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A Beginners Guide To Different Types of Kayaks

Confused about the different types of kayaks? Well, given the number of different kayak types out there, it’s understandable. Kayaks are designed for all different purposes and activities — and there are enough varieties to fit almost any environment.

So, you can’t tell the difference between a River Runner and a Sea Kayak? Don’t worry. This article will break down the different kayak types, their ideal environments, and their intended purposes.

The Basics: Flat Water vs. White Water

If you’re reading this article, chances are you’re not going to hit the most turbulent waters in town anytime soon. And that’s okay — because understanding kayak basics involves understanding the different types of water they are designed for.

One of the main distinctions in kayak types is between Flat Water and White Water kayaks.

Flat Water Kayaks

Flat Water kayaks are designed for stable ponds, lakes, ocean inlets, harbors, and slow-moving rivers. They are built to handle relatively calm water, but they’re not as dull as you think!

Some Flat Water kayak types are designed to take an occasional large wave or two — and that distinction (among others) separates different Flat Water kayaks from one another.

Flat Water kayaks include the following types: Sit-Inside, Sit-On-Top, Touring, Sea, and Inflatable. They are mostly for relaxed recreational purposes. They can be accessible to beginners, or serve as good watercraft for those who want to take scenic tours, go fishing, or just explore nature.

The differences between Flat Water kayaks (reviewed later in this article) are mainly found in their construction. Some Flat Water kayaks — being made for larger bodies of water — are much larger than others.

Other Flat Water kayaks use different seat positions, while still others are made of different materials.

White Water Kayaks

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Photo by Chip Vincent on Unsplash

If you’re in the need for speed, White Water kayaks are designed for high-velocity rivers and whitewater rapids. They include Play Boats, River Runners, Creek Boats, and Duckies.

White Water kayaks are highly maneuverable in turbulent waters and can be adapted for trick or performance use.

These are small, light kayaks capable of making tight turns in dangerous river conditions.

Though they perform well in rushing rapids, White Water kayaks are not always the best types of craft for longer trips on steadier waters. They also do not have the carrying capacity of Flat Water kayaks.

Like Flat Water kayaks, however, White Water kayaks differ in size and construction. Some are smaller and are suitable for greater maneuverability, while others are larger and provide greater control.

Types of Flat Water Kayaks


The Sit-Inside kayak is based on the traditional type of kayak — which was used for hunting and transport. Sit-Inside kayakers sit inside (as you may have guessed) a seat called the cockpit, which is located in the hull of the boat.

The cockpit accommodates the user’s legs and covers the user up to their waist or midsection. The kayak uses a spray skirt to keep water out of the cockpit and off of the user.

Sit-Inside Kayaks are usually between 8 and 12 feet in length — with popular recreational lengths usually about 10 feet. They usually are around 28 inches, and maximum weight capacities are usually 250 to 300 pounds.

Sit-Inside kayaks are distinguished by their construction. They are not always exclusively Flat Water kayak models.

In fact, some White Water kayaks are technically Sit-Inside kayaks — and it is not uncommon for kayakers to broadly distinguish kayaks between Sit-Inside and Sit-On-Top varieties.


“Okay, a Sit-Inside kayak may be great for a trip to the Arctic,” you might say. “But I want to relax! Isn’t there a kayak that’s right for that?”

Why, yes, there is. That would be a Sit-On-Top Kayak.

Sit-On-Top kayaks are constructed so the paddler can sit in or on top of the kayak hull. These types of kayaks are popular among beginners and are good for relaxed kayaking activities.

These types of kayaks are usually around 10 feet in length and can typically have maximum weight capacities around 400 pounds. Their hulls are somewhat wider than Sit-Inside kayaks, at around 30 to 34 inches.

Sit-On-Top kayaks are constructed so that the user’s legs are above the deck. In a Sit-On-Top kayak, you are likely to get wet — so you might want to use these kayaks only for warmer weather!

Click here for more information on sit-on-top kayaks.

Touring Kayaks

Tired of short trips on your Flat Water kayak? Want to get away for the day? You might want to try a Touring kayak.

Three people in different types of kayaksPin
Photo by Devon Divine on Unsplash

Touring kayaks are designed for longer-range trips on bodies of water, such as larger lakes and bays. They track well, meaning they can easily move in straight lines and not veer off to the side when you paddle.

Typically, Touring kayaks are about 12 to 15 feet long and have a body width of 23 to 26 inches. They are more often of the Sit-In variety and can carry between 300 to 400 pounds in total weight.

While Touring kayaks are often confused with Sea Kayaks, they are somewhat shorter. But both have relatively narrow dimensions and suitable for longer trips on rougher waters.

Sea Kayaks

They’re neither Pequod-tested nor Ahab-approved, but Sea Kayaks will make ocean travel a tiny bit easier — at least in kayaking terms.

Sea Kayaks are long, sleek kayaks designed for harbors, bays, and places within earshot of the open ocean. Like Touring kayaks, they are built to track well and handle larger waves.

Sea Kayaks, however, are generally longer than Touring kayaks, at around 14 to 24 feet. They also can have very narrow body widths (at times less than 20 inches). Most heavy-duty Sea kayaks are Sit-Inside, though some are Sit-On-Top.

And if you’re traveling at sea, you’ll have plenty of room for your provisions in a Sea Kayak. Hatched compartments forward and aft are standard in these kayaks, giving you great places to store salted beef and sea biscuits.

Inflatable Kayaks

Inflatable kayaks have had a reputation for being the most unstable or the least durable out of all kayaks. That probably isn’t true, but they are certainly the most misunderstood.

Inflatable kayaks are generally Sit-On-Top kayaks constructed out of synthetics like Hypalon, Polyethylene, Neoprene, and PVC (Polyvinyl chloride). They are usually for a variety of Flat Water uses — and well-made inflatables aren’t quite as prone to popping as some may think.

Types of White Water Kayaks

Play Boats

You will have a hard time finding a better way to look cool in a kayak than a Playboat. These are short, hard-bodied Sit-Inside kayaks used for doing tricks and in freestyle competitions.

At lengths of under six feet, Playboats are generally the smallest type of White Water kayak — and are highly maneuverable. Playboats do not track well but can make tight turns.

River Runners

River Runners are a little longer than Playboats — at about 7.5 to 9 feet — and are more stable, faster craft for downstream whitewater kayaking. They are made for rivers with high-volume flows and offer more control than some larger White Water kayaks.

If you see a moderately-sized, low-volume White Water kayak with a low rocker (the curvature of the hull from the ground to the bow/stern), chances are you’re looking at a River Runner.

Creek Boats

Creek Boats, like River Runners, are about 7.5 to 9 feet in length. The difference is that Creek Boats are bigger and are designed for kayaking down steep creeks (of course) and streams.

The chines in kayaking refer to the edges of the boat that go below the waterline. The softer the chines are, the more surface area is in contact with the water. The harder the chines are, the less surface area is in contact with the water.

Hard chines make for more maneuverability and tighter turns. Soft chines offer more stability and control. If you’re looking at a Creek Boat, keep chines in mind.


Duckies differ from other White Water kayaks in that they are inflatable. Despite this, they are durable and highly resistant to rolling. Duckies are specifically designed to handle rocks and other whitewater conditions.

Other Types Of Kayaks

There are many other types of kayaks, including:

  • Sail Kayaks – kayaks that can have sails attached to them
  • Surf Kayaks – kayaks designed specifically for beach surf conditions,
  • Pedal Kayaks – kayaks that are powered with the user’s legs/feet,
  • Fishing Kayaks – kayaks with designed for fishing, including comfortable seats and rod holders,
  • Tandem Kayaks – kayaks of all types designed for two or more people, and
  • Diving Kayaks – wide-bodied kayaks intended initially to carry undersea diving gear.


Different types of kayaks - kayaks stacked on a rackPin

Different types of kayaks can be used specifically for different environments and purposes. Although this guide illustrates primary kayak differences, it will hopefully serve as a good starting point for those interested in this fantastic sport.

Feel free to contact me with any questions.

Steve, Founder of Paddle About
Steve is an avid kayaker and founder of Paddle About. When he is not on the water, Steve enjoys outdoor activities, including fishing, camping, and hiking with his family. Read more.