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Choosing a Kayak Series: Length & Width

Posted by on December 29, 2011

The most important question to ask yourself when shopping for a new kayak is “where will I be paddling this kayak most often?” Will you be paddling exclusively on tranquil ponds, exploring near-coastal waters, or taking part in full-blown, open-ocean crossings on your commute to work??? The answer to this question will point you and your sales team toward the appropriate class of kayaks to further explore. This is a big step in the right direction and greatly simplifies the search.

There are three main classes of kayaks in the sea kayaking world and they are roughly delineated by the physical dimensions and hull characteristics of the kayak. The three classes are: recreational, light-touring, and touring. The figure below summarizes the differences in these kayaks based on length and width (beam). Each of these classes will perform optimally in specific paddling conditions. However, don’t feel like a kayak is limited exclusively to the optimal conditions for its class. Many kayaks will operate safely in an array of conditions but no kayak will be best suited for all of the conditions that you may plan to encounter. Let’s get into the details:

Sea kayaks in the recreational class tend to be less than 12 feet long and greater than 24 inches in beam with flatter hulls. Generally, these dimensions indicate that you should expect a recreational-class kayak to be relatively stable while sacrificing speed and sometimes tracking ability. Their smaller volumes will keep the weight down below 50lbs in most cases. Also, recreational kayaks tend to have larger, more open cockpits and a relaxed paddling position without the need for thigh-braces. All of these features make a recreational kayak well suited for shorter trips on calm waters where you would not expect to encounter waves over 1-2ft or winds over 10mph. Many of the fishing-oriented kayaks fall into the recreational class and many fishermen appreciate their relatively high stability and large cockpits. If you’re looking for an inexpensive kayak to keep down by your lake-house dock or if you’re looking to explore your local marshes on light days then the recreational class is worth looking into.

On the other end of the spectrum we find the touring class. Kayaks in this class tend to be greater than 16ft long and are typically around 22in or less in beam. These kayaks are designed for straight tracking and speed but some may feel relatively unstable at first. Touring-class kayaks tend to incorporate smaller key-hole or ocean cockpits that can be readily fitted with a sprayskirt to keep you in the kayak and the water out. The paddling position is very active and requires thighbraces and sometimes a backband. All of these traits make touring kayaks well suited for the bigger conditions that you will find on the ocean. They excel on longer trips where speed and tracking are you friend and in heavier seas and winds where shorter kayaks would be tossed around too much. Touring-class kayaks can be used in all sorts of paddling conditions but are often overkill in the low-key situations where recreational kayaks excel. If you’re an adventurous type that likes to do multi-day or long-distance paddling trips where you’d expect to encounter a wide variety of conditions or open water then the touring-class is for you!

Somewhere in the middle lies the light-touring class. This class offers a great middle-ground and meets the needs of 90% of the amateur sea kayakers out there. Light-touring kayaks are typically between 12 and 16ft in length and have intermediate beams from 22 to 25in. As you can imagine, light-touring class kayaks behave like a hybrid of recreational and touring-class kayaks. They tend to track better than a recreational kayak but not as well as a touring kayak. However, they are usually more stable than a typical touring kayak and may have a slightly larger cockpit that will readily accept a spray skirt and fosters an active paddling position. Light-touring kayaks are great for day-trippers who spend the majority of their time in near-coastal waters. Their shorter length makes them more maneuverable than a touring-class kayak and a joy to paddle in the surf-zone, rock gardens, and in those tight and winding marsh channels. Will they make it through bigger conditions if you decide to do a short crossing? Yes, but you may notice more weather-cocking than you would in a touring-class kayak. All said, the light-touring class provides a great compromise that will meet your needs in many situations.

Once you decide on the proper class of kayaks then you can work with your sales team to demonstrate some kayaks and identify specific features such as kayak weight, cockpit comfort, hull dynamics, and outfitting that appeal to you. Our next post in the series will focus on what to expect in a proper kayak demonstration so stay tuned!

Happy Paddling!

-Kayak Dave

Recreational, Light-touring, and Touring-class Kayaks by Length and Width

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