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Our Top Picks
Best Overall: Riot Escape 12 at Amazon
"Performs admirably in pretty much every day-long activity on the water, including fishing, day touring, and snorkeling."
Best Buy: Xplor California at Amazon
"Delivers high-quality craftsmanship at a low-cost price of less than $500."
For All the Bells and Whistles: Jackson Kayak Cruise FD at Backcountry
"This pedal-driven kayak makes it easy to get up to speed—or reverse and maneuver into tight spots."
For a Low-Cost Pedal Craft: Hobie Mirage Compass at Amazon
"Uses their proprietary Mirage Drive system ... to cut resistance and deliver a smooth, efficient ride."
For Travelers: Oru Kayak Beach LT at Amazon
"Small enough to store under your bed or to easily check for a long-haul flight."
For Tandem Paddling: Hobie Mirage Oasis at Amazon
"Employs some serious proprietary tech to make the boat glide smoothly and quietly across the water."
For Fishing: Wilderness Systems Radar 115 at Amazon
"Very maneuverable regardless of how you choose to provide that forward (or reverse) momentum."
For Low-Cost Touring: Riot Edge 14.5 at Amazon
"Measures 14.5 feet, long enough to track smoothly without drift thanks to the retractable rudder."
Our Top Picks
Best Overall: Riot Escape 12
Riot Kayaks has outfitted the Escape 12 as an angling-specific craft, it performs admirably in pretty much every day-long activity on the water, including fishing, day touring, snorkeling, and exploring—though it’s 12-foot length makes it tricky for tight river rapids. With a weight-carrying capacity of 300 pounds, it’s plenty robust enough to haul a full fishing or day-touring kit, and includes tie-down bungee deck rigging, and hatches to keep everything secure and in place as well as twin rod holders and a cup holder. The molded seat includes a high, adjustable backrest for hours of paddling comfort, and at around 55 pounds, it’s easy to maneuver and haul in and out of the water. Perhaps best of all, the price ranks as one of the best all-around deals going.
Best Buy: Xplor California
Designed with beginner kayakers in mind, the California from Xplor Kayaks delivers high-quality craftsmanship at a low-cost price of less than $500. The emphasis on the California is on fun; at eight feet and ten inches long and a base weight of only 38 pounds, it’s highly maneuverable in pretty much any condition, from rapids to small waves to placid lakes, rivers, and streams. It doesn’t come with nearly as many bells and whistles as other kayaks on this list, but it does have makes all the difference, including molded footrests for a comfortable ride, a back storage area secured by a bungee cord, and a standing platform for stand-up rod casting or to turn the boat into a stand-up paddling vessel. The boat is made of roto-molded polyethylene recyclable plastic with a high-grade UV stabilizer to fend off the damaging rays of the sun for seasons of reliable use, and its 300-pound carrying capacity lets you haul a lot more than you’ll probably need for a day on the water.
For All the Bells and Whistles: Jackson Kayak Cruise FD
If speed and efficiency are just as important as the ability to kit you’re your kayak for a variety of different sports, the Cruise FD will deliver. This pedal-driven kayak makes it easy to get up to speed—or reverse and maneuver into tight spots since the chain drive works in both directions. The propeller utilizes three blades, which can be adjusted to match your personal pedaling style with a flex drive system for hands-free momentum and an exclusive articulating “daggerboard” prop helps hold the boat’s position against the wind and adapts to shallow water obstacles.
To the right of the breathable mesh fabric seat sits the dual-rudder control system that lets you make micro-adjustment course corrections while pedaling. Tour kayakers will make ample use of the front and rear storage hatches as well as the bungeed rear tank well, but they’ll absolutely love the bag that’s integrated into the back of the seat. Made by leading dry-bag manufacturers SealLine, the roll-top bag keeps all the fragile items—phones, cameras, food—100 percent dry and easy to access without exiting the seat.
Anglers, meanwhile, can outfit the craft with a long list of fishing accessories. With a carrying capacity of up 400 pounds, it’s almost impossible to overload. The only drawback? It's a bit expensive.
For a Low-Cost Pedal Craft: Hobie Mirage Compass
One of the first kayak brands to introduce pedal kayaks, Hobie’s Mirage Compass offers a relatively affordable entry into what lots of kayakers consider to be the most efficient way to ply the waters. The Mirage Compass uses their proprietary Mirage Drive system amped by “Glide Technology” that adds roller bearings at key friction points in the system to cut resistance and deliver a smooth, efficient ride.
A tight turning radius makes it nimble in tight corners, and though the boat is on the long side at 12 feet, its flat deck makes it easy to stand and rod cast, with an oversized cockpit that can carry up to 400 pounds. The two-piece paddle helps navigate surf and rocky inlets with ease, the spring-loaded rudder folds flush when you’re ready to exit the water—and it also automatically flips up if you happen to encounter an underwater obstacle.
Fish-friendly features include rod holders on both sides as well as a breathable mesh fabric seat set to the optimal height for angling, with room enough to store taken underneath. Storage includes a flexible mesh platform, a rear bungee section in the stern, and an eight-inch-round twist-and-seal cockpit hatch that sits between your legs. And if you want to go light and simply paddle, that drive system sits on a click-and-go mount, so it’s easy to remove the kit to clean, store, and paddle.
For Travelers: Oru Kayak Beach LT
When Oru introduced their first foldable kayaks, it revolutionized the paddling world. Inspired by the age-old tradition of origami, the Beach LT folds up to the size of a large portfolio or suitcase, small enough to store under your bed or to easily check for a long-haul flight. And at only 26 pounds, it’s half the weight of most other kayaks. But just because it all folds together (in about five minutes, with practice) don’t expect it to be fragile. They encourage you to treat it just like any other fiberglass watercraft; the five-mm double-layered polypropylene material has been manufacturer-rated for 20,000 fold cycles, with a ten-year UV treatment to fend off impacts from the sun. With that portable simplicity, however, it doesn’t come with a lot of add-ons. But Oru offers a variety of accessories, including a carrying pack, paddle, seat wedge, and a set of two dry bags. It measures 28 inches in width to deliver an easy, stable ride, and can carry up to 300 pounds.
For Tandem Paddling: Hobie Mirage Oasis
If you’re looking for a vessel that can handle two passengers without sacrificing any agility or performance, the Mirage Oasis is a smart choice. This 14.5-foot-long kayak comes with two MirageDrive pedaling systems, which employ some serious proprietary tech to make the boat glide smoothly and quietly across the water.
Spacious enough to carry an overnight camping trip or a whole shop of fishing gear (buoyed by a carrying capacity of 550 pounds), the boat comes three eight-inch twist-and-seal hatches, generous on-deck bungeed storage, mesh storage sacks, side bunch lashes, and molded-in rod holders. The two seats are four-way adjustable and breathable, and the rudder control that sits to the left of each seat is subtle enough to control with your fingertips.
T-shaped control handles retract and engage the rear rudder with ease while pushing on pedal forward will position the ST fins for shallow water landings.
For Fishing: Wilderness Systems Radar 115
If you prize kayaks for the simplicity, access, and convenience it affords for fishing over a love for paddling, the Radar 115 is replete with different options, from traditional paddling to pedaling to outfitting the craft with a motor driver. At just less than 12 feet in length, the boat proves to be very maneuverable regardless of how you choose to provide that forward (or reverse) momentum. In fact, the hull design employs Wilderness System’s SMART tech—an acronym that stands for stability, maneuverability, acceleration, responsiveness, and tracking to handle all sorts of water conditions.
It can carry up to 450 pounds and comes with an adjustable seat that sits high, though, with a width of just less than 35 inches, it’s easy to stand for casts as well. You get loads of storage options suitable for a day on the water, as well as a flat mountain surface for additional accessories.
And if you want to really layer on the tech, go for the Helix PD, a built-in steering system that offers hands-free fishing or one of several side-scanning fish finder tech tools.
For Low-Cost Touring: Riot Edge 14.5
Anyone who uses their kayak for touring will tell you that it’s easy to spend far too much money on a tour-specific craft. But if your ambitions only stretch to day-long tours across flat water, the Edge 14.5 offers an affordable entrée into what’s likely to become a life-long obsession. This slender, slim kayak measures 14.5 feet, long enough to track smoothly without drift thanks to the retractable rudder, with a 36.5-by-19.5-inch cockpit that’s roomy without exposing to the elements.
The seats adjust easily, and includes adjustable sliding foot braces as well as thigh braces; in fact, the Edge can accommodate a skirt, so it makes it a great option to transition into a full-fledged “sit-in” kayak when you’re ready. As you’d expect with a touring vessel, it includes ample deck rigging to lash your gear, as well as bulkhead-sealed front and rear compartments reinforced with dual-density hatch covers.