A Beginner’s Guide to Buying a Kayak
How to decide what kayak is best for you
The sun is shining, the flowers are blooming, and the wide-open rivers are calling. If summer’s energetic atmosphere leaves you feeling inspired to try something new, consider kayaking. While you may not be ready just yet for five-hour and overnight trips, that doesn’t mean you have to miss out on kayaking fun. You don’t need to be a seasoned professional to enjoy the beautiful ponds, lakes and even ocean; all you need is a kayak and a little help from your local specialty paddle sport shop. We spoke with Patrick Malfait, owner of Contoocook River Canoe Company, and asked him for tips on where to begin if you are looking to buy your first kayak. His first suggestion — consider what type of kayaking works for you.
Deciding What Kayak Is Best
Instead of getting overwhelmed by the multitude of options the minute you walk through the door, you can trust that Malfait and his team have you covered from start to finish. “We start by asking customers where they want to paddle — in quiet water, a pond or on a lake,” says Malfait. “Will there be moving water where there might be class II or III rapids? From there, we formulate the type of boat that will work best. We want to engage the customer so, by the end of the sale, they feel comfortable that their purchase fits their needs and their questions have been answered.” Materials impact the weight and durability of the boat, which directly impact the kayak’s price, so make sure you also walk in with a budget in mind.
Kayaks are classified in many ways, but the two main categories are sit-on-tops and sit-ins. Sit-on-tops are primarily used for recreational kayaking on quiet water. Sit-in kayaks can be used for recreational, touring and sea kayaking on quiet water, lakes and the ocean. “The temperature of the ocean off of the coast of New Hampshire runs between 50-55 degrees,” says Malfait. “The colder temperatures mean we have fewer paddlers paddling our coast than inland paddling on rivers, ponds and lakes. Kayaking on the ocean also requires a different paddling skill set than paddling inland. The ocean has tides, currents, waves and wind to contend with. In that respect, we often sell more sit-in than sit-on-top kayaks.”
Recreational kayaks (sit-ins and sit-on-tops) are the most popular among Granite Staters for their stability, larger cockpits and maneuvering and car-topping ease. They go up to 14 feet in length and are less expensive. They are also easy to get in and out of, and simple to turn. Day touring kayaks are in the 14-to-16-foot range, and are known for their smaller cockpits, narrow width, optional rudder and water efficiency. Longer touring kayaks that are 16 to 18 feet long are often used for sea kayaking. They’re efficient, track well, and have a smaller cockpit and rudder to deal with wind and currents.
“The kayaking trend is moving toward lightweight kayaks,” says Malfait. He adds that while lightweight kayaks made of Thermoform plastic or composite materials reduce the weight of a kayak, they are more expensive than the common rotomolded plastic kayak, which are much heavier. Lighter, though, means easier to carry and load onto your car. “If you can move it, carry it, or car-top it with ease, then you will use it. If you find it a chore, the kayak will stay in the garage,” says Malfait.
Picking a Paddle
A proper paddle can make or break your kayaking experience, so it is important to give yourself time to find a paddle that works best for you. Malfait recommends starting with buying the lightest paddle you can afford. “You are the fuel and your paddle is your motor, so the lighter the motor, the longer and more efficient you will be,” he says. Just like your kayak, heavy paddles are the least expensive and light paddles are the most expensive. The lighter paddles are higher quality and reduce swing weight, which in turn will help lessen joint strain and fatigue. Low-angle touring kayak paddles are good for day trips, general exploring or for spending a long time in your boat. The high-angle and wider touring paddles allow for a more powerful, athletic stroke. The longer, thinner, low-angle blade is the most energy-efficient, which makes it the most common paddling style.
Getting Ready to Go
Don’t leave your local paddle sport shop and jump right in the water for a six-hour trip. “Take a minute to get to know your new kayak,” says Malfait. “Get in a pool with a spotter and learn how your kayak handles in the water. Go in the shallow end and learn the stability of your kayak.”
He recommends intentionally tipping over — with your spotter present — to see if you can get out safely. “We have a lot of paddlers who aren’t comfortable swimming in the water,” says Malfait. “You need to feel confident that your life jacket will keep you afloat in open water so you don’t panic. Always wear your life jacket.” If you find that you still need extra help, Malfait and his team offer intro to kayaking classes every other week. Each class is six hours, and you’ll learn about paddle strokes, boat terminology, your kayak and more. Once you feel comfortable with your new kayak, grab a friend or family member, plan your own trip or find a trip adventure near you and hit the water.