Buying a Kayak

You might want to start looking at gear by going to a paddling store, perusing catalogs, or by checking out the buyers guides put out annually by the major magazines.

You’ll find hundreds of different boat and gear designs. The number of styles and subtle differences in form and function can make your head spin! Fortunately, it is easy to narrow down the choices.

Whitewater play boats are usually plastic, fairly short (8-10 feet) and somewhat broad. These characteristics make the kayak ideal for spinning and dancing down rapids.

You should get in several boats before you make a purchase. Comfort and ease of entry/ exit, stability, and strength are important variables in choosing a boat. "Try before you buy" is a good plan.

Inside whitewater boats there is a foam pillar that travels the length of the boat, adding stiffness to the deck and flotation to the kayak. Most boats also have foot braces that are adjustable and thigh hooks. Check to make sure that each of these is adjusted properly for a good fit. Foam can be glued to the seat and thigh hooks to enhance your fit and comfort. Trust me—the time spent outfitting your kayak is well worth a great day on the river!

On the bow (front) and stern (back) are little handles, called grab loops, that are part of the rescue system. They are necessary if you’re pulling a friend to shore or to help you hold onto the boat in the event of a flip and swim.

High Tech Materials

The type of material the boat is built from is another choice that you'll have to make when you go out to select a boat. There are two basic materials that are used in kayaks today, fiberglass and plastic. The plastic is generally a rotomolded plastic, not unlike the big plastic trash cans out in front of your house, or the tupperware containers in your freezer. The plastic boats are thick, easily scratched, but most importantly, very indestructible. That trash can you've backed over in the driveway generally springs back into shape. The same is true for the plastic recreational kayaks on the market. (I am not recommending testing this feature.) The odds are that your first kayak will be a plastic boat.

Choosing a Kayak

The most basic variables in boat design are the length and width. All other things being equal, a longer, narrower boat will be faster than a shorter and fatter boat. But the short, fat boat will turn more easily.

Stability is another factor that is very important to paddlers evaluating boats. A boat that remains wide along the length of a boat will be more stable than a boat that only widens very briefly and then narrows again. Judging this is difficult because the width can be in different places relative to the water line. Width above water line doesn't create a boat that is as stable as a boat that has a lot of width below the water line.

Rocker is another feature to consider when deciding what kind of kayak you want to buy. Rocker is the degree to which the hull curves at the ends. A boat that has a lot of rocker will spin more easily, while a boat that has little rocker will be faster.

Try Before You Buy

The best thing to do before buying a boat is to try it out, ideally at a professional school where they have a variety of different boats that you can trade in and out of during the course of a day or two. If you can’t take a class, try attending a demo organized by local stores, or through paddling clubs. In just a day or two you can get a good feel for which boats will suit you best. On the deck, around the seat area, is the cockpit rim. The elastic cord of the spray skirt fits around the around the rim, and around your waist to keep the water out. While running rapids the spray skirt helps keep the water out of the boat.

Buying Used Boats

Buying a used boat can be an affordable option and a good rule of thumb is to look for boats that are in pretty good condition, with no major breaks. A boat that is less than 4 or 5 years old assures you of a design that's pretty far along in the evolution of the sport. Some of the older designs are less comfortable, so be especially careful that you fit the boat. Like most major capital expenditures, kayaks depreciate nearly 50% in the first year. After 5 years the value of a kayak in good condition rarely drops to less than a third of its original retail price.