Recreational is a very general term, and recreational kayaks covers a wide range of boats. This is the category for people who are looking to just go out and have some fun on the water. If you have a more specific or ambitious goal (kayak camping, whitewater rivers, or coastal touring, for example) you will need a more specific boat. But recreational kayaks are great in that they are smaller, less expensive, and user friendly.
Start with the decision of Sit-On-Top(SOT) or Sit Inside. SOT’s are often people’s first introduction to kayaking. This is what you will find at most rental locations. Their huge advantage is that they are relatively easy to get on and off – even in the middle of the lake. That makes them safer for those without experience. They also tend to be quite stable and make a good platform for fishing/diving/bird watching/etc. Many have room for equipment and the decks can be customized to your purpose. Some of them even are equipped with a pedal drive system that allows you to use your legs to move around – which leaves your hands free for other things. The downside to SOT’s is that they leave you more exposed to the water, and water is often cold. They can also be harder to control in rough water since you normally have less connection to the boat.
Sit inside kayaks (sometimes referred to as closed deck) have the benefit of separating you from the water. You sit in the cockpit which might be very open or relatively small. The smaller openings allow you to use a spray skirt that helps to keep water out and the paddler even warmer (though if you use a spray skirt you NEED to practice getting it off if the boat should tip). The other issue with a cockpit is that if the boat does flip then it will fill with water. So it takes more knowledge and skill to get the water out and get back into the boat (classes are highly recommended). It is also important to know if your kayak has built in flotation – some do and some don’t. The main advantage to a snug cockpit is that it will not only keep you warmer it will also give you greater control over the boat, and once you have some skill and experience this control will allow you to handle rougher conditions (wind and waves).
Whichever way you go, the next thing to consider is size. Recreational kayaks can range from as short as 8’ up to about 14’, and there’s a huge difference. Short boats are lighter, easier to fit on/in the car. But they don’t paddle as well. By that we mean that they are less efficient (it takes more effort to get where you’re going) and they don’t track as well. Tracking is the natural tendency to go straight. Most paddlers want to go straight, but in general the shorter kayaks will turn more and often create frustration. The more paddling you do, the more a longer kayak will make you happy.
Finally, there is the question of the material from which the boat is made. Most recreational kayaks will be made from rotomolded plastic. It’s relatively cheap, requires no maintenance, and holds up to abuse well. It’s also the heaviest of materials. Some boats are made out of thermoformed plastics which are lighter and stiffer but tend to cost a little more. Composite recreational kayaks aren’t that common, but they are the lightest (and most expensive) option if that is really important to you. No matter what material you get, make sure you store your boat out of direct sunlight – it breaks down all the materials and can greatly shorten the life of your boat.
Recreational kayaks are great and are the first kayak for many folks. But if you want to get more serious about paddling, have more options and locations to go to, be able to handle more challenging conditions and get more performance out of your boat, then you might want to consider a sea kayak (more in Boat Primer #3).