Buying A Kayak
Yes, choosing the right boat is the most important (and most expensive) decision a kayaker has to make. But buying a Kayak doesn’t have to be a nightmarish experience.
Much of your decision depends on the type of paddling you plan to do. If you’ll be spending most of your time on the ocean, lakes, or other flatwater, you’ll probably be in the market for a sea or “touring” kayak.
On the other hand, if you’ll be spending your time riding whitewater rapids, then you’ll want a whitewater or “slalom” kayak which is shorter, lighter, and has a tighter turning radius.
Sea or touring kayaks tend to be longer, faster, and more stable than their whitewater cousins. They can measure up to 20 feet in length and weigh upwards of 60 pounds. They have several watertight compartments for stowing enough food and other gear for extended journeys. Touring boats also displace more volume due to their added length, width, and deeper draft. They have a much flatter keel line than whitewater boats, giving them greater straight-line speed but less “rocker” and thus less maneuverability in tight spaces.
A whitewater or slalom kayak is generally stubbier and rounder than a touring model. They usually measure in at around 10 feet in length and weigh anywhere from 30 to 40 pounds (an important consideration since slalom boats often have to be ported several miles into the river). There is little or no storage space in a slalom boat, but since most river trips tend to be one day affairs, there isn’t as much of a need to haul around a lot of gear. Slalom kayaks come in several different designs, with some built for general river running and others more suited to racing or playboating.
Another important consideration will be the hull material of your new kayak. Most modern boats are made of either fiberglass or polyethylene plastic. Another popular material is a kevlar/fiberglass hybrid. All three of these materials have distinct advantages and disadvantages. Polyethylene hulls are rugged, inexpensive, and produced in the widest variety of shapes and sizes. They’re also heavier than the other two materials. Fiberglass, on the other hand, is lighter, but more expensive and not as rugged as plastic. Kevlar, the third material, is even lighter than fiberglass, is very strong (i.e. bulletproof vests), but can cost twice as much as a polyethylene-hulled boat.
Another option for the recreational flatwater paddler is a folding kayak. These touring boats have a fabric hull that slips over a wooden or aluminum frame that can be taken apart when not in use. When disassembled, these boats fit into a carrying case that’s not much larger than a backpack. The main drawbacks to fold boats are weight (they can weigh upwards of 80 pounds) and price, which can run up to 20 percent higher than a comparable fiberglass boat.
Take It For A Spin
Okay, now that you’ve decided on the type of boat you want and the best hull material for your needs, it’s time to start kicking the tires. If you have a good sports shop or kayak outfitter in your area, drive down and take a look at the different models they have on display.
Sit in the cockpit — make sure it’s a cockpit size that physically fits you (later you’ll want to custom-fit your cockpit to your tastes, but make sure the boat feels right to start with). Make sure that your thighs, knees and hips comfortably touch the interior walls. If the boat has foot braces, make sure they’re firm and easy to adjust.
If the shop has a body of water nearby, see if you can take your choice out for a “test drive.” Some outfitters will even have rentals of that model available, and ask if you can apply the cost of a rental to the price of the new boat. When test driving a boat, see how it handles on the waves and in windy situations. A kayak’s tendency to weathercock will be most evident in a strong breeze. Capsize it a few times to see how well it performs during a roll. If it’s a slalom kayak, see how well it turns and handles in rapids. If the boat seems sluggish or unresponsive, you might want choose another model.
If you don’t have a good shop in your area, see if there’s another way you can try out a few kayaks that you’re interested in. See if you can burrow one from a paddling buddy. Look for “demo days” in your area, or outing clubs, festivals, trade shows – anything that lets you try a few models in the water before you spend your hard earned coin.
This is just a general overview. There are many more choices and options when selecting a kayak. If you’re pressed for cash, you might consider buying a used kayak. If you’re a beginner to the sport, and you’re worried about getting caught in the boat during a roll, take a look at a “sit-on-top” model that allows the paddler easy exit from the boat.
There are inflatable kayaks that are inexpensive and easy to transport, multi-day touring kayaks that have rudders for easier steering in the wind, etc. And then you’ll have to decide how you’ll be transporting you new pride-and-joy back and forth from your home to the water.
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