The 16 Types of Kayaks – What Are They & What Are The Differences?

Types of Kayaks

If you are looking to join the kayaking community but aren’t sure what type of kayak to invest in, then you’ve come to the right place! In this article, you’ll learn about the 16 different types of kayaks there are and the specifications and details for each so that you can make a wise buying choice before jumping all in.

The 16 Types and Categories of Kayaks

There are many types of kayaks to suit every interest – whether it’s for paddling on the sea, lake, or down thrilling whitewater rapids on the river. When you are considering investing in a new kayak, it’s crucial to know what kayak activity you wish to carry out. There’s little use in buying the first kayak to attract your eye. There are differences in each that can either help – or hinder – you in what you’re trying to do.

1. Recreational Kayaks (Sit-ins and Sit-on-tops)

Recreational kayaks are perhaps the most popular type of kayak. When you hear ‘kayak’ you’re probably thinking of recreational kayaks. Recreational kayaks are great for outings on bodies of water that are warm and calm. In other words, they’re ideal for lakes, calm seas, and slow-moving rivers. These guys offer awesome stability but on the account of maneuverability. Newbie paddlers will feel more comfortable on a recreational kayak, but might find it challenging at first to steer in a straight line.

Sit-in kayaks allow paddlers to insert their legs and feet inside the hull of the kayak. These types of kayaks are generally better for longer trips, colder water, and more adventurous kayaking (i.e. whitewater, sea kayaking). Sit-ins offer great protection from the cold as well as splashing water. They are ideal for moderate-advanced kayakers seeing as it is much more difficult to exit in case you cap-size.

Sit-on-tops, the other type of kayak style, have a sealed hull, so the paddler rests on top with legs and feet exposed to the air (and consequently, water splashes too). Sit-ins are more suitable for beginners, or those aiming for increased stability on the water. Many find it easier to enter and exit a sit-on-top kayak, although a bit awkward nonetheless. Seeing as a sit-on-top exposes you to the elements, they’re best when used in warmer climates and water.

2. Day Touring Kayaks (Sit-ins)

If you are wanting the ease of use of a recreational kayak, but the flexibility to take longer day trips with less fatigue, then consider a day touring kayak. Day touring kayaks are about 6 feet longer than recreational kayaks, which makes them glide through the water more easily. Not to mention faster. With a day touring kayak, you can go farther, quicker, with less paddling.

As their name implies, day touring kayaks are really intended for one purpose – day kayaking. Despite having more stability in various bodies of water, they’re not the best option if you want to take multi-day trips (i.e. for weekend camping trips) or use in rough water. For that, you’ll want the next type of kayak below.

3. Touring Kayaks (Sit-in sea kayaks)

Touring kayaks are your typical go-to kayak for going on longer, more varied trips that might go from flatwater to whitewater and eventually the sea. These types of kayaks generally span 12-24 feet, making them much longer, sturdier, and capable of cutting through water like a hot knife in butter. Because they’re used for lengthier trips, they often have better storage capacity than day touring kayaks. In addition, traditional touring kayaks will have a spray deck and a robust rudder to help with steering in rough water.

As with all types of kayaks, touring kayaks aren’t your ‘one-size fits all’ solution. What makes them great also limits them. Their long and narrow shape are great for making bee-lines to your destination, but aren’t ideal for sharp turns that you might encounter on a narrow portion of a bending river. Another setback that comes with their sheer length is transportability. Something to consider if you want to go on solo kayaking trips.

4. Whitewater Kayaks

If your main intention of kayaking is to take it down thrilling whitewater rapids and navigate between rocks, then you will need a specially designed whitewater kayak. Whitewater kayaks are built bulkier, sturdier, and with harder materials in order to withstand rocky impacts and bumps. As such, whitewater kayaks cannot be more than 4-10 feet in length because they need to be fairly short and speedy to cut a safe path down the rapids.

When searching the market for a whitewater kayak, keep an eye out for the two general sub-types called playboats and creekboats. Playboats are essentially made for fun playtime – they built for speed and agility and are intended for true whitewater, whereas a creekboat kayak, being more buoyant and stable, is better for navigating between whitewater and long stretches of flatwater.

5. Fishing Kayaks

No fishing boat? No problem. Fishing kayaks are the quiet, non-motor alternative to a fishing boat. These types of kayaks are designed for fishing needs and as such, come equipped with extra features such as handy pole holders, backrests, and extra storage for gear. Some models even have pedals in case you need to move an inch or two while holding your fishing pole.

Since most fishermen take solo trips, these kayaks tend to be lighter and easier to carry and transport. No need for a kayak storage rack for your vehicle, as most fishing kayaks will cozily fit on top. So while they’re perfect for fishing, they won’t be the most comfortable option for extended trips. If you only want to fish here and there, you might be better with a multi-purpose kayak.

6. Folding Kayaks

Long, lightweight, and packable, a folding kayak is the best type of kayak if you absolutely want to avoid the challenge of transporting a full-sized touring kayak. Folding kayaks, based on the simplistic design of the Arctic skin boat kayaks used by the indigenous Inuits, are suitable for extended journeys as any other touring kayak. However, because of their folding capabilities, they sacrifice on storage opportunities.

While not having any storage might not be an issue for some, it can be a big drawback if you plan to use your kayak for extended trips, which is what traditional touring kayaks are suitable for. Also, because of its design, kayaks that fold are more likely to wear down with repeated use.

7. Inflatable Kayaks

Inflatable kayaks are one of the fastest-growing types of kayaks in terms of popularity. More and more, paddlers are seeing the perks of an inflatable kayak over heavy plastic ones. For one, inflatable kayaks mean you can completely deflate them, allowing for extremely easy storage and portability. The catch? If you forget to bring your pump with you, you’ll have no chance of getting out on the water.

Inflatable kayaks, although built to endure frequent usage and even some bumps and bruises, are more likely to get puncture holes. While not likely, should you be so unlucky to get a hole in your kayak during your trip, it will be difficult and frustrating to patch and repair (if you’re even able to!). Also, inflatable kayaks aren’t ideal for environments with strong wind or water. If the possible risks don’t deter you, then you’ll quickly see the benefits of using an inflatable kayak for leisure (plus, they tend to be cheaper).

8. Tandem Kayaks

Planning on kayaking with a partner or friend? Then instead of investing in two single kayaks, it might be wiser and more affordable to get a tandem. Tandem kayaks enable two people to paddle together in the same boat. These types of kayaks are great for couples and parents with children. Tandems are an ideal choice if you or your kayak partner want to learn or practice kayaking, but don’t feel comfortable going alone.

With tandems, you also have the choice between sit-ins or sit-on-tops. As mentioned earlier, sit-ins are generally better for longer trips on colder water and sit-ons for shorter trips on warmer water. The only main drawback of tandems is its heavy weight. At around 75-100 pounds, tandems aren’t easy to transport or carry. While this isn’t much of a problem for fit couples, if you are a parent with a small child you might have some difficulty loading and lifting the tandem on your own.

9. Pedal-powered Kayaks

If you’re an avid bird-watcher, fisherman, or just need both hands free so you can enjoy reading a book, then why not let your legs do all the work for you with a pedal-powered kayak? This type of kayak falls into the specialty kayak category. It is not your ordinary kayak. With specialized rudders, pedals, and fins, pedal-powered kayaks are uniquely designed to allow the kayaker to move and steer without having to paddle.

That means pedal-powered kayaks will have higher seats to allow for better leg movement and wider bases to ensure greater stability. The design also makes navigating in shallow waters a bit riskier, as you could possibly damage the fins protruding from the bottom of the kayak. These types of kayaks also tend to be much heavier, costlier, and require more maintenance. Not to mention, roof racks won’t be able to accommodate this special type of kayak so you will also need to invest in a pull-trailer.

10. Crossover Kayaks

Crossover kayaks, living up to their name, are a combination between a typical recreational kayak with a couple of key features from a specialized kayak. For example, a crossover kayak might have the form and shape of a recreational kayak, but with a planing hull for navigating whitewater rapids with better ease. 

The main advantage of a crossover kayak is that it allows you to remain open to different types of kayaking activities. This added level of flexibility in one package is great if you don’t exactly know what type of kayaking you want to do just yet.

However, once you have more kayaking experience under your belt, and a better idea of what you like most about kayaking (i.e. running whitewater or calm journeys), a crossover kayak won’t be the best option as it’s not specifically-tailored and designed for that activity. If you are ultimately seeking for a kayak that delivers on performance in just one area, the crossover kayak isn’t it.

11. Sea Kayaks

Sea kayaks, much like the sit-in touring kayaks, are built with precision for navigating sea water. They have very pointy, narrow keels (ridge from bow to stern) ideal for cutting through choppy waves. In addition, sea kayaks come designed with better storage capacity, often having two bulkheads – one on the front deck and one behind. As such, even 2-week long trips up coastlines are doable with a sea kayak since you can comfortably fit more equipment.

That said, sea kayaking is just about all you can do with this type of kayak. With its narrow shape making it unstable, it’s not suitable for cruising down long stretches of slow-moving water. Unless you are intending to sea kayak religiously, you might be better opting for a more user-friendly touring kayak.

12. Diving Kayaks

Another type of specialty kayak is the sit-on-top diving kayak. Built in mind for diving enthusiasts, the diving kayak comes with a wide, stable hull with large, secured spaces for storing and tying down diving equipment. Diving kayaks even have pre-molded cut-outs designed to snuggly fit an air tank and can be easily accessed via quick-release straps.

The diving kayak is ideal for those who wish to reach diving spots, such as at a nearshore reef, without the need of a charter boat. But scuba diving isn’t the only use of such a kayak.

Diving kayaks can also be used for other kayaking activities thanks to its storage capacity and stability. Kayak camping, for example, is one such activity you can do with a diving kayak because it allows for onloading bulky camping gear which can take up lots of space.

13. Surf Kayaks

If you want the exhilaration of catching and riding small waves from the seat of your kayak, then a surf kayak may be just what you’re looking for. Surf kayaks are essentially a combination of surfing and whitewater kayaking.

There are many variations of surf kayaks, namely surf skis, wave skis. Those who are looking to combine the paddling motion and familiarity from kayaking should stick to wave skis or hybrids. Surf skis are essentially stand-up surf boards that assist you with kayak paddles.

Beware that this sport isn’t recommended for beginner kayakers or surfers. To go kayak surfing, you should be well-familiarized with the techniques of surfing and what to do in order to stay safe.

14. Sail Kayaks

There isn’t exactly a kayak built for sailing. However, you can most definitely install a sail to a kayak and use it just as you would on a dinghy (small sailboat). Kayak sails are great additions to touring kayaks for those coastline trips where you could use an extra source of power to help you get where you’re going. A quality sail will be able to pick up light winds right when you need it.

The easiest way to set up a sail on your kayak is to buy and install a sail rigging kit which includes all the tools and parts necessary to set up your sail.

15. SUP Kayak Hybrid

A SUP kayak hybrid combines the best of two sports: stand-up-paddle boarding and kayaking. Unlike with your regular SUP boards, the hybrid features a kayak seat. That way, you can stand up and paddle or sit down when you need to take a break. Having a seat also allows you to have greater control and stability when encountering rougher water or when racing the surf break back to shore.

If you’re a frequent SUP-user, you might find the seat to be limiting as it hampers your foot space. You have less room to balance your board. And while the seat might offer better comfort, it kind of distracts from being able to just sit down on a regular flat SUP and dangle your feet to the sides much like you would a surfboard. SUP kayaks aren’t as versatile as they may seem, so if you truly just want to kayak then investing in a proper kayak boat will allow for a better overall experience.

16. Modular Kayaks

The last type of kayak is what’s called a modular kayak. Also known as a snap kayak, these kayaks are hard-shelled kayak halves that “snap” together to build a fully-functional and durable kayak. The attraction of a modular kayak is of course its ability to be broken down into lighter, transportable parts.

Modular kayaks are great for fishing, touring, or simple recreation. They are not designed to receive bumps and bruises like a whitewater or sea kayak and are therefore designed with ease of use and transportability in mind. You can even add-on a section to include a kayaking partner. Overall, while the snap-on, snap-off technology allows for greater flexibility, modular kayaks tend to require more maintenance and are much more costly upfront.

Types of Kayak Materials

There are generally three materials that most types of kayaks are made of.

  • ABS plastic
  • Polyethylene plastics (Rotomolded)
  • Composites
  • PVC (inflatable kayaks)


ABS plastics are used in almost every industry – whether to create Lego toys or recreational kayaks. This type of kayak material results in a lightweight kayak that’s easier to lift and unload into the water. In turn, lightweight kayaks typically cost more.


This is the most common type of kayak material. Rotomolded or polyethylene plastics are tough plastics made from that are molded and hardened in a high-degree oven. The result is a hard, heavier kayak shell made to last.


Kayaks made from composite materials such as carbon-fiber and fiberglass are known to be lighter and faster than their plastic counterparts, but they are less durable. Many people stick to plastic kayaks for this reason.


Another type of kayak material you might see is PVC (polyvinyl chloride, or synthetic plastic). This material is used for inflatable kayaks to allow for it’s blow-up functionality. Inflatables are quickly gaining popularity because they are durable and puncture-proof alternatives of a traditional kayak and at half the cost.


How many types of kayaks are there?

Most resources agree that there are 5 main categories of kayaks, each with different types of kayaks. While some include peddling kayaks into the list, those types of kayaks can equally be classed under specialty kayaks, along with others like whitewater, tandem, and surf kayaks.

  • Sit-ons and sit-ins
  • Recreational kayaks
  • Day touring kayaks
  • Touring kayaks
  • Specialty kayaks

What is the best type of kayak?

The best type of kayak is going to be one that appropriately suits your needs for the type of kayaking you wish to do. For example, a whitewater kayak isn’t going to be the best type of kayak if you want to use it on flatwater.

Generally, a recreational kayak is considered the best type of kayak because it offers both sit-in and sit-on styles and is easy to use for beginners to advanced yakkers. For extended trips and advanced skills, day touring and touring kayaks will be the next best type of kayak. Ultimately, the best type of kayak will be the one that’s been purposefully-crafted to suit the kayak activity in question.


It can be a challenge to choose the right type of kayak for you, especially when you’re just starting out and are nervous about making the wrong decision. Before you invest your money into any kind of kayak, make sure to ask yourself what type of kayaking you wish to do. Already, that will help narrow your search and then you can choose between kayak A or B. No matter which type of kayak you end up with, you will not regret getting out and pursuing the great outdoors with paddles in hand. 

Related guides

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How to pack a kayak for a camping trip

Single Kayaks vs. Double Kayaks

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