Different Types of Kayaks Explained For Beginners

Different Types of Kayaks Explained For Beginners

Originally used as a hunting vessel by the Aleutians and the Inuit, the kayak has developed into a recreational watercraft with dozens of varieties. Here is a breakdown of the different types of kayaks, their designs, features, and intended use.

Though kayaks were originally used to hunt marine mammals in the Arctic, their design and usage has changed to encompass many different purposes and environments. The largest categories are:

  1. Flat Water Kayaks,
  2. White Water Kayaks, and
  3. Other Types of Kayaks.

Flat water kayaks can further be divided into the following five categories:

  • Sit-Inside Kayaks,
  • Sit-On-Top Kayaks,
  • Touring Kayaks,
  • Sea Kayaks, and
  • Inflatable Kayaks.
  • Pedaling Kayaks

While white water kayaks can be divided into four categories:

  • Play Boats,
  • River Runners,
  • Creek Boats, and
  • Duckies.

“Other” types of kayaks encompass qualities of both above categories. These include:

  • Fishing Kayaks, and
  • Tandem Kayaks.

Let’s look at the different kayak design categories.

Flat Water Kayaks

Flat water kayaks are designed for waters that are relatively stable, like small ponds, lakes, and slow-moving rivers. These kayaks are purely recreational and tend to used by beginners, casual users, or those who just want to tour the outdoors. Flat water kayaks can also be used by anglers and those interested in fishing in all types of environments (see “Fishing Kayaks”, below).

It can be distinguished by the position of their user (sit-inside vs. sit-on-top), the environments or purposes they are designed for (touring and sea kayaks), or their construction (inflatable and pedaling kayaks).

Sit-Inside Kayaks

Sit-inside kayaks are kayaks in which the users’ legs fit inside the bottom of the boat (the hull). The hull covers the user’s legs and midsection up to their stomach or waist. The seating area is called the cockpit and sit-inside kayaks may have a seat and/or pedals for the user’s feet. A flap made of nylon or neoprene called the skirt covers the sit-inside kayak’s cockpit — it is used to keep the user dry.

Sit-inside kayaks are around 8 to 12 feet long, and the most popular length for recreational use is around 10 feet. Their width is relatively wide for a kayak (to provide stability) usually at a little more than 2 feet (around 28 inches). Their maximum weight capacity is around 250 to 300 pounds.

Sit-On-Top Kayaks

Sit On Top Kayaks

The tendency for sit-inside kayaks to flood when tipped over may be a reason why sit-on-top kayaks were developed. Sit-on-top kayaks are kayaks in which the user sits above the hull, usually in a chair or simple seat.

Sit-on-top kayaks are generally 10 feet long, and generally have maximum weight capacities of 350 to 400 pounds. Widths are around 30 to 34 inches, and the weight of the crafts themselves can be 40 to 70 pounds. Though sit-on-tops do not flood when tipped over and are hard to sink, the user will tend to get wet if waves are high.

Touring Kayaks

Though touring kayaks are sometimes synonymous with sea kayaks, they are somewhat different. Both are narrow-bodied kayaks designed for use on rougher waters, including:

  • larger lakes,
  • harbors,
  • bays,
  • and the open ocean,

but touring kayaks are shorter in general (12 to 15 feet long) and have fewer features than sea kayaks. Touring kayaks have a narrow width of 23 to 26 inches and many are often of the sit-inside variety. They also often have a maximum weight capacity of 300 to 400 pounds.

Sea Kayaks

Sea Kayaks

Sea kayaks are one of the longest types of kayaks, at lengths of 14 to 24 feet. Like the touring kayak, sea kayaks are narrow (with widths sometimes less than 20 inches) and are designed for use in larger bodies of water with heavier waves.

The sea kayak is longer and sleeker than its touring counterpart and can also include features like perimeter lines, forward and rear hatches, skegs, and rudders.

Inflatable Kayaks

Inflatable kayaks are generally wider, more buoyant sit-on-top kayaks that can be made of synthetic plastics or rubber. They can be used for lakes, slower rivers, and even beach kayaking.

Pedaling Kayaks

Pedaling Kayaks

Pedaling kayaks can come in bicycling or stair-climbing varieties. Pedal-driven propellers can be used by themselves or in conjunction with arm-operated paddles. These vessels can be used for deeper ponds, lakes, or even harbors.

White Water Kayaks

White water kayaks are designed for faster-moving river waters. They can be for recreational or competitive sporting purposes.

Play Boats

Play Boats

Play boats are small, lightweight kayaks designed for freestyle tricks and maneuvers. They can be used in river rapids or along the shore.

River Runners

River Runners are longer than play boats, at about .5 to 9 feet. They are generally used for downstream (deeper and slower river areas) whitewater kayaking.

Creek Boats

Creek boats are longer than play boats and river runners, and are designed to turn quickly and be difficult to submerge. They are a designed for a form of high-drop upstream whitewater river kayaking called creeking.



Duckies are a form of inflatable kayak used for whitewater kayaking. They are a highly transportable kayak designed for great stability and resistance to rolling.

Other Kayaks

Fishing and tandem kayaks can be forms of flat water (or even white water) kayaks.

Fishing Kayaks

Fishing Kayaks

Fishing kayaks can be either sit-inside or sit-on-top. However, many anglers prefer sit-on-top kayaks to access:

  • hooks, sinkers, bait, and floats,
  • some fishing kayaks even have rod-holders, and
  • catches

in and from slow-moving waters.

Tandem Kayaks

Tandem Kayaks

Tandem kayaks are for two people and are generally longer (12 to 18 feet or more) than single-person kayaks of the same make. They can be for flat water or white water purposes.


There are many different types of kayaks that come in a variety of shapes, sizes, designs, and materials. Depending on your use (fishing, exploring, relaxing, or free-styling), and the body of water you are on, there is no shortage of kayaks that will best suit your purposes.