What Size Kayak Do I Need?

In most cases, the best recreational kayaks are around 12-16 feet long for most people. However, this range can vary depending on your overall height, weight, and how you are using your recreational kayak. 

Understanding these facts can help you better understand which size kayak you should choose. Just as significantly, it can minimize any dangers you might experience by taking a recreational kayak out in the wrong situation. 

Most people know they have the option of either a sit-in kayak or a sit-on-top kayak. But did you know that there are fishing kayaks, sea kayaks, tandem kayaks, whitewater kayaks, touring kayaks, and more?

Over the years, kayaks and canoes have become increasingly popular as a hobby. Between 2004 to 2017, the number of registered kayaks and canoes rose to a staggering 492,420. 

Suppose you accept that there are probably double that number of unregistered kayaks and canoes. In that case, we’re looking at close to 1.5 million kayaks and canoes – in a nation with over 332 million people, that’s around one kayak for every 30 people.

If you’re interested in joining the fun and buying a high-quality and engaging kayak, choosing one that fits your needs is crucial. Before purchasing a kayak, consider what you want to use it for.

Do you want to get out on the water in a fishing kayak and catch dinner? Do tandem kayaks catch your eye as a great date night activity? 

Are you an adventure lover looking for a sea kayak to channel your inner pirate? Or maybe you’re looking at inflatable kayaks for easy transportation. 

Unfortunately, too many people buy kayaks that are far too long or too short, or even for the wrong type of recreation, and end up very disappointed with their purchase. 

This intensive guide will give you a better understanding of things like kayak usage, height and weight, and many other essential topics. It will also help you answer the question: What kind of kayak do I need?

Kayak Lengths Available

Kayak dimensions come in three different classes: recreational, light-touring, and touring kayaks. Let’s break down some of the traits of these kayaks to give you a better idea of what to expect from each one and what size kayak you need.

  • Recreational Kayak – Less than 12 feet long. Greater than 24 inches wide. Weigh less than 50 pounds. Designed for stability and a variety of uses, particularly in calm water.
  • Light-Touring Kayak – 12-16 feet long. 22-25 inches wide. Around 50-70 pounds. Outstanding balance between recreational and touring kayaks and work well in still and lightly rough waters.
  • Touring Kayak – Greater than 16 feet. 22 or fewer inches in width. Over 70 pounds or more. Useful for more difficult or advanced excursions, such as whitewater rapids, and rarely used for recreational purposes.

Within these three recreational classes, there exist many sub-categories of kayaks. Each option is designed for specific uses and suits the needs of certain people. Just a few of the most common to consider include:

  • White Water – 7 Feet, Designed for Rough Water Usage
  • Youth Recreation – 8 Feet, Designed for Younger Users
  • Sit-Down Recreation – 10 Feet, Perfect for Most Recreational Uses
  • Tandem Kayak – 12 Feet, Great for Recreational Multi-Person Use
  • Fishing Tandem – 14 Feet, Designed for Fishing Experiences
  • Ocean Surf – 17 Feet, Suitable for Rough Water

Within these subcategories you also have the option of purchasing either a sit-on-top kayak or a sit-in kayak. How can you know which of these options is the right kayak for you? 

Most recreational kayaks are between 12 and 16 feet long and work well for beginner kayakers. However, your kayak use must also be considered. 

You should also take into consideration your height and weight when considering different types of kayaks.

Kayak Use is Critical to Consider

Ask yourself how you plan on using your kayak before you ever make a purchase. Typically, long kayaks tend to handle better on rougher waters.

A great idea when looking for ocean kayaks is to consider a sit-on-top kayak. Sit-on-top models won’t fill with water if you capsize, and they’re much easier to climb back onto if you fall off. 

What about length? The smallest kayak suggested for ocean kayaking is around 12 feet long; however, most people out on the sea will need a model closer to 16-17 feet, and even 20-foot models are not uncommon for sea kayaks.

The exception to this rule is when whitewater kayaking. Shorter whitewater kayaks are suitable because they provide you with a faster reaction speed. 

A long kayak’s initial stability would be unwieldy in such a fast situation and could impede the kayak’s ability to avoid capsizing. Therefore, most people use kayaks about 6 feet in length when whitewater rafting.

Most users with limited kayaking experience looking for recreational paddling can probably get by with creek boats that are between 12 and 16 feet long. This sweet spot provides you with a stable kayak that offers a steady amount of control over the water and minimizes your capsizing risk.

This kayak’s stability is great for still lakes, slow- to fast-moving rivers without rapids, and even many types of low-key competitions.

It is crucial for novice kayakers to consider their height and weight after knowing the range that works best for their kayak use. Kayak cockpits that are long enough for your body will keep you comfortable and allow for easy operation.

The following information should make it easier for you to choose a kayak that is right for your body type.

Your Height and Weight Dictate Much About Your Kayak Length and Width

Once you’ve found a good range of kayak sizes based on your use, gauge your height and weight and choose a model that fits your needs. For example, a shorter and lighter person using a kayak recreationally can aim for shorter and low-volume kayaks.

Those who are heavier or taller typically need higher kayak volume options. These options break down into:

  • Low-Volume Kayak – Suitable for people under 5’6” and under 140 pounds. Typically, this low-volume option is suitable for day excursions when you have little or no extra gear to haul.
  • Medium-Volume Kayak – Suitable for people between 5’7” and 5’10” and between 150-180 pounds. It may work well for overnight trips, as long as you don’t have a lot of gear.
  • High-Volume Kayak – Suggested for people over 5’10” and over 180 pounds. Recommended for larger paddlers, they also allow you to take a heavy amount of gear, making longer trips (even week-long vacations) possible.

You typically want a good amount of legroom for your kayak, room that provides maximum comfort and maneuverability. We suggest having as much legroom as possible because this helps improve your stability and overall speed. 

Your sit-inside kayak should have a cockpit that offers at least one foot of wiggle room both along the length and width of the kayak. Adjustable foot pegs can be great for offering customized comfort.

As mentioned in a previous section, kayak types often dictate how much room you have because they affect the length and width of your model. Kayak cockpit size in longer models is usually narrower and designed for more speed-oriented situations. 

Sit-in kayaks can prove to be more comfortable than sit-on-top kayaks for those with long legs. Sit-in kayaks also offer more storage space in the cockpit, and they are likely to keep you and your gear drier than sit-on-top kayaks. 

Shorter kayaks increase the width to boost stability and strength. That said, it’s not uncommon to find 17-foot kayaks with a broad range (up to 34.5 inches) in width for both stability and speed.

All of these factors tie into the overall volume of your kayak as well. The bigger the volume, the bigger the cockpit size — meaning you get more storage space and actual physical space inside.

Longer and broader boats are high-volume kayaks, which provide more stability and flotation on the water. The kayak volume ratings typically vary based on your boat’s size, so carefully check this factor before choosing.

How Much Gear You Bring Dictates Your Kayak Size

Kayaks are rated not just on length and volume but on maximum weight capacity. This capacity indicates the paddler’s weight and the overall gear that they bring with them. 

This can be especially important to consider when purchasing fishing kayaks, since gear will likely always need to be included in the weight consideration. However, even in recreational kayaks the weight of your average snacks, water, and extra accessories should be considered.

So, for example, a 300-pound load capacity does not mean that an individual can weigh 300 pounds and use a kayak. Instead, it means that for that size kayak, 300 pounds is the total weight it can carry — including gear. 

A good rule of thumb is to weigh your gear before buying a kayak and add that weight to yours. Most suggest between 20-50 extra pounds of gear weight is standard for most kayak owners. 

Understand, too, that maximum weight capacity doesn’t mean that you should pack the kayak up to that limit. Doing so is likely to cause the flat hull to sag in the water and could cause the kayak’s performance to decrease.

Instead, it is a good idea to keep your total weight in the kayak at about 30% under the kayak’s total weight capacity. Let’s take a brief look at a simple calculation to get an idea of how you can figure it out yourself.

Let’s say you buy a 300-pound total capacity kayak. Calculating 30% (0.30 x 300) gives you 90 pounds, then subtract that from the weight capacity (300-90) to get 210 pounds.

Note that these 210 pounds indicate your body weight and the weight of your gear combined. You’re probably safe if you go a little over this level, of course. 

However, that will vary based on the roughness of your waters. For instance, a slightly over-weighed kayak (such as one that’s at 220 or 230 pounds on a 300-pound capacity kayak) is probably safe on still waters but may be an issue on rougher waters.

Here’s an accurate rule of thumb that should keep you safe: aim for a kayak with a capacity of about 125 pounds more than your body weight. So, if you weigh 200 pounds, you’d need a 325-pound capacity kayak.

Most kayak makers produce up to 450-pound kayak weight capacities. You may also find a specialized manufacturer who creates kayaks for heavier set individuals.

A tandem kayak will often have an average weight limit of around 500-600 pounds. Your average touring kayak will likely have a weight limit around 350 pounds. 

Your average sit-in kayaks tend to have lower weight limits than sit-on-top kayaks, with the latter having a weight limit of 350-400 pounds. 

Your Strength and Skill Also Matter

Kayaking is a challenging sport and requires a lot of physical strength, so it is essential to avoid overloading your kayak or choosing one that is too heavy for your strength and ability. If your kayak is too heavy, you may find yourself struggling to control your kayak or running into problematic situations.

For instance, if your kayak’s weight capacity is too much for your strength, you may find it hard to paddle and gain any speed. You may also struggle to execute strong turns or have a hard time getting your kayak to stop. 

Pedal kayaks, sometimes known as a “foot kayak”,  are a fun option for movie kayakers who may not have the arm strength to handle their kayak’s weight limit solely through paddling. 

Rod holders can also be helpful to give your arms a break every once in a while. Another thing to consider is paddle length. 

Paddles that are too long for your kayak’s size can be unnecessarily difficult to control. Additionally, some find it easier to paddle in sit-on-top kayaks, while others find sit-kayaks to be easier to navigate. 

This factor is hard to quantify because there’s no real way to measure your strength and convert that into a simple-to-understand kayak measurement. You might have to experiment with a few models before you find that sweet spot of your ideal kayak.

We strongly recommend renting a few kayaks or borrowing some from your friends. Experiment with each and see how well they fit your overall strength and handling capabilities.

Once you feel comfortable with a specific kayak model, try to find one that meets your usage, height, and weight needs. If you find that your strength is not up to handling the kayak size that minimizes your risk of capsizing, you may need to improve your overall physical health. 

In this way, you can avoid seriously hurting yourself.

Final Thoughts

By now, you should feel very comfortable choosing the right kayak for your needs. You may have already shopped around for a few different options and priced the best model for your needs. 

In addition to the size varieties we’ve already covered, there are more things to consider — like the benefits of pontoon hulls compared to a rounded hull. The best way to figure out what you prefer is by trying a variety of kayaks until you find the one that works best for you. 

If possible, consider renting a kayak before purchasing one to make sure that a model is suitable for you. Typically, you can find kayak rental near populated areas with lakes and rivers.

Just as importantly, you need to make sure your kayak meets your budgetary needs. How much can you afford to spend on a kayak? 

How often do you plan on using it? Are there payment plans available to make them more affordable? 

Consider all of these points very carefully before you make a purchase. Then, when you feel comfortable, you can buy a fantastic kayak at a price that you can afford.

FAQs About Kayak Size & Lengths

Is There a Good Overall Kayak Length?

The best range for your kayak will depend on many factors, including your center of gravity and physical fitness level.

However, a good medium-range that should work for most people is around 12-16 feet. 

This range works in various outdoor environments and should work for most heights and weights. That said, there is no one-size-fits-all option for kayaks. 

Everybody has a different weight and height that must be balanced when considering various kayak sizes and kayak styles. So instead, consider the above elements and aim for a kayak that falls within the best range for your needs.

Is It Better for a Kayak to Be Too Long or Too Short?

You should aim for the most stable kayak possible for your needs and never use one that is too short. If your kayak is too short or light, you could quickly capsize it or end up too close to the waterline. 

That said, longer kayaks that are too big may be hard for you to handle, both in and out of the water. Finding the sweet spot here does take some work but is by no means impossible. 

Your kayak’s cockpit should be big enough that you have suitable leg room and storage space. The cockpit size varies somewhat from brand to brand, so shopping around can be helpful.

You need to carefully consider the aforementioned specifications and find a kayak that works with your center of gravity to minimize any problems. Doing so will give you the best chance of avoiding issues like constant water immersion.

Where Can I Find a Kayak?

Kayaks are available from most sporting goods stores. Visiting a physical brick-and-mortar shop is often a great idea because it lets you see the kayak and get an idea of its overall size. 

Some display models may even let you get inside, though this option may vary depending on the store.

Online shopping is also possible but is only suggested if you know exactly what you want and feel comfortable with your purchasing decision. It’s hard to gauge kayak size online, though you can honestly find some of the best deals by seeking out specialized shops and sales online.

Where Should a Properly Chosen Kayak Sit on the Water?

When you get in a kayak, the water should not be too high on the sides. We typically find that you want the water well below the crest of the kayak. 

It should be at least 2-3 inches or more below this crest to give you some safety room if waves get big while you’re kayaking.

If your kayak is too small for your height and weight, it will likely sink deeper into the water. On still lakes with minimal waves, you’re probably just fine as long as the water doesn’t sweep up into the cockpit. 

However, if you find waves constantly splash into your cockpit, your kayak may be too small.

Should I Get Help From a Professional Kayak Team?

After reading this list, you should find it reasonably easy to identify the best kayak for your needs. However, we know that some people may also find this process trickier than expected. 

That’s why we always suggest working with a professional kayak team when buying one of these watercraft. They can take any information you might have (such as your experience, height, weight, and potential use for your kayak) and ensure that you buy the best model for your needs.

Are Multi-Person Kayaks a Great Choice?

If you plan on kayaking with multiple people, you may enjoy a tandem model. These options are longer and typically hold a larger amount of weight. 

They’re a good choice for an outdoorsy couple that likes sticking close while they kayak. It also works well for those who want to cut back on expenses.

Just as importantly, a multi-person kayak is an excellent option for competition. If you plan on joining in with various kayak races and other events, you might find a multi-person kayak works well for you.