I cringed when my mother told me she’d just bought a kayak from a big box store. I’ve worked as a sea kayak guide and instructor on the Great Lakes for more than 20 years; I take pride in the fact that my sleek and seaworthy fibreglass touring kayak is worth more than my car. People like me use terms like “bathtubs” and “kayak-shaped floating objects” to refer to boats like the nine-foot, $300 plastic kayak my mom asked me to transport to her cottage on Lake Huron’s North Channel. I averted my eyes and cartopped it as fast as I could.
My attitude softened when I noticed how often my mom ended our phone calls with, “Okay, I gotta go paddling now.” I understood the joy she’d discovered in gliding silently through narrow channels lined with polished granite and towering pines. As my mom came to love kayaking, she realized the limitations of her boat. She complained about its slowness and inability to track in a straight line. However, with COVID-19 driving a surge in demand and causing supply shortages for everything from bicycles to kayaks and cross-country skis, she couldn’t have chosen a worse time to shop for something better. Fortunately, I knew a friend selling a used 14-footer. It had all the features of my touring kayak, but in a smaller, easier-to-handle package—perfect for my mom’s morning outings. Soon, she was spending more time on the water than ever before in a sleeker, safer, and more comfortable kayak.
Tim Dyer smiles at my mom’s paddling discovery. Dyer, the long-time owner of White Squall, a paddling centre and kayak retailer in Parry Sound, Ont., sees the inexpensive kayaks sold in big box stores as gateway vessels. “Our days of looking down on Canadian Tire kayaks are long gone,” he says. “It’s about getting folks to go paddling, so who the hell cares what they are using? We cheer them on for choosing a great way to recreate.”
However, both Dyer and Kelly McDowell, the president of the Complete Paddler in Toronto, insist that cheap kayaks lack safety features, such as floatation chambers, that are important if you want to paddle in open water. “Cottagers think, We’re not going long distances, we don’t need an expensive kayak,” says McDowell, who has been selling kayaks since 2002. “We ask them, ‘How far away from shore will you paddle? If you flip, can you swim that distance dragging your flooded, partially sunk kayak back to shore?’ ” If these questions raise any doubt in the buyer, McDowell advises them, “You need a proper kayak.”
These kayaks are direct descendants of the Indigenous hunting vessels of the High Arctic, featuring decks to shelter the paddler from waves, wind, rain, and sun. A ridge on the cockpit rim, called the coaming, allows a paddler to attach a sprayskirt for additional protection from the elements.
Many types of sit-inside kayaks are available in several general categories. The most popular recreational kayak that McDowell sells has a key safety feature that’s most often absent in kayaks sold at department stores. The Wilderness Systems Pungo 125, for example, has a foam wall (known as a bulkhead) separating the cockpit from a watertight rear compartment. Sit-inside kayaks without bulkheads have no floatation should they capsize; swamped with water, they’ll barely float and submerge if the paddler attempts to re-enter. A bulkhead (touring kayaks have watertight compartments fore and aft of the cockpit) keeps the kayak afloat when the cockpit is filled with water. But, “I still wouldn’t paddle the Pungo 125 too far from shore,” McDowell says.
Length is a factor in how well a kayak will track through the water, and width is a good determinant of stability. The 12.6-foot Pungo glides better than shorter kayaks, and it maintains a broad 29-inch width through most of its midsection for good stability. McDowell says the boat’s greatest selling point is its seat: a foam-padded, multi-adjustable version with a comfortable backrest that’s also found in Wilderness Systems’ kayaks. The Pungo 125 is “great for cruising the shoreline, fishing, or floating out on the lake with a coffee in the morning,” McDowell says. “It’s such an easy boat to paddle.”
Dyer’s most popular touring kayaks (a.k.a. sea kayaks) are in the 14- to 15-foot range. These models are longer and narrower than recreational kayaks—and therefore faster and somewhat less stable—reflecting the interests of more adventurous paddlers wishing to explore larger bodies of water, such as the Great Lakes. The Delta 15.5 is popular for Georgian Bay weekend camping trips. (The shorter Delta 14 has less volume and is easier to control if you’re primarily interested in day trips.) British Columbia-built Delta kayaks are popular for their thermoform plastic construction, a glossy laminate that’s lighter than both rotomolded polyethylene kayaks (such as the Pungo 125) and fibreglass, with a price point right in between. (The Delta 15.5 weighs 49 pounds.) This sleek material won’t withstand being dragged along the ground or dropped on hard surfaces as well as other plastics, says Dyer, “but we’ve been renting them for years and never had a major issue.”
The persuasions of Bob Putnam, the co-owner of Deep Cove Canoe & Kayak in North Vancouver, often steer him to make a different kayak recommendation or new paddlers. Putnam—who calls himself a “fitness freak”—likes to remind his customers that recreational boats are slow and inefficient compared to sleeker touring and fitness kayaks. He inquires about their other interests in outdoor sports. If they like road cycling and cross-country skiing, Putnam says, “they’re often best in a high-performance kayak.”
For Putnam, the 14.5-foot Epic 14X strikes a nice blend of speed, comfort, and safety. Most high-performance kayaks are 17 feet long or more; this model is sportier and far less cumbersome to maneuver for novices. Made of a high-tech mosaic of fibreglass, Kevlar, and carbon, it’s responsive yet reasonably stable, Putnam says. A foot-operated rudder adds directional control. “Inside the cockpit there’s a fixed footboard with hinged rudder-control pedals on top,” he says. “The paddler can engage their legs while paddling, allowing them to use bigger muscle groups to generate power.”
These kayaks don’t have cockpits, so they’re easier to clamber on and off and won’t flood with water if they capsize. Recreational sit-on-tops look like surfboards. The Ocean Kayak Malibu 11.5 is super stable, easy to paddle (but relatively slow), and makes a great inexpensive, durable, beginner- and kid-friendly boat for use on cottage lakes when the water’s warm in the summer months. Putnam’s favourite sit-on-tops, meanwhile, are surf skis. These fast, torpedo-shaped kayaks are popular for racing in coastal areas. He recommends the rotomoulded plastic Epic V5, which is comparable to the sit-inside Epic 14X, as a solid beginner model.
Five Things to Remember Before You Buy
Aim for “just enough”
Consider how you’ll use the kayak and where you’re most likely to go paddling. “Some folks imagine themselves in a sleek, expedition hull doing longer trips,” says Tim Dyer. “But the truth is they’re only going to be day paddling. Purchasing a longer, bigger boat to accommodate the camping dream means you end up with a boat that’s way more than you need.”
Take a test paddle if you can
At White Squall, Dyer insists customers go for a test paddle. “Engage with the boat in all the little ways,” says Dyer. “Carry it to the water, try getting in and out, and learn the adjustments. It’s all a learning experience while you discover the attributes of a boat.” Of course, it’s not always possible to go for a test paddle. No matter where you’re shopping, take a moment to sit in the kayak to see how it feels: brace your legs in the cockpit; tweak the seat and footrests; and then get hands-on with some of the other features, like hatches and rudder. “You’ll know pretty quickly if it’s comfortable,” says Kelly McDowell.
Lighter is better (but more expensive)
Like most sporting equipment, a lightweight kayak (usually constructed from composite materials) will perform better than a heavy one. “The lighter the boat, the longer, faster, and further you can go,” says Dyer. “Your muscles will thank you, and the enjoyment dividend goes up.”
Floatation is key
Most kayak-related near-drownings and drownings have two common elements: the paddler wasn’t wearing a PFD, and the kayak lacked proper floatation. Your kayak is a serious liability if you capsize offshore and it starts to sink. You can purchase air bags to stuff into cheap recreational kayaks. Better yet, McDowell says, is to choose a kayak with a bulkhead that creates a watertight chamber within the hull. Touring kayaks with bulkheads fore and aft of the cockpit allow trained paddlers to perform rescues with such a kayak on open water, making it a far safer choice if you want to paddle offshore.
It pays to take some lessons
The first thing you should do after buying a kayak, says Bob Putnam, is to sign up for a paddling course. Paddle Canada offers one- and two-day introductory kayaking courses in all parts of the country. You’ll learn proper posture, efficient paddling strokes, and rescue techniques.