How to Choose a Kayak

Buying a kayak is a big investment, but with a little research you’ll ensure that it’s a wise one. Keep reading for guidelines to choosing a kayak that fits both your paddling bucket list and your budget.

Where will you use your kayak?

Your first step in choosing a kayak is deciding where you’re going to use it most often. Will you be paddling on sheltered ponds or Lake Champlain? Like Champ, a one-size-fits-all kayak is a mythical beast, so a good rule of thumb is to buy a kayak for the water you’ll paddle most often, and rent when you venture elsewhere.

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Sheltered lakes and ponds, slow-moving rivers, and marshes

Known as “flat-water,” these areas are known for calm water and relative protection from wind. Recreational kayaks are built for flat-water, with easy entry and exit suited to spontaneous swimming, wide seats for a relaxed ride, and durable construction that’s compatible with bumping along river shoals. Sold in both Sit-On-Top and Sit-Inside styles, recreational kayaks are great for relaxed days on the water, family outings, and beginning kayakers.

Exposed lakes, wide-open rivers, ocean

Known as “open-water,” this environment is characterized by windy, choppy conditions. Touring kayaks are sit-inside boats designed to slice through rough waters while stabilizing the paddler via a snug seat, allowing for efficient paddling. The extended length of touring kayaks creates increased storage space, making this a logical choice for overnight trips.

READ MORE: ESSENTIAL GEAR FOR KAYAK TOURING

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Your Favorite Fishing Spot

Fishing kayaks come in both recreational and touring models, the difference being enhanced features for anglers. Think molded-in rod holders, Captain’s chairs, and in higher-end models, pedal driven systems that allow for hands-free maneuvering.

GO: Recreational Kayaks | Touring Kayaks | Fishing Kayaks

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Sit-on-top vs. Sit-inside

Sit-on-Top Kayaks are straightforward and user-friendly. Designed for recreational use on lakes, slow moving rivers, and marshes, consider a sit-on-top if you’re looking for the following:

  • Stability: Getting in and out of the boat is easy from shore, or from the water in case you take a mid-paddle swim (intentionally or not).
  • Getting wet: The open design guarantees you’ll get splashed.
  • Self-draining design: Water drains through “scupper holes,” meaning that you’ll never have to pump water out by hand, and if you flip over, your boat won’t get swamped.
  • Freedom to move around: The open design gives you more options for lounging, dipping your feet in the water, or stretching out.
  • Beginner and kid-friendly recreation.
  • Sturdy design: Many are built from plastic, resulting in impact and UV resistant kayaks.

Sit-Inside Kayak sare streamlined and more efficient for paddling from Point A to Point B. They are designed to handle rough conditions, like those found in large lakes and bays, though designs vary from extremely lean sea kayaks to less-lean but more comfortable “day touring” kayaks. Consider a sit-inside kayak if you’re looking for the following:

  • Staying dry: Sitting in the cockpit, with the option to add a spray skirt, keeps you drier and warmer.
  • Long distance day trips: Multiple points of contact in the cockpit give you stability and control in rough water. A streamlined design also allows for more efficient paddling.
  • Multi-day capability: Bulkheads provide dry, interior storage for gear.
  • Intermediate to advanced trips: Knowledge of wet exits and solo kayak draining are necessary in the event that you capsize in open water.
  • Light weight options: High-end touring style kayaks come in lighter, albeit more expensive, materials like fiberglass.

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Storage Space

What do you need to take with you?

Recreational kayaks typically provide enough storage space for a half-day on the water, with features like a water bottle holder, a small bulkhead, and in sit-on-top models, deck space sized to carry a small cooler.

Touring kayaks typically sport at least two bulkheads capable of storing overnight gear. Unlike recreational kayaks, they are not designed for storing bulky items (like coolers) on the deck.

Fishing kayaks are designed with fishing gear in mind, with features ranging from storage space for live fish to transducer compatible scuppers.

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Kayak Specs

Materials

The most common materials used in kayak construction are plastic and composites consisting of fiberglass and/or carbon-fiber. The most noticeable differences between plastic and composite boats are weight, durability, and price. While plastic kayaks are heavier than composite, they are significantly cheaper. On the other hand, composite kayaks are much lighter and more graceful on the water. Plastic kayaks can be launched on rocky shores, tossed into the back of a truck, scraped over shoals, and rough-housed without much concern. In contrast, composite kayaks are more delicate, making encounters with underwater objects and rocky shores situations to be avoided. Generally, composite kayaks are a good investment for serious touring kayakers and experienced paddlers looking for an upgrade, while plastic kayaks are the recommended starting purchase.

Weight

Buy a kayak that you can haul and launch yourself if you plan to adventure solo. Will you just be dragging it from your backyard to the waterline or will you have to get the kayak on top of your car to transport? Check the kayak’s “Tech Specs” for weight information. In many cases, the lighter the kayak, the higher the price.

Length

The longer and narrower the kayak, the faster and more smoothly it travels through water. Touring kayaks range from about 14 to 18 feet, and while they take more effort to turn, they travel more efficiently. Most recreational kayaks are in the 8- to 13-foot range, sacrificing cruising efficiency for stability. Their shorter length makes it easier to make tight turns, a benefit when navigating marshes or downed vegetation.

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Kayak Fit

Not every kayak fits every body. Pay attention to a few specs, and sit in the boat if possible, to make sure it fits you and is comfortable to spend time in.

  • Weight: Kayaks are designed for a maximum load capacity, including you and your gear(don’t overlook this if you plan to overnight from your boat). Overburdening a kayak can cause you to sit too low in the water, compromising your ability to paddle.
  • Cockpit width: Especially important with touring kayaks, which are designed to fit snugly. You want enough contact with boat to maintain control without feeling like your circulation is being cut off. With other types of kayaks, however, a roomier cockpit allows for easier entry and exit.
  • Cockpit Length: This is something to be aware of if you have longer legs than the average person. Check the “Kayak Description” measurements to make sure you’ll fit, or to make entry and exit easier.
  • Number of paddlers: Solo or tandem kayak? Individual kayaks give everyone more freedom, but a tandem kayak is a good option for mixed skill levels.

READ MORE: BEST PADDLING ACCESSORIES FOR COMFORT IN THE COCKPIT

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Transporting your Kayak

How will you transport your kayak from storage to the water? Before you choose a kayak, consider whether your vehicle is capable of transporting it. Kayak racks exist for every type of vehicle, from trailers to rooftop docks, but it’s important to first make sure that your car can support the type of rack that your kayak requires. If transportation and storage are an issue, consider an inflatable kayak.

Try one on for size

If you’re still not sure which type of kayak you want to buy, try renting until you find a style you like. Rental fees are a small price to pay if it allows you to buy the right kayak on your first try. EMS Schools offers guided kayak outings in Rhode Island and Massachusetts, as well as rentals at many locations.


7 Pro Tips for Long Road Trips

Belting out 90’s classics, posing with the world’s largest meteor crater, fist bumping as you roll up on fumes at a gas station. The camaraderie of road trips is hallowed ground, a setting where shared experiences become legend. Keep things running smoothly with these pro tips from a seasoned digital nomad.

The author's husband paddling in Armistad NRA. | Credit: Carla Francis
The author’s husband paddling in Amistad NRA. | Credit: Carla Francis

1. Maintain the Relationship

The secret sauce to road trips is a mixture of teamwork and compromise. Be a team player by divvying up tasks like navigating and driving, and by supporting the driver when you’re riding shotgun. Feed them, water them, DJ for them, and stay awake. Compromise is a bit harder, but the give and take is what transitions you from comfort zone to adventure mode. I never imagined that my first trip to Mexico would be by kayak, but my husband convinced me to swing by Amistad National Recreation Area“on the way” to Big Bend National Park. It was just the two of us and a row of buoys marking the border. And lastly, most of us aren’t used to spending so much time with someone, so restore the balance by striking out on your own when you need some alone time.

2. Organize Your Home On Wheels

Repeat after me: a place for everything, everything in its place. Pack the car as a team, so everyone knows where to find the passports, raincoats, and snacks. Think about what you’ll need to access from the cockpit (food, water, cell phone charger, etc.) and pack those items within reach of the passenger. An organized car takes more work up front, but cuts down on overall chaos. Scroll through The Best Gear for Living Out of Your Carfor advice on what to pack.

3. Entertain Yourself

There’s nothing more annoying on a road trip than when your “Shake it Off” singalong gets cut short by a lost cell signal. Keep yourself entertained and save data by downloading content when you have Wifi. We use Spotify Premium, our local library’s audiobook catalogue, and when we learned that the first download was free, Audible. Otherwise, remember those games you used to play in the car with your family? Ones like the license plate game, cows and graveyards, and the alphabet game? Dust those off and let the games begin. Bonus points if you see a Hawaii plate.

Credit: Carla Francis
Credit: Carla Francis

4. Talk to Strangers

I know, it’s the antithesis of “new number who dis” culture, but the isolation of your car makes human interaction a luxury. Leaving behind your social network, from Instagram feeds to real life friends, requires putting in more effort to interact with people. Seize the opportunity to meet a real Vermonster, Southern Belle, or Midwest Flatlander. They might give you a recommendation for the best maple creemee in town, or if you promise not to tell, their favorite swimming hole. To get started, I recommend browsing alt-weekly publications like Seven Days(VT) and DigBoston(MA) where you’ll find local gathering spots and events.

5. Stay Connected, If You Want

Living out of your car doesn’t require being off the grid 24/7, unless of course that’s where you want to be. Camping apps (Campendium, iOverlander, etc.) often describe cell phone coverage, but unearthing that information can require a deep dive into user comments. Otherwise, libraries and coffee shops are the easiest, cheapest places to plug in and connect. These days, some libraries even sell coffee (shout-out to Waterbury, VT and Sierra Vista, AZ), blending the best of both worlds. My last tip is to bump up your cell plan to unlimited, which on my carrier (Verizon) also gives full coverage across Canada and Mexico.

6. Embrace Instability

Need tinder for your campfire? Start with the pages of your planner. Even the best laid plans are impossible to follow when you’re road tripping. Flexibility allows you to carpe diem, like the time my husband and I day-tripped to White Sands National Monument then decided to backpack into the dunes for sunset, other camping plans be damned. It was one of the most beautiful sunsets I’ll ever see. Embrace instability by boondocking (free, primitive camping) or by booking lodging as you go. Worried about availability? Here’s a pro tip: shoulder season travel.

Getting a tow. | Credit: Carla Francis
Getting a tow. | Credit: Carla Francis

7. Subscribe to Roadside Assistance

Subscribing to a roadside assistance program is worth its weight in ultralight titanium. We’ve used ours twice this year alone, once for a stubborn flat in Guadalupe Mountains National Park and again in the Mad River Valley when mud season trapped us in a roadside ditch. Boredom as we waited for service trucks replaced what could have been anxiety and fear, all thanks to AAA’s quick responses. The annual membership cost has payed itself off and then some this year.


The Best Gear for Living Out of Your Car

Creature comforts are the key to well-being and longevity when living out of a car. Past multi-week road trips had left my husband and I exhausted, so as we planned for a yearlong motor adventure across North America, we focused on bringing the comforts of home into nature. A tricked-out Sprinter van would have been the homiest option, but not having $50,000 under our mattress, we retrofitted our Nissan Xterra and became first-time homeowners. We christened it “Tupperware World,” a nod to the Tetris-style stack of boxes filling the interior.

And now, having spent 8 full months in our home on wheels, it’s safe to say we know a thing or two about the best gear for car-life.

Credit: Carla Francis
Credit: Carla Francis

Multi-Purpose Room

Living out of your car is a euphemism for living outside. While the vehicle enables your nomadic lifestyle, the valley, overlook, or beach where you park it is “home.” When home is buggy, crowded, or rainy, you need a place to escape.

The solution: Wherever we park it, up goes a screen room. It’s kitted out with multi-purpose furniture, suiting our needs whether we’re cooking, shooting the breeze, or working. It’s important to choose a screen room that protects from sun, rain, and insects, like the MountainsmithShelter House. Complete the basic layout with a table and chair, like the Eureka Camp Tableand the Travelchair Easy Rider Camping Chair. Be a little extra, and liven up the space with portable speaker like the Goal ZeroRock Out 2 Portable Speaker.

One of the best pieces of gear we’ve bought in years is the MPOWERD Luci Solar String Lights, which provide ambient light hanging from the “rafters” of our screen room. Extending short winter days and lighting up the night during summer camp-outs, they make the space warm and homey. For lighting outside of the tent, I rely on the Petzl ReactikHeadlamp.

Credit: Carla Francis
Credit: Carla Francis

Outdoor Kitchen

Granola bars and Chef Boyardi may work for a night or two, but for me, having a kitchen on the road was a must. When we were young and stupid, my husband and I used our backpacking stove during extended car camping trips, which made cooking uncomfortable before we even began. If you plan to live in your car, do yourself a favor and outfit a portable kitchen.

Most outdoor kitchen gear is the same as what you’d find indoors, however, there are a few exceptions. Whet your appetite with cooking gear like the Primus Profile Stove, the MSR Quick 2 Pot Set, and the LMF Titanium Spork. My husband has owned this spork since before we met in 2012, so believe me, it’s bombproof. And while we avoid buying food that requires refrigeration, the Yeti Hopper Flip 8keeps our small supply of perishables fresh.

Most nights we camp at primitive sites, making water a scare resource. Fortunately, you can buy a few specialty pieces that make meal clean-up efficient and earth friendly. We use Sea to Summit’s 10-liter Kitchen Sinkand biodegradable Wilderness Wash. A refillable water jug, like the Reliance Fold-A-Carrier, provides enough water for 1 to 2 days of primitive camping.

Credit: Carla Francis
Credit: Carla Francis

Mobile Office

Search the term “digital nomad” if you’ve ever wondered how people afford to travel for months on end. We mostly work in libraries and local coffee shops because they have internet and power, things that our car does not provide. We’ve met a lot of people this way, a perk to a life that can be lonesome at times.

To be honest though, I envy the van lifers who have portable power sources, such as theGoal ZeroYeti 150 Portable Power Station. Maybe on our next road trip?

Credit: Carla Francis
Credit: Carla Francis

Hygiene

Traveling on a budget requires “boondocking,” or camping at free, primitive sites. It’s a cheap way to travel, but unless you’re Pig-Pen, you’ll need a few pieces of gear to keep clean.

People ask all the time how we shower, to which we respond, “Does jumping in a river count?” When rivers are scarce, we use a solar shower like the Sea to Summit Pocket Shower, which has enough water to rinse two people once. Otherwise the refillable water jug mentioned under the “Outdoor Kitchen” section provides what we need for brushing teeth, washing hands, and other campsite chores.

And what about those campsites without toilets? When not required to pack it out, you’ll need a trowel like the GSI Outdoors Cathole Trowelfor burying poop and toilet paper. FollowLeave No Trace Principle #3to scout the perfect cathole location.

Credit: Carla Francis
Credit: Carla Francis

Sleep Well

To make long term travel comfortable, we built a custom sleeping platform in the back of our Xterra using scrap wood. The internet doesn’t sell mattresses in “Back of Xterra” sizes, so we cut a 3-inch mattress topper down to size, covering it with hand-sewn mattress cover, upcycling fabric from an old top sheet.

Our bedding ranges from 20 degree sleeping bags for cold weather to light blankets for warm weather. Year-round, we use stuffable pillow cases, like the Therm-a-Rest Stuff Sack Pillow.Most importantly, bedding needs to be compact and packable for storage purposes

If your car is too small to sleep in, consider something like the TepuiHyBox Rooftop Tent And Cargo Box, which offers protection from the elements and keeps you from sleeping on the ground. For others, sleeping in a traditional tent may suit your needs, just be sure to pack comfortable bedding.