Looking for the perfect kayak? Here's how to find one that fits your needs, size

From whitewater rapids, to lakes, rivers and saltwater, people are enjoying kayaks to relax, fish and exercise.

If you are considering a kayak, it’s best to first think about where you intend to ride it and learn about the myriad of options that are available.

The key is to remember that kayaks are not made the same. There are many lengths, heights and materials that are available to paddlers to suit their personal needs.

Steve and Liz Winand, and now with their son Devin, have been outfitting kayakers since 1978 at Shank’s Mare Outfitters in Wrightsville, York County.

“We do everything from A to Z as far as kayaking goes. We specialize in touring, recreational and fishing,” Liz said.

When customers comes into their store, they ask them a lot of questions. “We want to try figure out how they anticipate using the kayak,” Liz Winand said.

Some of the questions involve the type of water they intend to be on, how long they anticipate being out each time and if they are planning to need space for gear like photography, a dog or fishing tackle.

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Devin, 40, provides guiding and instructions to those wanting to kayak. “There are a lot of kayaks out there on the market, and they’re definitely all not created equally, but I do believe there is a kayak out there for everybody,” he said.

The key is finding out what fits your body as well as the type of water conditions you plan to visit.

“An analogy I like to use is when you’re shopping for kayaks is to think about shoe shopping. If you walk into a shoe store and you wear a size 10, 10’s are $100 and size 8’s are on sale for $60, what’s the better buy? It’s the same for a kayak. Just because you get a good deal on it, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the right one for you,” he explained.

Styles of kayaks

Touring kayaks are divided into four categories, including recreational, light touring, full touring and fishing.

Each category has a specific performance level, she explained.

Recreational kayaks are the most stable at the 9- to 12-foot range. “They are going to be wide in the middle, which is going to give them a lot of stability, and they are going to be flat on the bottom.”

Recreational kayaks, she said, are a very user-friendly, beginner's kayak that provides a lot of stability in calm water conditions. “They’re going to be geared toward that occasional, sunny day I want to go out and putz around, don’t need to get anywhere in any amount of time, because they are the least paddling efficient,” she said.

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For those wanting to travel further on the water, she may suggest a light touring model. They are in the 12-to-14-foot range and aren’t as wide in the middle. They also are more rounded in shape with secondary stability that helps in choppy water conditions.

If someone would come in wanting to kayak longer distances, such as out on a bay, full touring models would be something to consider. They are 14 to 17 feet long and are narrower. “They are going to travel the most efficiently through the water,” she said about them appealing to those traveling several miles on the water and needing more storage space.

The kayak and you

The second hurdle in purchasing a kayak is making sure it fits like a pair of hiking boots. “If you are too heavy for the kayak, for the volume it’s rated for, that boat is going to paddle below its intended water line and it’s going to paddle like a barge because it’s sitting too low in the water,” she said.

If you’re too light for the boat, that boat is going to float too high in the water and be more impacted by the wind and waves.

“Boats need to fit,” she said, adding the height of the person matters, too. If people are too short, they may sit too low, and their arms and paddle will clang on the side of the vessel. Taller people need to make sure they have the leg space in their kayaks.

“Fit is very important,” Liz said about enjoying kayaking.

With the versatility of the water crafts, Devin said to consider the 80/20 Rule. “Think about how you want to use it 80% of the time; get a boat for that. Worry about the 20% when it comes around. In the long run, you’ll be much happier with it."


Liz Winand said polyethylene, rotomolded is the better manufacturing process than a blowmolded kayak. She said ones that have ridges in the hull are more rigid and are more durable than smooth bottom boats that become mushy. “The ridges on the bottom mean something,” she said about providing a keel line and torsional rigidity.

They are durable, but heavy.

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There are thermoplastic kayaks molded in sheets to provide a lighter weight, rigid model. However, they are a little less durable in rocky areas.

The most expensive models are composite designs that are light weight and rigid. “If you want the lightest weight boat with the best paddling performance on the water, then that’s the ultimate material,” she said about models made of carbon or fiberglass.

Fishing kayaks

“It’s the fasting growing category of kayaks today,” she said about people learning the benefits of fishing from a mobile, stealthy kayak.

Devin Winand said about 12 years ago, purpose-built fishing kayaks started to be made. “From that point on, it has really exploded. Manufacturers are getting into kayaks for specific uses,” he said about options for rivers, shores and lakes.

There are also good all-purpose fishing kayaks, that focus on stability and elevated seating. A majority of them are designed to let the angler sit on top of the kayak and have access to anchors, fish finders, rod holders, net holders and cameras.

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For those wanting to keep their hands free to fish, there are peddle-powered options and electric trolling motors.

The downside to a peddle kayak is that they can’t operate in as shallow of water as one powered by a paddle on the surface of the water.

Liz said there are two misconceptions with peddle drives. She said people assume it may be easier to peddle than using a paddle. “It’s as much energy to peddle a kayak as it is to paddle,” she said.

The second thing, she pointed out, is the more mechanical contraptions you put on a kayak, the more things there are to break and maintain.

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Devin said they all have advantages and disadvantages that shoppers need to consider.

For those considering basic kayaking, Liz said to budget $1,200 to $1,500 for all the equipment. The prices have increased in recent years because of supply-chain levels.

Kayakers wanting higher end models can spend closer to the $3,000 to $5,000 range. For the extreme enthusiasts, there is an $11,000 model that’s all carbon and has magnets to hold the person’s gear in place. “They’re cool looking boats,” Devin said.

Life jackets

When it comes to kayaking, having the right Personal Flotation Device (PFD) will make your outing more enjoyable.

“It only works if you actually have it on,” he said about finding a comfortable design.

There are kayak-specific vests that have large openings for your arms to prevent chaffing while paddling. They also have the foam placed in areas where it doesn’t bind or push the vest toward your head.

The back of the vests are customized to have the thinner foam for your back rest or have the foam placed higher than your seat.

For anglers, there are kayak vests that are fishing specific to hold tools and tackles. “Think of it as much as a safety device as a way to store your gear, store your tackle when you’re out there.”

In addition to wearing a life jacket, Liz said you should always leave a trip plan with someone. If you have trouble, the plan you leave will help rescuers find you.


Kayakers have a wide range of paddles to consider for their vessel. There are inexpensive models made with aluminum and nylon. “They’re very durable, but a little heavier weight. So that’s something to keep in mind. When you’re paddling, you’re doing all your work with that paddle. A little bit lighter-weight paddle may keep you out on the water longer for that day.”

Higher end paddles are made of carbon and fiberglass and top-end paddles are made of composites. “For somebody who is going out for hours, hours and hours, miles, miles and miles, they might appreciate something like this over the less expensive, heavier weight paddles.”

The length of the paddle plays a strong role. Devin said they factor in the height of the paddle, the width of the boat and their paddling style to determine which model will work best.

The bottom line is to think about where and when you’ll want to kayak and learn how the options will fit into your budget.

“I always recommend to go with the nicest paddle within reason,” he said. “The advantages to nicer, higher end, lighter paddles are hard to beat.”

But if someone is going a short distance to their water destination, a less expensive paddle should be fine, they agreed.


With some kayaks weighing 125 to 150 pounds, it can be a challenge to place one on top of a car. You may need a trailer to haul your kayak to the water.

“The end game is how it paddles on the water,” Devin Winand said about not limiting yourself to a decision based on where it will be stored or how it will be transported.

Devin Winand of Shank's Mare Outfitters in Wrightsville stands May 12 with a variety of kayaking options to improve your boating experience.

“You will appreciate it much more if you get into the right kayak right off the bat,” he said, as opposed to trying one that’s not suitable to your personal needs because it was a good deal. Some people may not end up liking kayaking because they tried the sport in a model that didn’t work for them.

Final thoughts

A good thing to remember is that paddling outfitters are available to answer questions about the various products as well as water and conditions that impact boater safety. Devin said they are more than willing to offer advice about water and weather conditions to help people decide on whether it’s safe to go out.

The bottom line is that there are many choices when it comes to getting a kayak, and it pays to do your research. “You can make due,” he said about using kayaks that don’t fit your body or paddling use, but “it’s not going to make your overall experience as good as could be.”

Brian Whipkey is the outdoors columnist for USA TODAY Network sites in Pennsylvania. Contact him at bwhipkey@gannett.com and sign up for our weekly Go Outdoors PA newsletter email on your website's homepage under your login name. Follow him on social media @whipkeyoutdoors.

This article originally appeared on Erie Times-News: Many options to consider when purchasing a kayak