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The best recreational kayaks for beginners

Posted by on November 13, 2013

So… what’s a “recreational” kayak?

This series is intended as a buyer’s guide and will explore the many markets of beginner kayaks, from recreational kayaks to sea kayaks, we will look at kayaks which are best fit for those just starting out. In this article, we will look at recreational kayaks—kayaks which are designed for use primarily in lakes, ponds, and rivers. Recreational kayaks are typically wider and shorter (10’ to 12’ feet) which make them more stable overall. Since recreational kayaks tend to be very stable, their performance is on the slow side and may not respond as efficiently as longer, touring kayaks. Wider, spacious cockpits make recreational kayaks easy to get into and exit both on and off the water.

Recreational Showroom

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Most individuals who try kayaking for the first time will find themselves in a recreational kayak. Recreational kayaks do require basic kayak training and are best for novices, angers, photographers, older kayakers, and casual paddlers. In addition, recreational kayaks tend to be more affordable as they are manufactured and marketed in the masses.

The following kayaks have been selected as the “best recreational kayaks for beginners” based on their performance in the following categories: weight, stability, price, durability, and ease of entry/exit.

Wilderness Systems Aspire 105

Sub-Class: Small Rec

Material: Polyethylene

Length: 10’6”

Width: 29”

Weight: 48 lbs

MSRP: $699

wilderness aspire 105


The Wilderness System Aspire 105 is a state-of-the-art recreational kayak that provides an excellent platform for leisure paddling, fishing, and photography on flat or slow-moving water. Overall, we are very pleased with the performance of the Aspire 105 when we test paddled it in light conditions on the pond! I found that the tracking was better than the average 10’6”-long recreational kayak thanks to the dual inverted keel lines. The Aspire 105 showed some weather cocking in the light breeze but this was managed with minimal corrective strokes and could have been completely compensated for had I decided to deploy the rope-operated drop skeg. The addition of a drop skeg to a kayak of this length is fairly uncommon (the Venture Kayaks Flex 11 comes to mind) but can be very useful! The maneuverability of the Aspire 105 was very impressive. It took only two sweep strokes the turn the craft around 180 degrees without edging the boat at all!


Wilderness Systems Pungo 120

Sub-Class: Large Rec

Material: Polyethylene

Length: 12’

Width: 29”

Weight: 51 lbs

MSRP: $869

wilderness pungo 120

The Wilderness Systems Pungo is the top-selling kayak in North America as it is recognized across the board for its reliable stability; large, spacious cockpit; and excellent tracking. At 12 feet in length, the Pungo 120 is a bit longer than its sibling Aspire 105 but advances some similar features. The Pungo 120 is designed to accommodate a wide range of paddlers including those who traditionally have a difficultly fitting into smaller recreational kayaks. Its large, spacious cockpit creates a wide and comfortable seating area perfect for bringing along photography, fishing, or extra paddling gear. In addition to its many functional benefits, the Pungo’s wide cockpit provides an airy space which may alleviate the “closed-in” feeling commonly associated with sit-in kayaks. Tracking is not an issue for the Pungo 120 as its hard-V shaped hull keeps the kayak tracking straight and true even during windier conditions. Because the Pungo 120 weighs over 50lbs, it may be a struggle for those who have issues with carrying weight to-and-from a launch.


Eddyline Skylark

Sub-Class: Lightweight Rec

 Material: Thermalformed

Length: 12’

Width: 26”

Weight: 41 lbs

MSRP: $1,349

eddyline skylark

In the world of recreational kayaks, the Eddyline Skylark is on the higher-end of the spectrum in terms of initial quality and weight. Built in Washington state, the Skylark is a great recreational kayak for those willing to pay a little more for a lightweight, stable companion during day trips. Ideal for exploring lakes, ponds, rivers, and protected coastal environments, the Skylark provides stable and predictable performance all day long. We find the Skyline to be very stable and a great fit for those who are new to the sport. Its cockpit is a little smaller than average in the recreational class which may deter those uncomfortable in closer fitting kayaks. Foam padding under the cockpit provides a comfortable and secure seating position for better control of the kayak. At only 41lbs, the Skylark is perfect for those who prefer a lighter kayak for car-topping or carrying across a beach landing. The Skylark comes full price at $1,349 which is more expensive than recreational kayaks on average.


Venture Kayaks Flex 11

Sub-Class: Performance Rec

 Material: Polyethylene

Length: 10’ 8”

Width: 25”

Weight: 45 lbs

MSRP: $799

venture kayak flex 11

The Venture Kayaks Flex 11 is one of the most unique recreational kayaks on the market today. Blending Pyranha inspired whitewater with P&H inspired touring, the Flex provides paddlers with a unique mix between a flatwater playboat and a pocket-sized day tripper. With one sweep stroke and lean, the Flex 11 nearly turns 360 degrees, and with a following reverse stroke effortlessly completes the circle. Fitted with solid thigh braces, the cockpit on the Flex is spacious yet allows plenty of options for a snug fit. The thigh braces are not only solid and securely fastened to the hull, but they were very comfortable. The Flex 11 is ideal for an individual seeking a recreational kayak with shot of espresso. Designed with whitewater inspired outfitting, the Flex fits securely around the hips and thighs which allows for optimum control. At 45lbs the Flex 11 is an easy carry and may even fit in the rear cargo area of larger SUVs.


Old Town Herron 11XT

Sub-Class: Budget Friendly

 Material: Polyethylene

Length: 11’

Width: 28.5”

Weight: 41 lbs

MSRP: $559

old town herron 11xt

The Old Town Herron 11XT is one of the newest additions to the Old Town family. Designed for budget conscious consumers, the Herron 11XT provides a great compromise between affordable, initial quality, and performance. Outfitted with a rear bulkhead and hatch sets the Herron XT above its competition within this price range. Great for those just starting out, the Herron 11XT is stable and is perfect for exploring inland ponds and lakes. Although the seating area is spacious and provides extra volume at the cockpit, the cockpit opening is smaller than average in this class. In terms of durability, like all Old Town kayaks, the Herron is constructed of polyethylene which is forgiving to bumps and bruises. With minimal moving parts, the Herron is an easy maintenance kayak which will require minimal upkeep other than routine washing and protecting.

19 Responses to The best recreational kayaks for beginners

  1. Capn Jimbo's Fr. Lauderdale Yakfishing Club

    To me the whole notion of “recreational” being a somehow easy-to-use class is ludicrous. This gives a false sense of security, stability or safety, none of which are true. Open cockpit designs will fill with water and even if they have floatation are hard to remount and hard to empty. They are designed to almost require a seat which inhibits proper rotation and will make effective paddling or improvement in techinqiue unlikely. They tend to be heavier and far too wide – in an attempt to create a false sense of primary stability, they sacrifice secondary stability and when they inevitably capsize it will be quickly and without much warning.

    All in all, a good SOT in the 14 ft range is just as light, if not lighter, more stablle, faster, more seaworthy and safer. Folks, it doesn’t take that long to master what are in general better designs in almost every way. No new kayaker should think these recreational barges do not require instruction. In a well known incident in our own Port Everglades in Florida, in relatively flat water, the only kayak to capsize was of this unsafe open cockpit design, the paddler could not re-enter it, and he almost died were it not for a US Tow captain who rushed to his aid.

    Don’t be misled by “easy, fun” marketing pitch of these basicly faulty designs.

    • alexrusso12

      Thank you for your input. It’s always great to hear comments and suggestions from different schools of thought in the kayaking world. We have a strong focus on education through dialog, and much of the content we choose to pursue is in the field of proper boating safety and instruction. In order to diversify our content, we also include articles on kayak and gear reviews including buyer’s guides such as this article.

      The goal of this particular article is as buyers guide, used as a reference by an individual in the market for a kayak. Similar to how an individual would seek product reviews through Consumer Reports, we hope to act in that capacity within the kayaking field.

      As with any sport, common sense and proper instruction from a trained professional is critical to ensure safety. The same applies for kayaking and paddle sports. We always stress proper safety and instruction from a certified paddling instructor prior to kayaking- as this article mentions the need for basic kayaking instruction.

      As part of this buyers guide series, we will also touch upon sit-on-top kayaks which also offer many unique features as well. This particular article was written with a focus on sit-in style kayaks which tend to fit a different segment of paddlers seeking different needs. For example, in New England, where the window of warm weather is very small, sit-in kayaks are preferable as paddlers are not directly exposed to the elements as on a SOT.

      Once again, thank you for your input.

    • allen tyree

      I am at best a part time kayaker. I have a 14 ft skin on frame about 30 inches wide that I have paddled for years. I bought a 2003 Dagger Cortez 17.5 Kevlar kayak. Boy was I in for a surprise. Did I bite off more than I can chew ? To me it seems like it has no primary or secondary stability. Is this just because I am not use to it or is it not suitable for someone like me. Thanks Allen

  2. Katharine Bernard

    I always wanted to try kayak, but I was afraid of the consequences since I don’t really have an idea where to start. I’m really glad to know that there’s a kayak for beginners like me. I’m so excited to do kayaking one of these days!

    • alexrusso12

      Hi Katharine,

      It’s great to hear that you’re exciting to start kayaking. Kayaking is a great way to stay active and explore the outdoors. One thing we always suggest before kayaking for the first time is to attend a basic kayak lesson from an instructor. It will be a great way to learn safe practices on the water and will make you a more confident paddler. Check your local kayak shop for lessons or go you can search for certified instructors through the American Canoe Association.

      Happy paddling!

    • arrudad

      Hi Katharine! Great to hear that you’re psyched about kayaking!! There are a lot of great kayaks out there for beginners not all of which fall into the recreational category that was covered in this article. Consider following along with this series as Alex deaves into a number of other kayak classes (light touring, touring, sit-on-tops, ect). That way you can match the class to your intended use and we can guide you to some great beginner kayaks in that class from there :) Take care and happy paddling! -Kayak Dave

  3. Scot

    Very nice article. I am a newbie and have been looking for about 4 months. I actually have it down to an old town heron 11xt and a dagger zydeco 11. Any thought on the zydeco? Thanks again for the post and information.

    • alexrusso12

      Hi Scot,

      Thanks for the comment. I have heard positive feedback for both the Dagger Zyedco 11.0 and the Old Town Heron 11XT. In terms of performance, it will come down to personal preference and how you feel when paddling the kayak. I highly recommend demoing both kayaks so you can get an idea of how both perform on the water. Your best option is to search around at some local kayak shops who offer demos. That way you will be able to get a realistic idea of how the kayak performs before you make the investment.


  4. Scot

    Thanks for the reply. I will try, but that may be difficult this time of year where I live. Again, I appreciate the help and article.

  5. Frank Corey

    No offense to Capt Jimbo, but SOT are pretty useless here on rivers in New England. However you would be very hard pressed to capsize an Aspire 105, even when I use mine without the skirt on light rivers I have never had a problem. For ocean and open water I use an Islay 14 with a skirt, a big brother to the Flex 11 which is a great smaller boat in its own right. Just wanted to say thanks to Dave for the great reviews.

  6. Sam

    I live in an area where I can only demo high-end models at one kayak outfitter store. While a great service, that store just doesn’t carry models that are less than $500, which is at the high end of my budget. Any advice about how to choose a kayak when there is no demo opportunity? I’m sort of limited to the big box sporting good stores.

    • Kayak Dave

      Hi Sam!

      I can’t say enough for how important it is to try a kayak before you buy it. If you can’t get on the water with it then the next best thing is to at least sit in the cockpit and see how it feels on the showroom floor. This obviously doesn’t give you a sense of how the kayak will perform but at least you can see if it’s comfortable in the short term. I’d also suggest going with a reputable brand rather than some knock-off brand. Dagger and Perception are two reputable companies that have “sport” lines of kayaks for the budget-minded paddler. Hope this helps! :)

      -Kayak Dave

  7. John

    Great review of the Kayaks. I am still trying to deciede between the Wilderness Pungo 120 and the Aspire 105. Kayaking in mostly flat water in Florida. Any suggestions.

    • Kayak Dave

      Hi John!

      Tough call! I’m a big fan of the Aspire 105. It’s very comfortable and offers a lot of nice features (including the drop skeg) for a boat of its size. However, the Pungo 120 is a true classic. It’s probably a bit quicker and just about as stable. My best advice would be to try out both of these kayaks on the water and make your decision based on that experience.

      Happy Paddling!

      -Kayak Dave

  8. Gaius Gracchus

    How are we supposed to try out kayaks in retail stores?

    • Kayak Dave

      Hi Gaius!

      Many retail stores will often provide their customers with an annual kayak/SUP demo event. During these events, stores will bring a selection of their in-stock kayaks to a local waterway and allow customers to try out the boats for free or for a small fee. This is important because it gives customers the chance to try the kayak before they make the purchase in order to get a sense for how the kayak handles and how comfortable they are in it. Many of the specialty kayak shops offer demos everyday depending on their location. This is one of the benefits of shopping at a local kayak shop rather than a large retail chain. Anyway, if a retailer does not provide the option to demo their products then I would consider shopping elsewhere.

      Happy Paddling!

      -Kayak Dave

  9. Pito Salas

    I am looking for a replacement for a Walden Vista which is no longer available. 12’6″ long, and importantly only 38lbs heavy. 11XT seems close, but it’s 18″ shorter which I think will significantly affect handling. What do you recommend? Thanks for an excellent article!

  10. Michael

    In doing my research, I have heard much about the comfort of seating. Many friends have had great experiences with their Kayaks, but often complain about the lack of seat comfort in some models. So as I look at the various types, are there guidelines related to seat comfort that might influence my decision?



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