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How to Choose a Kayak Based on Water Type

In this article, you will learn how to choose a kayak based on water type.

“What kind of water will you be paddling on?”

This is one of the first questions I always ask when recommending a kayak.

The three basic categories I look at are:

  • whitewater
  • open ocean or very cold water
  • flat water

To determine whether a kayak will be suitable for these three water types, we need to look at the following features:

  1. Rocker – hull shape
  2. Bow and stern shape
  3. Cockpit coaming – staying dry
  4. Self Bailing – getting wet
how to choose a kayak based on water type


Rocker is how a kayak’s profile changes from the bow the to stern, if you’re looking at it side on. In other words, what does the bottom of the kayak look like when you put it on the ground?

If a kayak has a lot of rocker, it’s very curved from the bow to the stern.

This is the Whitewater Attack – our whitewater kayak. It has quite a lot of rocker.

how to choose a kayak whitewater rocker

Rocker allows you to pivot in the water quickly and easily. If you can imagine, this whitewater kayak would be easy to spin around and turn. And when you’re in white water, you need that ability to manoeuvre quickly, to turn quickly. So that’s why whitewater kayaks look quite different to flat water kayaks. They have a lot of rocker.

Now, if we look at a flat water kayak, or an open ocean kayak, it looks quite different. You can tell straight away that there’s something different in the shape.

how to choose a kayak flat water rocker

If we were to lay this down and look at it side on here, you can see that the hull is quite flat, and that makes it not as easy to turn.

Now a lot people go, “Not as easy to turn? But I need something easy to turn.” Well, you don’t really! If you’re on flat water, you’re generally going straight.

And in fact what you don’t want is something that turns too easily on flat water, because you’ll just end up going in circles.

If you tried to take this Whitewater attack out on a lake, it would be a very frustrating paddling trip for you, because you’d just be spinning … every time you’d stroke, you would spin if that makes sense, whereas with the AdvancedFrame kayak, you don’t, you track in a straight line.

In summary, we want a lot of rocker for whitewater.

For flat water and open ocean we do not want rocker, we want a nice even, flat, long section hull profile.

Bow and Stern Shape

For flat water and in particular for open ocean, we want to see a vertical bow and stern.

These two models here show the bow from the AdvancedFrame range and the StraitEdge range of kayaks.

They both have aluminium frames in the bow and a stern that go inside the kayak. They give the kayaks a vertical bow that sits in the water.

how to choose a kayak bow and stern shape

Here’s our AdvancedFrame Sport kayak. See how the bow is sitting in the water?

how to choose a kayak bow and stern shape vertical

And you can see really well in this picture how it’s cutting through the chop.

This is what we want for a flat water kayak, particularly if we will be paddling in open ocean.

We want the bow to be in the water, we want the stern to be in the water, and we want them to be vertical. And that means that the kayak doesn’t waggle when you paddle. Does that make sense? It keeps tracking straight.

Coaming and Skirt – Staying Warm and Dry

The next thing we look at is whether the kayak has coaming that allows you to attach a spray skirt.

This is relevant for open ocean, and specifically cold climates as well, such as Tasmania or in the Arctic circle.

In this diagram, coaming is the grey edge of the cockpit and the skirt can be attached to that coaming. This will allow you to stay completely dry and warm.

If you’re in open ocean, for example, and there’s waves and it’s windy and it’s splashing, the way to keep the water out is to wear a spray skirt.

how to choose a kayak based on water type 4

And here’s an example of a spray skirt being worn with our AdvancedFrame kayak.

advancedframe comparison skirt

I don’t know where this guy is, but you can see it’s cold because there’s a glacier in the background. Underneath the spray skirt is the coaming, and the spray skirt is going around the coaming.

So, if water was to splash up onto the deck here, or up on to his skirt, it just rolls off. He’s keeping warm, he’s keeping dry. And that’s important for open ocean and for cold climates.

Lakes and flat rivers – it’s up to you.  You can certainly wear a spray skirt if you want, but the chance of you getting any significant water in your kayak while you are paddling on a lake is pretty minimal.

Self-Bailing – Getting Wet

The other option that you can look at for open ocean is what’s called a sit-on-top kayak.

The way this works is completely different. Rather than staying dry, water sloshes over, and when it sloshes over, it goes out through ports down the side.

The kayak is effectively sitting on the water, not in the water.

Now, here’s an example of this with our StraitEdge kayak.

inflatable kayak straitedge 1006 Y advanced elements whitewater e1487045471231 1

This is whitewater but the same thing would apply in open ocean if a wave sloshed some water in. You can see the water has sloshed into the kayak, and then it will drain out through the side ports.

Now, not going to help you if it’s cold, because you will get wet. But it’s an option for open ocean.