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.

Types of kayaks 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 and variations of each. 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

Kayak types - A man in a whitewater kayakPin
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.

Different Types of Kayaks – Flat Water

Sit-Inside 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.

Sit-On-Top Kayaks

“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 of 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.

Folding Kayaks

Kayaks have been around for centuries and come in all shapes and sizes. However, a new and different kind of kayak has been gaining in popularity over the last few years – folding kayaks.

Folding kayaks are exactly what they sound like – kayaks that fold up for easy transport and storage. They are made of lightweight materials, so they can be easily packed away into a small space.

These kayaks are about the size of a suitcase when they are folded up.

Another great thing about them is that they are new to the market, and there are different options to choose from.

Oru Kayak dominates the folding kayak market. These kayaks have similar features to a sit-inside kayak, including bulkheads and a decent amount of storage space.

Oru Kayak has a variety of models, from smaller kayaks to ocean-going and tandem kayaks. Weight capacities vary depending on the model.

Tandem Kayaks

Tandem kayaks are a kayak built for two paddlers. This can be a blessing and a curse. The blessing is that you have twice the paddling power! The curse is that no matter how fast you paddle, you can’t get away from your partner.

Couple paddling a blue tandem kayak on a lakePin

When my wife and I looked for different kinds of kayaks, she took a hard pass on a tandem kayak. She likes to do her own thing and paddle her own adventure. I totally get it… but I digress.

Tandem kayaks are great if you want to take kids, pets, or both on the water with you. Typically, tandem kayaks are of the SOT variety, but you will see a sit-inside tandem kayak every now and then.

Many inflatable kayaks are available for two or more paddlers. Personally, I love the Sea Eagle 380x. It has plenty of room for two people and gear. I can also paddle solo and have lots of space for me and my stuff.

When you look at kayaks, all things being equal, a tandem will generally be less expensive than two solo kayaks.

So, when you are looking for different types of kayaks for you and your partner, think long and hard about whether a tandem is right for you.

Hybrid Kayaks

There is a new type of kayak that is quickly gaining in popularity- the hybrid kayak. This kayak is a combination of a paddleboard and a kayak, and it offers the best of both worlds.

Paddleboarding is growing in popularity every year, and the hybrid kayak allows people to enjoy that experience while also having the ability to sit down and paddle when they need to.

With a paddleboard-kayak hybrid, you get the large open deck of a SUP with greater paddling performance of a kayak.

This activity has grown in popularity over the past few years, and many people enjoy this simple activity because it allows them to experience the beauty of being out on the open water.  

The downside of a hybrid kayak is that you don’t get the protection offered by a sit-inside kayak or the load capacity of some larger kayaks.

Pedal Kayaks

What’s better than kayaking hands-free?

Pedal-powered kayaks are popular for kayak fishing, and people who get just plain get tired of paddling. These kayaks have pedals to power the boat, which helps you move faster and with more efficiency.

Pedal-powered kayaks are a great option if you want to cover more distance quickly or if you want to avoid using your arms to paddle.

If you have bad shoulders but still want to enjoy a day on the water, a pedal-powered kayak is an excellent option for you. After all, paddling all day can be tiring.

If you want to spend the entire day on the water without tiring your arms, this is a better alternative.
Pedal-powered kayaks come in various shapes and sizes, so you can find one that fits your needs.

They also come with various features, so you can choose the one that best suits your needs. If you are an angler, pedal kayaks give you an added advantage of less splashing, so you can quietly sneak up on your fishing hole.

Fishing Kayaks

Kayak fishing has become super popular, and you need a kayak that is up to the task. Fishing kayaks typically have gear tracks and rod holders pre-installed.

Gear tracks allow you to customize the kayak. For example, you can add a GPS, fishfinder, and other accessories. Many fishing kayaks also have an anchor trolley system and other accessories.

Fishing kayaks also have lots of storage for fishing gear. Typically there is enough rear storage for a kayak crate, a cooler, or both. Plus, you get a lot of legroom with a fishing kayak.

When you are talking about serious fishing kayaks, you are looking at sit-on-top kayaks. Many are stable enough to stand up and cast. However, they are often heavier than other types of kayaks.

Most fishing kayaks come with elevated and adjustable seats, like a stadium seat or lawn chair style seat. This can be really helpful, especially if you are taller than average.

Adjustable seats and plenty of legroom are great for long days of fishing.

Fishing kayaks can be SOT, sit inside, or inflatable. Most of the time you will see SOT fishing 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 are 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 Kayaks – White Water

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.

Man kayaking over whitewater in a yellow kayakPin

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.

Inflatable Kayaks

I mentioned inflatable kayaks for flat water above, but they can also be used on whitewater. The Sea Eagle 380x is a good example of a kayak that is rated up to Class IV rapids. There are many other inflatables available in the market too.

Inflatables have the advantage of being easy to store and transport from place to place.

Other Types Of Kayaks

There are many other types of kayaks, including:

  • Surf Kayaks – kayaks designed specifically for beach surf conditions
  • Diving Kayaks – wide-bodied kayaks intended initially to carry undersea diving gear
  • Sail Kayaks – these are not super common, but some kayaks are designed to add a sail. This makes for easy paddling when catch the wind, not so easy going against the wind 🙂
  • Crossover Kayak – designed for a variety of conditions, like a slow moving river that has some gentle rapids in some places.


What are the different types of kayaks?

The main types of kayaks are sit-inside, sit-on-top, touring, and inflatable. There are different models and varieties under each kayak type.

What is the most popular type of kayak?

The most popular kayak types are sit-inside and sit-on-top.

What is the difference between types of kayaks?

Differences between kayak types include construction, design, and purpose (what the kayak is used for).


Different types of kayaks - kayaks stacked on a rackPin

Different kinds 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.

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Steve Morrow owns Paddle About, an outdoor recreation and travel blog. Steve loves to travel, kayak, paddle board, camp, hike, and spend time outdoors with his wife and two kids. When he's not exploring the great outdoors, Steve enjoys writing about his adventures and sharing tips for getting the most out of your outdoor experiences. He has a lot of interesting stories to share, and he's always happy to help others get more out of life.

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About the author
Steve Morrow
Steve Morrow owns Paddle About, an outdoor recreation and travel blog. Steve loves to travel, kayak, paddle board, camp, hike, and spend time outdoors with his wife and two kids. When he's not exploring the great outdoors, Steve enjoys writing about his adventures and sharing tips for getting the most out of your outdoor experiences. He has a lot of interesting stories to share, and he's always happy to help others get more out of life.