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Different Types of Kayaks and Their Uses

Last Updated: June 25, 2022
Close-up on intermediate climber tying her shoelace

Hidden seaside beaches and other tucked-away treasures along river estuaries are often only accessible by boat. Kayaks give you unrestricted travel just about anywhere there’s water to be found. They can lead to a day of an intense workout, long-haul expeditions, or just a day of playing with the kids in the water. Whether you are buying your tenth or first kayak, there is a lot to know about how each boat handles.

The tricky part of kayaks is the long list of different varieties and styles that are on the market. To a novice kayaker, these lists can create mass confusion and actually lead them away from the sport. We get it, the 20+ types of kayaks can be incredibly frustrating when deciding what one to get. It’s the same with a lot of outdoor sports, but luckily we can split kayaks into different categories that start to make the topic much more understandable. 

This guide is an in-depth look at almost every type of kayak that you can find today. They all serve a different purpose, and hopefully, this will help to figure out exactly which one may fit your needs. 

Two Main Kayak Categories: Whitewater vs Flatwater

For starters, we can break down all kayaks into two main groups. These groups are the whitewater kayaks and flatwater kayaks. Each group then will be split into more specific styles, but this is the best place to start when looking for any type of kayak.

Whitewater Kayaks

To know what a whitewater kayak really is, we need to talk about whitewater. Even though it may be obvious, it’s an important clarification as getting on a river with rough waters with the wrong kind of kayak can quickly become a dangerous mistake. 

Whitewater refers to moving water that tends to have rapids along the way. This can be anywhere from class I to class VI rapids. Class I will be the most similar to flatwater, but the river below you will still be moving. Class VI rapids refer to the waters in those videos that you watch, normally sponsored by Red Bull, of people that you think are completely insane. 

More generally, whitewater is just when the water starts to look white because of the movement and interaction between the water and the riverbed. Whitewater rapids demand a special type of boat to survive the beating of the rocks that are hiding underneath. There are plenty of types of kayaks that fit this need.

The types of kayaks made for these waters tend to be more maneuverable, tougher, and sit-in style. This form serves many functions from keeping water out of the boat, even rolling all the way around if flipped, to making a quick turn to avoid an oncoming obstacle. Different boats in the whitewater category are made for different types of paddling and rivers, but we’ll cover that some more further on. 

Whitewater kayaks often have spray skirts that attach to you and keep water out from the boat. A spray skirt is a great addition to any boat, but is most commonly used in a sea kayak to keep out the ocean surf, or on whitewater sit inside kayaks to keep you afloat.

Flatwater Kayaks

Flatwater is what you imagine when thinking of a crystalline and glassy lake nestled amongst the mountains and trees somewhere. It’s where a lot of us dream of building a small cabin and living forever (or is that just me?). 

These bodies of water are made up of more stagnant (unmoving) waters, so here we are talking about lakes and ponds, or sometimes the ocean. The biggest difference is that, more often than not, you are in more control of the kayak rather than the water underneath you moving the boat. The interaction of boat and water is controlled mostly by your paddle. This can change with wind and weather, but it is going to serve as our general rule.

Any of the many kayak types can be brought onto a pristine mountain lake, but it won’t be the same experience with each one. For example, whitewater boats do not track (follow a straight line) very well and you can easily spend more time spinning in circles than going long distances. Boats made for flatwater are less responsive to your paddle strokes

Some of these kayaks are sit-on-top kayaks where your legs don’t go inside the boat and if the boat tips, you are now just swimming. There are other types of flatwater kayaks that are sit-ins, but both serve very different purposes. 

Sit-in vs Sit-on-top Kayaks

Before we jump into each of the different types of kayaks, it’s necessary to cover the difference between sit-in and sit-on-top kayaks. While most whitewater kayaks are sit-in style, you can definitely find sit-on-top kayaks made for class III rapids and below. 

In general, most sit-on-top kayaks you find will be made for flatwater kayaking. This is simply because whitewater kayaking can often demand the ability to roll a kayak (turn over when flipped). To do this, your entire lower body needs to be engaged inside the kayak, therefore requiring the sit-in style. 

There are benefits to having each, but you truly need to be aware of what your intended use is before buying a kayak. Sit-on-top kayaks are great for those hot days when you are paddling around a lake and need more air circulation, not to mention the general increase in comfort when you aren’t crammed into a small space. They also allow for easy use without any risk of getting stuck inside. 

Sit-in kayaks are more specialized for “extreme” sports and aggressive movement. With a sit-in kayak, you can utilize your lower body to twist and help engage every muscle in a single paddle stroke. They also keep your lower half sheltered, which is great for cold weather paddling, or when you are paddling through rapids with a lot of rocks around. 

A touring kayak is going to be a sit-in kayak for example. The shell of the kayak will shield your legs from the sun and the hatches will store all of the gear you need neatly inside the touring kayak.

Types of Whitewater Kayaks

Whitewater kayaks come in all different shapes and sizes. The more experienced you become, the more specialized your paddling often becomes. Each boat is made for specific waters or activities, making your experience in the water even more fine-tuned.

Kayaks made for taking on tough rivers need to be sturdy and maneuverable. Because of this, you won’t want a kayak that isn’t going to hold up to a beating when crushing down the river.

Most recreational whitewater kayaks are made of polyethylene while some racing kayaks are still fiberglass. Again, this is more about specialization, but polyethylene boats are great for getting a long lifespan. 

Creek boats

Creek boats are high-volume kayaks that are often built for speed, maneuverability, and stability in the roughest waters. The higher interior volume provides maximum flotation, and this is combined with a wider deck that helps with side-to-side stability. The tips of creek boats are rounded to prevent any level of vertical trapping between rocks. It’s a great boat for beginners and experts alike. 

Creek boats are the best choice when you are looking to get into some more technical whitewater paddling. They can turn quickly, but also are capable of maintaining a decent amount of speed. It will be a lot easier to run steeper and narrower whitewater in a creek boat than a river runner. 

Play boats

Play boats are much more specialized whitewater kayaks that are used to practice specific movements and stay in a single place. They have low volume in the front and back of the boats because they are made for high levels of maneuverability. These are the shortest whitewater kayaks because they need to be able to perform technical movements in the water. They are designed for the single-use, and would not hold up on longer trips. You sit in the river at the same spot and work on your moves.

Play boats tend to stay in a single place as they are used for surfing or performing technical moves on a freestanding wave or a hole. They should not be used to run a river from one place to another unless you have a high level of experience with this specific style of boat. 

River Runners

For someone planning a trip from point A to point B, a river runner is a great choice. They are a mix between play boats and creek boats in terms of their volume. They have a lot of features that still allow for precision maneuvers but don’t sacrifice the ability to track. They are capable of handling flatwater sections of the river, meaning they will be able to follow a straight line when moving quickly downriver. 

These are made for moving quickly, but won’t be able to maneuver through a lot of tight spaces and make quick turns. For the long stretches where the river runs slowly, you’ll be happy in a river runner. River runners are great for someone's first kayak. They won't do well on flat water, but they will take you down most rivers with ease, especially as a beginner. Throw a spray skirt on and you can take these around the world.

Racing Kayaks

Racing kayaks are made for two purposes. First, they need to go fast. Secondly, they need to go straight. That means these boats utilize a sleek design that is usually longer and flatter than most other kayaks. There are, however, two different types of racing kayaks: sprint kayaks and marathon kayaks. 

The main difference here is that marathon kayaks need to have more ability to turn. They will be slightly shorter with a different hull design to allow for this, but still, let the boat move quickly. 

Inflatable/Duckies Kayaks

So, inflatable flatwater kayaks are definitely made, however, they are essentially useless. They don’t track well, struggle to move quickly, and are a pain to do anything but float in one spot. For this reason, I’m going to only look at whitewater kayaks. They are on par with some hard shell whitewater kayaks, which is impressive for how new they are to the sport.

Inflatable kayaks, or Duckies, are typically made from PVC, hypalon, or nitrylon composites. All three of these materials have proven to be incredibly strong and able to stand up against the rocky river bottoms as much as a typical hard plastic kayak does. 

Choosing an inflatable boat can be a great move, depending on what you are using them for. They are easy to transport and often perform just as well as other boats. This makes them a great choice for travel. The only drawbacks are having to then blow up your boat and deflate it when the time comes. 

Types of Flatwater Kayaks

Like whitewater kayaks, flatwater boats are specialized by the different activities you are doing. Flatwater stays pretty much the same, so the boats you take out are more about the experience you get from each one. We’ve already talked about how some flatwater boats are sit-on-top, but some are also sit-in types of kayaks.

Depending on what you are looking for, you can get a boat that’s made for month-long expeditions, or a boat that’s made specifically to make your day of fishing a whole lot better.

There are so many different types of kayaks, we understand how it can be overwhelming. Sit down in your kayak seat, because we have a ways to go yet.

Recreational Kayaks

Recreational kayaks come in all different varieties. You can get ones that are sit-in or sit-on-top, super cheap, or super expensive, folding, inflatable, and just about anything. They’re made for getting out and having fun rather than racing or becoming a professional whitewater paddler. All recreational boats have different purposes, but there are recreational boats for everyone.

The main design of a recreational kayak is the wide opening on top. This makes getting in and out of the boat easy but still gives some protection to the legs. All recreational kayaks are wider than most other styles of kayaks and this provides a high level of stability. It’s a great option to get this kind of boat as a beginner so you can learn how paddling works and find out how much you like being on the water.

The biggest drawback of these is the weight. Polyethylene is pretty heavy and the boats use a thick design that adds even more weight into the picture. Still, for beginners, it is the most viable option. 

Touring Kayaks

Touring kayaks, also called ocean or sea kayaks, are designed for multi-day expeditions all while carrying the gear you need with you to survive. A sea kayak is often seen pictured on the crystal clear waters of the Bahamas or a Greek island. If that's where you picture yourself, it may be what you want to buy.

These kayaks utilize a long, sleek design that makes space for your equipment in a safe, waterproof space. They also will have bungee cords across the bow and stern, allowing you to pack on even more cargo. Sea kayaks allow you to get anywhere you want, and to do it for a long time. This is one of the best types of kayaks to help you get the most out of a touring kayak.

The most difficult part with these is picking the right one. There are some serious touring kayaks out there and they will cost you a heavy chunk of change. Traditional touring kayaks can still get you the places you want to go. If you want to go out for a day tour, you’ll need a specific boat.

If you’re more interested in a long trip where you are paddling for months on end, there’s a boat for that too. It all depends on what you are hoping to use the boat for and you can find the right fit. 

Pedaling Kayaks 

When paddling with your arms isn’t doing the trick, pedal kayaks move all of the power into your legs. Pedaling kayaks incorporate a system that turns leg power into forward motion. There are two fins underneath the boat that move back and forth to propel the boat. These are a fantastic option when you want to use your arms for something else like fishing. 

There are many different recreational kayaks that utilize pedals. There are even sea kayaks that have pedals involved. Sea kayaks can then be turned into touring kayaks or fishing kayaks because of the higher use of your arms. You just won't be able to find inflatable kayaks that have pedals. These types of kayaks need space for the mechanism to function. Sea kayaks and other types of kayaks have that space, where inflatable kayaks do not.

There are two main types of pedal systems that these kayaks use. There is a bicycle-style where the pedals go around like on a bike and pedals that just go up and down, more like a Stairmaster. Either of the pedal propulsion systems will give you a great workout in a hard shell kayak. These don't often sit inside boats, which can take away from the ample cargo space you would want on longer trips, so it might not be worth using pedal-powered kayaks as a touring kayak.

Folding Kayaks

Kayaks that fold up and pack away into a briefcase-style box are relatively new, and they’re awesome. The origami boats are often made to be just as durable as a regular boat, but they are lighter and easier to transport. You can take it in the car with you to the beach and just unfold it, hook it together, and be on the water in no time. 

They have all types of kayaks that are folding. Sea kayaks and other touring kayaks are great options to look for in this category. Recreational kayaks are probably the most common of all folding kayaks, but touring kayaks are also a good option. These types of kayaks are a good alternative to inflatable kayaks and have a more durable hull.

Crossover Kayaks

If you are having trouble making up your mind about the style of the kayak to get, a crossover kayak is always a good option. This is kind of the Jack of all kayak types, master of none. While whitewater boats will have you spinning in circles on flat water and touring kayaks will get smashed on the river, crossover kayaks can handle both moderately well. 

With these, you can get a taste of all the different types of kayaks. Some trusted brands like Jackson are making better crossovers every year. The design is helping to increase the popularity of these, so be on the lookout for more competent models coming. 

Tandem Kayaks

A lot of the boats on this list will only be available for a single person. While these make a lot of sense, as paddling tandem can be tricky, there are benefits to tandem kayaks. A two-seater kayak can be a great option for those who can only transport one boat but want to go on a trip with a friend. They are also good for adding extra power to a boat when you are possibly traveling long distances.

Check out some classic tandem kayaks, but make sure you are still getting the style you want, even if it’s for two people. Some people really prefer solo kayaks, but a tandem kayak can still give you a similar experience. They have tandem sit inside kayaks, as well as sit on top ones. It can be great to go kayak fishing with a buddy, just make sure you have multiple rod holders as well.

A tandem kayak makes getting out with your friends so much easier. There are plenty of different types of kayaks, even tandem ones specifically. You can get a touring kayak or recreational kayak that is tandem. They even have tandem folding kayaks and pedal kayaks. It's all out there, you just need to look.

Types of Specialist Kayaks

The type of kayak you want depends a lot on how you paddle. Sometimes inflatable kayaks will be perfect, while other hobbies will require touring kayaks or recreational kayaks. If you're hoping to go do a specific activity, you need the right type of kayak. These specialist kayaks are made mostly for one purpose. 

For example, you don't want to take river runners to a race where you need slalom kayaks to stand a chance. Also, an inflatable kayak might not be a great choice for rivers with sharp rocks.

What I'm trying to say is, get a kayak that fits your needs. If you need hard shell kayaks, get that. If you need to handle rough waters, make sure you have the right boat. These kayaks are made specifically for excelling at certain activities, so you can get the most out of your boat.

Fishing K​​​​ayaks

Fishing kayaks are typically sit-on-top boats that have accessories geared towards the fisherman. They include rod holders on the side and often have seats with backs so you can comfortably stay on the water for hours at a time. 

One other main feature of a fishing kayak is the stability from side to side. If you catch something big in a narrowboat, it may just roll you over and get away. Fishing kayaks provide stability to allow you to reel in what you just caught. 

Diving Kayaks

Diving kayaks are incredible. They’re a highly specialized boat, so there’s no reason to get one unless you are an avid diver. They are designed to have the stability to get in and out of the kayak with all of your gear on, as well as having the space to get all your gear out to your destination. 

There are different styles of diving kayaks, but sit-on-top kayaks are the best option. Some of these have pre-molded spaces for your tank, which makes organization simple. It’s also a whole lot easier to get on the top of a sit-on-top rather than having to wiggle your way into a hole. 

Surf Kayaks

Kayak surfing can be labeled under "extreme" sports that aren't going to be done by everyone. It is definitely a specialist kayak. The surf kayak elements make you wish you had never even bought a surfboard.

Surf kayaks are a happy blend of surfboards and kayaks. With this specialized style, you can ride waves like you were standing on a surfboard. It’s easy to maneuver the boat to face where you need it to and then surf the wave in. The low center of gravity gives you even more stability than a typical surfboard would, which makes this a great way to safely get into surfing. 

Sail Kayaks

Sailing kayaks come equipped with the equipment you need to set up a sail and let the wind do all the work. These are a really fun tool to use to get out into the ocean and get yourself cruising quickly on a windy day. They can be used for long trips as well without making you exhausted. 

SUP Kayak Hybrid

Sometimes it can be hard to choose between two things. When you’re buying something as specialized as a kayak it can be a financially-wise decision to just buy something that works as two different things. Crossover boats are a great example of this. You can get two uses in one and then your recreational world doubles.

A SUP kayak hybrid is essentially a standup paddleboard with a seat that pops up and allows you to sit down and still paddle. It’s a great way to get a lot of exercise from paddling, but not have to stand up the entire time you do it. 

Motorized Kayaks

Kayaks with a motor strapped on allow for a lot of opportunities to come up. You can use these like a duck hunting kayak (also its own style!) and get to the area in which you will be hunting quickly, but paddle quietly to not scare away your game. 

They are also popular as fishing kayaks so that you can get to a destination without disturbing all of the fish in the water, and then be able to get home quickly after a long day of fishing. 

Motorized kayaks tend to be a bit more expensive because you are paying for the motor. They also need to be a bit beefier to withstand the power of the motor, rather than just your paddle. 

Kayaking Environments

These boats can take you to such a wide range of places across the world. No matter where you find water, as long as it isn’t just a puddle, you can get a kayak on it and move yourself a great distance. No matter the environment, there’s a kayak for it. 

Canals and Rivers

Canals and rivers are great places to use your kayak. They do a lot of the work for you, as the current carries you forward. Paddling in these environments is typically more about your maneuvering and dodging of obstacles. 

Paddling on rivers requires a high level of skill and knowledge about how to read a river. It’s strongly suggested that you get to know the topic before just jumping on any river. There could be huge rapids waiting without you to know it. 

Ponds and Lakes

Ponds and lakes are pristine flat water environments that are more often about getting out for a day and enjoying your time on the water. There’s not much action and adventure happening out there, but it’s more about getting quality time in nature while exercising your body

Seas and Oceans

Ocean paddling is a true adventure. There are plenty of spaces to go on multi-day trips where you can paddle twenty miles a day. These environments can be as peaceful as a mountain lake, or as difficult and demanding as a raging river. 

Take the time to learn about sea state and weather before heading out. It’s easy to get turned around and lost, even when just following the shoreline. Go prepared and make sure you have all the right safety equipment to ensure you get home safe. 

Different Types Of Kayaks FAQs

Here are our answers to your most commonly asked questions about the types kayaks:

What type of kayak is best for beginners?

Most of these kayaks are great options for beginners. Overall, a recreational kayak is probably the best choice for a new paddler. Inflatable kayaks are also a great option so you don't need to have a specialized vehicle to carry your boat.

What type of kayak is most stable?

Diving kayaks are made to be super stable, as are fishing kayaks. The wider the boat, the more stable you will find it to be. 

Do kayaks flip over easily?

It’s not necessarily easy in most kayaks, but definitely possible in all. Play boats will roll easily, but flipping a recreational kayak is a bit more difficult. 

Ian Standard is an outdoor educator and wilderness guide based in Anchorage, Alaska. Most recently, he worked part-time at Alaska Crossings, a wilderness program for at-risk youth, and is currently studying for a Master of Science in Outdoor & Environmental Education at Alaska Pacific University.
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