So you have decided to try out paddle sports and possibly purchase a kayak. Wonderful! Paddling is a great way to get on the water and explore our lakes and rivers! The best way to choose a kayak is to try them out or demo them. Just like you would try out a car before you buy it, you need to test a kayak’s bells and whistles to make sure it will fit your needs.
The first thing to try, before you even put the kayak in the water, is how the boat fits your body. When you sit in a kayak you should sit up straight, rest the balls of your feet on the foot braces, and slightly splay your knees out and under the thigh braces (if your boat has them) or rest against the combing. Your seat and foot braces should be adjustable, ask your local paddle shop or person to help you adjust them to your needs. The space between your hips and the side should feel comfortable roughly about the thickness of your palm. The cockpit combing should be not much high or lower then the top of your hipbone. This allows your body to flex around the boat and to develop good stroke technique. If a boat does not fit you comfortable it will feel to big and you body will feel sloppy as you paddle or if the boat is to small you will feel abnormally tippy and paddling will be harder for you to enjoy.
Now you can put your kayak in the water. While sitting in the kayak and staying close to shore test the boats stability. Use your hips to gently rock side to side and see how far and easy it is to balance your self. Some may prefer a very wide and stable boat while others maybe like the feel of something narrower. Remember there are advantages and disadvantages to each!
Once you feel comfortable with your balance start paddling in a straight line. Pick a point on the horizon and try paddling straight towards it. How well does you boat track? A shorter boat is more likely to zig-zag towards your target while a longer boat is less likely. Also note how efficient you are. Does it really feel like you have to work with each stroke to move through the water or with every stroke does it seem like you glide across the surface. What do you prefer?
Now take the opportunity to turn your boat in circles. How easy is it for you to turn? Can you turn your boat in 5 strokes or 20? Now lift the opposite knee of the direction you will turn and edge your boat to one side. (Ex: lift left knee to drop the right edge into the water and turn right) The ability to hold an edge will help longer boats turn quicker than shorter boats. The ability to edge a boat will also help down the road as you learn more technical strokes and maneuvers. The length of your boat, for some, may be decided by the length of trips you want to take and the amount of gear you want to pack.
Check out the stern of your kayak. There are three options skeg, rudder, or nothing. Try deploying the skeg and rudder and paddle straight and in circles. A skeg deploys beneath the water and will create drag while turning but keep you going straighter in windy conditions. A rudder will help you turn but creates a larger surface for the wind to catch on windy days and since it deploys above the water there is risk of injury when re-entering your boat if you capsize. The longer the boat is the more likely it is to have a rudder or skeg. Short recreational kayaks don’t have this option. Ask your local paddle shop for more details and benefits of each option.
When you make it back to shore the last thing you need to try is to test the weight of the boat. Pick up the boat and try walking around with it on your shoulder. Remember that every time you want to paddle you must load and unload your kayak 4 times! That could be a total weight of 200+ lbs you lift each trip. Weight is also a big factor to performance in other areas of your paddling so even if 60lbs doesn’t seem bad it make affect your performance in your on-water skills.
There are many things to consider when demoing a kayak for the first time. If this is your first time trying out kayaks and you still aren’t sure what kayak will work best check with your local paddle shop and try out some classes. Spending time and learning in a boat you chose will make your buying decision a lot more firm and you’ll be more comfortable with your new purchase!