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Different Types of Kayaks Explained

Did you know that kayaks are over 4000 years old? The earliest kayaks were made by the Inuit, Yupik, and Aleut peoples out of seal skins draped over whalebone or wooden frames.

kayaks lined up on the beach shoreline

In the 4 millennia since their invention, kayaks have gone through quite the transformation. Gone are the seal skins and whalebone. They’ve been replaced by carbon fiber or polyethylene bodies.

What hasn’t changed is the fact that kayaks are rugged, adaptable watercraft that can be used in many different kinds of water by users of all skill levels.

kayaks on the beach

Of course, with so many different kinds of kayaks available nowadays, it can be pretty difficult to pick the right one.

To help you work out the difference between a recreational and a duckie, we’ve put together this comprehensive guide.

Flatwater vs Whitewater

There are 9 different kinds of kayaks in total, but you can narrow down your choice by deciding what kind of water you are going to be kayaking on.

Whitewater kayaking involves navigating rough waterways. This usually means rivers or creeks, but it can also refer to particularly choppy seas.

person on a white water kayak

Flatwater kayaking takes place on calmer but not necessarily still water. Lakes, rivers, and oceans can be classed as flatwater depending on how calm the water is.

people kayaking in flatwater kayaks

For flatwater kayaking, you can choose from 5 different types of kayaks. For whitewater, you have 4 options.

Flat Water Kayaks

These are the kayaks that most people will be familiar with. They’re the kayaks you would have come across at camp or tucked away at the back of the garage.

Recreational Kayaks

Usually under 10 feet in length, recreational kayaks are suitable for all abilities. They are stable, easy to get in and out of, and comfortable to sit in.

Recreational kayaks are classed as closed cockpit kayaks; however, the cockpit opening is wonderfully large. You can fit an adult and a child in the opening which makes these kayaks ideal for families.

The large opening means that you can have a lovely, cool, breezy paddle in warmer summer months.

kid kayaking

You’ll be able to cool off with some splashing if you want. Skirts can also be attached to the opening to keep you dry and warm during winter.

Touring Kayaks

Touring kayaks are longer than recreational kayaks. They usually come in at around 12 feet or longer. This added length helps them track better through the water.

This means that they tend to move in a straighter line rather than moving to the left or right as you paddle.

people in touring kayaks

The cockpits are smaller on touring kayaks and often feature thigh braces. These are pads or slings that allow you to use your hips and thighs to right the kayak if you are overturned.

The long length of touring kayaks makes them difficult to store and transport. These are not generally used for day trips to the lake. They are designed to allow you to take longer journeys and explore coastal areas or inland lakes.

Sit-on-top Kayaks

Sit-on kayaks do not have a cockpit. Instead, you sit on the deck of the kayak. They tend to be wider which makes them very stable in the water.

people using sit on top kayaks

The major downside to these kayaks is the fact that you will get wet when using them. That’s not always a bad thing, but it can be quite chilly in colder weather.

Popular with anglers, sit-on kayaks allow you easy access to all your kit because it is not covered over.

Pedaling Kayaks

These were designed to allow people with back or shoulder issues to kayak. Rather than being propelled by a paddle, pedaling kayaks either use pedals and a propeller, or flippers to move through the water.

They’re not exactly mainstream but they are becoming more popular.

Inflatable Kayaks

The main benefit of inflatable kayaks is that they can be folded up small for transport and storage. They are also stable and pretty reliable.

person with dog in inflatable kayak

The materials used are hardy and durable though as with anything inflatable you need to be wary of sharps.

Whitewater Kayaks

These kayaks are a bit more specialized. They are designed to cope with the rougher conditions presented by whitewater. That being said, they operate quite differently.


These things look a little bit like duckbills. They are short and square and are not designed for going down a river.

These kayaks are used for doing freestyling tricks in standing waves and holes. With these kayaks, you stay in one place rather than traveling.

They are easy to move, flip and turn as they are only about 6 feet in length.


Also known as creekers or river runners, these kayaks are about 8-10 feet in length. This makes them long enough to track decently but short enough to handle the twists and turns of a whitewater river or creek.

They are pretty comfortable to sit in and are a bit heavier to help them withstand drops in the rivers.

Beginners and pros can use these kayaks, but beginners should avoid creekers with displacement hulls. These are much more difficult to handle.

Old School Kayaks

These are most commonly found on used kayak sites or auction sites like eBay. Generally, these kayaks were made in the 80s and 90s and look quite different from newer kayaks.

The first thing you’ll notice is that they are longer than modern kayaks. They tend to come in at about 10-12 feet. This helps them track better but also makes them difficult to get around sharp turns.

The other thing you’ll notice is that the cockpit opening is much smaller. This can be dangerous if you are overturned, so it’s essential you practice getting out of your kayak underwater.

Final Thoughts

With all of the different kayak types out there, it can get pretty hard to choose the right one for you. It all depends on what you’re going to use it for.

Hopefully, this guide will have answered all your questions about the different types of kayaks. Once you’ve found the right one, then it’s time for some accessories!

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