What Are The Different Types of Kayaks?

Different Types of Kayaks

Before I bought my first kayak, I was confused by how many different types of kayaks there were. I had no idea what each one was for. So I did a lot of research and finally figured out the exact type of kayak that would fit my family’s needs perfectly. (We actually ended up buying 2)

Here’s what you need to know before deciding on what type of kayak to buy.

What are the different types of kayaks? There are 5 types of flat water (recreational) kayaks: Sit-inside, Sit-on-top, Touring, Inflatable, and Pedaling kayaks. And there are 4 main types of whitewater kayaks: Play Boats, Creek Boats, River Runners, and Inflatables/Duckies.

I that weren’t enough, there are so many different kayak brands out there and each one has many different types of kayaks, that it can all get really confusing. So I did a ton more research and boiled down the important stuff for you.

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Flat Water Kayaks

Flat water type kayaks are designed for recreational use and are very stable. They’re made to enjoy flat calm lakes, lazy meandering rivers, small ponds, and calm ocean inlets.

Flat water kayaks are made for people who love:

  • Casual paddling
  • Enjoying mountain lakes
  • Taking a lazy paddle down a slow-flowing river
  • Touring calm ocean shores or inlets
  • Trolling or stillwater fishing

Sit-in Kayaks

There are 2 types of sit-inside kayaks—recreational and touring.

Recreational Sit-in Kayaks

Flat water recreational sit-inside type kayaks are are designed to be stable and maneuverable. Generally, they’re between 8′ to 12′ long, roughly 28″ wide and have weight limits averaging around 300 lbs.

Different Types of Kayaks - Sit-inside
Pelican Recreational Type Sit-in Kayak

Recreational sit-insides have closed cockpits, but the cockpit openings are usually large enough that they’re easy to get in and out of.

Pros: These type kayaks are a good hybrid compromise between the stability and convenience of a sit-on-top, and the maneuverability of a touring kayak. Sit-insides are wide enough to stay very stable. The oversize cockpit allows you to stay cool in the summer and install a skirt to stay warm and dry in the winter.

An added bonus is that because of their shorter length, they’re easier to store when you’re not using them.

Cons: Unfortunately all that stability and maneuverability come at the cost of their difficulty in tracking straight. In addition, if you capsize you’ll have to pump the water out in order to get back in and paddle to shore.

Touring Sit-in Kayaks

Touring kayaks are generally between 12′ to 15′ long, but they’re narrower than recreational sit-ins and are usually between 23″ and 26″ wide. They have a range of weight limits that average around 300 lbs.

Different Types of Kayaks - Touring
Different Types of Kayaks – Touring

There’s debate at the differences between touring type kayaks and sea kayaks. But in general touring kayaks are shorter, have less features, and aren’t quite as streamlined as sea kayaks. There are different hull designs on both of them, sea kayaks are generally more expensive and made to store enough gear to take multiple day trips.

Pros: Flat water touring kayaks are designed to have pretty good primary and secondary stability. Touring kayaks are faster because of their length and superior tracking ability which makes them ideal for day trips. They’re made to take less effort to paddle longer distances over relatively flat water. Hence the name, “touring.”

Cons: However, the cockpit openings on touring kayaks are narrower and shorter. As a result they require some additional skills and safety precautions to operate. Touring kayaks have thigh braces inside the cockpit that assist a paddler in using their thighs to roll back upright from a capsize or rollover.

Another downside to touring kayaks is that they’re a bit heavier to carry and because they’re much longer than recreational kayaks they’re hard to transport and store.

Sit-on-Top Kayaks

Sit-on-top recreational type kayaks are exactly that—you sit on top of them out in the open. Sit-on-top kayaks are made for summer, having fun, and learning how to kayak. If you’ve ever rented a kayak, chances are high it was a a sit-on-top. Kayak rental facilities usually have stacks and stacks of them.

Different Types of Kayaks - Sit-On-Top
Sit-On-Top Type Recreational Kayak

Pros: Sit-on-top kayaks are virtually unsinkable, easy to flip back over if you capsize, and just about anyone of any size can fit on them and learn to paddle. They’re easy to get in and out of, have great primary stability, and if you flip them, they won’t fill up with water.

Sit-on-tops make great fishing platforms because of their greater weight capacity, storage space, and excellent primary stability.

Cons: One downside to sit-on-top kayaks—you’re going to get at least a little bit wet paddling them. Oh, and the one-piece unsinkable design makes them relatively heavier than sit-insides.

Types of Sea Kayaks

Ocean/Sea kayaks are a step up in features and function from touring kayaks. Sea kayaks are a bit longer, in the 15′ to 19′ range. They generally have an even smaller cockpit, sometimes less than 20″ wide. Sea kayaks are long and sleek and made to handle waves and small surf.

Different Types of Kayaks - Sea
Sea Type Kayak on the Ocean

Pros: Ocean kayaks track better and handle waves and wind better. They have design features built into their hulls that make them capable of handling ocean chop and waves with ease. They won’t fill up with water when swamped due to having sealed bulkheads in the bow and stern

Not only are ocean kayaks better at handling adverse water conditions, but they have higher internal volume (space) so they can hold more gear, enough for multiple day trips.

Cons: The ability to handle chop and track straight comes at the cost of reduced flat water performance and stability. They’re also a lot heavier than other kayaks. Oh, and you’ll need a second garage to store them.

Types of Inflatable Kayaks

When most people think of inflatable kayaks they think of cheap blow-up “raft”-like boats made for summer splashing and eventual puncture, deflation, and disposal. But modern inflatable kayaks are far from that.

Today’s inflatable kayaks are made of tough, durable PVC and rubberized nylons that can handle everything from sandy to rocky beaches.

Different Types of Inflatable Kayaks
Inflatable Type Kayak

And inflatable kayaks are used for anything from river rafting to lake touring and everything in between.

Pros: Inflatables are definitely recreational, but aren’t all kayaks “recreational” to one degree or another? They have wider beams which makes them more stable on flat and flowing water. They can handle heavier loads and they’re easy to paddle and maneuver.

Modern inflatable kayaks run the range from the inexpensive play/learning boat to the serious river rapids tough, durable inflatable kayak/raft.

Cons: Remember that hole we mentioned? Any hole in an inflatable, no matter where you are, makes your day kayaking come to an end. (Remember your patch kit and know how to use it.)

Types of Inflatable kayak material:

  • PVC – (Plastic) Inexpensive, easy to patch and welded seams make it more portable, but it doesn’t stand up to the sun very well.
  • Hypalon – (Synthetic Rubber) Long-lasting with great UV resistance, but it’s expensive and has to be glued instead of welded.
  • Nitrylon – (Laminated Rubber Over Fabric) It’s durable, puncture resistant, and better in the cold, but it’s heavy.

Types of Pedaling Kayaks

Pedaling kayaks have come a long way since the days you remember renting those 2-seater pedal boats at the local pond. Today’s pedal-powered kayaks are high-tech, high-speed boats that let you propel yourself using your legs instead of your arms and shoulders.

Pedaling kayaks can be used for most things that recreational kayaks can. But fishermen especially love pedaling kayaks as they allow their hands to remain free to cast and fish instead of having to paddle.

There are two types of pedaling kayaks:

  • Bicycle style pedaling kayaks – your feet pedal in a circle like riding a bike
  • Stair-master style pedaling kayaks – your feet oscillate back and forth like climbing stairs.

Types of Whitewater Kayaks

Whitewater kayaks are meant to run rapids, do tricks and generally leave the rest of us in awe as we gaze wide-mouthed at the wild people who paddle them.

Different Types of Kayaks - Whitewater
Whitewater Type Kayak

As we mentioned above, there are 4 types of whitewater kayaks:

  • Play Boats – These are mainly low-volume freestyle boats that allow paddlers to dive them down and then surface to do tricks and moves.
  • Creek Boats – These are high volume short kayaks designed to stay on top of the water and surface quickly if submerged.
  • River Runners – These are longer kayaks with volumes that run in the middle of Creek and Play boats and are designed to maneuver downriver with better tracking and control.
  • Inflatables/Duckies – These are similar to the inflatable kayaks we mentioned about, but are made for more aggressive rapids and rivers.

2-person/Tandem Kayaks

We’ll throw in tandem type kayaks as a major difference in kayaks, because they’re in a class all by themselves.

Tandem—2-person—kayaks come in just about every type of kayak above, except whitewater kayaks. Recreation, sit-in, sit-on, touring, ocean, and even fishing kayaks come in tandem versions.

Tandem kayaks are longer, wider, have more weight carrying capacity, and if you’ve got a good paddle partner they’re that much easier to paddle.

Kayak Type Summary

Well, that’s the rundown on the major different types of kayaks you can get. The thing you need to do now is decide on what type of kayaking/water you want to paddle and find the type of kayak that’s best designed and suited to that.

Each of these types of kayaks are well-suited to their individual uses. That is to say that it’s hard to make them perform outside of the type of water/environment that they were designed for. For instance, you wouldn’t use a recreational sit-on-top kayak to go out in the ocean waves.

So, don’t be surprised if you find yourself saying that you might just need two different types of kayaks.

It happens…


I'm Steve, the research and technology workhorse behind Paddle Camp. I do tons of research on all our family's paddling gear before I buy or recommend anything. I grew up canoeing with my dad and brother. A few years ago I bought paddle boards for my daughters, myself, and my wife. Ever since then, we plan most of our vacations around kayaking, canoeing, or paddle boarding.

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