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What Size Kayak Do I Need?

Finding the right kayak may seem simple, but one of the most common questions people ask is, “What size kayak do I need?”

Hint: There is no right answer! It all depends on what is the best fit for you.

If you are a beginner, it is easy to assume that all kayaks are the same; therefore, it should be an easy decision. But choosing the right size kayak can be complicated.

Choosing your perfect kayak is an essential step in having the most possible fun out on the water. And who doesn’t want to have fun, right?

Understanding the following information on width, length, and kayak volume, while also keeping your own body type in mind, can lead you in the right direction.

Below is a simple but detailed guide to better understand everything you need to know in your search for the perfect kayak.

This is a guideline, not a hard and fast rule since everyone has different needs. But this should help you get started.

What size kayak should you get?

When you are a beginner, looking for a kayak can be a little intimidating. Surprisingly, your own body weight and height don’t necessarily play the lead role in the size of the kayak you need. Don’t get me wrong, your body type is a factor, but not the only one.

Although you need a kayak that fits you comfortably. Your body type will more closely align with the size of paddle you need to use.

Kayaks come in different sizes depending on factors such as:

  • The activities the kayak will be used for (fishing, camping, leisurely paddling)
  • How much gear you take with you
  • The type of water the kayak will be used on
  • How much space you have to store the kayak
  • How you will transport the kayak

You can use the guidelines in this article to help, but ultimately the best way to find the appropriately sized kayak is to sit in it and see what feels the most comfortable.

How you plan to use your kayak will also help in your search. Here are some examples of different kayak sizes.

Kayak dimensions

There are three important elements when it comes to kayak size, length, width, and volume (more on this later).

Finding the right kayak also means you need to account for how much the kayak weighs, the size of the cockpit, and how much gear (weight) the kayak can carry. When everything is just right, then you have found your kayak.

Cockpit size

The cockpit needs to be a good fit for you since this is where you spend all of your time on your kayak. The cockpit needs to fit you comfortably, with plenty of room for your waist and lower body.

There is also safety to consider, you need to be able to get out of the cockpit in case you flip the kayak.

Some cockpits have more room than others, depending on the type of kayak. Some people will choose a sit-on-top kayak vs a sit-inside kayak because they are easier to get on and off and give you more room to move around.

Legroom

Legroom is critical to choosing the right kayak. You don’t want to be cramped in a small space when you are paddling for hours (been there).

If you are tall, like over 6’3″ you definitely need a longer kayak than someone who is 5’5″. Sit-on-top kayaks (where the paddler sits on an open deck) give you more space overall. Many people prefer a SOT kayak because they are easy to get on and off.

A sit-inside kayak gives you a more snug fit and it’s not as easy to get in and out as a SOT kayak. But with a sit-in kayak, you can press your thighs against the coaming to give you more control over the kayak.

All that said, you should find a kayak that fits you comfortably and gives you enough legroom.

Kayak width

Kayaks come in different widths, depending on how they are designed. A sea kayak has a more narrow cockpit than a standard sit-inside recreational kayak. If the kayak is designed to cover long distances quickly the kayak needs to be long and narrow.

Some sea kayaks are as narrow as 22 inches wide. By comparison, the Sea Eagle 380x inflatable kayak is almost 40 inches wide (talk about stability).

Kayak length

We spoke about kayak width, now let’s talk about length. Kayaks that are made to cover large bodies of water quickly are longer kayaks, like sea kayaks.

The average recreational kayak you can find at a big box store will be in the 9-12 foot range. Sea kayaks can be much, much longer up to 17 feet in some cases.

Kayaks designed for whitewater are much shorter because the paddler needs to be nimble on the water, making quick adjustments.

Kayak weight

Kayaks are very awkwardly shaped, and in addition, they can be heavy to carry around. Many recreational kayaks weigh in the 30-65 pound range.

Now, that might not sound like much, but trying to lift a 50-pound kayak onto a roof rack on an SUV is no simple task. The kayak is long and weird-shaped, so more weight makes this process harder.

Kayak weight capacity

Many people don’t think about the weight capacity of a kayak. Not only do you have to consider your own body weight, but also the gear you pack with you. Gear can add up in a hurry, and there isn’t a whole lot of space on a kayak.

Some kayaks have a 275-pound limit while others have up to 700 pounds of capacity.

Kayak Volume

Kayak volume refers to the boat’s total carrying capacity.  This size information can be measured in cubic feet or gallons (super confusing) and was created to help paddlers better understand how much space they can expect to find in a particular kayak.

Example of a high volume kayak Pin
Photo by Isaac Liljeholm on Unsplash

This article is not intended to get super technical, but there are a few guidelines to keep in mind. Low, medium, and high volume measurements help the paddler understand how much internal space the kayak has available.

Your weight and height also play an essential role in kayak volume and finding the best size kayak.

It’s good to know that almost all kayak manufacturers have various sized kayaks to include people of different shapes and sizes. Volume, length, and width are all factors that you should consider when choosing the kayak’s right size.

Most kayaks are made in high, medium, or low volumes to cover all options, whether sporty or relaxed touring.

High Volume Kayaks

A larger or taller paddler would be better matched with a kayak that has high volume. Larger paddlers weighing 180lbs or more and are 5’10” or taller will probably be most comfortable in the higher volume kayaks.

These kayaks work well for larger paddlers because they have extra space to carry more gear! This can be perfect for longer-distance paddling day-long trips or longer outings.

Some examples of high-volume kayaks would be recreational and beginner kayaks. They are made with higher beams that are easier for newer paddlers to work with.

However, something to consider is that these kayaks have a more challenging time functioning properly in choppy and windy weather.

Medium Volume Kayaks

Average-sized paddlers tend to lean toward the medium-volume kayaks. People weighing between 140 and 180lbs and are about 5’7″ to 5’10” tall are perfect for handling and maneuvering medium-sized volume kayaks. These sized kayaks have just enough space for long-distance trips and overnight stays.

Low Volume Kayaks

A smaller paddler may want to consider a kayak with a lower volume and a lower deck because it gives them better hip and thigh control. After all, the deck is lower.

Smaller paddlers that weigh less than 140lbs and stand less than 5’6″ will want to try out the lower volume kayaks. 

They are long and have much less internal space. These low-volume kayaks are great for touring and longer trips. They also have a high-efficiency level making them more comfortable for smaller paddlers to maneuver and control.

Kayak sizes

Sea and touring kayaks

If you will be using your kayak to tour, travel swiftly from one point to another, or just explore leisurely, you will look for a longer kayak with a slightly longer waterline. The waterline is the length of the kayak at the waterline.

This design is created to ensure a straight line that enables sufficient tracking and speed when on the water.

This type of kayak is for more relaxed water settings and is perfect for the explorer looking for a great way to enjoy the scenery as they paddle along. This kayak works best on a bay or out at sea, as the name would suggest.

The extra length in these kayaks makes them great for long-distance traveling and multi-day trips. The hull typically measures from 12 to 20ft in length, and the beam width can vary from 18 to 28 inches.

This means that while they may be more difficult to paddle, they make up for it in their ability to track swiftly.

The extended sized kayaks are faster because of the smaller bow-wave created at the bow of the kayak. The bow is farther away in these extended boats making it easier for the kayak to overtake the wave when it hits. This is referred to as the “hull speed.”

Recreational kayaks

Recreational kayaks are popular for lakes, slow-moving rivers, inlets, etc. A recreational kayak can be a sit-inside or a sit on top. These are roughly in the range of 9-12 feet long and are about 28-34 inches wide. They often weigh about 35-70 pounds.

Recreational kayaks are pretty stable, easy to paddle, track well, and have room for gear. These kayaks are designed for easy paddling and transport.

Tandem kayaks

Tandem kayaks are built for two paddlers. I have said it before and I will say it again. Tandem kayaks are a blessing and a curse. The blessing is you have 2x the paddling power! The curse is that no matter how fast you paddle, you can’t get away from your co-paddler.

When my wife and I were looking at buying our first kayak, the guy asked if we wanted a tandem. That was a hard “NO” for my wife.

Anyway, back on point here. All things being equal, tandem kayaks are longer than a solo kayaks, because you need room for two people and gear. Tandems tend to average in the 12-14 foot range.

Fishing kayaks

Fishing kayaks need to be stable, when you are casting, or reeling in fish, you need a stable boat. Some fishing kayaks are stable enough to stand up and cast.

Fishing kayaks tend to be a bit longer and wider than your average, run of the mill kayak. You can expect a fishing kayak to fall in the 10-14 foot range. But, fishing kayaks are often wider than an average kayak, about 30-42 inches wide.

Whitewater kayaks

Whitewater kayaks are in a whole different class altogether. These kayaks need to be small and nimble. Many of these kayaks are 6-7 feet long.

Finding the best kayak for a tall person

If you happen to be on the taller side, your best bet is to find a 10ft to 12ft long recreational kayak. Or if you’re interested in the sea and touring kayaks, a tall person may find the 14ft to 16ft paddlers more comfortable.

There can, of course, be exceptions to weight and height when looking for the right kayak. If you are tall and thin, you may have to compromise what you find comfortable.

Your weight may put you in a low volume kayak, whereas your height may place you in a medium volume kayak. As well as if you happen to be shorter and a little heavier.

At that point, it’s all about finding what makes you the most comfortable. Weight can be added to your preferred kayak hatches to help it maneuver how you are most comfortable.

So adjustments can be made to ensure the most comfortable ride in most cases.

What activities are you doing?

Different activities require different sizes of kayaks; it’s not all about your height and weight. For example, you don’t want to take a long sea or touring kayak down a raging whitewater river. Whitewater requires a smaller, much more agile boat.

Man going through whitewater in a kayak Pin
Photo by roya ann miller on Unsplash

Likewise, most medium-sized recreational, or day trip kayaks are not meant for touring on the ocean. For calmer bays and seas, you would want a longer boat that will be much faster and require less effort to cover distances.

Test out a kayak before you buy

If you have the opportunity to test a kayak before you buy, that is ideal.  You may want to rent a kayak and try different sizes before you take the plunge. 

You may have considered every little detail when trying to find the perfect kayak, but thinking and knowing can be two completely different things when finding the perfect size kayak.

A more experienced paddler may know what they are looking for and jump in feet first.

But if you are just starting out, the best advice that I can give you is to seek out advice from more experienced paddlers around you or in your area.

The last thing you want to do is make a purchase on a kayak that absolutely doesn’t feel right.

FAQs

Is a 10 ft kayak big enough?

It really depends on what kayak fits you and your activity the best. A 10-foot kayak is great for an average-sized person paddling on calm water.

What size kayak should a beginner buy?

A recreational kayak in the 9-12 foot range is great for a beginner. Beginners need a kayak that is stable and easy to paddle. A 10-foot recreational kayak is a great place to start.

How do you determine what size kayak you need?

The right kayak size is the one that fits you the best and is best for your activity. A longer more narrow kayak will go fast and straight. A wider, shorter kayak will sacrifice speed, but is better for a beginner.

So, what size kayak do you need?

What size kayak do i need - multicolored kayak on the beach Pin

Hopefully, you have a better understanding of what size kayak you need.  Unfortunately, the answer is both simple and a little complicated.

Acknowledge your weight and height and consider the volume, width, and length of the kayak you are looking to purchase.

Knowing what you plan to use your kayak for is a huge help in making your decision and sitting in different models to see what feels most comfortable.

Remember to always be safe. Wear the proper protective gear and life vests, and always check your local weather before going out on the water. Another safety precaution is always having another paddler with you on the water. Have fun, and stay safe!

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About the author
Steve
Steve is the owner of Paddle About, a blog that's all about helping people get out and enjoy nature. He loves to kayak, camp, hike and spend time outdoors with his wife and two kids. When he's not out 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.