water but can be pretty uncomfortable in cooler water unless you’re wearing a wetsuit or drysuit.

Sit in

Pros

  • Protects you from the elements
  • Faster
  • Better control while paddling

Cons

  • More difficult capsize recovery

Ideal for: Cooler water. Paddlers who don’t want to get wet. Extended trips over longer distances.

Sit in kayaks keep the paddlers lower body sheltered from the wind and splashing water, which makes them ideal for cooler water conditions. They can also be used with a spray skirt, so they’re usually better suited for rougher conditions.

The area around the inside of the cockpit gives you a place to brace your knees against while paddling, so paddling a sit in kayak means better control and more efficient paddling.

Their only major downside is that capsize recovery isn’t as simple as flipping over the kayak. You’ll have to manually pump out any water inside the kayak before you can get underway again.

 

Inflatable vs Hard-shell

The choice between an inflatable or hard-shell kayak mostly comes down to a tradeoff between portability & ease of storage vs performance & durability.

Inflatable – The big benefit of inflatable kayaks is how portable and easy to store they are. Most pack down to about the size of a small suitcase and will fit into the trunk of your car with room to spare. Because they don’t take up much room they can be a good option if you’re short on storage space. Inflatables are often wider, so they’re typically nice and stable, if a bit on the slow side.

Hard-shell – Traditional hard-shell kayaks offer better performance than inflatables and will be able to move faster and track straighter through the water. They’re also more durable but can be harder to repair if they do get damaged.

 

Solo vs Tandem

One common issue for people that want to paddle with friends or family is deciding between two solo kayaks or one tandem kayak.

Two solo kayaks mean you’re not limited if your paddle partner isn’t available for whatever reason. It also gives you the ultimate flexibility to decide where you want to go. The big downside here is that two solo kayaks will almost always be more expensive than a tandem.

Tandem kayaks can be a great option if you and your partner are in sync with each other and you know you’re almost always going to be out with a partner. On the other hand, tandems can be a little frustrating if you and your partner aren’t in sync or have different ideas about where you want to paddle. While paddling a tandem kayak by yourself is possible, it’s definitely less efficient and takes a bit of the fun out of it.

Convertible kayaks are a third option that can be a good compromise. These kayaks are specifically designed either with seats that can be repositioned or with a ‘jump seat’ in between the two main seats so you can paddle solo or with a partner. Paddling a convertible by yourself still isn’t quite as efficient as paddling a solo kayak but it’s miles ahead of trying to paddle a tandem by yourself.

Features

Features to Look for

Seat – A comfortable seat with an adjustable fit makes a huge difference when you’re out for more than an hour at a time. A nice seat isn’t as critical for shorter trips but will still make your time on the water more enjoyable.

Weight capacity – Look for a kayak that gives you some extra weight capacity. Kayaks don’t perform as well when they’re totally loaded down to their limit. As a rule of thumb, aim for about 50% more than your expected load. For example, if you and your gear weigh a total of 200 pounds, look for a capacity of roughly 300 pounds.

Storage space – Onboard storage space in a kayak is typically a combination of deck bungees, uncovered tank wells, or sealed storage hatches. For shorter trips you can get away without much storage space, but if you plan to be out for more than a few hours at a time you’ll want something that has enough storage space for your essentials.

Footrests – Kayaks will typically have either track-adjustable footrests or footrests that are molded into the body of the kayak. Molded footrests are convenient but can’t be adjusted for an exact fit. Track-adjustable footrests are easy to adjust and offer the best support and comfort while paddling.

Cockpit – Most beginners find wider cockpits easier to get in and out of. In general, the wider the kayak, the wider the cockpit will be.

Reviews

Best Beginner Kayak Reviews

Wilderness Systems Pungo 120

Overall Score: (4.5/5)

Wilderness Systems 9730505054 PUNGO 120 Kayaks, Mango, 12'

Specifications:

Length: 12’

Width: 29”

Weight: 49 lbs

Weight capacity: 325 lbs

Performance:

Stability:

Features:

Value:

Features: Fully adjustable seat, storage hatch, deck bungees, removable front storage console, padded knee braces, adjustable footrests

Ideal for: Beginners that want a more performance-focused kayak that’s easy to learn in but will carry them through to more advanced paddling.

 from $836.10

Buy on Amazon

(price updated as of 2019-09-15 at 02:51 – Details)

Review

The Pungo 120 strikes a great balance between stability, performance, and comfort. At 29 inches wide, it’s stable enough for beginners to learn in while still having good performance that ensures it’s still fun for more advanced paddlers.

One key feature that really sets it apart is the Pungo’s fully adjustable seat. It’s arguably one of the most comfortable seats you’ll find for a kayak in its price range.

The seat has honeycomb-ventilation and has multiple adjustment points to help you get the perfect fit for your body. This can make it a good choice if you’re concerned about lower back comfort or will be on the water for several hours at a time.

The track-adjustable footrests and padded knee braces maximize the paddler’s comfort and help you extend your time out on the water.

It also has a rear storage hatch and removable front storage console to give you a place to stash your essentials. There might even be enough space for overnight camping gear between the storage hatch and deck bungees, depending on how heavy or light you pack.

With it’s longer 12-foot hull, the Pungo tracks well through the water and combined with its comfortable seat and ample storage space, makes it well suited for longer days on the water.

The Pungo 120 is a great all-around kayak and is well suited to a variety of paddling conditions. For a beginning paddler, it’s a kayak that’ll grow with you as your progress to a more intermediate level. It’s only real drawback is its price; it’s definitely up there compared to some of the other options.

Sun Dolphin Aruba 10

Overall Score: (4.25/5)

SUNDOLPHIN Sun Dolphin Aruba Sit-in Kayak (Blue, 10-Feet)

Specifications:

Length: 10’

Width: 30”

Weight: 40 lbs

Weight capacity: 250 lbs

Performance:

Stability:

Features:

Value:

Features: Adjustable backrest, storage hatch, water bottle holder, padded knee braces, adjustable footrests

Ideal for: New paddlers on a budget that are looking for excellent value for their money.

 from $248.05

Buy on Amazon

(price updated as of 2018-11-13 at 11:27 – Details)

Review

If you’re looking to get into kayaking on a budget, it’s hard to beat the Aruba 10 in terms of value for your money. The build quality isn’t quite as high as some of the other options but it offers some great basic features for its price point. It’ll get you out on the water and having fun without breaking the bank.

Its 10-foot length makes it a bit more maneuverable and playful on the water than the Pungo. The shorter hull also makes it easier to store and transport. The downside is that it doesn’t track quite as well, so it’s less suited for long distance paddling.

The Aruba has adjustable footrests and padded knee braces, which are nice features to see on a budget model that will help improve your comfort and paddling efficiency.

It does have a rear storage hatch but it’s not the most secure, so make sure any water-sensitive items are in a drybag, just in case.

One of the biggest downsides of the Aruba is the seat. The ‘seat’ is really just an adjustable backrest. There is no padded section to sit on, so you’re sitting directly on the molded plastic of the kayak. This isn’t an issue for shorter trips but you might want to consider bringing a cushion for longer trips.

Despite its shortcomings, it’s hard to fault the Aruba 10. At its price point, the Aruba 10 is a bargain and is a solid choice as a beginner’s kayak.

Wilderness Systems Tarpon 100

Overall Score: (4.5/5)

Wilderness Systems 9750105110 Tarpon 100 Kayaks, Midnight, 10'

Specifications:

Length: 10’

Width: 30.5”

Weight: 55 lbs

Weight capacity: 325 lbs

Performance:

Stability:

Features:

Value:

Features: Fully adjustable seat, multiple storage hatches, rear tank well with adjustable bungee tie downs, adjustable footrests, accessory track

Ideal for: Beginner paddlers that want to use their kayak for a variety of activities.

 from $699.00

Buy on Amazon

(price updated as of 2019-09-15 at 02:05 – Details)

Review

The Tarpon 100 is a versatile sit on top kayak that offers great all around performance, comfort, and stability. The fact that it’s a sit on top kayak means it’s a good choice for paddlers that also want to swim, play in the surf, or fish from their kayak.

Unlike some sit on top kayaks that can be a bit bare-bones, the Tarpon has a number of features that’ll ensure you don’t outgrow it too quickly.

Like the Wilderness Systems Pungo, the Tarpon has an exceptionally comfortable seat with lots of adjustment points, which is great for longer days on the water.

There’s plenty of space for your gear with two separate sealed storage hatches as well as a large rear tank well with bungee tie downs.

One particularly notable feature is the Tarpon’s track-adjustable footrests, which aren’t very common for sit on top kayaks. Combined with it’s high quality seat, they work together to make the Tarpon one of the most comfortable sit on top kayaks available.

It also has a built-in accessory track so you can customize it to your heart’s content; a popular feature for paddlers that also want to fish from their kayak.

If you want versatile kayak that has the features to ensure you won’t outgrow it for many years, the Tarpon 100 could be a great fit.

Ocean Kayak Frenzy

Overall Score: (4/5)

Ocean Kayak Frenzy 1-Person Sit-On-Top Recreational Kayak (Envy, 9 Feet)

Specifications:

Length: 9’

Width: 31”

Weight: 44 lbs

Weight capacity: 275-325 lbs

Performance:

Stability:

Features:

Value:

Features: Adjustable seat, rear tank well, deck bungees, cup holder, molded footrests

Ideal for: Beginners that want a simple but reliable kayak that’s nimble enough for playing in the water.

 from $499.00

Buy on Amazon

(price updated as of 2019-09-15 at 02:51 – Details)

Review

The Frenzy is bit of a no-frills option from Ocean Kayak. But don’t mistake it for boring just because it doesn’t have all the bells and whistles of some of the higher end models.

Its shorter 9-foot hull means it’s very maneuverable and playful on the water. It’s also significantly lighter and easier to transport. Though it’s short, the Frenzy’s width and Tri-Form hull make it nice and stable for new paddlers.

It does have two separate storage areas but neither of them is sealed so make sure to use a drybag if anything is water-sensitive.

The Frenzy is built with stability and dependability in mind. Its playful handling makes it right at home poking around lagoons or playing in the surf on a warm day.

Vibe Skipjack 120T

Overall Score: (4.5/5)

Vibe Kayaks Skipjack 120T 12 Foot Tandem Angler and Recreational Two Person Sit On Top Fishing Kayak with 2 Paddles and 2 Seats and Flush Rod Holders (Sea Breeze 2 Deluxe)

Specifications:

Length: 12’ 2”

Width: 33”

Weight: 72 lbs

Weight capacity: 500 lbs

Performance:

Stability:

Features:

Value:

Features: Two adjustable seats, convertible third seating position, two paddle holders, rear tank well with deck bungee, cup holders, molded footrests, two flush mount rod holders, two paddles

Ideal for: Paddlers that want to do a mix of solo and tandem paddling. Families with small children.

 from $828.99

Buy on Amazon

(price updated as of 2019-09-15 at 02:51 – Details)

Review

If you plan to do a mix of solo and tandem paddling or want to hit the water for some family recreation time, the Skipjack 120T could be a good option.

One of its key features is the Skipjack’s third seating position in between the two main seats. It allows you to convert it from a tandem setup to a solo setup by repositioning one of the main seats so you’re paddling from the center position; a great feature to have if you want to mix it up from time to time.

There’s also enough room for a small child to sit in the third seat, which makes the Skipjack a solid choice for couples with children. And it has an exceptionally stable 33-inch wide hull so it’s well suited for new paddlers and for having a child onboard.

It’s a bit on the heavy side at 72 pounds, so it’s best to have somebody give you a hand carrying it. If you’re mostly paddling solo with the occasional tandem trip, you’ll have to consider whether carrying the extra weight by yourself is worth it.

There’s a decent amount of onboard storage with two smaller sealed hatches and a rear tank well with bungees. Just don’t expect to have enough room for camping gear.

Vibe also includes two paddles with the Skipjack, which is some nice added value. Purchasing paddles separately can easily cost you another one or two hundred dollars.

The Skipjack offers some serious value and flexibility for new paddlers at a budget friendly price point.

Advanced Elements AdvancedFrame

Overall Score: (4.4/5)

Advanced Elements AE1012-R AdvancedFrame Inflatable Kayak

Specifications:

Length: 10’ 5”

Width: 32”

Weight: 36 lbs

Weight capacity: 300 lbs

Performance:

Stability:

Features:

Value:

Features: Adjustable seat, built-in aluminum ribs, durable 3-layer construction, deck bungee

Ideal for: New paddlers that want the performance of a hard-shell but the exceptional portability and stability of an inflatable kayak.

 $498.98

Buy on Amazon

(price updated as of 2019-09-15 at 02:05 – Details)

Review

If you’re looking for something extra portable but with the performance of a hard-shell kayak, it’s hard to beat the AdvancedFrame inflatable kayak from Advanced Elements.

It’s 32 inches wide when inflated and its large air chambers mean it’s nice and stable and very beginner-friendly.

Weighing in at a dainty 36 pounds and folding down to 30” x 17” x 10” means the AdvancedFrame will easily fit into the trunk of even a small car with room to spare for gear. And when you’re not using it, you can stash it away in a closet, which makes it a great choice for paddlers that are short on storage space.

If you’ve ever paddled in a budget inflatable kayak, you’ll know that many of them suffer from poor performance and tend to swerve from side to side as you paddle through the water. To remedy this, the AdvancedFrame has built-in aluminum ribs that help it cut through the water and perform more like a hard-shell than an inflatable kayak.

And if you’re worried about durability, the AdvancedFrame uses three layers of material to provide extra protection against punctures. It’s still not quite as tough as a hard-shell but it can definitely take some serious abuse.

The AdvancedFrame opens up a whole new world of possibilities for new paddlers that want to be able to hike in to a paddling location or might not otherwise have the space to store a kayak

If you like the compromise between portability and performance the AdvancedFrame offer but want to do some tandem paddling, Advanced Elements also makes a tandem version that can be converted for both solo and tandem paddling.

Wrapping Up

It’s a close call, but the top pick for the best kayak for beginners is the Wilderness Systems Tarpon 100. It offers the best compromise between the key qualities that are most important for new paddlers; stability, performance, ease of use, and affordability.

Another great aspect of the Tarpon is that it’s not something you’re likely to outgrow very quickly. Not only is it a great choice for new paddlers, it’s also super versatile and should last you for many years as you progress from beginner to more advanced levels of paddling.

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