If you’re keen to get into kayaking, one of the first things you should be considering is “what size kayak do I need?”
And as there’s a lot to choose from, it can be a tricky process, particularly for complete beginners.
The answer depends on a number of factors – all of which we explore in this article – so you can be confident you’re purchasing the right kayak for you.
And don’t miss the sizing chart, our guide to the different types of kayaks, and the FAQ section, just in case we missed anything!
Let’s get started.
Table of Contents
- What Size Kayak do I Need – Too Long, Didn’t Read
- Why Kayak Size Matters
- Type of Kayaks/Kayak Activities
- Water Conditions and Temperature
- Your Size and Weight
- Skill Level and Comfort on the Water
- Gear and Equipment
- Transport and Storage
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What Size Kayak do I Need – Too Long, Didn’t Read
If you’re in a bit of a rush, and you just want the gist of the article, here’s a brief guide on what to look out for.
When choosing the right size of kayak, consider the following key factors:
- The type of kayaking you want to do.
- The water conditions/temperature/region you’ll be kayaking in.
- Your own size and weight.
- Skill level and comfort on the water.
- How much gear you want to bring.
- How you intend to store and transport the kayak.
Don’t leave us just yet, as we explore each point in more detail, with some expert tips and advice coming up.
Why Kayak Size Matters
There isn’t a “one size fits all” kayak, and while there are some highly versatile craft capable of being used for multiple activities, a kayak’s size is still going to be very important when push comes to shove.
Let’s take a look at kayak dimensions, and explore how it will affect your paddling experience, performance, and comfort on the water.
The longer a kayak, the faster it’s going to be, and the better it’s going to “track” through the water.
Tracking refers to how straight a kayak moves while paddling, and can be improved with slimline, sleek hulls, skeg fins, and deploying a rudder. Correct paddling technique will also make a positive impact.
Examples: Touring and racing kayaks.
The shorter a kayak, the more maneuverable it’s going to be, which is essential for negotiating hazards and obstacles on the water, as well as performing tricks and stunts.
Examples: Whitewater kayaks and play boats.
The wider a kayak, the more primary stability it’s going to have. Primary stability is how stable it feels on flat, calm water.
You can feel how good this is when you first get into a kayak, and it’s like standing on a solid platform.
Examples: Most recreational and angling kayaks – such as these awesome fishing kayaks for beginners.
Kayaks with narrower hulls (or beams) will have better secondary stability. This type of kayak will feel very tippy in calm waters, but comes into its own in choppy conditions – such as offshore or over rapids.
Examples: Sea and touring kayaks, whitewater kayaks, racing kayaks.
Kayak volume refers to how much space a kayak has onboard overall. You can have high, medium, and low volume kayaks, sometimes referred to in gallons or cubic feet.
Taller/larger people will likely be more comfortable in high volume kayaks, while smaller, slimmer paddlers will be more at home in medium or low volume kayaks.
A high volume kayak is capable of carrying everything and the kitchen sink – but at a loss of speed and maneuverability.
Examples: Fishing and most tandem kayaks.
A medium volume kayak offers a nice balance of storage and performance.
Examples: Touring kayaks, as well as most recreational craft.
A low volume kayak will have limited storage space and/or cockpit room, but tend to be the better choice for adrenaline-fueled kayaking.
Examples: Whitewater and racing kayaks.
Kayak Weight Limit
You must always pay attention to a kayak’s maximum weight capacity, and never try to overload the craft or come near to this limit.
An overloaded kayak will be difficult to paddle, its performance will suffer, and you’ll be unbalanced – which might result in tipping and/or capsizing the boat.
And there’s always a chance the kayak will sink if it’s carrying far too much weight.
Remember, the more gear you carry, the more a kayak’s performance will suffer. Even if the weight capacity is, say, 500lbs, you should be aiming for no more than 70% of that.
Type of Kayaks/Kayak Activities
Below, you’ll find a breakdown of the most common/popular types of kayaks and what they’re used for.
The first step to deciding the correct size of kayak is choosing the type of kayaking you actually wish to do.
Also included is a typical size range for each, and note that all types are available as a sit-inside or sit-on-top kayak, as well as either a hardshell or inflatable.
Recreational Kayaks: 9-12 Feet
The term “recreational kayak” can describe a wide variety of craft in this class that are designed for pleasure boating.
Floating down lazy rivers, exploring calm lakes, or splashing in shallower water at the beach; with a recreational kayak, the emphasis has been put on safety, stability, and ease-of-use.
Recreational kayaks have a gentle learning curve, and can suit paddlers of all skill levels, and all shapes and sizes.
They are by far the most common type of kayak sold – popular with children and beginners, but still enjoyed by kayakers of all ages and experiences.
I own a light touring recreational kayak, for example, and for the type of kayaking I enjoy, I doubt I’ll ever need anything else.
Whitewater Kayaks: 6-9 Feet
Designed for tackling peppy rivers and rapids, whitewater kayaks are by far the smallest craft available.
Unless you’re talking about one of these fishing float tubes!
Since you’re being carried along by the current, speed isn’t a priority when it comes to a whitewater kayak’s construction, and they’re designed to offer maximum maneuverability, in order to turn on a dime when required.
The kayak cockpit size is small and cramped, and the actual, physical space inside is extremely limited, meaning there’s virtually no room for anything much more than yourself.
Highly responsive, river runners can be the most challenging to paddle over whitewater rapids, and are not for the faint of heart.
But with practice, the shorter kayaks can be used to pull some awesome tricks and maneuvers, and whitewater kayaking is one of the most exhilarating and adrenaline-fueled forms of the sport you can do.
Sea Kayaks/Touring Kayaks: 12-20 Feet
If you’re looking to travel significant distances when you’re kayaking, then you need to choose a sea or touring kayak (the term is often used interchangeably).
A touring kayak is a long, narrow craft that has been designed to track as effortlessly as possible, so you can maximize efficiency, and seriously go places exploring waterways over the course of several days.
Although you can get sit-on-top kayaks in this class, for the most part, they will be sit-in kayaks instead. This helps keep the paddlers warm, dry, and protected.
When it comes to kayak volume, most sea kayaks usually fall into the medium category – with enough space to carry plenty of gear, without compromising on performance.
Be aware, however, touring kayaks have much smaller/narrower/more compact cockpits than most recreational kayaks, so make sure you factor in your own size and shape before purchasing.
Fishing Kayaks: 10-14 Feet
Although you can technically fish from pretty much any kayak with the right rod and technique, fishing kayaks that are designed specifically for fishing are preferable if you want to really enjoy this type of kayaking.
Fishing kayaks are built with stability in mind, with a wider hull than most other kayaks, many of which are capable of standing casts and reels.
This article on the best stand-up fishing kayaks contains some great examples.
Aside from the obvious advantages this gives you for landing beasts from the deep, a good fishing kayak is going to have a high weight capacity for all your gear.
And as fishing kayaks tend to have a higher volume, you can store more equipment on board, as well as have plenty of unrestricted movement and comfort from your spacious cockpit position.
Check out this general article on the best sit-on-top fishing kayaks currently available on the market.
Tandem Kayaks: 10-16 Feet
Two’s company, and exploring a country’s waterways with a friend/significant other, is a wonderful way to kayak.
As there are now two paddlers on board, a tandem kayak tends to be longer, in order to accommodate the additional seating.
Most tandem kayaks are around 13 feet in length, and most you can paddle solo – which allows you more storage space, as well as the possibility of a pet coming along.
For angling, check out the best tandem fishing kayaks if you’d like to take someone with you on your next trip.
Racing Kayaks: 15-36 Feet
Designed and built purely for pace, racers are among the most narrow kayaks you’ll find; long, sleek, speed demons that are capable of winning medals at the Olympics.
Whether for sprints or marathons, they cut through flat water like a dart.
The length of a racing kayak depends on how many people it’s designed to accommodate. A solo craft can be up to 17 feet long, while a four-person vessel can reach as much as 36 feet.
Longer kayaks tend to be lower in volume, and racing kayaks are sparse craft that do away with pretty much everything unless it’s going to help with speed.
Water Conditions and Temperature
Think about where and when you’re going to be doing most of your kayaking, as this can also impact the size and type of craft you use.
Recreational kayaks are more suitable for warmer, calmer conditions, while sit-inside sea kayaks are preferable for offshore excursions in colder waters.
A sit-in kayak with a more compact cockpit offers better protection, as well as allowing for the use of a spray skirt to keep your lower body warm and dry.
Remember, regardless of the size of kayak you’re using, you must always dress for immersion. Water temperature is far more important than air temperature when kayaking anywhere.
Your Size and Weight
Now, let’s get a bit more personal.
Taking your own height, weight, and shape into consideration is crucial when you’re shopping for the right size kayak.
As taller people tend to have a higher center of gravity, the best kayak for people over six feet might not necessarily be the same as that of someone who is on the shorter side.
If you are on the taller side, you might want to choose a kayak with a lower/deeper seating position, which should help you feel more comfortable and stable when paddling.
Legroom is also an important factor when it comes to kayak size. If you happen to have long legs, then a stubby play boat might not be the ideal choice for you, and a longer kayak should be on your radar.
As a rule of thumb, larger humans are going to need larger kayak cockpits.
While the kayak’s length, width, and volume impact performance, it’s the cockpit size and shape that is going to have an effect on your comfort, and kayaking experience.
If you need to shoe-horn yourself in, then it’s probably too small. Likewise, if you might struggle to pilot a longer/wider kayak if it’s going to dwarf you.
Although it’s difficult to pigeon-hole kayak size, type, and activity to the size, shape, and weight of a paddler, the following chart gives you a very basic guide to find the ideal kayak for you.
|For paddlers under 5’6”
|For paddlers between 5’6”-5’10”
|For paddlers over 5’10
|Weighing less than 140 lbs
|Weighing between 150-180 lbs
|Weighing over 180 lbs
For fishing, you might find the following reviews and guides to be useful.
Go here for the best fishing kayaks for larger girls and guys.
Skill Level and Comfort on the Water
If you’re padding for the first time, or if you’re still relatively new to the sport, being honest about your own abilities is key to choosing the right kayak for you.
Some people can struggle with larger kayaks, while others might feel very uncomfortable in smaller, tippy craft.
It might not matter too much for recreational kayaks and casual, weekend paddles, but when piloting a whitewater kayak, sea kayak, or larger fishing kayak – it’s important to feel confident and in control.
Gear and Equipment
The more gear you want to bring on board, the larger the kayak will need to be.
Look for craft that are classed as high volume kayaks, that also have a high weight capacity – which is going to include you, anyone or anything else on board, and anything you might catch – if you’re fishing.
If you’d rather travel fast and light, then kayaks with lower volumes might be more suitable.
Remember, you should never come close to or exceed a kayak’s weight limit, even if you’re using an inflatable.
Transport and Storage
Finally, it’s important to consider logistics away from the water when it comes to choosing the right size kayak.
Kayaks need to be transported, and they need to be stored when not in use. The larger and heavier the kayak, the more challenging this is going to be.
You might want to consider one of these highly useful kayak carts to help, or consider an inflatable kayak if you don’t want to use a roof rack or kayak trailer.
Inflatable kayaks offer the ultimate convenience when it comes to portability and storage, as well as upping a kayak’s weight capacity when you’re out on the water.
This article on the best inflatable fishing kayaks is a good place to start.
What size kayak do I need for my height?
The optimal kayak size for your height depends on more factors than how tall you are. But as a rule of thumb, if you’re over 5’11/6’, I would advise looking at kayaks that are no shorter than 11 feet.
Is there a one-size-fits-all kayak?
Yes and no. Generally speaking, most people will be fine paddling a 10-12 foot, sit-on-top kayak.
But when you start to consider sit-inside models, and/or you’ve narrowed down the type of kayaking you wish to do, then it’s important to take more care when choosing a compatible size for your needs.
How long is the average kayak?
I would say the average kayak is probably about 10-11 feet long. I’ve reviewed a lot of kayaks, and the vast majority of them fall in this ballpark range.
Is a 9-foot kayak too small?
It depends on what you’re using it for, how large/small the paddler is, how you’re transporting and storing it, how much gear and equipment you’re taking, and where you’re going to be kayaking.
For casual recreational kayaking, younger paddlers, or if you need a highly maneuverable kayak, then a nine-footer can be ideal. They’re also great if you don’t have a lot of storage space at home.
But I wouldn’t recommend it for touring, fishing, or bigger/heavier kayakers – and/or if you want to take a lot of gear along with you.
What length kayak is most stable?
Around the 10-12 foot mark is the sweet spot for kayak stability – at least, when we’re talking about primary stability.
If that’s the case, then it’s important to consider the kayak’s width, as well as length. And kayaks with the best primary stability tend to be around 34-36 inches wide.
“What size kayak do I need?” is one of the first questions asked when folks are shopping for a new kayak – especially if they’re just getting into the pastime.
I hope this article has helped you decide on the right size kayak for you. Let us know what type of kayaking you’re most interested in, or if you have some best kayak size advice you’d like to share with the community.
Stay safe out there, and happy kayaking!