If you’re new to the world of paddling, picking the best kayak for beginners can be an overwhelming task. Where to start? What’s the best kayak for me? How much does a kayak cost, anyway?
Depending on your needs and the type of water you’ll be paddling, there are lots of options, from traditional, sit-inside recreational kayaks to lightweight sit-on-tops, inflatable kayaks, kayaks designed for kids and beginner fishing kayaks. Fortunately, some of the top rated kayaks on the market are also some of the best starter kayaks. You don’t need to sacrifice quality, stability or ease-of-use just because you’re buying a kayak for the first time.
First, let’s review the best beginner kayaks, then we’ll go over how to choose which one fits your needs.
- Best All Around Kayak for Beginners: Wilderness Systems Pungo 120
- Best Lightweight Kayak for Beginners: Sun Dolphin Aruba 10 SS
- Best Recreational Kayak Under $500: Old Town Vapor 10
- Best Sit on Top Kayak for Beginners: Ocean Kayak Frenzy
- Best 2 Person Inflatable Kayak: Sea Eagle SE370
- Best Cheap Inflatable Kayak: Sevylor Quikpak K5
- Best Kayak for Kids: Lifetime Youth Wave
- Best Sit on Top Tandem Kayak: Ocean Kayak Malibu Two
- Best Beginner Fishing Kayak: Perception Pescador Pro 12
- Best Fishing Kayak for the Money: Sun Dolphin Excursion 12 SS
Below, check out American Paddler’s comprehensive kayak buyers guide to help you wade through the best kayak brands and arrive at a decision that’s right for you — and your wallet.
Beginner Kayak Reviews
A QUICK RUNDOWN: THE 10 BEST BEGINNER KAYAKS OF 2018 (COMPARISON CHART)
|KAYAK||TYPE||WEIGHT LIMIT||BEST FOR||PRICE||AP RATING|
|Sun Dolphin Aruba 10 SS||Sit inside||280 lbs||Lightweight||$$|
|Old Town Vapor 10||Sit inside||325 lbs||Affordability||$|
|Ocean Kayak Frenzy||Sit on top||325 lbs||Ease of use||$$|
|Wilderness Systems Pungo 120||Sit inside||325 lbs||All around||$$$|
|Sea Eagle SE370||Inflatable tandem||650 lbs||Tandem budget||$|
|Sevylor Quikpak K5||Inflatable single||400 lbs||Portability||$|
|Lifetime Youth Wave 6||Kids||130 lbs||Kids||$|
|Ocean Kayak Malibu Two||Sit on top tandem||425 lbs||Two people||$$$|
|Perception Pescador Pro 12||Fishing (sit on top)||375 lbs||Fishing||$$$|
|Sun Dolphin Excursion 12 SS||Fishing (sit inside)||395 lbs||Budget fishing||$$|
Best All Around Kayak for Beginners – American Paddler’s Pick
Wilderness Systems Pungo 120
Among beginner recreational kayaks, the Wilderness Systems Pungo 120 shines in just about every facet. With a reputation for quality, well-built kayaks that last a lifetime, Wilderness Systems doesn’t disappoint with its popular and best-selling Pungo 120.
From its fully adjustable, ergonomic vented seatback to its knee and thigh padding and SlideLock XL foot brace system, the Pungo 120 is the “Cadillac” of recreational beginner kayaks, with superior all-around comfort and performance. The Pungo 120’s multi-chined V-hull offers exceptional stability and tracking even in faster-moving waters, making this kayak a versatile option for lakes, rivers or even longer touring day trips.
As far as gear storage goes, the ingenious “dashboard” design means your valuables, drinks and fishing lures are all within easy reach, with additional dry storage in the stern and shock-cord bungee strapping. And at just 49 pounds, it’s light enough to transport easily.
Wilderness Systems Pungo 120 features
- Well-designed recreational kayak with reputation for quality construction
- SlideLock XL foot brace system, “dashboard” storage and ergonomic seatback
- Multi-chined hull for exceptional tracking and stability
- Lightweight, versatile kayak for multiple uses and conditions
Best Lightweight Kayak for Beginners
Sun Dolphin Aruba 10 SS
This sturdy, spacious and comfortable sit-inside kayak is a great choice for your first purchase. Made of light and durable UV-stabilized polyethylene, it’s the most lightweight hard-shell kayak on our list — perfect for easy storage and portability.
With a generous dry storage well, hands-free electronics console and removable, tow-behind portable accessory carrier (P.A.C.), gear storage will never be an issue with this kayak. There’s even a water bottle slot and cupholders in front of the cockpit — how’s that for convenience?
The Aruba 10 SS comes in green, blue, red or orange. For the budget-conscious, there’s also the Aruba 10 — its sister kayak with slightly fewer bells and whistles — or the Aruba 12 SS for taller paddlers.
Video: Sun Dolphin Aruba 12 SS (the Aruba 10 SS’s bigger cousin)
Sun Dolphin Aruba 10 SS features
- Lightweight (280 lbs)
- Loads of gear storage
- Great for handling on lakes and slow rivers
- Adjustable seat, foot braces and paddle holder
Best Recreational Kayak Under $500
Old Town Vapor 10
If you’re not looking to spend a lot of money, but still want a steady, lake- and river-ready starter kayak, the Old Town Vapor 10 is a great choice. Another lightweight, sit-inside kayak, the Vapor 10 doesn’t offer the storage space of the Aruba 10 SS, but is exceptionally comfortable and portable for a budget kayak.
The big, open cockpit means larger paddlers will fit with ease, and it’s even possible to kayak with a dog, if that’s your thing. For a wider kayak, tracking and stability is excellent.
The open storage compartment behind the cockpit provides easy access to gear, but isn’t watertight, which can be a problem on lakes with larger waves. Both the seat and foot pegs are adjustable, but some paddlers have opted for seat upgrades for greater comfort.
Old Town Vapor 10 features
- Affordable, stable sit-inside kayak for calm lakes and rivers
- Lightweight (47 pounds)
- Large, open cockpit for larger paddlers or dogs
- Great tracking and stability for the price range
Best Sit on Top Kayak for Beginners
Ocean Kayak Frenzy
Sit on top kayaks are becoming increasingly popular among recreational paddlers for their ease-of-use and superior stability. Among sit-on-tops, the Ocean Kayak Frenzy offers a smooth and comfortable ride with ample leg room to stretch out.
Like most sit-on-top kayaks, the Frenzy has self-bailing “scupper holes” to drain any water that might happen to splash in — which is bound to happen. Its four-way, high-back adjustable seat also means superior comfort while paddling calm waters.
Although just 9 feet long, the Frenzy offers a unique, overlapping foot well system to accommodate various-sized paddlers. And if you find the Frenzy just isn’t long enough for you, Ocean Kayak also offers the Scrambler 11 — an extended version of the Frenzy. Both models offer a shock-cord bungee system for gear storage, and a smaller dry storage well for keys, wallets or phones.
Ocean Kayak Frenzy features
- Light (44 lbs), easy-to-use kayak for beginners
- Great stability and a strong keel for superior tracking, even in mild waves
- Cupholders, shock-cord bungee strapping and 6-inch dry storage well
- High-back, adjustable seat
Best 2 Person Inflatable Kayak
Sea Eagle SE370
While no inflatable kayak will match the performance or stability of a hard-shelled model, their lower price point and easier storage make inflatable kayaks an accessible option for those new to paddling. And the Sea Eagle SE370 — which I’ve personally owned — is one of the best-made inflatable models out there.
Weighing just 32 pounds, the Sea Eagle SE370 is rated to hold a whopping 650 pounds, making it one of the best kayaks for big guys as well as tandem paddlers. While advertised as a three-person kayak, the Sea Eagle SE370 can comfortably seat two adults and handles a variety of surf conditions with ease.
This kayak comes with two paddles, a foot pump, carry bag, two seats, bow and stern spray skirts and a repair kit — though its durable PVC exterior and three inflatable chambers are pretty puncture-resistant.
The best part? When you’re done, it fits in the trunk of your car with ease.
Sea Eagle SE370 features
- Three inflatable chambers (meaning even if you do spring a leak, you’re fine)
- Inflates in 8 minutes, deflates to fit inside carry bag
- Can handle rough waves and up to 650 pounds
- Comes with paddles, seats, foot pump, carry bag, spray skirts and repair kit
Best Cheap Inflatable Kayak
Sevylor Quikpak K5
What a time to be alive. If you’d have told someone 10 years ago they could take their kayak backpacking, you’d have received a few cross-eyed stares. Now, with the Sevylor Quikpak K5, you can actually do just that.
Inflating in just five minutes, the Quikpak is the ultimate in portability for an inflatable kayak, folding up into a backpack carrying case when you’re done. The best part? When you inflate your kayak, the backpack doubles as your seat.
With 24-gauge PVC construction and a tough ridged tarpaulin bottom, the Quikpak K5 isn’t likely to puncture, and its patented Airtight System and DoubleLock valves mean it isn’t likely to leak, either (actually, the company guarantees it). Overall, this could be the best single-person inflatable kayak on the market.
Sevylor Quikpak K5 features
- Deflates into a backpack weighing just 25 pounds
- Puncture-resistant 24-gauge PVC exterior
- Zippered rear storage compartment for gear and food
- Comes with hand pump, carry backpack and aluminum paddle
Best Kayak for Kids
Lifetime Youth Wave
We’ve taken a look at some of the best beginner kayaks on the market, but what about the best kayak for kids? The 6-foot Lifetime Youth Wave kayak allows even the most inexperienced youngsters to get their feet wet (literally) with paddling.
Molded from high-density polyethylene for a strong and durable construction, the Lifetime Youth Wave kayak is a sit-on-top model designed to help children learn the ins and outs of paddling. Rated to carry up to 130 pounds, kids of all ages can play around on this kayak, and at just 18 pounds, it’s light enough for most children to handle on their own.
The rear “swim-up step” allows kids to enter the kayak from the water, and its sit-on-top design means it’s difficult to tip and won’t fill up or sink. What parents might like the most, however, is the very affordable price tag.
Lifetime Youth Wave kayak features
- Multiple foot braces to accommodate any sized child
- Easy, lightweight transport with carrying handle
- Comes with double-sided paddle
- “Swim-up step” for easy entrance from the water
Best Sit on Top Tandem Kayak
Ocean Kayak Malibu Two
Perfect for the couple that wants to paddle together, the Ocean Kayak Malibu Two is one of the best-made and most comfortable tandem sit-on-top kayaks out there. Extremely stable and rated to hold up to 425 pounds, this kayak will stand up to waves better than most sit-on-tops.
A “jack-of-all-trades” kayak, the 12-foot Ocean Malibu Two can accommodate paddlers in a variety of situations. Want to take your child and a dog? No problem. Want to paddle solo with more fishing gear? It’s got you covered. And if you really want more room to stretch out, there’s the Malibu Two XL, which offers even greater space for big and tall paddlers.
Self-bailing and with multiple foot holds and high-back seats, the Malibu Two is perfect for paddling on calm rivers, lakes and bays. Although it’s a bit on the heavier side, the kayak’s molded handles and skid plate help with portability.
Ocean Kayak Malibu Two features
- Three seating positions, making it possible to seat two adults and a child
- Limited gear storage space, even for sit-on-top model
- Stable and comfortable, with multiple foot wells and seat positions
- Self-bailing and perfect for taking a dog or fishing
Best Beginner Fishing Kayak
Perception Pescador Pro 12
For the beginning kayaker who’s really serious about fishing, the Perception Pescador Pro 12 is a great fishing kayak for novice or expert anglers alike that offers plenty of zing for the money. With a well-designed hull and straight-tracking keel capable of fishing lakes, rivers or coastal waterways, the Pescador Pro is an angler’s delight.
The Pescador’s removable, stadium-style seat and sliding foot braces offer better comfort and maneuverability than most fishing kayaks, and its ample storage and rigging space provides an abundance of options for the intrepid kayak fisherman. Molded-in rod holders, a sliding “YakAttack GearTrac” system and dedicated space for tackle boxes and coolers add to the Pescador Pro’s versatility.
Perception offers the Pescador in both 10- and 12-foot models, with the 12-foot model better for longer fishing expeditions.
Perception Pescador Pro 12 features
- One-piece rotomolded fishing kayak with numerous options for gear rigging
- Waterproof dry-storage pod and space for fish finders, GPS or batteries
- Self-bailing scupper holes standard with sit-on-top fishing kayaks
- Comfortable, folding stadium-style seat and sliding foot braces for optimal comfort
Best Fishing Kayak for the Money
Sun Dolphin Excursion 12 SS
While sit-on-top fishing kayaks have become the norm in recent years, some beginner kayak anglers still opt for the comfort and familiarity of traditional sit-inside kayaks. The Sun Dolphin Excursion 12 SS, which comes in at a cheaper price point than the Pescador Pro 12, is a great option for those looking to do a little light fishing.
Like Sun Dolphin’s other models, the Excursion comes with both in-deck and optional tow-behind storage with its unique P.A.C. (Portable Accessory Carrier) system. As a fishing kayak, the Excursion offers two mounted rod holders and one swivel rod holder, as well as shock-cord bungees for holding down additional gear.
The lightweight Excursion also is easier to transport than most fishing kayaks, and comes in both 10- and 12-foot models.
Video: Sun Dolphin Excursion 10 (smaller cousin of the Excursion 12 SS)
Sun Dolphin Excursion 12 SS features
- Adjustable foot braces and padded thigh guards for comfort
- P.A.C. (Portable Accessory Carrier) tow-behind storage system
- Mounted and swivel rod holders
- Tracks and paddles efficiently with good stability
How to Choose the Best Kayak for Beginners
Picking your first kayak is an inexact science, but there are a few things to keep in mind.
What size kayak do I need?
Just like people, kayaks come in all different shapes and sizes. Making sure you’ll fit comfortably is one of the most important factors in choosing a good kayak for beginners. There are lots of great kayaks for big guys, for example, as well as smaller kayaks for kids, and many offer different options for seating and comfort.
Before you buy, check the kayak’s maximum weight capacity, and refer to this handy kayak sizing guide to make sure you get one that’s the correct length for you.
Who will use it?
Are you buying a starter kayak with the intention of upgrading later or embarking on longer day trips? Do you plan on fishing from your kayak? Are you buying a kayak for a kid? Different types of kayaks are designed for different purposes, so think about how you’ll use it before you buy.
For most beginner paddlers, a recreational or sit-on-top kayak is perfect for calm lake or river kayaking, whereas those looking to do more extreme adventures such as whitewater paddling or ocean fishing might need something a little more specialized.
Kayaks: Sit in vs. Sit on
Kayaks come in two basic types: traditional “sit inside” kayaks, in which the paddler sits in an enclosed cockpit surrounded by the boat, and newer “sit-on-top” kayaks, which are easier to get in and out of and won’t fill up with water. Sit-on-top kayaks are great for stability, fishing and ease-of-use, whereas sit-inside kayaks — often called “recreational kayaks” — are better for cold-weather climates or for paddlers who prefer not to get wet.
Pros of a sit-on-top kayak
- Better for warmer weather or the paddler who doesn’t mind getting wet
- Easier to climb in and out of, especially on the water
- A wider base means better stability, in general
- More space for kayaking with a dog, child or fishing
- More comfortable, with greater leg room and flexibility
- Self-bailing “scupper holes” means it won’t fill with water
Pros of a sit-inside kayak
- Better for colder weather kayaking or paddlers who prefer to stay dry
- Ability to attach a “spray skirt” for protection from the wind and waves
- Usually includes below-deck storage to keep gear dry
- Lower center of gravity makes paddling easier and offers less wind resistance
- Comfort and familiarity of being “inside” the kayak
How much are kayaks?
While the best kayak for beginners is ultimately a matter of opinion, keep in mind that like anything else, you get what you pay for. Kayaks come at all different price points — from super-affordable inflatable models to higher-end fishing and recreational kayaks — and all offer some value for the money. Do your homework first and make sure the kayak you buy will last you as long as possible.
What to Look for in a Good Beginner Kayak
When making your first kayak purchase, you’ll want to take note of a few things:
If you think you’ll be kayaking with a lot of stuff — especially if you’ll be fishing or camping — take note of the kayak’s storage options. Some offer better space than others, and in general, sit-inside kayaks will offer more dry storage. Others, like the Sun Dolphin models, split the difference with tow-behind storage.
Portability and storage
If portability and transportation is a concern, choose a kayak that’s either lightweight or collapsible. Today’s inflatable kayaks are durable and strong and can handle waves on lakes and rivers with ease — often even better than their hard-shell counterparts. While overall performance won’t quite match traditional hard-shell kayaks, inflatable kayaks are usually cheaper and provide a big advantage in portability.
Most kayaks offer some kind of seat, but experienced paddlers will tell you the stock options aren’t always the greatest. Consider upgrading to a better seat, or choose a higher-end kayak that offers more options. Tandem kayaks can often fit extra paddlers or dogs, but make sure your boat has the room you need before you buy.
Starter kayaks: Final considerations
Buying your first kayak is a big step, but ultimately remember that above all, it’s your kayak. The best kayak for beginners is ultimately a matter of taste, style, preferences and budget. Go with something you’re proud of, and let us know which one you choose.