- Kayaking is a great way to spend time on the water, be it paddling on a lake, riding river rapids, or going fishing.
- Kayaks vary in design, with some intended for sea touring and tandem kayaking, while others are inflatable.
- Our top pick, Dagger’s Stratos 14.5, is stable and easy to maneuver, and rides well in the ocean, on lakes, and in rivers.
As is the case with many other outdoor activities, kayaking can be as intense or as relaxing as you’d like. Whether you’re looking to enjoy a gentle paddle across a serene lake or an adrenaline-inducing ride through turbulent whitewater, the sport has something to offer just about everyone.
It also makes for an excellent form of exercise and is a great way to bond with friends and family in the outdoors. Kayaks can also be used in both wilderness and urban settings, providing unique perspectives on both environments.
I’ve been a fan of kayaking for as long as I can remember. From riding Class 4 rapids to casual paddles at my local lake, I’ve spent plenty of time learning what does (and doesn’t) make a good kayak. Thankfully, the good has more often outweighed the bad, and the current variety of kayaks fit a range of budgets and skill levels.
To help narrow down the best kayaks available, I’ve tested a number of models from top brands like Dagger, Oru, and Perception Kayaks. I’ve broken my selections down into a variety of categories based on the type of kayaking, so if you’re in the market for a new boat of your own, these are the models that should be on your shortlist.
At the end of this guide, I’ve also included some insight into how to shop for a kayak and what to keep in mind, as well as the testing methodology I used in deciding which models ultimately made this guide.
Here are the best kayaks:
- Best kayak overall: Dagger Stratos 14.5
- Best budget kayak: Perception Sound 10.5
- Best whitewater kayak: Dagger Mamba Creeker 8.6
- Best folding kayak: Oru Bay ST
- Best tandem kayak: Old Town Canoes & Kayaks Dirigo Tandem Plus
- Best recreational kayak: Wilderness System Pungo 120
A stable and maneuverable boat that excels on the open ocean but can also be used on lakes and rivers, the Dagger Stratos 14.5 provides outstanding versatility for paddlers of all levels of experience.
Pros: Stable, easy to maneuver, plenty of fun to paddle
Cons: Not the fastest kayak on the water
Because they’re designed for use on more turbulent waters, sea kayaks tend to be longer and narrower than other models. This helps improve not only their stability but their speed and tracking, too, making this type of boat easier to paddle even in rougher conditions. But their longer length can also make them less maneuverable, limiting their usefulness on other bodies of water.
That isn’t the case with the Dagger Stratos 14.5 as this is a boat that’s easy to control and paddle straight whether you’re in heavy ocean surf, on a calm lake, or floating along with the current of a river.
The versatility of the Stratos is one of its biggest strengths, making this a boat that’s equally well-suited for day trips on a local bay or extended multi-day outings along rugged coastlines. It features a large, comfortable cockpit, two watertight hatches, and bungee cord storage on the deck itself. This makes it easy to carry everything you need on the kayak, with ample cargo space for any adventure.
Surprisingly nimble and easy to paddle, the Stratos 14.5 doesn’t feel like a boat that’s more than14 feet in length. Beginner paddlers will find it offers a wide margin for error when it comes to perfecting their kayaking skills, while veteran kayakers will love how easy the boat is to maneuver, even in tight quarters. Despite its length, the Stratos can turn on a dime, and thanks to a built-in, adjustable skeg, it maintains its tracking with relative ease.
Ocean kayaks aren’t especially well known for their speed and the Stratos is no different. Compared to other models in this category, it isn’t exactly slow, but it also doesn’t compete with the shorter, lighter-weight boats that are purpose-built for use on lakes and rivers. Still, it’s easy to get this kayak moving and maintain a constant pace.
If you primarily find yourself kayaking on the ocean, you’ll find that the Dagger Stratos 14.5 is a fun, comfortable, and stable boat for use on those outings. But its ability to extend its use to other types of paddling helps separate it from the competition.
The best budget kayak
The Perception Sound 10.5 is proof that you can buy a versatile, full-featured kayak without blowing your budget.
Pros: Budget-friendly, versatile, stable, and customizable
Cons: Lacks features, slow, and heavy
As the popularity of kayaking has grown in recent years, the availability of high-quality boats that don’t break the bank expanded, too. Case in point, the Perception Sound 10.5 is a model that offers solid performance and versatility, at a wallet-friendly price.
Designed primarily for kayak fishing, the Sound 10.5 is nevertheless a good all-around recreational model. It’s incredibly stable and offers straight tracking, making it feel right at home on lakes, slow-moving rivers, or calm coastlines. Because it’s a sit-inside model, it also provides good protection from the elements — the open cockpit is airy and comfortable in warm conditions, too.
The included seat is surprisingly supportive and adjustable, especially for a kayak at this price point. The boat comes with a large, open storage area that sits behind the paddler, although this compartment isn’t watertight and uses only bungee cords to keep its contents in place. The Sound 10.5 features two molded fishing rod holders built right into hits hull, along with sturdy grab handles at either end to help get it in and out of the water.
To keep the cost of the Sound 10.5 low, Perception stripped away a few features, with the option to add them back in as needed. The boat has a dashboard that includes several mounting points, allowing the kayaker to customize it to fit their specific needs. This lends the Sound an extra level of versatility, allowing it to perform multiple roles.
Make no mistake, the Perception Sound 10.5 won’t be the fastest or flashiest kayak on the water, but it does offer simple, reliable performance at a great price. For most recreational paddlers, this is a boat that fits their needs nicely, while still offering room to grow. Don’t let the inexpensive price tag fool you, this is a quality option for those who are looking for great value without the need for top-end performance.
The best whitewater kayak
Whitewater boats don’t come much more agile and quick than the Dagger Mamba Creeker 8.6, a boat that was designed to take on the most challenging rapids imaginable.
Pros: Stable, great for beginning paddlers, and highly reliable performance
Cons: Slow and ponderous
Unlike kayaks designed for touring, a whitewater boat is short, nimble, and incredibly maneuverable. Built to help paddlers negotiate fast-moving rapids, these models excel at winding their way through the wildest water imaginable and few can do it better than the Dagger Mamba Creeker.
A mainstay in the whitewater world for years, the Mamba Creeker is a kayak that has a reputation for providing outstanding performance in the most demanding of conditions. Designed to operate in turbulent, shallow waters, the boat is incredibly buoyant, something that’s crucial to success for whitewater paddlers. This kayak also offers a high level of control, allowing its small body to deftly weave in and out of tight situations with surprising ease.
The interior of the Mamba Creeker‘s cockpit has been designed to not only keep the paddler well protected but to help them maintain control at all times. Padding has been placed at strategic points — such as along the hips — in an effort to prevent bruising and soreness brought on by a particularly fast and furious whitewater run.
Meanwhile, the seat’s positioned in such a way that it can best take advantage of the boat’s integrated leg lifters, which increases the amount of energy transferred from the paddler to the kayak itself, facilitating the quick turns that are an important part of whitewater paddling.
The hallmark of the Mamba Creeker is its stability, something that helps to make this boat a good option for beginners. It also provides a high degree of versatility, making it useful in a variety of different whitewater settings. It’s even quite comfortable for this style of boat, which can sometimes feel cramped and confining.
Its main drawback is that the Mamba Creeker isn’t a very fast boat and its aging design has allowed competitors to close the gap some. More experienced paddlers may find other models more to their liking, but it is difficult to beat this kayak’s steady, tried and true, all-around performance.
The best tandem kayak
Take to the water with your favorite paddling partner aboard the Old Town Dirigo Tandem Plus, a two-person kayak that’s lightweight, speedy, and very roomy.
Pros: Fun, surprisingly agile, and stocked with lots of handy features
Cons: It’s heavy, even for a tandem, and it should come with a rudder
As the name suggests, a tandem kayak accommodates two paddlers, allowing them to paddle at the same time to propel the boat along. If those two kayakers work well together, a tandem model can be quick, agile, and efficient out on the water, making for a fun shared experience. The Old Town Dirigo Tandem Plus is the perfect example of just such a boat, combining a spacious design and a host of features that help elevate it above the competition.
One of the more notable features of the Dirigo Tandem is that both cockpits are large, open, and extremely accommodating. This not only makes it easier for both paddlers to get in and out of the boat but also improves the level of comfort as well.
The included seats are nicely padded and easily adjustable, allowing both individuals to tune them to meet their own needs. Thigh pads provide additional support and protection, while adjustable foot pedals make paddling more efficient.
Old Town outfitted the Dirigo with a number of additional features such as a dry hatch and integrated bungee cables for deck storage. There’s also a sealed glove box-style hatch for securing cell phones, cameras, or other important items, as well as built-in paddle holders, retractable handles for carrying the boat, and cup holders.
Tandem kayaks aren’t always known for their versatility, but the Dirigo breaks with tradition in this area, too. Old Town put plenty of thought into its design and the ways it can be used. To that end, it’s managed to squeeze in a child-sized jump seat that can accommodate smaller members of the family, ensuring no one gets left behind.
Additionally, the rear seat can slide forward, effectively changing the center of gravity and allowing this tandem to be paddled solo should the need arise. These seemingly minor changes make it easier for a paddling family to buy a single boat that everyone can use together.
Tipping the scales at 72 pounds and measuring over 15 feet in length, the Dirigo can be a bit ponderous getting on and off the water — especially when paddling solo. The kayak also doesn’t come with a rudder (though you can add one to it), which would be a major help when trying to paddle straight in challenging conditions.
The best folding kayak
Lightweight and easy to paddle, the Oru Bay ST is a folding kayak that performs like a traditional model but can be stored in a closet and transported to and from the water in a trunk.
Pros: Very beginner-friendly, easy to store and transport, ingenious design, and just plain fun
Cons: Not as fast or efficient as a traditional kayak and has a learning curve when it comes to assembly.
Thanks to vastly improved designs and better all-around build quality, modern-day inflatable and folding kayaks now rival traditional models in terms of performance.
Leading the way in this category is Oru Kayaks, a company that’s looked to the Japanese art of origami as a source of inspiration. The company’s Bay ST model in particular is a marvel of creativity and design, proving just how impressive a folding kayak can truly be.
Built from a single sheet of custom-made polypropylene, the Bay ST— like all of Oru’s kayaks —folds flat and stores in a plastic box that somewhat resembles a large suitcase. When taken out of the box, it assembles in a matter of minutes, transforming into a touring kayak that’s both stable and durable with solid tracking. The entire process is simple, although you’ll need to do it a time or two before it becomes natural.
Inside its closed cockpit, the Bay ST is roomier than you’d expect. It accommodates paddlers of up to 6 feet, 3 inches in height, with a bit of extra room left over for storage. Bungee cables on the deck store additional gear, such as a water bottle or dry bag, as needed. This makes the boat a great choice for shorter excursions or even day trips, but not necessarily overnighters.
The boat also performs the best on flat water lakes, gentle rivers, and a relatively calm ocean. For the most part, it’s best to avoid fast-moving rapids in this one.
Oru outfit the Bay ST with a seat pad and it also includes an adjustable back- and footrest. This gives the paddler the ability to somewhat tune the fit to meet their needs. Smaller paddlers will likely feel comfortable and right at home at the helm, although larger kayakers may feel a bit cramped.
The best feature of the Bay ST is its ability to fold down and store in a relatively small space. This makes it ideal for apartment dwellers or those who simply don’t want a larger kayak taking up space in their garage. Oru owners don’t need a kayak carrier on their car either.
The best recreational kayak
An excellent all-around performer, the Wilderness Systems Pungo 120 is the recreational kayak made for casual paddlers, weekend warriors, and seasoned veterans alike.
Pros: Quick, easy to paddle, very comfortable, and spacious
Cons: Jack of all trades, master of none
Built mostly for use on flat water and gentle rivers, recreational kayaks are designed to be comfortable, easy to paddle, and offer solid all-around performance. That’s exactly what you’ll get from the Pungo 120 from Wilderness Systems, although this model does plenty to elevate itself above the competition in this very crowded segment of the kayak market.
Blending stability, speed, and maneuverability, the Pungo is a good choice for just about anyone who isn’t venturing out onto the ocean or running whitewater. Its wide body is comfortable, easy to get in and out of, and extremely accommodating.
It also tracks extremely well, maintaining a straight line across the water with minimal effort. This boat glides along so effortlessly that it makes it much easier to enjoy your natural surroundings — a major draw for kayaking in the first place.
While most kayaks ship with a minimally padded seat, the Pungo comes standard with a model that provides an excellent amount of support and comfort. This makes for a much better experience out on the water, particularly when you spend hours at a time inside the cockpit. And when the seat is adjusted to work in tandem with the built-in foot pedals, it almost feels like the boat was custom-made specifically for you.
Wilderness Systems supports the Pungo with a variety of accessories, allowing owners to customize the kayak to fit their needs. This gives you the ability to add things like deck pouches for additional storage, a dry box for protecting important gear, or a spray skirt to help keep you drier.
Aimed mainly at casual paddlers, the Wilderness Systems Pungo 120 is a kayak made for the masses. As such, it performs very well in a lot of different areas, although it isn’t especially outstanding in any of them. This may turn off more experienced kayakers looking for a more versatile experience, although beginners and intermediate paddlers will likely fall in love with it.
How to shop for a kayak
Unsurprisingly, getting the most out of any kayaking experience starts with having the right boat. Over the years, kayak designs evolved dramatically to the point where you can now buy highly specialized models purpose-built for a specific type of paddling.
If you want to explore coastlines and paddle on the ocean, for example, a longer, more stable sea kayak is required. If gently flowing rivers and flat lakes are more your style, a more traditional recreational or touring kayak is what you seek. And if your goal is to make epic whitewater runs, you’ll want a shorter, more maneuverable kayak designed for those conditions.
In addition to deciding what type of paddling you’ll be doing, there are a few other options to consider as well. For instance, do you want a more traditional sit-in model or a sit-on-top kayak? Sit-in versions tend to offer better performance and feature a closed cockpit that provides a measure of protection from the elements.
Conversely, a sit-on-top model leaves the paddler exposed but is often more comfortable, easier to get in and out of, and is better suited for warmer environments.
For those who want to bring a buddy along on their paddling adventures, kayaks also come in tandem versions. These models feature multiple seats, allowing two people to share the same boat. Due to their increased capacity, they’re also longer and more stable than a single-person kayak and have the potential to be faster provided both paddlers work well together.
Tandem boats are great for people who know they’ll be kayaking together regularly, allowing them to buy just one boat they can share, rather than purchasing two single-seat models.
What else to consider
The vast majority of kayaks available today are made from a hard plastic shell. This allows them to stay lightweight and provides exceptional levels of performance and buoyancy, although the rigid structure makes transporting and storing the boats a challenge.
Inflatable or folding kayaks overcome those problems, however, with models available that can be stored in a closet or under a bed and transported in the trunk of a car. These types of kayaks tend to sacrifice a bit of performance in terms of speed and tracking but are a viable alternative for those shopping for a space-saving option.
How we test kayaks
Each kayak featured in this guide went through a series of on-water tests to see how well it performed across these four categories: Performance, versatility, durability, and value. Specifcally, here’s how each category factored into what kayaks made this guide:
Performance: How a kayak performs in the water comes down to how well a kayak handles in the water, how stable it is across a variety of water conditions, and how easy it is to steer, paddle, or pedal. Of course, some kayaks are more well-suited to specific conditions and ride styles, and those differences were certainly heeded during our tests.
Versatility: A recreational kayak may not be the best in white water (or vice versa) but kayaks should still have some level of versatility to them — even if you are just in the market for a hyper-specific boat to do one or two things well. Each kayak has its limitations but the best can at least somewhat handle rides outside their purview.
Durability: Kayaks can take a beating, whether they’re getting thrown into the back of a truck or stored in a garage among throngs of additional gear. Because of this, boat durability is vital — you’d prefer the thing to last you at least a few years before you ever have to think about it running the risk of taking on water.
Value: A sum of its categorical parts, value isn’t just an analysis of its price. Of course, that does matter but it’s always better to spend more on one high-quality kayak than to spend less on several shoddy boats.