Kayak Types: Differences and Best Uses Explained

Long or short, narrow or wide, hard-shelled or inflatable— you can find kayaks in all shapes, sizes, and materials.

Though they all get you where you need to go on the water, some are designed for specific scenarios. We’re here to break down the main kayak types to help you determine which is best for you.

orange canoe on lake surrounding with mountain at daytime

Types of Kayaks

Here are nine of the most popular kayak types, along with an explanation of the best way to use them.

Recreational Kayaks

There are two recreational kayak types: sit-inside kayaks and sit-on-top kayaks. These are great for beginners and casual kayakers, as they are typically designed for stability and fun rather than speed, precision, and overall performance.

Recreational kayaks are designed for flatwater like quiet rivers, creeks, lakes, or calm coastal conditions.

Limited storage allows you to keep the essentials near you, but not much else. This makes them suitable for quick day trips, but not great for extended or overnight trips.

Recreational kayaks are best for:

Quick day trips on flat bodies of water like rivers, creeks, or lakes.

Sit-on-top Kayaks

Sit-on-top kayaks feature an open design that is easy to get in and out of. They also tend to be wider, and therefore a tad more stable than their sit-in counterparts.

Scupper holes make them self-draining, meaning that you won’t have to worry about bailing water.

You will, however, have to worry about getting wet. This may be fine in the hot summer months when you want to be splashed to cool down.

But if you’re going kayaking during the cooler part of the year, you may want to opt for the sit-in, which will keep you dryer.

The Perception Tribe 9.5′ Sit-on-top Kayak

Kayaking on calm water in warmer weather.

Sit-inside Kayaks

Sit-inside kayaks have a closed cockpit area, but the opening is large and roomy. Like their sit-on-top cousins, they are also easy to use and stable compared to other types of kayaks.

Because your legs will be partially sheltered from the elements, these kayaks are better for year-round adventures.

Perception Joyride 10 Sit-inside Kayak

Kayaking on calm waters any time of year.

Crossover Kayaks

A crossover kayak is a kayak type that has a multi-purpose design. They have design elements of recreational, touring, and whitewater kayaks, giving paddlers the ability to paddle many types of waters.

Though a crossover won’t give you peak performance in every type of scenario, it will serve you well in whitewater and track straight in flatwater conditions.

This option is great for those who want to test different waters. 

The Katana 10.4 from Dagger

Folks who want to test their kayaking skills in different water temperaments.

Inflatable Kayaks

Inflatable kayaks are a type of specialty kayak used for recreational purposes.

Because you can easily deflate and inflate this type of kayak, they’re great for those who have limited storage space or don’t have the means to carry a full-sized hard shell recreational kayak. 

Their convenience and portability are among their biggest pros. Their performance on the water is typically less than that of hard-shell recreation kayak in terms of handling and tracking.

The Intex Challenger

Kayakers with limited storage space.

Touring Kayaks

Touring kayaks are typically thought of as an upgrade compared to a recreational kayak. They are typically longer, thinner, and have design features that allow paddlers to go faster and farther.

Instead of an optimized design for ease of use and stability, they are built to steer and track in currents and rougher waters.

Because of this, touring kayaks are typically recommended to those who have more paddling experience.

The Perception Expression 11.5

More experienced paddlers who want to steer rougher waters and/or for longer time periods.

Folding Kayaks

Folding kayaks are one of the newer kayak types out there.

These recreational kayaks are made of polyethylene plastic sheets and fold down to about the size of a large suitcase. Like inflatable kayaks, these are great for those who are limited on space or don’t want to strap their boat to the roof.

Be sure to go with a quality brand like Oru, which offers an easy-to-assemble, durable construction. Plus, they have cool kayak accessories to customize your ride!


Kayakers who are limited on space or don’t want to strap their boat to the roof.

Sea Kayaks 

Sea kayaks are similar to touring kayaks. The difference is the height of the rocker— the curve that goes from bow to stern— which helps the boat crest into waves.

The fact that it tracks straight, is easy to control in choppy conditions, and won’t take on a ton of water make it great for coastal waters. In addition to this, many sea kayaks can hold a good deal of equipment. 

The Wilderness Systems Tempest 165

Kayaking on coastal, choppier waters.

Whitewater Kayaks

Like recreational kayaks, there are several whitewater kayak types:

  • playboats
  • creekboats
  • river runners
  • longboats

All types, however, are designed for rapids and rocky courses. 

Playboats have a short and nimble design and are best for technical tricks and paddling.

Creekboats are longer (and therefore more multipurpose) and meant for narrower waterways.

River runners are perfect for nimbly navigating high-flow waters.

Lastly, longboats are designed for racing and speed in technical terrain.

If you are interested in whitewater kayaking, be sure to do some extra research on these four types to find the design that best suits your particular needs.

person kayaking on river

Kayaking through rapids and rocky courses.

Fishing Kayaks

Fishing kayaks are designed to accommodate those who fish and all of the gear that comes along with them.

They are typically flatter and wider for stability since casting a line can rock the boat. You’ll find accessories to hold fishing poles, pontoon stabilizers, and even pedal-power to help fishermen get to where they need to go.

Perception Outlaw 11.5

Anglers and their fishing gear.

Tandem Kayaks

A tandem kayak is built for two people. Even though some recreational kayaks may technically hold two people, typically they only have a proper seating area for one person.

Tandem kayaks have two designated seating areas. Like recreational kayaks, you can find tandem kayaks in a variety of shapes and sizes, including sit-on-top and sit-in.

The type of tandem kayak that you choose will depend on the kayaking goals of you and your paddling partner.

2 people riding on yellow and white kayak on body of water during daytime

Doubling up with your significant other, pal, or kiddo.

Get on the Water

Even within each of these kayak type categories, you’ll find all sorts of differences, modifications, and accessories to add on. Always do your research to find the best kayak that fits the type of kayaking you’ll be doing, your budget, and any other needs you may have. 

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