Comprehensive Reviews of Top Rated Kayaks
Kayaks have come a long way in the last century. Over the decades, kayaks have gone from a historical mode of transportation to specialized recreational vehicles, complete with top of the line special features and customizable configurations. Lake or sea, relaxation or stimulation, there is almost certainly a kayak designed just for your purpose.
So what is a recreational kayak? Well for our purposes, we are defining it as anything that gets you out on the water, whether you’re looking to get pumped with an upper body workout or catch a rainbow trout for dinner. The best recreational kayaks of 2019 are not the ones with the most features, or the most expensive add-ons, but rather the kayaks that are all about balancing performance and affordability.
The Three Main Styles of Top Rated Recreational Kayaks
Sit-On-Top Style Kayaks
Sit on top style has become more and more popular in recent years because of the added stability and versatility of not having to be crammed into a little hole. However this comes with a few drawbacks, as it is more likely to get you completely wet and does not have the increased storage of sit-in kayaks.
This is the more traditional kind of kayak where you sit in a ‘cockpit’ and your legs go in to the kayak cavity. This provides storage and speed, but the narrower shape of the boat makes it less stable than sit on top style kayaks.
Stand on top kayaks are kind of the ‘new kid on the block’ when it comes to watersports. Not to be confused with stand up paddleboards, which have a different construction style, stand-on-top kayaks are particularly popular among fishermen who enjoy being able to cast from a more powerful standing position.
Recreational Kayaks vs. Sea Kayaks
If you are interested in reading more about how recreational kayaks differ from sea kayaks, check out Paddling.com’s awesome handy guide on the subject.
The Four Best Recreational Kayaks
#1 SUNDOLPHIN ARUBA 10-foot Sit In Kayak
The reason we are putting the SUNDOLPHIN ARUBA at the top of our list is because of its reputation as a great entry-level kayak for beginners or those who are still getting used to the water. It doesn’t have the bells and whistles of the Bali 10 SS or the fishing capabilities of the Excursion 10 SS, but it’s a sturdy model with good balance and high-performance tracking for a boat at this price range.
The ARUBA features a large open cockpit which is not as restraining as some of the more advanced kayaks, and the added comfort can be important while you are still learning to paddle. Gel padded seat is just what you need for this situation, though folks who are serious about learning to kayak will want to consider upgrading the seat.
One issue we have noticed with SUNDOLPHIN is the slight inconsistencies on their production line. Our team received two identical ARUBA kayaks, well, they were supposed to be identical. We measured some significant differences both in terms of overall length, thickness of plastic, and the width of the cockpit bore. These differences were small but noticeable; likely the result of inconsistent molds being used at the factory.
There was an additional quirk with the placement of the boat’s single storage compartment, and that is that it is located at an awkward angle behind the seat, so is not always easy for the rider to access.
All in all, this is a great beater kayak that will provide years of use.
SUNDOLPHIN ARUBA 10-foot Sit In Kayak
- Durable molded plastic construction
- Comfortable wide-bore cockpit
- Lacks additional storage
- Slight inconsistencies in molding process
#2 Dagger Kayaks AXIS 12.0
|12’||27.5”||325 lbs||55 lbs|
The AXIS kayak by North American Kayak gurus Dagger Kayaks represents the very best in a growing trend known as hybrid kayaks. Hybrids are long enough to maintain speed in larger lakes and slow moving rivers, but retains the maneuverability required for more advances water conditions like open ocean and moderate rapids. It is this ability of the AXIS to move seamlessly from lake to ocean that earned it a place on our list.
This is not the best kayak for a beginner, but most riders will find it to be a highly manageable ride with a forgiving steer and generous tracking that made it an absolute pleasure to paddle in. It’s a fast boat, in fact faster than most of the kayaks on our list. That’s why this thing really excels in lakes, as opposed to choppier waters of the open ocean.
One of the drawbacks to a longer, faster kayak is a reduction in overall stability as a result of a thinner hull, and that is certainly the case with the AXIS. While it doesn’t flip at the drop of a hat or anything, it will have some trouble maintaining keel against harsh lateral waves. So again, lakes are the way to go with this one.
Our favorite thing about the AXIS is the included drop-skeg, a feature that doesn’t come standard on many models but is an important upgrade for anyone who wants to keep their boat moving straight in any water conditions. It’s also height adjustable. That’s an added element of control we are happy to pay a few bucks more for.
And that’s really the only other drawback to this kayak. She’s perhaps on the expensive side for recreational kayaks, but we are writing her a pass in light of her hybrid performance capabilities.
Dagger Kayaks AXIS 12.0
- Hybrid kayak for river, lake, or ocean
- Fast; good tracking
- Included adjustable height drop-skeg
- Low to moderate lateral stability
- More expensive than other recreational kayaks
#3 Old Town Canoes & Kayaks HERON 9XT Recreational Kayak
Here is a kayak that straddles the line between entry-level and prosumer, offering an affordable and easy to paddle kayak with a few of the more advanced features that you start to get with fancier boats. In other words, anyone looking to make the step up from their first kayak might be interested in the HERON, as it goes just a bit farther than ‘entry-level’ without adding too much to the price tag.
The first thing you are going to notice is an increase in storage space compared to other recreational models. The stern click-seal hatch is big enough to store gear for a longer day of travel without having to worry about water getting in there and damaging everything. Now it’s not the same kind of storage that you will find on a fishing kayak but more than enough for day or even weekend use.
The HERON rises above other beginner recreational kayaks in only one area however, and that is comfort. Old Town has spent over a century producing boats and kayaks, and their experience really shows with the Comfort Flex seat. Between its considerable adjustability and the track-based foot brace system, it is possible for riders of all heights to find the perfect position for them.
One of the biggest issues here is the tracking. The HERON just doesn’t steer like we’d want it to; the second you stop paddling you will notice some turning. For this reason we don’t recommend it for long-distance travel, but it’s great for a paddle around the bay.
Old Town Canoes & Kayaks HERON 9XT Recreational Kayak
- Great storage for an entry level kayak
- Highly adjustable seat & foot positions
- Poor tracking
- Not a fast kayak
#4 Advanced Elements ADVANCED FRAME Kayak
|10.5’||17”||300 lbs||36 lbs|
Okay, so if we’re being completely honest, the ADVANCED FRAME Kayak from Advanced Elements is one of the coolest things what we’ve seen in a while. It combines the portability of a folding frame kayak with the convenience of an inflatable boat, and the result is a kayak that can not only travel with you anywhere in the world, but it also controls just like a traditional kayak.
At 36 pounds it’s absolutely the lightest kayak on our list. Perhaps that has something to do with how well this kayak performs in the water. It basically sits right on top, giving it a snappiness and speed that doesn’t seem natural for a folding kayak. But hey, we aren’t complaining.
The lightweight construction is also the source of a few of the ADVANCED FRAME’s issues. Firstly, the listed 300 pound weight limit seems to be a bit of an exaggeration, as we noticed some sag in the center of the boat at only ~250 lbs. Anything above 225 and we recommend investing in a supplementary backbone to increase rigidity.
There are some durability concerns with an inflatable kayak as these materials are not as sturdy as the more traditional polyethylene-constructed kayaks.
Advanced Elements ADVANCED FRAME Kayak
- Foldable & Inflatable Hybrid for increased portability
- Good speed and handling on the water
- Can sag in the middle over 225 lbs
- Less durable than polyethylene kayaks
Lightweight Kayak Materials
This is by far the most common material used in kayak construction because it offers a good blend of durability and affordability for manufacturers. One drawback of polyethylene is that is can breakdown with exposure to UV light, however, some UV-resistant varieties have started to become available.
ABS is a more advanced synthetic material than polyethylene because it offers UV protection in addition to an increased ability to be repaired. It is generally more expensive than poly.
If you are paddling on a composite boat, then you are most likely an expert or connoisseur. These are some of the most advances constructions in the industry and are usually significantly more expensive than their competitors.
Kayaking Safety Tips
Tip One: Use a life preserver
According to the American Canoe Association, 48% of all fatalities in kayaking are due to the kayaker not wearing a life jacket. Even if you are confident in your swimming ability, wearing a life preserver is an effortless way to make sure that you don’t drown.
Perhaps the biggest reason that people don’t like to wear life preservers is because they are uncomfortable, especially for a sport that utilizes so much upper body and arm movement. Fortunately there are now several options for life jackets designed specifically for canoeing and kayaking where arm movement is essential.
Tip Two: Pay attention to the weather
Knowing what the weather is up to is a good way to prevent getting caught in cold waters. If you are unsure about the conditions at your location, it is often best to check with local boating departments to inquire about the forecast.
Know how long it will take you to get back to safety in case of a sudden storm.
Tip Three: Know your local boating regulations
Regulations for non-motorized water travel can vary from state to state and town to town, so be sure to check with local authorities about what is required for your trip.
In general, regulations include personal flotation devices for individuals under a certain age, and lighting for travel after dark when visibility becomes an issue and there is risk of collision. If you are thinking of getting some lights for your kayak, check out our list of the top kayak lights.
Tip Four: Practice Re-Entering Your Kayak From The Water
The last thing you want to do is flip your boat out in the open water and have no idea how to get back on.
Even if you are an experienced kayaker, it is a good idea to practice re-entering your new kayak if you are not familiar with it.
Top Recreational Kayak Brands
Old Town Canoes & Kayaks
Old Town claims to be both the oldest and largest manufacturer or canoes and kayaks in North America, and if the quality of their product line is any indicator, we believe them. Their significant experience in the industry has allowed their products to continue to be popular even in the face of new competition.
The biggest thing that Dagger Kayaks has going for them is a dedicated research and development team composed of professional riders. The result is a company that offers some of the most innovative and lightweight kayaks on the market.
California based Advanced Elements have made a name for themselves by cornering the market in inflatable kayaks, which have become increasingly popular for the modern adventurer because of their increased portability and convenience.
If you’re interested about reading more on different kayak brands, check out our article on Leading Kayak Brands.
Q: Which is better: Sit On Top or Sit Inside?
A: The ongoing debate between the two most popular styles of kayak is largely a moot point as it has more to do with personal preference than anything else.
Sit On Top kayaks have become popular with a lot of people because of their stability and ease of use. Many people do not like to have their legs confined in a tight space, and in addition, it allows you to hang your legs over the side.
Sit Inside kayaks are still the gold standard for rivers and turbulent waters because they offer considerably more control in advanced conditions like rapids and waves where a paddle alone is not enough to control the movement of the boat.
Q: Do I need a drop-skeg on my recreational kayak?
A: A Drop Skeg is a piece of equipment that is available on most kayaks as an add-on installation that provides improved tracking as the result of increased below-surface water contact. If you are just getting into kayaking, then you will not likely require a drop skeg. However if you are looking to increase your speed and handling and ready to progress to the next level, then this will be a logical addition to your rig.
Q: Can I fish off of a recreational kayak?
A: We don’t see why not! While not as stable or feature-heavy as fishing kayaks, recreational kayaks provide you with unrestricted access to the water, and sometimes that is all you need to catch a fish.
However without the added storage, pole mounts, and standing platforms of kayaks designed for angling, it might be more complicated than it seems. If you are more interested in buying a kayak designed specifically for fishing, you can check out some of our favorites here.
Q: Why are sit in kayaks more stable than sit on top kayaks?
A: The biggest reason that kayaks with sit-in capabilities are more stable is because your body is closer to the water and therefore has a lower center of gravity. This gives you a greater control of the boats stability, as well as the option to use your core to help prevent tip-over. For this reason, sit-in kayaks are the go-to choice for river paddlers and extreme adventurers.
The Best Recreational Kayak of the Year
Narrowing it down to four was a challenge, so picking the very best recreational kayak of the year is going to be close to impossible.
In terms of sheer performance, we can’t deny that the Dagger AXIS 12.0 is simply one of the most versatile kayaks on the market. You can’t beat its control in waters of any type, and while it’s a few bucks more than the rest of the recreational kayaks that we took a look at, we think it is worth it for the better engineering.
What the AXIS cannot offer is the out-of-the-box approachability and comfort of a beginner kayak like the SUNDOLPHIN ARUBA, which is simply the best bang for your buck if you are looking to get into kayaking or simply need a spare kayak for when the family is in town.
Didn’t find what you’re looking for? Check out The Best Sit on Top Kayak for your Adventures for more kayak reviews!