The 9 Best Recreational Kayaks of 2021

The latest picks for leisure paddlers

Our editors independently research, test, and recommend the best products; you can learn more about our review process here. We may receive commissions on purchases made from our chosen links.

TRIPSAVVY-best-recreational-kayaks

Chloe Jeong / TripSavvy

The Rundown

Best Overall: Wilderness Systems Pungo at Amazon

"Wilderness Systems Pungo 120 has several crowd-pleasing features that equip it for everything from casual paddles to overnight adventures.” 

Best Budget: Old Town Vapor 10 at Backcountry

"This compact yet comfortable kayak comes in at a just-right price for beginner paddlers or those who don’t want to drop their whole vacation budgets on gear.”

Best for Beginners: Ocean Kayak Malibu 11.5 Kayak at Austin Kayak

“One of the newest additions to the Ocean Kayak Malibu line, this kayak is designed for fun and comfort.”

Best for Fishing: Vibe Yellow Fin 120 Kayak at Amazon

"It moves seamlessly through the water and is specially designed for sitting or standing, which anglers love.”

Best for Rivers: Old Town Sorrento at Austin Kayak

"This day touring kayak has universally useful features, as well as a drop-down rudder to help the kayak maintain a straight line while paddling in river currents.”

Best Inflatable: Advanced Elements AdvancedFrame Sport Inflatable Kayak at L.L. Bean

"With its aluminum rib-frame technology, this is a hard-charging inflatable that rivals hard-shell kayaks in stability.”

Best for Lakes: Old Town Heron 9XT at Austin Kayak

“Built sturdy enough to take on rapids, the Old Town Heron 9XT tracks seamlessly though calm lakes.”

Best Tandem: Ocean Kayak Malibu 2XL at Austin Kayak

"Reviewers applauded the versatility of this tandem kayak saying it transitions from camping to fishing to a day-outing kayak with ease.”

Best for Families: Perception Tribe 13.5 at Austin Kayak

"The more the merrier in the Perception Tribe 13.5 with a three-seat configuration for up to two adults and a small child or pet.”

Whether you’re paddling off the coast of Puerto Rico or the Charles River, kayaking is one of the best ways to enjoy the water. Recreational kayaking is remarkably welcoming to newcomers who can pick up the basics in a matter of minutes and casual paddlers. The sport is also enjoyable for more advanced paddlers who exchange their kayaks made for speed and rough waters for leisurely days exploring easy waters in mangrove forests or lakes. We’ve scoured the Internet for the top boats in the category. Here are the best recreational kayaks of 2021.

Best Overall: Wilderness Systems Pungo

Wilderness Systems Pungo 120 has several crowd-pleasing features that equip it for everything from casual paddles to overnight adventures. A multi-chined hull means the Pungo is smooth in the water and stable. It’s the comfort features where this boat really excels. The Phase 3 Pro seat is fully adjustable and delivers ergonomic support while paddling. The mesh-covered foam is quick drying. The cockpit also features a dashboard with a removable dry box, cupholders, and a recessed area to add a battery to keep electronics charged while you’re on the water. You can turn a day trip into an overnight using the storage in a rear sealed bulkhead.

Best Budget: Old Town Vapor 10

Old Town Vapor 10 Kayak

Courtesy of Backcountry

Old Town is a respected name in the adventure sports world with credentials dating to its 1898 founding. This compact yet comfortable kayak comes in at a just-right price for beginner paddlers or those who don’t want to drop their whole vacation budgets on gear. The Vapor 10 places comfort first with a roomy cockpit, contoured seat, and adjustable foot brace system. The molded single-layer construction also offers a paddle rest and a cup holder for hands-free gliding. Day wells secure extra gear, like rain jackets and lunch, with bungee cords. Plus, you won’t break a sweat hefting this boat in and out of the water; the lightweight design weighs only 47 pounds.

Best for Beginners: Ocean Kayak Malibu 11.5 Kayak

 Ocean Kayak Malibu 11.5 Kayak

Courtesy of Ocean Kayak

If you're new to kayaking, or just want an affordable option that's easy to get in and out on the water, look no further than the Dagger Zydeco 9. This high-quality kayak was designed with novice paddlers in mind. It's a little shorter than other kayaks on our list, measuring 9 feet in length, but this allows for excellent maneuvering when you're on the river. Being able to maneuver also allows you to steer easily, and helps instill confidence so you can return to the water knowing you've mastered all the paddling strokes. The Zydeco 9 features a spacious cockpit and an adjustable seat so you can travel in comfort. Plus, the bungee rigging allows for supplies to be taken with you on your journey. This kayak weighs 36.5 pounds, can hold up to 220 pounds, and is available in three different colors.

Best for Fishing: Vibe YellowFin 120 Kayak

This kayak marries stealth, speed, and stability. It moves seamlessly through the water and is specially designed for sitting or standing, which anglers love. It’s also equipped with features anglers will enjoy, including a ventilated Hero seat and adjustable foot braces. It offers easy access to 10 fishing gear tracks, paddle parks, waterproof cargo hatches, and two flush-mount rod holders. With a 400-pound load capacity, anglers needn’t worry about having to leave their favorite gear at home.

Best for Rivers: Old Town Sorrento

Old Town Sorrento 126SK Kayak

Courtesy of Austin Kayak

This day touring kayak has universally useful features, as well as a drop-down rudder to help the kayak maintain a straight line while paddling in river currents. In shallower waters, you can easily retract the rudder, or skeg, using the convenient handle next to the seat. This beginner- and intermediate-friendly kayak also offers a rear hatch and bulkhead and deck rigging bungees for storage. The sit-on-top style is also comfortable thanks to adjustable foot braces. It comes in two sizes: the 106sk for smaller paddlers and the 126sk for taller individuals.  

Best Inflatable: Advanced Elements AdvancedFrame Sport Inflatable Kayak

Advance Elements AdvancedFrame Sport Inflatable Kayak

Courtesy of L.L. Bean

With its aluminum rib-frame technology, this is a hard-charging inflatable that rivals hard-shell kayaks in stability. The hybrid design offers aluminum ribs from the bow and stern that deliver good tracking through the water; however, the inflatable design still means this kayak packs away for storage quickly and easily. The triple-layer inflatable fabric is durable. It inflates in minutes and just requires you to attach the seat before you’re on your way into the water. Keep in mind that inflatable craft are generally made to navigate current and aren’t well suited to windy conditions.

Best for Lakes: Old Town Heron 9XT

Old Town Heron 9XT Kayak

Courtesy of Austin Kayak

Built sturdy enough to take on rapids, the Old Town Heron 9XT tracks seamlessly though calm lakes. It’s suited to beginner and casual paddlers in the market for extras, including an adjustable comfort flex seat with added seat and back padding, a foot brace system, thigh ads, a paddle keeper, and a cup holder. At only 39 pounds, this boat is also perfect for solo paddlers who don’t have an extra pair of hands to heft their boat from rack to shore.

Best Tandem: Ocean Kayak Malibu 2XL

Ocean Kayak Malibu 2XL Tandem Kayak

Courtesy of Ocean Kayak

Reviewers applauded the versatility of this tandem kayak saying it transitions from camping to fishing to a day-outing kayak with ease. Thus, the universally well-reviewed kayak is known as the workhorse of the tandem category. The long boat tracks smoothly and quickly through the water. It also has a few bells and whistles such as paddle holders, three optional hatches, cargo lashings for extra storage, and comfort seats. The seat wells are well positioned, so even two tall riders won’t feel cramped. And, if your tandem paddler is taking the day off, you can keep paddling. Simply remove the second seat and reposition a single seat to the middle of the kayak.

Best for Families: Perception Tribe 13.5

Perception Tribe 13.5 Tandem Kayak 2021

Courtesy of Austin Kayak

The more the merrier in the Perception Tribe 13.5 with a three-seat configuration for up to two adults and a small child or pet. The sit-on-top design is roomy and comfortable for all. The molded hull design performs well in ocean waves, flat water, and lazy rivers. It also has a replaceable skid plat on the stern keel to help prolong hull life. When packing for three, you’ll find ample storage here. Bow and stern storage wells with bungees security all your gear. If you need a day off from the family, the center seat is perfectly positioned for solo paddles.

Final Verdict

We love the Wilderness Systems Pungo (view at Amazon) for its overall versatility and creature comforts.

What to Look for in a Recreational Kayak

Type

Think about where and how you plan to use the kayak. Will you be traversing flat water? White water? Ocean waves? There are kayaks for each of these uses.

 Safety

Dan Crandall, owner of The River Store and Current Adventure Kayak School and Trips, both out of California, advises looking for boats with internal bulk heads. “It’s a safety consideration that makes the boat float high in the water and allows you to self-rescue if you tip over.” Some recreational kayaks won’t include this feature. He also advises practicing what you’ll do if the boat tips over and self-rescue close to the shore before you get out into heavier water.

Capacity

Weight capacity is an important consideration. Keep in mind what you’ll be doing with the kayak now and five years from now advises Kevin Fonda, owner of Adventure Kayak Tours {http://adventurekayaktours.net/}. If you’re planning on taking it camping, fishing, or on picnics, all that gear will add to the weight your kayak will need to carry.

 Material

Kayaks are made using a variety of materials and methods, including wood, composite/glass construction, rotomolding (where plastic is poured into a mold), thermoform (where a plastic alloy is coated with acrylic), and inflatable versions made from poly-based fabric. Each has its benefits and drawbacks for maneuverability, durability, and cost.

 Price

Inflatable kayaks may cost less than $100, while prices for higher-end white-water kayaks can quickly climb into the thousands.

 FAQs

How should I transport my kayak?

Whether using a rack or throwing your kayak in the back of a pick-up truck, you should research transport before buying a kayak, says Dan Crandall, owner of The River Store and Current Adventure Kayak School and Trips. “Every vehicle has a different kind of rack. If you’re going to need one, research and purchase that first so you’re not surprised at the cost after you buy your kayak,” he says.

 Should I get a sit-in or sit-on-top kayak?

With a sit-in kayak, your legs are restrained to some extent. Either they’re tucked under the edge of the kayak or they are zipped completely into a kayak skirt. As the name suggests, with a sit-on-top kayak, the paddler sits on top of the boat with free range of motion in his/her legs. New paddlers should opt for sit-on-top kayaks, while more advanced paddlers who have the ability to maneuver the boat if flipped can opt for sit-in versions.

 What’s the difference between a canoe and a kayak?

Kayaks are much lighter and easier to maneuver than canoes. However, they’re also easier to flip. Generally, they can be righted fairly easily.

 How should you maintain your kayak?

Kevin Fonda, owner of Adventure Kayak Tours {http://adventurekayaktours.net/}, says maintaining a kayak is easy as long as you take a few simple steps, including never tying down the boat tightly during transport and protecting it from UV rays when storing. “Whenever you’re in a saltwater environment especially, always rinse the entire kayak with fresh water to remove damaging salt,” he says. “Lastly, I would say not to drag and pull kayak along rough surfaces. Although most modern kayaks come with replaceable skid plates, the keel or rear of boat is the most common area to get damage and need plastic welding and repairs.”

Why Trust TripSavvy

Freelance travel journalist Ashley M. Biggers learned to kayak in her home state of New Mexico. Since then, she’s paddled in ocean waves off the coast of New Zealand, the rivers of Florida, and many places between.

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