The best recreational kayaks are versatile, affordable, and great for beginners. The term “recreational kayak” refers to a general-purpose kayak that’s designed for casual use on calm lakes, flat coastal waters, and slow-moving rivers.
Most recreational kayaks prioritize stability, durability, and ease of transport over performance in the water. They also tend to be very affordable – perfect for kayakers on a budget.
There are hundreds of models of recreational kayak, but if I had to pick what I believe to be the best, it would be the Perception Pescador 10. This sit-on-to-top kayak is comfortable, versatile, and excellent value for money.
The Pescador 10 is one of only a few 10-foot kayaks that can easily accommodate larger paddlers plus their gear. It has tons of storage and is a joy to paddle.
If the Perception Pescador 10 doesn’t float your boat, then there are plenty of other recreational kayaks to choose from. Included in my top ten list are inflatable kayaks, sit-inside kayaks, and a tandem. I’ve also chosen a couple of models for those of you on a tight budget.
Let’s dive right in.
Best Inflatable Recreational Kayak – Sea Eagle 380X Explorer
If you want an inflatable kayak or a kayak you can use on whitewater, then the Sea Eagle 380X is the best recreational kayak for you.
It’s rated for class four whitewater, making it suitable for both beginner and intermediate kayakers. The addition of the removable skeg helps the kayak track straight on calm lakes and rivers.
Inflatable kayaks are a great option if you’re short on storage space or may struggle to transport a hardshell kayak. The Sea Eagle 380X is constructed from heavy-duty reinforced PVC that’ll bounce off any rocks or submerged branches you may hit.
While it’s a lot more expensive than the Perception Pescador 10, the Sea Eagle 380X offers more versatility in an easy-to-transport package.
Best for Paddlers on a Budget – Old Town Vapor 10
Recreational kayaks are ideal for paddlers on a budget, but finding a good low-cost kayak isn’t as easy as you might think. Many cheap kayaks perform more like a pontoon than the sleek watercraft you dream of.
The Vapor 10 is a generously sized sit-in kayak. It gives beginners the best of both worlds – a stable kayak that glides efficiently through the water.
The generous cockpit makes it suitable for larger paddlers. It’s also a good option if you’re worried about feeling trapped in an enclosed cockpit. With a padded seat and adjustable foot pegs, the Vapour 10 is a comfortable kayak for short to medium outings. The open tank well in the stern provides enough storage for a dry bag or cooler.
While it’s not the cheapest kayak you’ll find, for under $400, you get a comfortable kayak from a renowned manufacturer that performs well in the water.
The Best Recreational Kayaks Compared
The 10 Best Recreational Kayaks of 2021
If you want to buy a recreational kayak, here are ten of the best.
1. Perception Pescador 10 – Best All-Around Recreational Kayak
The Perception Pescador 10 is a popular, versatile kayak that’s much loved by beginners and experienced paddlers alike. It’s a sit-on-top kayak, making it stable and unsinkable – ideal if you’re nervous on the water.
Unlike many sit-on-top kayaks, the Pescador’s stability doesn’t compromise its performance. It tracks well and is very maneuverable. It’s a perfect size for exploring small rivers and creeks, but it’s equally at home on lakes and calm coastal waters.
Another stand-out feature of the Pescador 10 is its comfortable seat. The thick, ergonomic padding is sufficient for most users, and the backrest is supportive and adjustable.
The Pescador 10 isn’t marketed as a fishing kayak, but it’s versatile enough to be used as one. There are a couple of rod holders behind the seat (I’d recommend extending these using the Rod-X Pro rod holders), plus room for a small crate in the rear tank well. The gear tracks give you plenty of mounting options for a fish finder or camera.
At 57 pounds, the Pescador 10 is heavier than many recreational kayaks. This may be a consideration if you’re transporting the boat on your own. The thick plastic used in the kayak does make it more durable and less prone to damage.
While it’s not the cheapest kayak, the Pescador 10 is one of the best-value kayaks you can buy. It offers an excellent balance between price, performance, and comfort. This makes it my recommendation for the best recreational sit-on-top kayak. Also read our Perception Pescador 10′ review.
2. Sea Eagle 380X Explorer Inflatable Kayak – Best Inflatable Recreational Kayak
The Sea Eagle 380X is a high-end inflatable kayak designed for both whitewater and open water. It can be configured for solo or tandem use. You can buy a range of optional extras to attach a motor or sail, or use it as a fishing or rowing boat.
Most hardshell recreational kayaks aren’t suitable for use on whitewater, so if you’re planning on running rapids, this is the kayak for you. You can paddle the Sea Eagle 380X on anything up to and including class four whitewater.
The kayak is made from durable 1100 Decitex Reinforced PVC, so you don’t need to worry about hidden rocks or branches damaging the hull. Whereas most plastic sit-on-top kayaks have 4-6 drainage holes, the Sea Eagle 380X has 16. Leave these open on whitewater for fast drainage, but close them up on calm water to keep the cockpit dry.
The key to this kayak’s versatility lies in the removable slide skeg. Without it, you can tackle rapids or glide through shallow water. With it, you can paddle on calm lakes and coastal waters without spinning in circles.
The Sea Eagle 380X has two downsides compared to hardshell kayaks: it’s not as fast in calm waters, and it’s a lot more expensive. However, if you want to paddle rapids, then you need a boat designed to cope with whitewater conditions, and that comes at a cost. In my opinion, the Sea Eagle 380X is worth it. Also read our Sea Eagle 380x review.
3. Perception Tribe 9.5 – Best For Comfort
If you’re planning to spend a lot of time paddling, a comfortable kayak is a must. The Perception Tribe 9.5 has a stadium-style seat, with a framed back that provides adjustable back support and a cushioned base. Molded footrests allow you to change position and stretch out your legs.
The Tribe 9.5 is a reliable performer in the water. It’s nippy to turn and is a great boat in the surf. It also tracks well on flat water, making it a true all-rounder.
There are storage areas in the bow and stern, equipped with bungee rigging, plus a small center hatch that comes with a dry bag to store small valuables such as keys and phones.
At 9.5 feet, the Perception Tribe 9.5 is short enough to fit on a roof rack or in the back of a pickup. The stackable design will come in handy if you’re storing multiple kayaks. The molded carry handles are more comfortable and durable than rope handles. You can also use them to secure the kayak if you need to lock it up.
4. Bote Deus Aero Inflatable Kayak – Best for Kayaking and Paddle Boarding
If you’re debating whether to buy a kayak or a paddle board, then look no further – the Bote Deus Aero gives you the best of both worlds.
The Deus Aero has a sit-on-top design with an inflatable platform seat and an open stern for drainage. Remove the platform and footbar and it converts to a stand-up paddle board. You can then use the platform as a float for your cooler.
The platform places you quite high above the water, which may not feel as stable as other sit-on-top kayaks. Like most inflatables, the Deus Aero struggles in strong winds, but otherwise, its performance on flat water is good. Unlike the Sea Eagle 380X, it’s not designed for rough or whitewater conditions.
There’s a decent amount of storage in the cockpit, plus clips to attach a cooler behind the seat. As you’d expect for the price, it’s made from military-grade PVC, meaning it’s light and robust. It’s also a really good-looking boat.
The Deus Aero fills a specific niche in the market. While it’s not cheap, if you want to kayak and paddle board, it’s a cost-effective and space-efficient solution. It may also appeal to beginners who value quality, style, and portability. Also read our Bote Deus Aero review.
5. Ocean Kayak Scrambler 11 Sit-On-Top Recreational Kayak
The Ocean Kayak Scrambler is a sit-on-top kayak with generous storage. It’s longer than a lot of recreational kayaks which helps with tracking. This makes it a great choice for paddling on larger lakes and rivers. It’s also maneuverable enough to use in light surf and provides a stable base for fishing or diving.
Like many sit-on-tops, the Scrambler uses scupper holes for drainage. To avoid getting a wet butt in choppy conditions, you may want to invest in some scupper plugs, particularly if you’re on the heavy side.
The Scrambler has two large tank wells in the bow or stern. Both are open, with bungee cords to secure your gear. If you remove the bungee rigging, there’s plenty of space for dogs to ride in style.
You can store smaller items in a central storage bucket, though I’d recommend using a dry bag as it’s not fully waterproof. There’s also a cup holder for your coffee or water bottle.
Overall, the Scrambler is a good all-rounder that’ll appeal to paddlers wanting extra storage or deck space. Add a bit more padding to the seat and it would make a great touring kayak.
6. Ocean Kayak Malibu Two Tandem Sit-On-Top Recreational Kayak – Best Tandem Recreational Kayak
If you’re looking for a versatile family kayak, then a tandem is the way to go! The Ocean Kayak Malibu Two can be configured for solo paddlers or a couple. There’s also space for a third seat, suitable for a small child or pet.
The kayak comes with two comfortable, adjustable seats, which can be removed for easy transport and storage. Although it excels on calm lakes and rivers, the Malibu Two also does a good job of handling choppy water and swell, making it suitable for paddling on the sea.
Tandems typically have limited storage compared to solo kayaks. The Malibu Two has two small open storage areas in the bow and stern, with straps to secure a dry bag or clothing. You also have the option to add up to three hatches to give access to storage space in the hull of the kayak.
For a tandem kayak, the Malibu Two is surprisingly lightweight. It’s equipped with side handles as well as toggle handles at the bow and stern, which make it easy to flip onto a roof rack. There’s also a skid plate to protect the keel from damage and abrasion.
7. Wilderness Systems Pungo 120 – Best Sit-Inside Kayak
The Pungo 120 is my pick for the best sit-in recreational kayak. It’s a great option for beginner paddlers looking for a comfortable, stable kayak for slow-moving rivers, lakes, and calm coastal waters.
Although it’s a sit-in kayak, the Pungo has a large cockpit, so it doesn’t feel too enclosed. If you’re nervous to begin with, you can always remove the dashboard to give yourself more space. This also gives you the option to fit a dog or small child in the cockpit with you.
The dashboard is a neat feature that gives you plenty of options for customization. It includes mounting points for phones, fishing rods, or other accessories. There’s a recess sized for the Wilderness Systems lithium battery, which you can use to charge your electronics, plus a removable dry box for valuables, and two cup holders.
If you’re used to sit-on-top kayaks, then you’ll immediately notice the difference in speed when paddling the Pungo. It glides through the water, keeping its line even in windy conditions. You’ll never feel like you’re fighting to keep the kayak on course.
Add to this a super comfortable seating system and adjustable foot braces, and you’ll understand why the Pungo is such a popular kayak.
8. Bote Zeppelin Aero Inflatable Kayak – Best Kayak for Families
The Bote Zeppelin Aero is a versatile recreational kayak that can be used on rivers, lakes, or coastal waters. It’s stable enough to stand up on, and you could even use it as a platform for fishing or scuba diving.
Although it’s primarily designed for solo kayakers, you can fit an additional seat (purchased separately) to turn the Zeppelin into a tandem kayak. You don’t have to worry about overloading it either. With a huge 600-pound weight capacity, there’s room for you, the kids, your dog, and as much kit as you can pack into the cockpit.
The big advantage that inflatable kayaks have over hardshells is portability. The Zeppelin Aero packs down to a 37 x 28 x 14-inch package that weighs just 41 pounds (without accessories). Even better, it comes with a wheeled travel bag. Thought you couldn’t take your kayak on a train or plane? Think again.
One unique feature of the Zeppelin is a magnetic plate that you can use to secure a compatible water bottle or coffee cup. It’s a bit of a gimmick, and you have to buy the $35 compatible drinkware to go along with it, but if you’re spending this much on a kayak, you may as well go the whole hog. Also read our Bote Zeppelin Aero review.
9. Old Town Vapor 10 Recreational Kayak – Best Recreational Kayak Under $400
The Old Town Vapour 10 is a great introductory kayak from one of the oldest canoe manufacturers in the country. Old Town has been building canoes and kayaks for over a century, so they know exactly what you need – and what you don’t need – in a budget kayak.
For a sit-in kayak, the Vapour 10 feels very stable. Even though it’s a short kayak, it’s efficient in the water. You’ll be able to perfect your paddling technique without feeling like you’re fighting to keep a straight line.
The large cockpit is reassuring for nervous beginners. There’s an open tank well in the stern that makes it easy to access your cooler or other gear when on the move. Unlike a lot of cheap kayaks, you get an adjustable comfort flex seat and an adjustable foot brace system, making it comfortable for paddlers of all shapes and sizes.
There’s a skid plate on the keel for durability and a molded-in tray and cup holder in front of the cockpit. There’s also a drain plug to help you empty out any water that finds its way into the cockpit. Unfortunately, the positioning of the plug makes it a bit tricky to empty.
10. Sun Dolphin Aruba 10 Sit-In Kayak
If you’re looking for a cheap kayak, you may have come across the Sun Dolphin Aruba 10. This 10-foot sit-in kayak is popular with beginners and rental companies as it’s stable, easy to use, and very robust.
The Aruba is cheaper than the Old Town Vapour 10, however, it doesn’t offer the same level of comfort, performance, or features. It has a much lower weight capacity – 250 pounds compared to the 325-pound load capacity of the Vapour 10 – and there’s no padding on the seat, making it a less comfortable ride.
The enclosed storage compartment in the stern offers more weather protection than the open tank well on the Vapour 10. However, given the choice, I’d opt for the additional capacity and versatility of the tank well every time. According to one user, the Aruba’s storage compartment is the perfect size for your pet cat – assuming they’d be happy on the water!
Despite these downsides, the Aruba is a fun, lightweight boat that’s easy to maneuver. If your budget doesn’t stretch to the Vapour 10, it’s a dependable boat for paddling on small lakes and creeks.
Buying Guide: How to Choose the Best Recreational Kayak
The best kayak for you will depend on your height and build, intended use, budget, and transport considerations. In this section, we’ll run through some of the things to consider when shopping for a recreational kayak.
Sit-In, Sit-On-Top, or Inflatable Kayak?
The first thing you need to decide is what style of kayak you want: a hard plastic sit-in or sit-on-top kayak, or an inflatable kayak. Each style has its advantages and disadvantages.
Sit-inside recreational kayaks are often narrower than sit-on-tops and have an enclosed cockpit. As you sit in the kayak rather than on top of it, your center of gravity is lower. This can feel more unstable to begin with, but it makes the kayak easier to paddle and turn in rough conditions.
Pros of Sit-Inside Kayaks:
- They’re more stable on rough water and easier to maneuver.
- Sit-in kayaks generally make better touring kayaks as they’re faster and more efficient to paddle.
- The enclosed cockpit helps keep you dry and protects your lower body from sun, wind, and rain. With the addition of a spray skirt, you can stay completely dry.
- As your center of gravity is lower, they can cope better with windy conditions.
Cons of Sit-Inside Kayaks:
- If you capsize, it’s very difficult to re-enter your kayak, particularly if it fills with water.
- Storage compartments are often small and can be harder to access (though you can also store items between your legs in the cockpit).
- They may feel less stable to get in and out of.
Recreational sit-on-top kayaks are very popular with beginners as their wide base makes them very stable. They’re very difficult to capsize and almost impossible to sink. This makes them ideal platforms for kayak fishing and scuba diving.
Pros of Sit-On-Top Kayaks:
- Very stable and easy to get on and off.
- Sit-on-tops are almost unsinkable. If you do capsize or fall in the water, it’s relatively easy to get back on board.
- Most sit-on-tops have self-bailing drainage holes, so you don’t have to carry a bilge pump or worry about the cockpit filling with water.
- Many have open tank wells which you can use to carry a cooler or other bulky items.
Cons of Sit-On-Top Kayaks :
- Due to the wide base that gives sit-on-tops their stability, they tend to be very slow and can be harder to maneuver.
- As your center of gravity is high, you’ll be more affected by wind than in a sit-in kayak.
- You’re pretty much guaranteed to get wet. This makes them less suitable in winter or if you kayak on cold water.
- Your lower body will be exposed to the sun, wind, and rain.
A big advantage of inflatable kayaks is that they pack down into a suitcase-sized bag that you can fit in the trunk of your car. You can buy inflatables at various price points, but cheap kayaks tend to be a lot less durable than hardshell boats.
Pros of Inflatable Kayaks:
- They take up less storage space, are lighter, and are easier to transport than hardshell kayaks.
- You’re more likely to stay dry in an inflatable than a sit-on-top as the kayak sits higher in the water.
- High-quality inflatable kayaks will bounce off obstacles such as rocks without damaging the kayak. This makes them more suitable for whitewater kayaking.
- They have higher weight capacities than hardshells.
Cons of Inflatable Kayaks:
- As inflatable kayaks sit high in the water, it can be a struggle to paddle them in strong winds.
- They’re slow in flat water.
- They’re generally less durable than equivalently priced hardshell kayaks.
- Your kayak needs to be completely dry before you pack it away.
- Deflating your kayak and getting it back into its bag at the end of the day can be a frustrating exercise!
Solo or Tandem Kayak?
If you’re likely to be mostly paddling solo, you may discount tandem kayaks when shopping for a new boat. However, they are worth considering for a few reasons:
- Most tandems can be configured for one or two paddlers. This gives you the flexibility to take out a co-pilot or passenger, even if most of the time, you’ll be paddling on your own.
- There’s often a small third seat that’s suitable for a small child or dog.
- If you’re paddling solo, you’ll have plenty of deck space for stashing gear.
What Makes a Good Recreational Kayak?
Here’s what you need to look for when shopping for a recreational kayak.
Most recreational kayaks are made from hard, durable plastic. They can put up with a lot of abuse without suffering significant damage and there’s no time-consuming or expensive maintenance. Polyethylene can be damaged by the sun’s UV rays, so wherever possible, store your kayak out of the sun.
Cheaper kayaks are often constructed from thinner plastic. This makes them lighter, but less durable than more expensive models. For example, you may be more likely to get dents or deformation from strapping your kayak to a roof rack.
The keel of your kayak is most at risk from bumps or abrasion. Higher-quality kayaks will often have a replaceable skid plate on the keel for extra protection.
Inflatable kayaks vary widely in durability. Cheap models made from thin vinyl are okay for occasional use, but if you’re serious about kayaking you’ll want to invest in something more durable.
The models featured in this review are all made from thick PVC. SeaEagle even drove a Jeep over their Explorer kayak as evidence of its durability!
Stable and Easy to Paddle
Recreational kayaks are typically wider and shorter than specialist performance kayaks. They’re designed to be stable and easy to maneuver – both important features for beginners.
This does mean that there’s a trade-off with performance. Recreational kayaks tend to be slower in the water and don’t track as well as longer, more expensive kayaks. For most beginners, this trade-off is worth it. After all, it’s not a fun introduction to kayaking if you spend the whole time worrying about capsizing.
Lightweight and Portable
If you’ll be transporting your kayak any distance, then you’ll want to consider weight and portability. This is particularly important if you’ll be kayaking on your own.
Inflatable kayaks pack down smaller and are often lighter than hardshells. You may still want to invest in a trolley to help you transport it from your vehicle to the water.
Many recreational kayaks are short enough to fit in the back of a pickup, van, or SUV. This is a lot easier than having to lift a boat onto a roof rack.
Versatile Storage and Features
Having the right kind of storage is often more important than the volume of storage space. Most recreational kayaks come with at least a small tank well and bungee cord, plus the all-important cup holder.
Many sit-on-top kayaks have larger tank wells in the bow and stern. These are handy for coolers or other bulky items. Some sit-on-top kayaks and a lot of sit-in kayaks have a hatch that gives access to the inside of the hull. These may be better at keeping your things dry, but it can be tricky to access gear on the move.
Affordability is often a key consideration. If you’re new to kayaking, you don’t want to spend a lot of money on something that you’re not sure you’ll enjoy. Although recreational kayaks vary in price, you can pick up a decent model for under $600. If you’re on a tighter budget and willing to compromise on features, you can pay considerably less.
Recreational Kayak Frequently Asked Questions
I’d recommend the Perception Pescador 10 as the best recreational kayak. It’s a comfortable boat that’s stable for beginners. It also performs well enough for intermediate kayakers who don’t want to spend a fortune on a boat.
If you want an inflatable kayak, then the Sea Eagle 380X Explorer is my top pick. It’s more expensive than the Pescador 10, but it’s durable and much easier to store. You can even use it for whitewater kayaking!
The sheer number of recreational kayaks on the market makes it hard to find the right one for you. Hopefully, this guide has helped cut through the overwhelm.