Looking for the best kayak? After researching 35 different options, we bought 5 of the market's most promising to test side-by-side. Primarily testing in California, these boats saw the likes of wild rivers, calm lakes, and choppy conditions. We spent hours gliding through the water, assessing comfort features, and analyzed how each boat maneuvered in different conditions. We also took the time to assess the features of each at length, figuring which are best for lazy calm days on the lake, and which can truly perform. After months of testing, we happily give you our recommendations that come without bias to help you find the best kayak for your needs.Related: Best Inflatable Kayak of 2020
Top 5 Product Ratings
Wilderness Systems Aspire 105
The fine folks at Wilderness Systems have floated a boat our way that offers the best of both worlds — stability and maneuverability. It's also one of the most comfortable options available today. The Aspire 105 is a highly versatile and comfy vessel that is very popular amongst the company's armada of boats because of its broad paddling diversity. A lot of boats are either short and wide, like the Sun Dolphin Aruba 10, or long and narrow, like the Perception Tribe 11.5. The first group is very sturdy and maneuverable but doesn't track that accurately. The second is not as maneuverable but tracks and glides exceedingly well, especially over long distances. Very few companies have been able to blend the two designs to develop a high-quality crossover hybrid with as much ingenuity as Wilderness Systems has with the Aspire. And with all the extra features this boat has to offer, it is easy to see why it scored so well in our tests.
The boat is heavy, making it hard to carry by yourself and to drain. And the hatch covers have flimsy plastic levers, a departure from the rest of the boat's durable construction. Although the Aspire 105 is expensive (second only to the Oru Beach LT in this list), the price is more than justified by its versatility. Having a boat that is this multifaceted gives you many more options for different styles of paddling in many various conditions. It almost feels like you've purchased two boats for the price of one.
Read review: Wilderness Systems Aspire 105
Wilderness Systems Tarpon 100
Wilderness Systems cleaned up in our review — the Aspire 105 for best sit-in boat and the Tarpon 100 for best sit-on-top. There are some things you just can't do in a sit-in boat and vice versa. Sit-on-tops let you hop in the water to take a dip in the middle of the lake and then pull yourself back on to your boat without taking on water or capsizing. And with all of the Tarpon's great features, storage, comfort, and functionality, it was an easy pick over the other sit-on-tops we tested. This boat glides fairly well and is very responsive and easy to maneuver.
It's the third most expensive boat in the test, but its solid all-around handling and the number of extras bells and whistles it has to offer easily justify the price. Just like it's sister vessel, the Aspire 105, the Tarpon's versatility makes the price point all the more palatable. This well-rounded boat can perform the functions of multiple boat designs.
Read review: Wilderness Systems Tarpon 100
Best Portable Model
Oru Beach LT
The Oru Beach LT won in our inflatable review with its light, portable, and space-saving origami style design. For boaters who live in smaller apartments in a big city with limited storage space, or who use cabs or public transportation to get around, the Beach LT is a perfect choice. Having the ability to store your boat in a closet and then grab it by the shoulder strap, hop into a cab, and get dropped off at your favorite urban body of water is a luxury. This benefit would never be afforded by larger rigid options like the Malibu 11.5 or Tribe 11.5. Within minutes of set up, you could be on the water getting your paddling fix. Then after you've had your fill of fun for the day, with a quick wipe down and fold up of your boat, you could be back in a cab headed home without ever leaving the city.
There are a couple of small design flaws that affect the performance of this boat. Limited bracing points and a large cockpit decrease its stability and can also make for a wet ride on windy days. Also, the boat's lightweight is apparent on windy days. The Oru tends to get wind cocked and blown around without a skeg or rudder to help it keep its heading. (Though the inflatable tester found that the Oru is less wind-affected than other inflatable models, it can't compare to the hard shells we reviewed.) This boat is also the most expensive one we tested by several hundred dollars. But if you have limited space, this may be your best option to get out on the water as often as possible.
Read Review: Oru Beach LT
Great Value for a Sit-On-Top Model
Ocean Kayak Malibu 11.5
If you want to get the most for your money in an all-around kayak, then look no further. Ocean Kayaks took their time-tested Scrambler 11.5 and added a bunch of upgrades such as an AirGo seat pad, AirComfort backrest, and a splash-resistant Quick Stash dry hatch to create a top-notch boat at a mid-range price. They named it the Malibu, and edged ahead of the Perception Tribe 11.5 with its versatility and extra features. This boat's long keel and pontoon style tri-form hull design make for great tracking and glide and offer incredible stability in strong wind and waves. With enormous storage wells on the bow and stern, this boat is ready to be loaded up with anything you'd need for a long day trip or an overnight excursion.
This is one of the heavier options we've tested. The tradeoff is that it's very stable. You can quickly get in and out of it on the beach or when taking a dip in the water, making it a fun and safe choice for younger paddlers. And you can't beat the price to value comparison with this durable boat. It offers up a variety of usages, from surfing waves to fishing to sunbathing all in one package.
Read Review: Ocean Kayak Malibu 11.5
Great Value for a Sit In Model
Sun Dolphin Aruba 10
Not sure you want to take the big plunge on an expensive, high-end boat? Sun Dolphin's line of boats has many options to choose from and will get you out on the water, having fun and enjoying the wonderful world of boating without putting a hole in your wallet. The Aruba 10 is an excellent beginner's boat at a fraction of the price of many other sit-in models like as the Wilderness Systems Aspire 105. With its 10' length and flat bottom hull, this boat is very maneuverable, sturdy and forgiving for the novice paddler. A large cockpit makes for easy entering and exiting on the beach, and its pointed bow helps cut through waves and track across the water.
This option is one of the least expensive boats on the market. To make that happen, Sun Dolphin did cut some corners. It's not hard to notice the Aruba seating system's lack of padding and adjustability (especially if you have ever sat in the cockpit of one of the Wilderness Systems options). And, in comparison to the Aspire 105 and Tarpon 100, the boat is made of lower quality materials with lower quality outfitting. But, if funds are limited, or you're not sure you want to invest in kayaking, then this boat is a worthwhile investment.
Read Review: Sun Dolphin Aruba 10
Why You Should Trust Us
Dan Kramer comes to this review with a wealth of paddling, rafting and marine experience. He teaches Swift Water Rescue at Lake Tahoe Community College in addition to teaching at whitewater guide schools and beginner and intermediate rafting classes. He is also a licensed Merchant Mariner with the US Coast Guard and captains sightseeing and watersports boats on Lake Tahoe in the summer.
Field testing took place over three months on Lake Tahoe and surrounding High Sierra Lakes. Data and observations were then categorized according to five testing metrics - Glide, Maneuverability, Comfort, Portability, and Durability. For metrics that could be quantified, efforts were made to do so; such as counting the number of strokes to turn 180 degrees for Maneuverability, or the distance traveled from full speed to stop for Glide ratings. Other metrics, such as comfort and portability were treated qualitatively.
Wear Your PFD — The Coast Guard requires you to carry an approved personal floatation device (PFD) for each passenger and mandates that paddlers under 13 must wear a PFD at all times. Of course, life jackets work way better when you wear them, no matter how old you are. Regulations vary by location, so check with local agencies to see if there are any additional requirements in your area.
Choose Appropriate Locations and Conditions — The models we review here are appropriate for recreational use in local lakes and flatwater rivers in calm conditions with no whitecaps. They do not have spray skirts (which keep waves out but require training to use safely) or integrate enough flotation to deal with severe conditions. Without large bulkheads or float bags, the sit-in 'yaks in this review will easily flood, capsize, and sink.Coastal waters can be particularly hazardous, with tides, currents and rapid weather changes contributing to challenging conditions that can make it very difficult to get back to shore. These boats are not at all appropriate for whitewater river runs. Contact local paddling clubs or websites to find safe local waterways for you to explore the exciting sport of kayaking. Plan to take whitewater or ocean paddling and rescue courses and to invest in more robust gear if you'd like to adventure into more serious situations.
Analysis and Test Results
We chose some of our favorite models and took them out on the many rivers and lakes in the area to put them through our rigorous testing process. The goal was to find out which ones are worthy of an award. We were able to determine which ones performed the best in each metric, assigning a weighted score to each. We then added the scores up to assign winners. Our goal is to give you an excellent resource for your decision making. We hope it helps!
Related: Buying Advice for Kayaks
You can expect to encounter a wide range of prices when shopping for a recreational kayak. A boat's price is mostly determined by the quality of its design, materials, seating system, and the other extra features included. We consider all these factors when testing the boats and calculating an overall score, but we never consider value as a metric during testing. But, we do understand that not everyone can purchase the most expensive boat with all the best features and latest technologies.
Our favorite sit-in model, the Wilderness Systems Aspire 105, is an exquisitely designed boat with lots extras, but it costs much more than the least expensive Best Budget Buy winner, the Sun Dolphin Aruba 10. Keep in mind though, that the two Wilderness Systems boats, the Ocean Kayak, and the Perception boat are all built with thicker, more durable plastic than the Sun Dolphin. They are likely to last longer and may offer a better value over time.
We tested glide by measuring the distance each boat moved in a smooth continuous motion before stopping. We had our test experts paddle each boat up to speed and then stop paddling once they reached a marker buoy on the water. We then measured the distance from the buoy to where they stopped gliding and came to a stop. This helped us determine which boat and hull designs shed water and wind the best to allow the boats to move the most effortlessly and efficiently.
Longer boat designs that have a rigid, pronounced multi-chine, V-shaped hulls, like the Perception Tribe 11.5, help boats get the most out of their glide. The Wilderness Systems Aspire also glides well, though it relies more on a drop down skeg to help it track well enough to go the distance. In contrast, a boat like the Sun Dolphin Aruba 10 loses a lot of its glide due to its wide, flat bottom, which pushes past the water instead of slicing through it.
We wanted to see how easily we could make a controlled series of direction changes in each boat. First, we wanted to find out how many sweeping paddle strokes it would take for each boat to complete a 180-degree turn from a standstill. Next, we set up a short slalom course to see how quickly each boat responded to a snaking course and multiple turns.
The shorter, flatter or more rounded hull designs, like the Wilderness Systems Aspire 105 and the Sun Dolphin Aruba 10 can make sharp turns in small spaces. They excelled in this test. Whereas the longer more V-shaped hulled boats like the Ocean Kayak Malibu 11 and Perception Tribe 11.5 are noticeably more sluggish when turning around and require extra effort to make tighter turns.
You'll notice that high scores in maneuverability often correlate with low glide scores. This is a trade-off that boat designers struggle to balance. Wilderness Systems did a particularly good job with the Aspire 105. Its drop-down skeg helps keep it on the straight and narrow when you want to maximize glide, but it doesn't have enough surface area to make maneuvering difficult. You can also just pull it up and out of the water if you want to make tight turns.
No one wants to deal with discomfort or constraints when enjoying the things they love. Comfort is a critical metric to consider when you're thinking about sitting in a boat for hours. There are many different types of seats, cushions, back bands, foot pegs, and knee or thigh braces that provide stability and control while providing a smooth, comfortable ride. Some vessels go above and beyond to ensure that you don't spend your whole trip thinking about how much you want to get out of your boat because your back is aching or your feet are falling asleep.
We analyzed the posture, user-friendliness, and comfort of the foot and thigh bracing systems and seats in each of these boats. The Wilderness System Tarpon 100 and Aspire 105 are two options with excellent seating and bracing systems. These are some of the most comfortable seats that we have ever had the pleasure of enjoying. The well-thought-out Phase 3 Air Pro fully adjustable seats have mesh fabric that covers a honeycomb-vented, ergonomic foam. This allows for greater airflow to keep you cool or help you dry off, while also supporting your lower back.
But comfort doesn't come without cost, and the Wilderness Systems' comfy seat will cost you more than introductory level models like the Sun Dolphin Aruba 10. The Aruba only has an adjustable back band with no seat cushion. This is fine for an hour or less of paddling, but if you love spending time on the water, you'll want to add cushions to the Aruba or spring for a more supportive, and expensive, boat.
Portability is one of those things that you don't think much about till its time to load your boat on or off your vehicle, carry it to and from water access points, or portage it. But you have to carry your boat every time you use it, so it's a critical aspect to consider. You may not want a boat that is way too heavy or cumbersome to lift and carry by yourself or without the assistance of a cart. To test this, we looked at each boat's length, width and weight along with carrying handles, their locations, and the materials used.
The weight of the boats we tested range from the Sun Dolphin Aruba 10 at 40lbs to the Wilderness Systems Tarpon 100 at 55lbs. But this doesn't tell the whole story. The length and width also play a big part in how easy or difficult it is to carry your boat, how well it will fit in or on your vehicle, and if it will fit in storage. While you consider how much weight you want to haul around, also lay out the length and width of the boat you're considering using measuring tape. Make sure it'll fit where you want it to.
All of the boats we tested have both bow and stern handles, but the Perception Tribe 11.5 and the Tarpon 100 also offer side handles on the port and starboard sides, right by their seats. The Aspire 105, Tribe 11.5 and Ocean Kayak Malibu 11 all come with replaceable stern skid plates. These take the brunt of knicks and scratches if you needed to pull your boat behind you across the ground.
The Aruba 10 and Aspire 105 sit-in 'yaks provide paddlers with another option for transporting them to and from water access points — the shoulder carrying method, aka shouldering your boat. Because these boats have a sit-in cockpits, boaters can rest the coaming of the cockpit over one shoulder and arm to support the weight of the boat while carrying it back and forth.
The way a boat is designed and manufactured and the material it is made of are key attributes indicating how durable a boat will be. In general, these boats can take a licking when being transported or paddled. You can drag them over beaches, paddle them around and over rocks, or just expose them to the sun for long periods of time (though you should avoid all of these things if you want to take good care of your boat). They can be manufactured with a number of materials, but the primary two used in recreational versions are high-density roto-molded linear polyethylene or Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene (ABS).
All five boats that we tested use similar polyethylene plastics, but in different densities. So, we compared the sturdiness of the vessels themselves, their outrigging, and other features to figure out how well they will hold up to rugged use. Seats, handles, foot braces, deck storage bungee cords, dry storage hatch covers, and locking levers were some of the features we examined in our testing.
The Sun Dolphin Aruba 10 uses a lot less plastic than the other boats, making for a much thinner hull and deck. It seems much less durable than the sturdier plastic used in the construction of the Perception Tribe 11.5 and the Wilderness Systems boats. In the end, all the boats seemed to have boomer plastic and rigging construction, except for the Aruba. It's lower cost translates to less durability.
It was a blast playing around out on the water, testing and comparing all these fine vessels. We feel confident that after reading our testing analysis and buyer's guide, you will have a better understanding of the wide world of kayaking. With so many options on the market these days, there's no one boat that's right for everyone. We hope that you take the information we provide here and use it to find the qualities, styles, features, and price tag that are the most important and appealing to you. After all, the best boat for you is the one that you feel the most comfortable in and enjoy paddling the most — the one that gets you out paddling as often as possible. We hope to see you all out on the water soon!
— Dan Kramer