August 11, 2021 8 min read

There’s no one right size of kayak. Many factors that go into choosing the kayak you need, based on what you want to use it for, and where you’re using it. There are a few things to consider:

  • What type of water will you kayak? Swift river waters demand shorter kayaks, while ocean kayaking usually requires a longer boat.
  • What type of kayaking do you plan to do? Are you looking for something good for speed? For fishing? For navigating rapids? Depending on what you’re after, the shape of your ideal kayak will change.
  • How do you plan to store, transport, and launch the kayak? If you’re in an apartment with limited storage space, or drive a smaller car, that will likely be a factor in the size of kayak you can accommodate.
  • How many people and how much gear are you taking? If you’re after a tandem kayak, or if you plan to fish or hunt, it’ll affect the type of kayak you need.

You might be surprised to know that your own height and weight don’t have as much bearing on the dimensions of the kayak you want. For that, you’ll look more to your paddle length than to the width of your boat.

A male kayaker in a fishing kayak on the ocean at sunrise.

Kayak Sizes and Dimensions

The three elements of kayak dimension are length, width, and volume. There are other size factors to consider, too, like weight, weight capacity, and cockpit size. and each dimension of a kayak can affect crucial parts of the ride, like speed, maneuverability, or comfort. Finding a kayak that’s a good fit for you means finding one that sits comfortably at a place where all of these factors line up just right for the experience you want.

Kayak Length

The average kayak is around 10 feet long, but there’s a wide range of possible lengths, but you may see them range anywhere from 6 feet to 16 feet long. Generally speaking, the longer a kayak is, the faster it is. Therefore, a boat for rapids is going to be shorter than a standard recreational kayak, and a lot shorter than one built for speed.

Recreational kayaks—While there are exceptions in boats made for performing tricks and boats meant for youth, most recreational kayaks will start around 9.5 feet. You may see them go up to 12 feet. Shorter ones are slower, but easier to maneuver when paddling.

Tandem kayaks—Tandem kayaks can be anywhere from 10-14 feet, but tend to hover around 12-13.

Sea kayaks—Sea kayaks (or touring kayaks) tend to be the longest of all, around 12-17 feet.

Performance kayaks—Performance kayaks are built for speed, and can run from 15-18 feet.

Kayak Width

Kayaks fall into a wide range of widths, depending on what they’re built for. Narrow boats are faster, while wider boats are more stable. Kayaks built for speed will be narrower, and fishing kayaks will be wider. For kayaks with a cockpit, width may affect the kayak’s comfort and fit. One advantage of sit-on-top kayaks is that they’re suitable for a greater range of people and body types.

Kayak Volume

Kayak volume is another way of thinking about the boat’s overall size. How much space does it take up? This is measured by the kayak’s interior capacity, but it isn’t just about space to store gear and people. It affects the ride, as well. High-volume kayaks are easier to start using, making them great for beginners. But they can be slower and less smooth than low-volume kayaks. The kayak volume needed is also relative to the weight of the kayaker. Even allowing for preferences in high- or low-volume kayaks, different people will need different sizes of boat.

Kayak Weight

Kayak weights can vary significantly. Generally, they fall within a 35-70 pound range. You may see small kayaks as light as 20 pounds, or specialized ones (like pedal kayaks) as heavy as 100 pounds. Weight is something to consider, since you may need to carry your kayak to water or lift it to stow on top of your vehicle.

Kayak Weight Capacity

Beyond how heavy your kayak is, also consider how much it can carry. It should be able to comfortably support the weight of everyone who will be using it and all of the gear that they need. Kayaks that support a lot of weight, like fishing kayaks, will usually prioritize that and stability over speed or maneuverability.

Kayak Legroom

There’s more to choosing a kayak than how it handles and what it totes. You also want to make sure you’re comfortable. Legroom can be a factor, and taller people may opt for longer kayaks simply because they offer more space for your legs.

For sit-in kayaks, many people like to have a decently tight fit—room enough to easily get in and out, but close enough that there’s plenty of contact between the boat and their legs and thighs. This offers a little more control over the boat with your whole body.

For sit on top kayaks rather than sitting in a cockpit, paddlers sit in a molded depression in the top of the boat. This offers more space, and more comfort for people with differing leg lengths. This makes it a great, versatile option.

Kayak Cockpit Size

Your kayak’s cockpit is where you’ll sit. When you think about the cockpit’s dimensions, you’ll consider both the area around your waist, and the space where your legs fit. Depending on your body type, you may want a fishing kayak or a touring kayak because the cockpit tends to be more spacious. You may also want a sit-on-top kayak, since the lack of a traditional cockpit means that it can accommodate a greater variety of people.

You don’t want a kayak that you have to squeeze into and out of. For one thing, it’s a safety issue. You need to be able to leave the boat quickly if it overturns. For another, you’re here to enjoy the outdoors. Part of that enjoyment is comfort. Get a boat that feels right to you.

Two paddlers on a blue tandem sit on top kayak in a marsh at sunset

Solo vs Tandem

Do you plan on kayaking solo? Or with a partner? If you have a friend, child, or significant other that you usually enjoy the great outdoors with, a tandem kayak can be a great way to spend time with them. Some tandem kayaks even let you turn the seats to face each other, so that you can talk more easily while you float.

You can opt for a 2 person kayak no matter what you’re doing. Recreational kayaks, performance kayaks, and even fishing kayaks can all add a little extra length to accommodate an extra person.

Choosing a Kayak Size Based on Water Type

Rivers

Unless you’re riding rapids, floating a river generally means you’ll want a recreational kayak. You want to be able to follow the flow of the river more than you want speed. Choose a boat that’s stable and maneuverable. Something anywhere from 8 to 13 feet long should do nicely. Make sure that it’s wide enough to give you the handling you need.

Lakes

For most lakes, you should be fine in a recreational kayak similar to one for lakes. However, for larger lakes with bigger waves, you may want a touring kayak, instead. And of course, if you’re in the lake because you’re fishing, you may want to consider a fishing kayak to carry your tackle and gear.

Ocean / Sea

Kayaking in seas or oceans may mean dealing with stronger water conditions. You may face heavier winds, tides, and bigger waves than you’d find in smaller bodies of water. A touring kayak or sea kayak is sleeker and longer, meant to cover greater distances with more ease. These kayaks tend to be at least 12 feet long. It can be harder to learn on a touring kayak than a recreational one, so if you’re new to kayaking, you may want to start with something smaller.

Storage, Transportation, and Launching

Kayak Storage

Once you’re set on the type of activities you plan to partake in and the general size you’re looking for, you probably also have to consider where to store it. Do you have a place for a 12-foot kayak in your garage? While it’s a very practical piece of the decision, it’s an important one and may be a deciding factor in the kayak you choose.

Kayak Transportation

Most people will also have to transport their kayak, which can involve a little bit of logistical work. Remember, transportation includes getting the kayak from your home to the body of water, but also from your car to the shore. So, you’ll need to consider how the kayak fits on your vehicle as well as your ability to get it on and off your vehicle and into the water. 

Here are some things to think about when figuring out if a kayak is an appropriate size for you to carry:

  • How much weight can you comfortably lift by yourself?
  • Even if you can lift it, at what length does a kayak become too cumbersome to maneuver by yourself?
  • Do you have a friend or family member who will be traveling with you who can help?

Beyond your own ability to tote the boat, there’s another consideration: How are you transporting this kayak? Are you stowing it on top of your car? Carrying it in a truck? Towing a trailer? Do you live near enough to water that you can just haul it down to the shore yourself?

The easier it is for you to get out on the water, the more likely you are to do it often. Set yourself up to get the most out of your kayak by choosing one that you can easily get into the water.

A female paddler in a teal sit on top kayak in a marsh.

Kayak Launching

Kayak size and weight obviously matters as you’re carrying your boat to and from the water, but what about the other aspects of launching? As long as you can carry and handle the boat, the size of the kayak won’t necessarily have a huge impact on launching it. But the size of kayaks in general—that is, smaller than what else is out there—will affect your launch. Here are some things to consider.

  • Boat Ramps: Kayaks absolutely have the right to use a boat ramp to launch and haul in. However, they are smaller than other boats, and it’s important to be mindful of that fact. You may not be visible to larger craft around you, which can present a risk of a larger boat colliding with you. Have your boat ready to launch before you reach the ramp (this goes for all boats). Don’t spend time on accessories or gear on the ramp. For visibility’s sake, keep to one side of the ramp, or consider launching from an alternate location on busy days.
  • Alternative Launch Spaces: One advantage of a kayak’s size is that you don’t need a boat ramp to launch one. You can launch your boat anywhere from the water’s edge. Put it in the water just enough to float, but not enough to float away. Enter the kayak, keeping your weight as even as possible, then push off with your paddle.
  • Living Near the Water: Living near the water may afford you other opportunities to store your boat nearby, like in a covered dock. It may be tempting if you live on or near water to store your kayak right on the lake to avoid the hassle of launching. This can be done (many rental places do this), but it’s not ideal. Constant exposure to sun can weather and fade your kayak. And constantly being in the water exposes your boat to growths like algae or slime. Hauling in may be a hassle, but if you can keep your boat dry when it’s not in use, that’s best for the life of the boat.

There’s No Right Answer—Just What’s Right for You

Knowing all the factors that affect your kayak’s performance—from how each dimension affects it, to the sorts of water each kayak is best suited for—can help you make the choice that’s going to make you happiest. Figure out where you’ll be taking your kayak, and what you’re using it for, and work out from there. Looking at a buying guide can help you get started.


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