Kayaks aren’t a “one size fits all”, and if you’re looking to purchase a new kayak, then there are a few things you need to consider when it comes to the kayak’s overall size.
Today, we’re going to cover everything you need to know about kayak sizing so you can make an informed decision before purchasing your next or very first kayak.
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There are three main elements that make up a kayak's dimensions. These elements are its length, width, and volume. Some other factors that also play a role include the cockpit size, the kayak’s weight, and its maximum weight capacity.
Each dimension has a part to play in how the kayak moves, how comfortable it is, how easy it is to maneuver, and its overall speed. No kayak is perfect as they’re all designed with different things in mind, and the things you favor will differ from the next person.
Now, it’s best we go into detail about each of these dimensions so you can see how they’d factor into your kayak decision.
The kayak’s length is quite possibly the first thing that springs to mind when you’re thinking about kayak sizes. And, so it should.
You see, the length of your kayak dictates how well it can perform on the water. Longer kayaks are typically faster, smoother, and have better tracking. And although this sounds amazing, their length makes them heavier and much more difficult to maneuver, especially in smaller waterways.
Shorter kayaks may not match a longer kayak’s speed, but they’re easier to control and can perform precise turns relatively quickly.
The next factor, the kayak’s width, contributes to the kayak’s stability. Wider kayaks are more stable than their streamlined cousins, but, sometimes this isn’t always a good thing.
Extremely wide kayaks may mean you have great balance in the water, but it will also mean your kayak won’t be as fast or agile. If you’re only using it as a recreational kayak and you don’t mind the overall performance, then great, a wide kayak would be perfect, but for racing where speed is key, you’ll more than likely be left at the back of the group.
When it comes to volume, kayaks are usually categorized into low, medium, or high volume.
A kayak’s weight capacity will be a factor you need to consider as all kayaks have a certain amount of weight that they can hold. Overloading your kayak will cause it to sink slightly into the water, making it difficult to paddle and track correctly.
As a rule, you should weigh yourself and any gear or passengers you may be taking out on your kayak with you. When you have your combined weight, compare it to your kayak’s weight capacity. Ideally, you want to be 10 - 20 lbs under the maximum weight. This wiggle room will then allow you to upgrade any gear or swap out any passengers in the future.
Although the kayak’s volume is a good indicator of how much room you’ll have while seating, you may also need to look into the cockpit size.
Some cockpits come with extremely tight openings that you’d need to slip your body in and out of. A “sit on top” kayak will eliminate this issue and are great for larger paddlers. However, sit-in kayaks that were designed for fishing or touring can also have relatively large cockpits.
As you’ll be spending hours in your kayak, you more than likely want to feel comfortable. If you’re opting for a sit-in kayak, then legroom should also be carefully thought about. After all, you don’t want your legs to be cramped into a tiny confined space, do you?
With that being said, a kayak with too much leg room could be difficult to control. Ideally, you want to be snug in your kayak, not cramped.
When purchasing a kayak, make sure your legs can touch the sides and your toes can reach the footpegs without you having to move your seat.
Now that we’ve covered the kayak’s dimensions let’s get into the different types of kayaks and what they’re typically used for.
Kayaks come in one of two variations: a sit-in kayak or sit on kayak.
Sit on top kayaks are usually designed as recreational boats that are ideal for lakes and slow-moving rivers. These kayaks are exactly as they sound and have open cockpits with ample amounts of storage areas.
Sit in kayaks, however, have an enclosed cockpit and can be used for recreational purposes, touring, or racing. They’re typically faster, have covered storage areas, and track straighter than sit on tops.
Whether you prefer a “sit-in” or “sit-on” kayak all comes down to personal preference, but when making the decision think about how much storage space you need, the weather and water temperatures of where you’ll be paddling, how fast you want your kayak to go, and whether or not you’d feel claustrophobic confined in a small cockpit.
Recreational kayaks are all about fun and usually are the most stable type of kayak. You can purchase recreational kayaks in both a sit on or sit in variation, with most of them measuring in at under 14 ft.
As well as being stable, recreational kayaks also typically have larger cockpits which are great for taller or bigger paddlers.
Length: 8 feet to 14 feet
Width: 27 inches to 36 inches
Sea and touring kayaks are narrow and long, which allows them to track straight, slice through the water, and cover longer distances. Their longer length means you’d have plenty of legroom but be sure to check the kayak’s overall volume.
Length: 14 feet to 20 feet
Width: 18 inches to 28 inches
Fishing kayaks are usually the widest type of kayak on the market and, more often than not, will come in a sit on top variation. Sit on tops are favored for fishing as they offer large open decks to cast from and also supply you with ample amounts of storage spaces for fishing gear.
Along with width, they can also hold large amounts of weight. You may not think it, but the weight of your cooler, tackle box, rods, and other accessories really adds up, so this additional weight is definitely needed.
With all that being said, however, the wider decks of a fishing kayak slow them down in the water and also require you to use a longer paddle. This may not be an issue, but if you’re a smaller paddler or prioritize speed, then a fishing kayak may not be the one for you.
Length: 10 feet to 14 feet
Width: 30 inches to 42 inches
Inflatable kayaks have come a long way and are now as durable or even more durable than many hard-shell kayak options. Inflatables are widely used as recreational kayaks, and like most recreational kayaks, speed isn’t their top priority.
Inflatables like hard shells come in different sizes and widths, making them suitable for all types of water. Their inflatable properties are what make them a fantastic option for those living in compact spaces. After all, not everyone has a large garage to store a 12’ kayak.
Length: 10 feet to 16 feet
Width: 30 inches to 42 inches
Did you know that there are such things as pedal-powered kayaks? Gone are the days of paddling, as these kayaks allow you to be hands-free during activities such as photography or fishing.
The pedal system, which has a pair of fins underneath the boat, is powered by the kayaker's legs, and steering is controlled by a hand control and a rudder.
Although pedal kayaks are fairly wide boats, the pedal system uses the strongest part of our bodies to propel them through the water. This system allows these boats to reach faster speeds even with their additional width.
A couple of downsides are that the pedal technology isn’t cheap or, by any means, lightweight. If you opt for a pedal-powered kayak, expect to have some troubles with transportation.
Length: 11 feet to 14 feet
Width: 30 inches to 42 inches
Most kayaks can also come in a tandem variation, whether that be a recreational kayak, fishing kayak, or a sea kayak. As a tandem kayak can accommodate two paddlers, they’re usually longer than the singular paddler varieties.
Length: 10 feet to 14 feet
Width: 30 inches to 42 inches
The sole purpose of a whitewater kayak is to take on whitewater rapids. As rapids are unpredictable, these boats were designed to be easy to maneuver, buoyant, and responsive.
Whitewater kayaks come in three variations: creek boats, playboats, and river runners. Creek boats, which are constructed to charge over rapids, are between 7 and 9 feet are generally the speediest of the three.
Playboats are the smallest measuring in under 6 feet. Their small size makes them incredibly easy to maneuver which is great for performing tricks, rolls, and flips in the water. Finally, river runners are a mixture of the two. They are the same size as creek boats, but work well in demanding rapids or if you want to carve upstream.
Length: 4 feet to 9 feet
Width: 22 inches to 28 inches
As we mentioned before, one size definitely doesn’t fit all and determining your perfect kayak size will come down to a handful of things.
The first, and quite possibly the most important factor is the kayak’s intended use. Ask yourself the questions of what you want to use it for and what types of waters will you be paddling in?
The answers to these questions should narrow it down to what kind of kayak you need.
Along with one of these three categories you may also consider:
Your height and weight will play a role in how comfortable your chosen kayak will be. If you’re over 6 feet, then a sit-in kayak may not be the most comfortable option.
If you’re tall then the amount of legroom you have is something to think about. When it comes to a recreational kayak, something between 10 and 12 feet would be ideal. And if you’re opting for a touring kayak then boats that are as short as 14 feet should still provide you with adequate legroom.
When purchasing a sit-in kayak you will have to pay close attention to the cockpit size as a shorter cockpit will make it difficult for you to get in and out. High-volume kayaks would be your safest bet.
Luckily for shorter paddlers finding a kayak that fits won’t be too much of a struggle as 8 to 10 feet recreational kayaks will have enough leg room for most average-height adults. From here, if you’re choosing a sit-in kayak the next decision would be whether you want a low, medium, or high volume cockpit.
For beginner paddlers who are just learning how to paddle, then a longer cockpit is recommended. Intermediate paddlers who are after greater control of their kayak can size down to a shorter cockpit.
For sit on top kayaks, your only concern will be the maximum weight capacity. As we said before, add up your weight and any additional gear you’ll take with you and find a kayak suitable.
If you’re opting for a sit-in kayak then you’ll more than likely need a high volume cockpit. Recreational kayaks usually have the most spacious cockpits which make exiting and entering the kayak easier.
If you’re still struggling to find a kayak, then sit on top fishing kayaks tend to have the highest weight capacities. Just because it says fishing kayak in the title doesn’t mean that’s what it has to be used for.
The final thing you’d need to think about it how you’re going to transport your kayak and where you’re going to store it.
Longer kayaks can get heavy and if you’re a solo paddler then you may have trouble loading and unloading it onto your car. That isn’t to say though you should choose the smallest kayak possible, because then your comfort is compromised, it's definitely something to think about.
Some kayak roof racks help with loading so there is always a way around it if you do decide on a bigger kayak.
If you live in a small apartment and have nowhere to store your kayak, then you may be swayed towards inflatable kayaks or shorter kayaks. With inflatables, however, you get the best of both worlds. Not only can an inflatable be as long as you possibly want but they can also be deflated and neatly tucked away in your living space.
Once you’ve decided on the perfect kayak length, you may also need to take a few other things into consideration.
The first would be the hull shape. If you’re unfamiliar with what the hull is, it is essentially the bottom of the kayak and plays an important role in the kayak’s performance. Some hull types improve speed, some improve stability, and others help with maneuverability.
As I’m sure you can imagine, the hull will affect your overall kayak experience, so it’s best to understand which hull design would suit you before clicking checkout. There are four main hull types which we’ll go into detail about now.
Flat hulls are the perfect hull type for beginner paddlers as they’re easy to maneuver and are stable in the water. Many people who are just starting out with kayaking opt for a flat bottom kayak as they’re ideal for relaxing paddles in calm or shallow waters.
Pontoon hulls are also great for beginners, but instead of having a flat bottom, they have tubes on both sides of the hull to increase stability. Pontoon kayaks aren’t the best for more advanced paddlers, so if you’re in need of a high performing boat, then look at rounded or v-shape hulls instead.
Rounded hulls have rounded bottoms and provide their paddler with the ability to tilt and turn fairly easily in rough waters. If you’re regularly paddling in fast-moving rivers or choppy oceans, then a rounded hull kayak would be an excellent choice.
Recreational paddlers, on the other hand, would find rounded hull kayaks incredibly unstable, so it’s best to give them a miss.
Finally, the V-shape hull. V-shape hulls have a point at the bottom which helps them cut through the water at faster speeds. This pointed shape also improves tracking but lacks in stability and maneuverability, so V-shape hulls are mainly reserved for kayak tourers or racers.
There is one other component to kayaking, and that is your kayak paddle. Paddles come in a few material variations and also a wide variety of lengths to suit paddlers and boats of all heights and widths.
The shaft is the middle part of the paddle that can be made from aluminum, fiberglass, or carbon fiber.
Aluminum shaft paddles are the cheapest and the heaviest of the three. They’re commonly used by kayak schools as they’re easy to replace if broken.
Fiberglass shaft paddles are lighter than aluminum paddles and are slightly more expensive. This higher price reflects in their performance and reduces overall fatigue over long distances.
Finally, the carbon fiber shaft paddles which are the most premium paddles on the market and come with a considerable price tag. Carbon fiber paddles are extremely lightweight and durable, which really makes a difference for long days out on the water.
The blades of the paddles can also be made from a mixture of different materials. The most common are polypropylene, fiberglass, and carbon fiber. Some carbon shaft paddles can be paired with fiberglass blades, and some fiberglass shaft paddles can be paired with polypropylene blades.
The materials the blades are made from also affect the paddles' overall weight and performance, so if you want a paddle that’ll excel in these areas, opt for a carbon fiber shaft paddle with carbon fiber blades.
Along with the material construction of your paddle, you will also need to size it correctly. Having a paddle too long would be difficult to move through the water, and a paddle too short would result in you having to lean into each and every stroke.
The best way to determine the correct paddle length for you is to consider your height and the width of your boat. Taller kayakers or wider boats need longer paddlers, and shorter paddlers or narrower boats need shorter paddles. For a more in-depth explanation of kayak paddle sizing, head to our article How to Choose a Kayak Paddle.
The size of kayak you need will come down to a few different factors: Your height and weight, the kayak’s intended use, and the way you’ll transport and store it.
Kayaks are designed to fit into different categories including whitewater, recreational, and touring. Whitewater kayaks are the shortest as their shorter length makes it easier to control and maneuver them in fast-moving waters.
Recreational kayaks sit in the middle and have wider cockpits to improve their stability. Touring kayaks are the longest of the three as their narrower and longer hulls can slice through the water at high speeds with little effort.
Once you’ve narrowed down what you’ll be using your kayak for, you can then factor in your height and weight. Taller paddlers will want a sit-in kayak with a high volume cockpit to give them adequate leg room. Or, they can opt for a “sit on” kayak which has no restrictions on space.
Heavier paddlers would need to think about the kayak’s weight capacity. Going over this number will sink the kayak into the water making it difficult to paddle and control.
Some recreational kayaks are around the 8’ mark and if you’re a smaller paddler then this size could be perfect for you. Taller paddlers, on the other hand, may have some issues due to limited leg room.
If you’re considering an 8’ kayak, then pay attention to its maximum weight capacity and its cockpit size. Low volume kayaks are suitable for people under 140 lbs, medium volume kayaks work great for average-sized adults under 180lbs, and high-volume kayaks are favored by taller or heavier paddlers.
When it comes to choosing a kayak for your weight, the most important thing to look at is the kayak’s maximum weight capacity.
Kayaks have a maximum weight capacity to keep them buoyant in the water. If you go over this number, your kayak will sink into the water and will be incredibly difficult to paddle and control.
Add your weight, the weight of any passengers, and the weight of any gear you’ll be carrying at any given time and find a kayak with a higher capacity. We recommended leaving 10 - 20 lbs or leeway in case you upgrade your gear or switch out any passengers in the future.
Sit-on kayaks are a better choice for bigger paddlers as they offer more legroom than a sit-in kayak. Sit in kayaks can sometimes feel claustrophobic and depending on their cockpit volume, can make the paddler feel very cramped inside.
With sit on kayaks, you’re free to move around and you don’t face the challenge of exiting your kayak if you happen to capsize.
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