Kayaks are an excellent method for exploring nearby lakes, becoming one with nature, and getting some much needed exercise. But if you’re in the market for your first kayak, you might be overwhelmed. The length of your kayak can impact your performance, so finding the right size is essential.
A longer kayak (12′- 24′) is better for tracking through choppy water, more stable and less tippy, and has a higher weight capacity for larger riders. Shorter kayaks (6′- 12′) are ideal for novices who need an easier time steering, a smaller budget, and lightweight and easy-to-transport kayak.
Buying a kayak is an investment, and not all kayaks will give you the experience you’re looking for on the water. So to ensure you come home with the right kayak, we’re going to review the role that the length plays, which size is ideal, and other characteristics you’ll need to consider.
The Advantages Offered by a Longer Kayak
Longer kayaks promote a smooth ride on the water’s surface, whether you’re on the raging rapids of a nearby river or a small lake’s calm water. A kayak that’s over 12′ long has remarkable benefits for more experienced kayakers.
These benefits include more efficient paddling, greater stability in the water, and a higher weight capacity. Let’s go into a little more detail about how these advantages may impact you.
Promotes More Energy Efficient Paddling
The greatest advantage of a longer kayak, like a touring kayak, is that they also tend to be quite narrow. The combination of length—usually 12′ or more—and a narrow hull that’s approximately 22″ requires far less energy to cut through the water or waves ahead.
That means you won’t have to paddle as much or as rigorously to maintain hull speed, making a longer kayak far less physically draining on longer cruises and journeys.
Another related benefit is that a longer kayak will track more efficiently than a shorter kayak. Even in rough water, your kayak will maintain a faster speed, accelerate more quickly, and glide relatively straight through the water. So instead of putting in extra effort toward steering a straight pathway through the waves, you can use shorter and gentler strokes and fight the water resistance less.
Added Stability on the Water
Longer kayaks are somewhat paradoxical because you might assume that a wider, but not longer, base is automatically more stable. But you also have to factor in the tendency for a longer kayak to track better in the water and how it impacts stability.
The issue is that many kayakers focus on horizontal stability instead of longitudinal stability, each of which plays a pivotal role in your ability to stay upright on your kayak.
A longer kayak is far more likely to resist directional changes in rough waters with a better ability to track and cut through choppy waves. Even if your long kayak becomes partially submerged on one side, you can count on your kayak’s secondary stability to step in.
As such, you can take a more angled turn in rough water without capsizing, meaning you’ll be better able to react to the water’s conditions without tipping.
Greater Weight Capacity Without Sacrificing Mobility
Longer kayaks, typically 14′ or longer, are generally ideal for larger or heavier people. You can expect some longer kayaks to hold over 450 pounds (204.1 kg) of weight, including your gear like tackle boxes, water bottles, and safety gear, without capsizing or negatively impacting your mobility. Aside from the need for extra room, this concept is evident in the fact that most two-person (tandem) kayaks are abnormally long.
The Advantages Offered by a Shorter Kayak
Shorter kayaks are generally easier to maneuver and control, making steering and even transporting your kayak to the lake easier than ever. A kayak that’s under 12′ long has more substantial benefits for novice kayakers.
These unique benefits are less hectic steering mechanisms, a lower price tag, and an ability to load the kayak onto a car’s roof with ease. Let’s delve into the benefits of shorter kayaks and discover how they may affect you.
Quicker and More Receptive to Steering
The most apparent benefit of a shorter kayak is that there’s a lesser tendency to track efficiently, meaning your ability to change direction in the water becomes more accurate. This is made possible thanks to the combination of a lower hull speed and a shorter turning radius. Just a few strokes of your paddle on one side of your kayak can allow you to change direction entirely or steer around an obstacle in your path.
This ease in turning makes a shorter kayak ideal for a novice kayaker, but it also comes with another vital benefit, primary stability. Since shorter kayaks also tend to be a bit wider, you’ll feel far more balanced when you’re on the water, your risk of tipping is reduced in normal circumstances, and you can slow down or turn without worrying about tipping. Directional changes are simple and make a shorter kayak ideal for short cruises and casual kayakers.
Generally Less Pricey
Kayaks are expensive, but the length and type of kayak you invest in will play a pivotal role in how much you end up spending on your new vessel. Below, you’ll see a breakdown of kayak type, kayak length, and kayak cost (source). Notice how the shorter kayaks tend to be cheaper.
|Kayak Type||Kayak Length||Kayak Cost (Average)|
|Recreational Kayak||8’ to 10’||$700|
|Touring or Sea Kayak||12’ to 16’||$1,250|
The low cost of shorter kayaks makes them a far better option if you’ve never kayaked before or on a budget. It’s also important to note that a shorter and cheaper kayak doesn’t necessarily make it cheaply made or more likely to become damaged. They might not be as efficient for more skilled kayakers looking to travel long distances in the water.
Just remember that price doesn’t always equal quality (or lack thereof).
Lighter Build Is Better for Transportation
Though usually a few inches wider than a longer kayak, shorter kayaks tend to be several feet shorter than longer kayaks and are far more lightweight. It’s not unusual to find a recreational kayak weighing beneath 100 pounds (45.4 kg), weighing as little as 35 pounds (15.9 kg). The lighter build makes a shorter kayak far easier to steer and handle in the water and has one crucial benefit outside of the water, simple transportation.
A 35 to 100 pound kayak is far easier to carry from your truck to the lake and back again without damaging your truck or throwing out your back. You don’t have to worry about not being able to lift the kayak above your head and onto your roof rack or dropping it on the way up, scratching your truck’s paint. Another benefit of the lightweight build is that you go kayaking on your own without needing another person to load up your kayak.
Should You Get a Long Kayak, Short Kayak, or Something In Between?
So we’ve gone over the benefits of both shorter and longer kayaks, but there’s no single recommendation when it comes to kayak length. For example, some kayaks make more sense for long journeys on steady water, while other kayaks are more useful for venturing down through white waters.
Below, we’ll discuss the ideal kayak length, depending on how and where you plan to kayak.
The Ideal Kayak Length for the Recreational Paddler
A recreational paddler is anyone that enjoys a smooth, casual, and peaceful kayaking journey for the sake of having fun or being in nature, either on a lake, pond, bubbling stream, or creek. A recreational kayak is ideal if you want a kayak, that is:
- easy to steer and change direction
- relatively stable and doesn’t tip easily
- great for short-distance travels
- lightweight and simple to transport
The ideal kayak length for the recreational paddler is less than 12′, but preferably between 9′ and 12′.
Have you decided that a recreational kayak is your next big investment? Check out the video below that describes how to choose the best kayak for you:
The Ideal Kayak Length for the Touring Paddler
A touring paddler enjoys open water paddling at higher speeds with greater efficiency, specifically in larger water bodies like bays, oceans, large lakes, or expansive rivers. A touring kayak is ideal if you want a kayak that is:
- stable in rough water conditions
- excellent at tracking (traveling straight)
- comfortable and stable on long journeys
- resistant to water entering the vessel to prevent capsizing
The ideal kayak length for the touring paddler is between 12′ and 24′, with the exact size being partially-dependent on your height and weight.
Are you sure a touring kayak is the one that’s right for you? Take a look at the video below that’ll describe how to choose the right sea kayak for your next big adventure:
The Ideal Kayak Length for the Whitewater Paddler
A whitewater paddler is anyone who wants to take their kayak down to the rough rapids of the local river, maneuvering massive waves, waterfalls, rushing water, rock obstacles, and other extreme conditions. A whitewater kayak is ideal if you want a kayak that is:
- able to handle whitewater
- simple to escape upon tipping
- comfortable on the back
- capable of superior steering and clearing rocks in your path
The ideal kayak length for the whitewater paddler is between 6′ and 8′, significantly shorter than most other kayak types.
Ready to test your limits and buy a whitewater kayak? You’ll learn about what you need to consider before buying a whitewater kayak in the video below:
Additional Kayak Characteristics to Consider Prior to Purchase
Your kayak’s length is crucial to the efficiency and success you’ll see on your next water adventure. But there are a few more features and characteristics you’ll want to weigh before dropping your hard earned money on a kayak.
Some key things to think about include volume, width, symmetry (or lack thereof), hull shape, and rocket pivot. Now, let’s discuss what you need to know about each of these.
The Volume of the Kayak
A kayak’s volume describes how heavy a load the kayak can support without capsizing, including your body weight, along with any other occupants, equipment, and the kayak’s weight. So you’ll need a higher volume kayak if you’re on the bigger side or plan to load up on gear on your adventures, like a bait box for fishing kayaks or a GPS for longer touring journeys.
Many kayaks will support 600+ pounds of weight, but you should opt for a kayak with a volume or weight limit well beyond your body weight. So stick to about 65% to 75% of your kayak’s weight capacity to avoid tipping or capsizing while on water. Generally, longer kayaks support more volume, so a touring or sea kayak is a better choice for heavier fellows.
The Width of the Kayak
The width or beam of your kayak may range from under 23″ to well above 34″. A wider kayak will be more difficult to paddle and won’t cut through the water nearly as fast as a more narrow kayak, but they also tend to be relatively stable and less likely to tip in normal water conditions. A greater width is more often seen in recreational kayaks.
A touring or sea kayak will typically be more narrow and maybe a little unstable for novice kayakers, but they’re also known for being much faster, more efficient, and can track or travel straight. You may also stand on a wider kayak, like on a fishing angler, without risk of tipping. A narrow kayak will typically have a lower weight capacity.
Symmetrical Design vs. Asymmetrical Design
When we talk about a kayak’s symmetry, we refer to a kayak with the same shape at both the stern and the bow and a wide central region (source). Below, you’ll see the differences between the two:
- Symmetrical – These kayaks handle very well and, because both the front and the back are shaped the same, you may even be able to paddle backward quite efficiently. The downside is that a high rate of speed is difficult.
- Swede Form (Asymmetrical) – A Swede form kayak is slightly wider behind the cockpit than at the cockpit for a symmetrical kayak, and offers a faster and smoother ride on the water. But this style doesn’t handle waves well and struggles when paddled backward.
- Fish Form (Asymmetrical) – A fish form kayak is slightly wider ahead of the cockpit, so it’s the exact opposite of Swede form. This kayak style is more aerodynamic and buoyant, cut through waves with ease, though it’s slower and glides less easily.
Each of these designs has its pros and cons, so you have to consider which is most important to you. Would you rather have a kayak that’s more stable, cuts through waves more efficiently, or moves smoothly in either direction?
Flat Bottom Hulls vs. Round Hulls
Your kayak’s hull’s shape describes the bottom part of your kayak that sits in the water. There are quite a few types of hull shapes, like:
- Rounded – This shape has an even rounding at the bottom of the kayak, allowing for greater acceleration and speed, incredible stability, and improved turning.
- Flat Bottom – This hull shape is nearly completely flat, with some rounding to prevent a boxy appearance. Though slower, these hulls provide a wider and more stable base.
- V-Shaped – This hull style has a more angled rounding at the hull, making cutting through the water at a high rate of speed and better tracking more likely.
- Pontoon – This shape is more concave at the hull region, making the kayak more stable when steering and tracking in any scenario.
At this point, you have to consider what your priorities are in a kayak, whether that be tracking, speed, stability, turning, or a combination of these characteristics.
Amount of Rocker Pivot
The term rocker describes the shape of the kayak, with the bow and stern angled slightly upward, so they aren’t sitting in the water as the rest of the vessel. The larger the upturn angle, the less kayak in the water, and the easier it is to turn a kayak.
This is an ideal characteristic if you’re in a recreational kayak or need to quickly maneuver around obstacles. Still, it also negatively impairs tracking and can cause the kayak to rock more easily.
If you’re a recreational paddler or novice, a 9′ to 12′ kayak is your best bet. Recreational kayaks are simple to turn, lightweight, and great for short treks.
If you’re more of a touring paddler, a 12′ to 24′ kayak is a better option. Touring kayaks cut through the water smoothly, travel faster, and are very stable.
If you’re a pro and whitewater paddler, a 6′ to 8′ kayak is a solid choice. Whitewater kayaks handle rough water perfectly, steer unusually well, and are safe despite the sport.