Shopping for a new kayak can be stressful. To help, we read up on over 35 options and bought five of the best boats in a couple of categories. Then we spent over three months rigorously testing them in wildly varied conditions to understand how they perform. We paddled in conditions ranging from flat, glassy mornings, to breezy, choppy afternoons on Lake Tahoe. We paddled the slow-moving currents of the Upper Truckee River and on windy days on Fallen Leaf and Caples Lakes. After all the time we put in, we understand how smoothly each boat glides across alpine lakes and how easy it is to maneuver each around the docks. We know how comfortable these boats are and how hard they are to carry to and from the truck. Read on to find the right boat for you. If you're short on space, check out our inflatable kayak review. After you choose the perfect boat to suit your needs, head over to our paddle review.
The Best Recreational and Touring Kayaks
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|Price||$829.00 at REI|
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|$759.00 at REI|
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|$639.00 at Amazon|
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|$649.00 at Amazon||$280 List|
|Pros||Extremely versatile, great stability, exceptionally maneuverable, comfortable, highly functional out-fitting||Comfortable, very maneuverable, versatile, easy to paddle, easy to climb in and out||Extremely stable, excellent tracking, very durable, comfortable, multifaceted||Great tracking and glide, sheds waves easily, durable, fast and stable, great for any age or experience||Very light and portable, maneuvers well, stable, inexpensive, large open cockpit|
|Cons||Difficult to drain, heavy, cumbersome to shoulder carry, cheap plastic used on hatch levers||Cheap plastic used on hatch levers, heavy, slow||Heavy, slow to get up to speed, burdensome to load and carry||Stern storage well doesn’t drain, heavy and burdensome to transport, deck plate cockpit console sticks||No seat cushions, hard to reach and adjust foot braces, not a lot of weight capacity|
|Bottom Line||An extremely versatile kayak that will allow you to experience the best of what both worlds, exceptional maneuverability and long distance tracking.||The well outfitted Tarpon 100 allows for many different paddling applications, all in one super comfortable sit on top kayak.||A super solid and stable all-around kayak great for any age or ability level at a modestly affordable price.||This kayak is an outstanding choice for any day on the water but it truly excels on long touring days, especially in heavier wind and waves.||This is a dependable boat that's a great option for beginner paddlers who aren't ready to invest in a high-performance boat.|
|Rating Categories||Aspire 105||Tarpon 100||Malibu 11.5||Tribe 11.5||Aruba 10|
|Specs||Aspire 105||Tarpon 100||Malibu 11.5||Tribe 11.5||Aruba 10|
|Length||10'6" / 3.2m||10' / 3.0m||11'5" / 3.5m||11'5" / 3.5m||10' / 3.0m|
|Capacity (weight)||400lbs / 181kg||325lbs / 147kg||360lbs / 163.3kg||350 lbs / 159kg||250lbs / 113kg|
|Boat Weight||48lbs / 22kg||55lbs / 25kg||59lbs / 26.7 kg||52lb / 24kg||40lbs / 18kg|
Best Recreational Kayak
Wilderness Systems Aspire 105
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 wins both of our Editors' Choice awards — the Aspire 105 for best sit-in kayak 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 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 light weight 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 kayaks, 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
Best 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 it nudged out the Perception Tribe 11.5 for the Best Buy award 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
Best Buy 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
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!
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.
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 Editor's Choice sit-in winner, 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 kayaks 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 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 kayaks 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, kayaks 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). As we wrote about in our buyer's advice, kayaks 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