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Looking for the best kayak? After researching over 40 different options, we bought 11 of the market's top models to test side-by-side in the water. Primarily testing in the beautiful Lake Tahoe area, these kayaks saw the likes of flowing rivers, calm lakes, and choppy waves. We spent hours gliding through the water, analyzing each craft’s stability and how well they maneuvered through different water conditions. We assessed comfort features as well as the construction quality. We took the time to assess the features of each at length, determining which are best for lazy calm days on the lake and which can truly perform when the rapids start to rumble. After many months of testing, we happily give you our bias-free recommendations to help.
Fold down seat, multiple grab handles, integrated bow and stern webbing
Phase 3 Air Pro seat with mesh streched over contoured foam perferated pad, leg lifters and adjustable seat back angles, thigh and knee pads, adjustable slide locking foot braces, rear bulkhead compartment with Orbix stern hatch, shock cord bow and stern rigging for extra storage, rugged bow and stern handles, molded dashboard with gear tray and drink holder, replaceable skid plate and retractable drop down skeg.
Rigid handles, Replaceable skid plate, Orbix hatch with sealed bulkhead, thigh pads, XL foot braces, SlideTrax and 2 mounting platforms, removable dry box, 2 cup holders, lithium battery recess (battery not included), Phase 3 AirPro seating system
Lightweight EVA foam seat pad and contoured, padded seat back with hieght-adjustable backrest, molded-in footbraces, molded-in bow and stern well with bungees, replaceable stern skid plate, 6" cockpit hatch with cat bag liner, 3 drink holders, molded-in side handles and soft touch bow and stern carrying handles.
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The Wilderness Systems Pungo 120 is a time-tested classic, excelling in almost all our testing categories. It particularly stands out for its stability, maneuverability, and decent tracking and glide. With a 20-inch cockpit length and padded seat, it's also one of the most comfortable options we tested. The Pungo is a highly versatile and comfy vessel that is very popular amongst the company's armada of boats because of its broad paddling diversity. Many boats are either short and wide or long and narrow, forcing the user to pick between maneuverability and tracking. Wilderness Systems has successfully created a high-quality hybrid crossover that can competently float through gentle currents and cruise across glassy lakes. 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 isn't perfect; although it's slightly lighter than average, the bulky nature of the kayak design makes it difficult to carry solo. The hatch cover requires a bit of care and attention over time and is a slight departure from the rest of the boat's incredibly durable construction. Although the Pungo is expensive, the price is more than justified by its versatility. This multifaceted boat allows for different styles of paddling in different environments. It is a good bang for your buck if you want a one-boat quiver.
There are some things you just can't do in a sit-in kayak 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 onto your boat without taking on water or potentially capsizing. And with all of the Tarpon 105's great features, storage, comfort, and functionality, it was an easy pick over the other sit-on-tops we tested.
The Wilderness Systems Tarpon 105 builds upon their well-established and ever-popular Tarpon sit-on-top design series. This maneuverable kayak offers great storage, comfort, and functionality. The exceptional stability and open design make it easy to hop on and off the Tarpon. In addition, as it is self-draining, it doesn’t collect pools of water in the cockpit, which is much more comfortable. The Tarpon has higher functionality than your average sit-on-top kayak and it was an easy pick over the other sit-on-tops we tested.
Although the Tarpon is one of the most expensive kayaks in the test, its solid all-around handling and the number of extra bells and whistles it offers easily justify the price. Just like its 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.
If you want to get the most for your money in a versatile kayak, then look no further than the Ocean Kayak Malibu 11.5. Ocean Kayak took their time-tested Scrambler 11.5 kayak and added a host of upgrades and tune-ups such as a seat pad, adjustable backrest, and a splash-resistant dry hatch to create a top-notch boat at a mid-range price. Standing out for its construction quality and design for longevity, the Malibu edged ahead of the other competition with its versatility and extra features. This boat's long keel and pontoon-style tri-form hull design make for great tracking and glide in addition to offering 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 even an overnight excursion.
This is one of the heavier options we've tested, but the trade-off for this is superior stability. You can quickly get in and out of it on the beach or in the water, making it a fun and safe choice for younger and older 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 comfortable and durable package.
Unsure if you want to take the big plunge on an expensive, high-end boat? Old Town has created a budget option to get you out on the water having fun and enjoying the wonderful world of boating without putting a huge hole in your wallet. The Old Town Vapor 10 is an excellent beginner's boat at a significantly lower price than many other sit-in models. With its 10-foot length and flat bottom hull, this boat is 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 less expensive boats on the market. To make that happen, Old Town did make some sacrifices. The Vapor is not very hydrodynamic. If you are hoping to go somewhere fast, then there are better-suited options. It's hard not to notice the Vapor's seating system's lack of padding and adjustability (especially if you have ever sat in the cockpit of one of the more comfortable options). However, the no-frills approach also eliminates the number of parts that could possibly break. If you are looking for a decent quality kayak that is half the price of some other award winners then this boat is a worthwhile option.
The Dagger Stratos 12.5 S is an exceptionally well-designed boat, with its length and hull engineered to deliver an efficient glide, and cut through glassy or turbulent waters. The cockpit accommodates a spray skirt if desired and, depending on your skills, this kayak is very capable of navigating class III whitewater. With two dry deck hatches and additional on-deck storage, this kayak is ready for multi-day adventures if you are.
Not all paddlers are ready or want to take their paddling to that level. This kayak is more than what most people ‘need’ if you just want to hit the water for an occasional casual float, and it may cost more than you want to pay for such an activity. Unless you have aspirations to explore great distances in this kayak or intend to navigate ocean or river currents, there are other more stable kayaks available that can get you floating for much less money.
The Oru Beach LT took top honors in our inflatable kayak review with its light, portable, and space-saving origami-style design. For boaters who live in smaller apartments with limited storage space or those who frequently utilize public transportation, the Beach LT is our pick for you. 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 paddling spot is a luxury. This benefit would never be afforded by larger rigid options like the standard sit on top or sit inside kayaks we tested. Within minutes of set up, you could be on the water in the Oru 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.
Although there is so much we love about this model, 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 very 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.) If you bail in open water, this kayak is very difficult to self-rescue and it should be kept in sheltered conditions. This boat is also one of the more expensive ones that we tested. But if you have limited space, this may be your best option to get out on the water as often and with as little hassle as possible.
We've been testing kayaks over multiple seasons and in a variety of conditions, predominantly in Lake Tahoe and the surrounding High Sierra rivers and lakes. We categorized our testing data and observations into six different performance metrics, making an effort to quantify metrics when feasible in order to be as consistent and objective as possible. For example, we counted the number of strokes it took to make a 180-degree turn to test maneuverability, and measured the distance traveled from full speed to a complete stop to measure glide and tracking. We also brought together a diverse group of testers of all different sizes, strengths, and ability levels to help gauge more subjective metrics like comfort, stability, or portability.
We categorized our test data and observations according to these six testing metrics:
Glide/Tracking (30% of overall score weighting)
Maneuverability (20% weighting)
Stability (20% weighting))
Comfort (10% weighting)
Construction Quality (10% weighting)
Portability (10% weighting)
Our diverse testing team is led by expert paddler Sara James. The University of Leeds Kayaking Club occupied much of Sara’s focus during her undergraduate years, where she was quickly thrown into competitions for a wide variety of kayak-based disciplines. For the next decade, Sara continued to kayak and travel in search of whitewater from the UK to Uganda, Nepal to New Zealand, and Iceland to India. She finally settled in California, USA, and has been exploring the rivers and alpine lakes of the High Sierra for over 10 years. Creek boating, touring kayaking, stand-up paddle board, ripples, or raging rapids; if it floats and involves a paddle, Sara loves it all. Sara also tests the best kayak paddles, best PFDs, and best dry bags for GearLab.
Dan Kramer brings a wealth of paddling, rafting, and marine experience to this review. 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.
Wear Your PFD — The US 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. Regulations vary by location, so check with local agencies for any additional requirements in your area.
Choose Appropriate Locations and Conditions — The models we review here are appropriate for recreational use in lakes and flatwater rivers in calm conditions with no whitecaps. Most do not accommodate a spray skirt (which keeps waves out but requires training to use safely) or integrate enough flotation to withstand severe conditions. Without large bulkheads or float bags, the sit-in models in this review could easily flood and sink if capsized.
Coastal waters can be particularly hazardous with tides, currents, and rapid weather changes contributing to challenging conditions that can make it very difficult to return to shore. The boats in this review are not at all appropriate for whitewater river runs. Contact local paddling clubs or websites to find safe local waterways in which to explore the exciting sport of kayaking. Plan to take whitewater or ocean paddling and rescue courses and 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 undergo 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 to help you decide which kayak to buy.
You can expect to encounter a wide range of prices when shopping for a recreational kayak, with a boat's price being mostly determined by the quality of its design, materials, seating system, and the other extra features included. We considered all these factors during our testing, but we never considered price or value as a performance 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 Pungo 120, is an exquisitely designed boat with lots of extras, but it costs much more than our favorite budget option, the Old Town Vapor. There are very economical options available including the Pelican Brum XP and Sun Dolphin Aruba, but none of these came close to the performance of the higher-priced models. The Dagger Stratos, the Ocean Kayak, the Perception, and the two Wilderness Systems models are all built with thicker, more durable plastic than the Sun Dolphin and Pelican Brum XP 100. They are likely to last longer and may offer a better value over time.
Glide and Tracking
To begin, our test experts paddled each of the kayaks in a 50-meter sprint across flat water. We calculated the average of three timed tests for better reliability. We also collated observations and feedback on how easy it felt to keep each boat in a straight line. Glide was tested by measuring the distance each boat moved in a smooth continuous motion before coming to a halt. Our testers used up to eight strokes to get the kayak 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 the best to allow the boats to move the most effortlessly and efficiently.
Thanks to its hull shape, length, and drop-down skeg, the Dagger Stratos 12.5 S glides exceptionally well, keeping track over long distances with minimal effort. Other longer boat designs like the Wilderness Systems Pungo 120 and Old Town Loon 120 also excel at staying on track and gliding efficiently.
Models that have rigid, pronounced multi-chine, V-shaped hulls, like the Ocean Kayaks Malibu 11.5 and the Perception Tribe 11.5 track well and help the boats get the most out of their glide. In contrast, kayaks like the Jackson Staxx, the Wilderness Tarpon 105, and the Pelican Brume 100XP lose some glide due to their wide, flat bottom, which pushes across the water surface instead of slicing through it.
We wanted to see how easily we could make a controlled series of directional changes in each boat. First, we wanted to find out how many sweeping paddle strokes were required for each boat to complete a 360-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 kayaks are generally easier to move around. This helps the Pelican Brume 100XP and the Sun Dolphin Aruba 10 make sharp turns in small spaces. They also excel in this test due to their flatter hull shapes. On the other hand, the more V-shaped hulled boats like the Old Town Loon and Jackson Staxx are noticeably more sluggish when turning around and require extra effort to make tighter turns.
Many kayaks have a combination of hull types. The Old Town Vapor and the Dagger Stratos have a V shape for the front and back thirds of their hull, and a flatter central third. This flat-ish central hull makes it easier to maneuver these shaped kayaks across currents. Despite being long, the Stratos excels in its maneuverability in moving currents. Expert paddlers enjoyed surfing the Stratos on glassy waves and paddling across dynamic currents. For those that enjoy rock gardening, the Stratos is the perfect playful friend for an expert in this environment.
By retracting the rudder you can further improve the maneuverability of the Dagger Stratos 12.5 S and the Wilderness System Aspire 105.
When considering maneuverability, we also evaluated how easy it is to re-right and empty an upturned kayak. Self-rescue may be an essential requirement if out in open water and far away from land. Some sit-on-top kayaks have self-draining holes which can make this task much simpler. Others require the use of a bilge pump (and some practiced skills)in order to re-enter, a few can accommodate a spray skirt, and those that have mastered a kayaker’s roll can re-right themselves with little concern.
Often we are fortunate enough to be close enough to land to haul our kayak to the side and we can tackle the task of emptying it then. Unless you pre-plan and add floatation bags to your kayak, 300 liters of water is heavy to move around and will take some time to empty. Some basic techniques and a well-positioned drain plug will make this task quicker and less tiresome.
The sit-on-top models are the easiest to re-right, particularly the Ocean Kayak Malibu and Wilderness Systems Tarpon due to the sensible handle positioning. The sit-inside kayaks are more difficult as these take on water quickly and can swiftly become a sinking hazard if you don’t attend to them.
If you intend to take any of these kayaks on moving whitewater, we would recommend floatation airbags for your safety personal safety, the safety of your rescuer, and your kayak's safety. The most common cause of a cracked boat is when it is full of water and navigating the river solo with 300 pounds of water inside it.
Having an overturned is not much fun, and ultimately our goal is to keep you upright on the water. Most of the kayaks selected are aimed at the recreational touring market and are designed to be stable and easy to paddle. However, some excelled in this task better than others.
The wider kayaks really stood out here, with the Wilderness System Tarpon being particularly note-worthy, proving the most difficult to tip over. The Jackson Staxx also performed very well, and although it is wider than the Tarpon, the slightly higher seat position can make users a bit more vulnerable to the wobbles, particularly around moving currents.
For the center third of the Dagger Stratos, the hull is flat, but its narrow width and the V-shaped ends make it prone to feel more tippy when it's flat (i.e its primary stability). When on edge (secondary stability), the kayak is remarkably stable, and it could be said that like a road bike, it is most stable at speeds and when dynamically moving.
The Pelican Brume 100XP and Sun Dolphin Aruba 10 are remarkably stable considering their much smaller size and weight. This can be attributed to the relatively large surface area of their flat hulls which gives them great primary stability. However, please note if you accidentally get either of these kayaks on edge, expect to fall in, as they both do not have good secondary stability and are not designed to operate on any sort of edge. If your hobby involves moving around in your kayak, say fishing or playing kayak games, or if want a moving dog or child on your lap, you may want to consider a more stable option such as the Jackson Staxx or Pelican Tribe 11.5, or better yet, consider a two-person option.
No one wants to deal with discomfort or constraints when enjoying the activities they love. Comfort is a critical metric to consider when you're considering sitting in a kayak for hours. There are many different types of seats, cushions, back bands, footpegs, and knee or thigh braces that provide stability and control while providing a smooth, comfortable ride. Some vessels go above and beyond to ensure you don't spend your whole trip wishing 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 Old Town Loon, the Wilderness System Tarpon 105, Pungo 120, and Aspire 105 are options with excellent seating and bracing systems, wide-open cockpits for ease of access, and adjustable features for personalized comfort.
The premium outfitting in the Dagger Stratos makes it more comfortable than your average touring kayak; however, the relatively smaller cockpit size makes entry and exit more awkward for those who are less agile or have longer legs.
But comfort doesn't come without a cost, and the comfortable Wilderness Systems seats will cost you more than introductory-level models like the Sun Dolphin Aruba 10 or even the more modest Old Town Vapor. In addition to the higher price tag, super comfortable models typically end up weighing more. The lightweight Aruba only has an adjustable back band with no seat cushion and the Vapor’s cushioning is basic with little adjustability in the seat. 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 or spring for a more supportive — and expensive —boat.
The way a boat is designed and manufactured and the material it is made of are key attributes indicating the durability of a craft. In general, these 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 without the kayaks breaking quickly (though you should avoid all of these things if you want to maximize the life and quality of your vessel). 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 the boats that we tested use similar polyethylene plastics, but in different densities. 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 during our testing.
The Sun Dolphin Aruba 10 and Pelican Brume 100XP use a lot less plastic than the other boats, making for a much thinner hull and deck. These are more flexible and seem much less durable than the sturdier plastic used in the construction of the Wilderness Systems, Dagger, Perception, and Old Town kayaks. This was especially evident when we tied the kayaks to our roof racks and noticed the thinner plastic quickly buckling when put under pressure. These particular kayaks are not designed to be put under stress, hence the lower quality material and price dag.
The Dagger Stratos 12.5 S, on the other hand, is designed from premium materials with premium outfitting and is ready to be pushed to the max. With a central pillar to ensure that this will not crumple under pressure, it is ready to be pushed harder, further, and for longer than any of the other models tested.
Portability is one of those things that you don't think much about until it's time to load your boat on or off your vehicle, carry it to and from water access points, or portage it. However, since you have to carry your boat every time you use it, it's a critical aspect to consider. You may not want a boat that is way too cumbersome to lift and carry by yourself without the assistance of a cart. To test this, we looked at each boat's weight, width, and length, and the location and design of its carrying handles.
The weight of the boats we tested range from the Sun Dolphin Aruba 10 and Pelican Brume 100XP at 40 pounds to the Jackson Staxx at 64 pounds. But this doesn't tell the whole story: the width and length also play a big part in how easy or difficult it is to carry your boat, how well it will fit onto or into your vehicle, and if it will fit in your storage spare. 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 a measuring tape to ensure it'll fit where you want it to.
All of the boats we tested have both bow and stern handles, with the Jackson Staxx and Wilderness Systems Tarpon and Pungo offering the most robust design to compensate for their extra weight. The Staxx, Tarpon, and Perception Tribe 11.5 also offer side handles on the port and starboard sides right by their seats which we found particularly helpful when hauling these kayaks around.
The Wilderness System models, the Pelican Tribe 11.5, and the Ocean Kayak Malibu 11.5 all come with replaceable stern skid plates. These take the brunt of knicks and scratches if you needed to pull your boat behind you on the ground.
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 tags 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.
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