Last updated on April 2nd, 2018 at 10:52 pm
Owning a recreational kayak opens up a whole world of opportunities for new adventures and fun on the water. They’re designed to be extra stable and manageable, which makes them well suited for both beginner and intermediate paddlers.
The goal of this guide is to provide tips and advice for choosing a kayak as well as rounding up and reviewing some of the best recreational kayaks available for any budget.
Quick Answer: The 7 Best Recreational Kayaks
The first part of this guide is full of information and tips to help you know what to look for in a recreational kayak. If you already know what to look for, feel free to skip ahead to the reviews section to read up on the top picks.
What kind of kayaking do you want to do?
Before getting too far into this guide, it’s a good idea to have a clear picture of the type of paddling you want to do.
- Type of water – Are you more likely to paddle in lakes and slow-moving rivers or in calm coastal waters?
- Water temperature – Will the water be warm or cold?
- Speed vs stability – Which is more important to you? Being in a kayak that’s nice and stable and hard to flip or being able to travel quickly and efficiently over longer distances?
The answers to these questions will help you hone in on the kayak that’s best suited for your style of paddling.
Top 4 Advantages of a Recreational Kayak
Every type of kayak has its strengths; here are the top reasons paddlers choose a recreational kayak:
- Stable – Recreational kayaks tend to be on the wider side which makes them more stable than touring kayaks and sea kayaks. This makes them particularly suited for beginner and intermediate level paddlers.
- Affordable – Most recreational kayaks fall on the lower end of the kayak price spectrum, especially compared to high end touring kayaks which can easily cost several thousand dollars.
- Easy to get in and out of – Recreational kayaks often have wider, more open cockpits or no cockpits at all, which make them easier to get in and out of. They also feel less confining than other types of kayaks.
- Easier transport & storage – Being on the shorter side, recreational kayaks are easier to store and transport compared to touring and sea kayaks.
Styles of Recreational Kayaks
Recreational kayaks come in a few different styles, each with their own advantages.
Sit on top vs Sit in
One of the quickest 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
- Easier to get on and off of (even in the water)
- Self bailing
- Easy capsize recovery
- 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.
- Protects you form the elements
- Better control while paddling
- 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
Recreational kayaks also come in inflatable or hard-shell varieties. The choice between an inflatable or hard-shell mostly comes down to a tradeoff between portability & ease of storage vs performance and 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. They can also don’t take up much space, which is great if you’re short on storage space.
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 many people 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.
Recreational Kayak Sizing
Both the length and width of a kayak can have a significant impact on its performance characteristics.
Recreational kayaks typically run between 9-12 feet in length and 27-36 inches wide. The recreational kayaks that fall on the longer/narrower side of the spectrum will tend to be more performance-focused, while shorter/wider kayaks are generally built to be more stable and maneuverable.
Longer kayaks – are generally faster and track better than shorter kayaks. Their increased length also means they typically have a higher weight capacity and more space for onboard storage.
Shorter kayaks – are more maneuverable than longer kayaks. One often overlooked benefit is that they’re also easier to transport and store.
Wider kayaks – are typically more stable and maneuverable than narrower kayaks. Wider kayaks also tend to have wider cockpits, which makes them easier to get in an out of.
Narrower kayaks – create less drag against the water. They’re quicker and glide through the water better than wider kayaks. They also track straighter, making them more efficient for longer distance paddling.
Kayak Size & Affordability As a rule of thumb, smaller kayaks will be less expensive than larger ones due to lower material costs. If affordability is your primary concern and you’re not particular about performance, save a few bucks by looking for a smaller kayak.
Kayak Size & Affordability
As a rule of thumb, smaller kayaks will be less expensive than larger ones due to lower material costs. If affordability is your primary concern and you’re not particular about performance, save a few bucks by looking for a smaller kayak.
Features to Look for
As previously mentioned, wider kayaks tend to have wider cockpits, which feel less confining and make them easier to get in and out of.
One of the downsides to a wider cockpit is it’s easier for water to get inside the kayak. Consider using a spray skirt if the paddling conditions are a bit choppy or windy to keep water out of the cockpit.
Most manufacturers will label the weight capacity of their kayaks. Unfortunately, they don’t always use the same approach when determining the capacity, so it’s not always a perfect comparison between different brands.
Generally, it’s not ideal to load down a kayak near its maximum capacity; it’ll sit very low in the water, be slower, and won’t be as maneuverable.
As a rule of thumb, aim for a kayak that has a weight capacity about 50% higher than what you expect to need.
For example, if you weigh 175 pounds and have about 25 pounds of gear, look for a kayak that has roughly a 300 pound weight capacity.
Many recreational kayaks have at least one storage hatch for you to stash away water, food, and other essentials for a day on the water. Some will even have enough space for camping gear. Though, you’re probably better off with a touring kayak if you want to camp for multiple days at a time as they typically have more storage space.
You’ll also find recreational kayaks with deck bungees that are within easy reach of the cockpit. They’ll give you quick access to a jacket or water bottle without having to open up a storage hatch. Just keep in mind that gear stored under deck bungees can get wet, especially in rougher conditions.
The quality of a kayak’s seat is an often underrated feature. Having a comfortable seat is an essential part of enjoying your time out on the water.
It’s not as important if you only plan to spend an hour on the water at a time. But if you want to hit the water for some extended day trips, make sure your kayak comes with a comfortable seat or purchase an upgraded one separately. Your body will thank you.
Sit on top kayaks typically have footrests that are molded into the body of the kayak. They’re convenient but aren’t as comfortable and don’t offer you as much support while paddling.
Most sit in kayaks, on the other hand, have footrests that can be moved along a track. They can be adjusted to whatever length you need and offer the best overall comfort and support.
Best Recreational Kayak Reviews
Weight: 49 lbs
Weight capacity: 325 lbs
Features: Fully adjustable seat, storage hatch, deck bungees, removable front storage console, padded knee braces, adjustable footrests
Ideal for: Committed paddlers that want good comfort and performance out of their kayak and access to a wide variety of paddling conditions.
(price updated as of 2020-01-20 at 21:23 – Details)
The Pungo 120 strikes a great balance between performance, stability, and comfort. It’s 12-foot length and narrower hull helps it to glide through the water in a straight line with greater efficiency than many other recreational kayaks. You can also use a spray skirt with it, giving it a bit of an edge when it comes to coastal and cold water paddling.
The Pungo also has one of the most comfortable seats you’ll find in a recreational kayak. The seat has honeycomb-ventilation and is fully adjustable with 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’s probably even enough space for overnight camping gear between the storage hatch and deck bungees, depending on how heavy or light you pack.
The Pungo 120 is a great all-around kayak and is well suited to a variety of paddling conditions. If your 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 near the upper end of the price spectrum.
Weight: 40 lbs
Weight capacity: 250 lbs
Features: Adjustable backrest, storage hatch, water bottle holder, padded knee braces, adjustable footrests
Ideal for: Paddlers on a budget that are looking for excellent value for their money.
(price updated as of 2018-11-13 at 11:27 – Details)
The Sun Dolphin Bali is an entry-level recreational kayak that is focused on delivering value. The build quality is on the lower end but, despite that, it offers some great basic features for its price point and offers some serious value for your money.
Its 10-foot length makes it a bit more maneuverable and playful on the water. The shorter hull also makes it a lot 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 could be a bit uncomfortable on extended trips.
Despite its shortcomings, the Aruba 10 really is a great value considering some of its competitors can be two or three times as expensive.
Weight: 47 lbs
Weight capacity: 325 lbs
Features: Adjustable seat, tank well, water bottle holder, padded knee braces, adjustable footrests
Ideal for: Paddlers that want to take a step up from a budget recreational kayak but don’t need the bells and whistles of a high end model.
(price updated as of 2020-01-21 at 00:23 – Details)
The Vapor 10 from Old Town offers a stable yet efficient ride in a compact package and is one of their best selling kayaks. It’s narrower than average hull helps it to track better through the water, which can be an issue for some shorter kayaks.
Like the other 10-foot recreational kayaks, it’s easier to handle and transport than a longer kayak. But what sets the Vapor apart is its deeper body, which makes it a bit roomier on the inside and gives it a higher weight capacity compared to other 10-foot models. It also has a nice wide cockpit, so it’s easy to get in and out of.
It comes with track-adjustable footrests and padded knee braces for better comfort and control while paddling. The included Comfort Flex seat offers good back support but only has padding on the bottom part of the seat.
The Vapor does have a rear tank well but it doesn’t have a cover so it’s exposed to the elements. It also doesn’t have any deck bungees. All in all, it’s a little lacking in storage space so it may not be the best choice if you plan to bring a lot of gear.
The Vapor is step up in quality and performance from the most basic recreational kayaks. It’s a solid choice if you want a higher quality entry-level boat but aren’t quite ready to invest in a higher end model.
Length: 12’ 3”
Weight: 63 lbs
Weight capacity: 350 lbs
Features: Fully adjustable seat, multiple storage hatches, rear tank well with bungee tie downs, adjustable footrests, accessory track
Ideal for: Paddlers that want the benefits of a sit on top without sacrificing performance.
(price updated as of 2020-01-20 at 21:55 – Details)
The Tarpon 120 is a versatile sit on top kayak that offers great all around performance, comfort, and stability. It has lots of storage space for your gear with two separate sealed storage hatches as well as a large rear tank well with bungee tie downs.
Its 12-foot length and hull shape help it to efficiently glide through the water.
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.
One notable feature is the Tarpon’s track-adjustable footrests, which aren’t very common for sit on top kayaks. They pair nicely with the high quality seat and, when combined, help to make the Tarpon one of the most comfortable sit on top kayaks available.
The Tarpon 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.
The Tarpon is definitely on the upper end of the price spectrum but makes up for it with its high build quality and numerous features.
Weight: 57 lbs
Weight capacity: 375-425 lbs
Features: Adjustable seats, convertible, gear tie down straps, molded footrests
Ideal for: Paddlers that want a simple and reliable kayak with the flexibility to paddle solo, tandem, or with a small child.
(price updated as of 2020-01-20 at 21:55 – Details)
The Malibu Two is on the short side for a tandem kayak but its wider hull means it’s nice and stable on the water. It actually has a third seating position between the two main seats, so there’s room for a small child to squeeze in as well. Its great stability and third seating position make the Malibu Two a popular choice for families.
The third seating position also means the Malibu Two is convertible; you can reposition the seats and paddle solo from the center seating position if your partner isn’t available.
Its compact size means there’s not a lot of extra space for gear if you’re paddling with two or three people, so the Malibu Two isn’t really ideal for longer day trips. The exception to this is if you’re paddling solo, which leaves plenty of uncovered space for your gear.
The Malibu Two doesn’t have all the bells and whistles some of the other recreational kayaks have, but it’s simple to use, dependable, and gives you the flexibility to paddle with up to three people on board.
Weight: 44 lbs
Weight capacity: 275-325 lbs
Features: Adjustable seat, rear tank well, deck bungees, cup holder, molded footrests
Ideal for: Paddlers that want a nimble but stable platform for playing in the water.
(price updated as of 2020-01-20 at 21:23 – Details)
The Frenzy is another no-frills sit on top kayak from Ocean Kayak. But don’t mistake it for boring just because it doesn’t have the cutting edge features like 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 easier to transport. Though it’s short, the Frenzy’s width and Tri-Form hull make it nice and stable.
It does have two separate storage areas but neither of them is sealed so make sure to use a dry bag if anything is water-sensitive.
Like the Malibu Two, 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.
Length: 10’ 5”
Weight: 36 lbs
Weight capacity: 300 lbs
Features: Adjustable seat, built-in aluminum ribs, durable 3-layer construction, deck bungee
Ideal for: Paddlers that want the performance of a hard-shell but the exceptional portability of an inflatable kayak.
(price updated as of 2020-01-20 at 21:23 – Details)
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.
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 basic 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.
It still won’t be able to outperform higher end hard-shells, but it’ll give some of the more basic ones a good run for their money.
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 paddling possibilities for paddlers that have limited storage space or want to be able to hike in to a paddling location.
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.
So, which is the best? Well, all these kayaks are solid contenders but the Wilderness Systems Pungo 120 takes the cake for best overall recreational kayak. It’s at home in the widest variety of paddling conditions from lakes and rivers to calm coastal waters and the enclosed cockpit also means it’s suited for both cold as well as warm water paddling.
It’s high build quality, great features, and high performance means it’ll give you years of reliable service and won’t hold you back as you grow from beginning paddler all the way through to more advanced levels of paddling.