10 Best Recreational Kayaks of 2018: Your Full Review Guide
What is a recreational kayak? Depending who you ask, a “recreational kayak” can be anything from a narrowly defined traditional sit-inside kayak to a modern, 2018 sit-on-top with all the bells and whistles.
At American Paddler, we take the term in the widest possible sense — that is, the best recreational kayak is anything that gets you off the couch and onto the water having a great time.
That said, “recreational” kayaks typically refer to those boats designed for the casual weekend paddler in mind, and are intended for use on calmer, flat waters such as lakes, protected bays and slow-moving rivers. If you’re looking for something else — a longer touring trip, ocean paddling adventure, fishing rig or whitewater kayaking — check out American Paddler’s other guides.
The best recreational kayaks come in all shapes, sizes and budgets. In this recreational kayak buying guide, we’ll wade through them all in order to find the best choice for you.
- Best All Around Kayak: Wilderness Systems Pungo 120
- Best Sit In Recreational Kayak: Dagger Axis 12
- Best Lightweight Recreational Kayak: Sun Dolphin Aruba 10
- Best Lake Kayak: Old Town Heron 9XT
- Best Recreational Sit on Top Kayak: Ocean Kayak Scrambler 11
- Best Tandem Recreational Kayak: Ocean Kayak Malibu Two
- Best Tandem Kayak to Paddle Solo: Emotion Spitfire 12
- Best Recreational Kayak for the Money: Sun Dolphin Bali SS 10
- Best Recreational Kayak Under $500: Old Town Vapor 10
- Best 3 Person Kayak: Sevylor Big Basin
A QUICK RUNDOWN: THE 10 BEST RECREATIONAL KAYAKS OF 2018 (COMPARISON CHART)
|KAYAK||TYPE||LENGTH||BEST FOR||PRICE||AP RATING|
|Wilderness Systems Pungo 120||Sit Inside||12 feet||All Around||$$$|
|Dagger Axis 12||Sit Inside||12 feet||Performance||$$$|
|Sun Dolphin Aruba 10||Sit Inside||10 feet||Lightweight||$|
|Old Town Heron 9XT||Sit Inside||9.5 feet||Lakes and Rivers||$$|
|Ocean Kayak Scrambler 11||Sit on Top||11 feet||Ease of Use||$$|
|Ocean Kayak Malibu Two||Sit on Top (Tandem)||12 feet||Two People||$$$|
|Emotion Spitfire 12||Sit on Top (Tandem)||12 feet||Heavier People||$$|
|Sun Dolphin Bali SS 10||Sit on Top||10 feet||Value||$|
|Old Town Vapor 10||Sit Inside||10 feet||Affordability||$|
|Sevylor Big Basin||Inflatable (3 Person)||12 feet||Families||$|
Best All Around Kayak – American Paddler’s Pick
Wilderness Systems Pungo 120
For those who want a little bit of everything, there’s the Wilderness Systems Pungo 120. This is an impressive kayak on many levels, and our personal favorite on the list. Combining speed, stability and comfort in an almost seamless package, the Pungo 120 can be used on lakes and streams, for a casual paddle or an overnight adventure.
The multichined hull means the Pungo 120 is both fast and stable, and at just 49 pounds, it’s incredibly light for a performance kayak (it also comes in an upgraded “Ultralite” 40-pound model). For recreational kayaks, the Pungo is nearly unrivaled in comfort as well, with a 6-way adjustable seat that’s both ergonomic and vented for quick drying.
Perhaps the best part of the Pungo, in our opinion, is its creative Kayak Konsole dashboard system that offers quick access to the stuff you need most — phones, lures, drinks or small electronics — right in front of the cockpit. And it’s removable, so if you don’t need it, boom, you’ve got extra space.
Wilderness Systems Pungo 120 features
- Exceptional all-around kayak perfect for casual paddling or longer day trips
- Full-sized stern bulkhead for ample storage and added buoyancy
- Great tracking, stability and speed
- Comfortable Phase 3 AirPro seating system, padded knee braces and adjustable foot pegs
Best Sit In Recreational Kayak
Dagger Axis 12
Though the Pungo 120 wins our vote for “best all around kayak,” the Dagger Axis 12 was a close second. What the Axis lacks in accessories and luxury, however, it makes up for with stellar performance and wins our pick for the “best sit in recreational kayak.”
Branded as a “crossover” kayak that can handle almost any type of water, the Dagger’s superior maneuverability and tracking — aided by a drop-down adjustable skeg beneath the boat and raised bow (also called a “rocker”) — make it an ideal choice for both whitewater and calm paddling conditions.
The Dagger’s seat and comfort options aren’t bad, either, with adjustable seat and foot braces. Bulkhead storage is available in the stern, with bungee strapping on the bow for additional gear.
Dagger Axis 12 features
- All-water, high-performance kayak great for a variety of paddling conditions
- Drop-down adjustable skeg to aid in tracking
- Bigger “rocker” (raised bow) for better maneuverability
- Manageable size and weight at just 55 pounds
Best Lightweight Recreational Kayak
Sun Dolphin Aruba 10
Consistently among the most popular recreational kayaks on the market, the Sun Dolphin Aruba 10 is a lightweight, easily transportable kayak perfect for beginner paddlers. Budget friendly and comfortable, the Aruba 10 holds its own on rivers and lakes and offers a great first-time paddling experience.
The Aruba 10 comes in several brightly colored versions, and its high-density polyethylene construction is fortified with UV protection — meaning those colors won’t fade in the sunlight.
While this kayak comes with a rear storage well and water bottle holder, it doesn’t offer quite the storage space as the upgraded Aruba 10 SS — one of our picks for the best beginner kayak — but it’s still a solid pick for those just looking to get out on the water.
Sun Dolphin Aruba 10 features
- Small, lightweight recreational kayak for easy transport and storage
- Large, open cockpit and stable construction
- Adjustable seat and foot braces, along with thigh guards for comfort
- Affordable option for new paddlers
Best Lake Kayak
Old Town Heron 9XT
Old Town Canoes and Kayaks are known for being sturdy, dependable boats, and the Heron 9XT is no exception. Packing a ton of great features into a small and affordable package, this kayak is a serious competitor in the marketplace.
Built to take a beating, yet nimble enough to handle waves or even class 2 or 3 rapids, not only is the Heron 9XT the best lake kayak on our list — it might be the best river kayak, too. At just 39 pounds, it’s actually slightly lighter than the Aruba 10, yet offers a versatile paddling experience that tracks well and doesn’t lose stability. With such a lightweight construction, it’s easy for one person to carry.
A popular choice at liveries, the Heron 9XT’s comfort flex seat, Support Track foot brace system and knee padding make for a very comfortable ride. A sealed stern bulkhead provides both dry storage and added buoyancy.
Old Town Heron 9XT features
- Small, versatile sit-inside kayak that can handle lakes, rivers or surf
- Comfort flex padded seat with cupholder
- Sealed rear bulkhead for greater stability and dry storage
- Best value kayak combining features and affordability
Best Recreational Sit on Top Kayak
Ocean Kayak Scrambler 11
Among recreational “just-for-fun” kayaks, sit-on-top models are quickly rising to the top for their ease of use and paddle-friendly features. And among sit-on-top kayaks, none beats the Ocean Kayak Scrambler 11, in our opinion.
Ocean Kayak has long been a leader in sit-on-top kayaking, and its best-selling Scrambler tops the list for a reason. Its generous, wide-open deck can accommodate even the tallest of paddlers and offers more gear storage than most sit-on-tops, with an oversized stern well secured with shock-cord webbing. In front of the cockpit is also an additional 6-inch dry storage well for phones, wallets or keys, a very nice feature for a sit-on-top.
The Scrambler is no slouch in performance, either, with a rotomolded Tri-Form hull that cuts through waves like nobody’s business. And paddlers will enjoy a comfortable experience aboard the Scrambler, with multiple foot molds, a high-back seat and convenient cupholder bringing all the modern comforts of life on the water.
Ocean Kayak Scrambler 11 features
- Scupper holes for self-bailing, meaning the kayak will never fill with water
- Ample storage space in both bow and stern
- Bow and stern handles, as well as side-mounted handles for easy portability
- High-back seat and multiple foot channels for superior comfort
Best Tandem Recreational Kayak
Ocean Kayak Malibu Two
For the couple or pair of friends looking for a great stable, versatile kayak for two people, the Ocean Malibu Two should be the go-to choice. It’s popular style and construction hasn’t changed much in almost 20 years, and there’s a reason for that.
Ocean Kayak has figured out the secret to tandem recreational kayaking, and it’s this: versatility, versatility, versatility. The Malibu Two’s basic design and comfortable high-back seats (with three possible positions) make it possible to take this kayak on almost any outing: mountain fishing, rivers, lakes, even smaller ocean waves aren’t out of the question.
Popular with families, dog lovers and anglers alike, the Malibu Two has stood the test of time and offers a great option for your next weekend adventure. Want even more room? Check out the Malibu Two XL.
Ocean Kayak Malibu Two features
- Rated for 425 pounds, capable of seating two adults and a child
- Comfortable for any paddler, with molded foot wells and multiple seat positions
- Self-bailing “scupper holes” means kayak won’t sink
- Molded handles and skid plate for portability
Best Tandem Kayak to Paddle Solo
Emotion Spitfire 12
Kayaking isn’t just for the young, and it isn’t just for the thin, either. But for taller and heavier people, sometimes finding the right kayak can be a challenge.
The Emotion Spitfire Tandem is one of the few hard-shell kayaks with a 500 lb capacity, but that’s not the only reason American Paddler rates this as our best tandem kayak to paddle solo. In addition to its higher weight limit, the Spitfire offers excellent stability and performance for a sit-on-top kayak, as well as some luxury features such as a high-back seat, center storage hatch and rear mesh-covered cargo hold.
Though a bit on the heavier side itself at 90 pounds, the Spitfire offers an “Easy Roll Skeg Wheel” for stress-free transportation. When not paddling tandem, the front seat can be used for extra gear or even a canine companion.
Video: Emotion Spitfire 9, the Spitfire 12’s smaller cousin
Emotion Spitfire 12 features
- One of the few hard-shell kayaks rated for up to 500 lbs on the market
- Large, wide deck for extra stability and leg room
- Center-console hatch for dry storage (rare among sit-on-tops)
- Skeg wheel for easy transportation to and from the water
Best Recreational Kayak For the Money
Sun Dolphin Bali SS 10
If you just can’t decide which recreational kayak is best for you, the Sun Dolphin Bali SS 10 might be worth a look. Though technically a sit-on-top kayak, the Bali’s high walls and deep foot wells give the feeling of a sit-inside kayak with all the freedom you expect from a sit-on-top.
Consistent with Sun Dolphin’s other models, the Bali SS won’t break the bank, either. Still, the Bali SS comes with some sweet features. Besides a comfortable cockpit with dry storage, a cupholder and water bottle holder, the Bali SS also includes Sun Dolphin’s unique Portable Accessory Carrier (P.A.C.), which can serves as extra tow-behind storage or even a backpack.
Great for rivers, lakes or protected coastal waters, the Bali SS tracks well for a budget recreational kayak and is very maneuverable — perfect for the paddler just learning the sport.
Video: Sun Dolphin Bali SS 12, the SS 10’s larger cousin
Sun Dolphin Bali SS 10 features
- Deep-decked sit-on-top kayak offering great comfort, stability and maneuverability
- Substantial on-board dry storage options, as well as tow-behind carrier
- Paddle holder, cupholder and water bottle slot
- Lightweight and easy to operate
Best Recreational Kayak Under $500
Old Town Vapor 10
We had a couple of options to choose from for our “best recreational kayak under $500,” but we settled on the Old Town Vapor 10 for a few reasons. Besides Old Town’s sterling reputation as a manufacturer of great kayaks, the Vapor 10 is one of the best sit-inside kayaks in its price range for accessibility and comfort.
A significant reason for this is its large, open cockpit. A rare feature among budget kayaks, the Vapor 10’s roomy interior is big enough for tall paddlers to get in and out of easily, and it’s also one of the best kayaks for dogs (at least medium-sized dogs), who can fit comfortably in the paddler’s lap.
For the same reason, however, the Vapor 10 is probably best paddled in calm lakes and rivers, as the larger cockpit opening can take on water more easily than most sit-inside kayaks in choppy conditions.
Old Town Vapor 10 features
- Maneuverable and stable, with good tracking
- Small and light enough to fit in the back of a large SUV or truck
- Large, open cockpit for easy accessibility
- Open rear gear well for quick access to cargo
Best 3 Person Kayak
Sevylor Big Basin
There aren’t many true 3-person kayaks on the market, but the Sevylor Big Basin inflatable kayak is probably the closest thing for the intrepid paddling trio. Like most inflatable kayaks, the Big Basin sacrifices a bit of performance to gain a lot in portability and price tag.
Still, for an inflatable kayak, the Big Basin tracks well, with a directional fin and heavy-duty tarpaulin bottom that slices through water. Consistent with most modern inflatables, the Big Basin features multiple air chambers and leak-proof seals, as well as puncture-resistant PVC construction.
While rated for three paddlers and 490 pounds, the Big Basin most comfortably seats two people — although parents could easily take a child along, too. Overall, a great choice for an inflatable kayak.
Sevylor Big Basin features
- Three comfortable, high-back seats with water bottle holders
- Bow and stern spray skirts
- Large, wide base is very stable on the water
- Inflates to 12 feet long, deflates to 34 pounds
What makes a good recreational kayak?
As you might have noticed, kayaks vary widely in price. This is due to a number of factors, but primarily can be attributed to the following:
- Construction and material
- Comfort and luxury features
- Performance (stability, speed, maneuverability and tracking)
- Storage options
Construction and materials
From the least expensive inflatable kayak to the highest-end Kevlar or fiberglass performance boat, kayaks come in all kinds of makes and models. The most common body material for mainstream commercial kayaks is polyethylene — a basic, hard-shell plastic that’s durable and cheap to produce. Polyethylene tends to break down and fade in the sunlight, so kayaks with UV protection are considered better quality than those without.
Performance kayaks tend to be made of lighter weight, yet more expensive, materials such as carbon, Kevlar or fiberglass, but these boats can run into the thousands of dollars.
On the lower end, inflatable kayaks are typically made of a durable material such as PVC that won’t puncture easily and is resistant to leaks.
Comfort and luxury features
Ask any seasoned paddler to tell you the one piece of advice they’d give to newcomers, and they’ll tell you the same thing: invest in comfort. There’s nothing worse than paddling for hours in a stiff, uncomfortable seat or lugging around a paddle that weighs half as much as you do.
Various kayaks come with various comfort options, from adjustable seats, foot pegs and thigh braces to rolling skeg wheels and handles for better portability. Do your homework and make sure your kayak isn’t paddling you.
Some kayaks have extra bells and whistles such as conveniently located dry storage for phones and wallets, cup and water bottle holders, gear wells and customizable options for all kinds of coolers, fishing gear or safety equipment.
Perhaps the biggest factor in determining a kayak’s price is what matters most: performance. Different shapes and sizes offer different paddling tradeoffs. For example, wider kayaks tend to be more stable but harder to paddle, while longer kayaks are faster but harder to steer.
Performance kayaks cost more because their manufacturers have found ways to blend these aspects to create seamless performance on many levels. Hull shape and rocker play a role, but so do add-on features such as rudders and skegs that can greatly impact a kayak’s performance.
“Tracking” is an important term for a kayaker to know, as this affects how easily the boat paddles “straight and true.” Cheaper kayaks can be harder to maintain a straight line, making paddling more of a chore.
As any good Boy Scout knows, you’re only as prepared as the gear you bring. For kayakers, this means storage space is a key consideration when choosing your next boat.
Kayak storage comes in many forms, but the most common for sit-inside models is a watertight “stern well” in which gear can be kept below deck and dry. It goes without saying that some kayaks offer bigger (and more) wells than others. Take into consideration the location, accessibility and size of these pods — as they might come in handier than you think.
The best recreational kayaks will also feature self-contained “bulkheads” below deck. A bulkhead is a stand-alone, airtight compartment that won’t fill with water if the kayak is submerged. Not only do bulkheads help by providing greater storage space, but they also might keep your kayak afloat if you do happen to capsize.
Typically, sit-on-top kayaks and inflatable kayaks don’t offer as much in the way of on-board storage. A good sit-on-top kayak should at least feature shock-cord bungee strapping to tie down gear, and some (like the Ocean Kayak Scrambler 11 above) even offer small dry storage pods for electronics and keys.