Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Advice: 10 Tips for Which Kayak You Should Buy (hint: maybe none at all)

Upon engaging in conversation about kayaking with non-kayakers, I have often been told "I've always wanted to do that", many times followed by "what kind of kayak should I buy?".The real answer is maybe none. Kayaking is one of those activities that people romanticize - and, with good reason. It can be an amazing experience that provides great exercise, a sense of adventure, and the opportunity to get closer to the natural world. If you have salt water in your veins like I do (see my post Why I Love the Ocean), the ocean always beckons, and lakes and rivers offer freshwater adventures as well. Throw in the occasional kayak fishing trip, or island hopping across an expansive bay, and the reasons to do it become more and more compelling. However, the reasons not to do it can be compelling as well.

No one likes to have practical challenges put a hole in their fantasy balloon, but those challenges are exactly the reason why lots of folks buy a kayak that ends up gathering dust in a garage, shed, or basement - or is sold at a discount on Craigslist (of which I have been the happy buyer on more than one occasion). Let's examine a few of them:

1. Can you swim?  For real, there are people who can't swim or swim well that think about buying a kayak. Yes, that's nuts. If you want to play in water other than a kiddie pool, learn how to swim first. You could find yourself in an emergency situation on the water that requires having to "swim for it" easily. So, don't be nuts.

2. Who will you be paddling with? How likely is it that you will venture out on your own to paddle? If you don't have a friend or family member as committed as you are to the activity, will you be willing to join a paddling group of some kind? If not, and you do paddle solo, are you skilled enough to get yourself out of a jam, and knowledgeable about the water conditions? You'd better be.

3. How will you get your kayak to the water? Do you have a vehicle suited to carry a kayak or two? If you're thinking about paddling in the ocean, can your vehicle carry a 15-17 foot (or longer) boat? Also - are you capable of handling your kayak physically to get it on or in your vehicle? You can get a wheeled kayak carrier to help you get it to the water's edge, but you still have to get it on and off (twice at least for each trip) your car or truck. Sometimes, that's easier said than done. Furthermore, does your vehicle have existing roof rails? If yes, your factory crossbars are not generally designed to carry the weight of a kayak. You may need to look into beefed up crossbars and/or some other kind of roof rack system. Sometimes, you can get away with foam pads underneath. But remember, you will need to strap your boat down in a secure enough manner to handle highway speeds, if you live any distance from your put-in location. Racks and roof carriers can be expensive. You can find used gear on Craiglist and eBay, but it has to fit your vehicle. Take some time to consider what your transport options are. They could affect which kayak you choose, or whether you're up for the challenge at all.     

4. How many times have you paddled before? Surprisingly, there are people willing to purchase a kayak (or gear of any kind, for that matter) who have never actually tried it. Do yourself a favor - try a rented kayak (a group tour might be a good idea for safety), or a friend's kayak at least a couple times to make sure it's something that you enjoy enough to commit to. Remember, if it's something you think you'll only do once in a while, you can always rent one then.

5. Do you have a place to wash off your gear and stow your kayak? If you live in a condo or apartment with no storage, where is your boat and gear going to reside when not in use? Also, you will need access to fresh water outside to wash your boat and gear down, especially if it was used in salt water. There are creative ways around these challenges. I have personally kayaked routinely while living in rental properties. You could go to the extreme of washing your gear off at a manual car wash, and storing your kayak on top of your vehicle semi-permanently. At least think it through before you commit.

6. How much money do you want to spend? This one's right up my alley. As I stated in a previous post, I'm cheap - but creative. I have sourced my kayaks used and saved hundreds, but it took legwork, research, and negotiation to get it done. Are you up for that? If not, then your cost of entry just went up. Also, there are items that might shock you by how expensive they are. My first kayak was a $1200 Perception I bought 1 year used for $750. However, I also spent almost $300 on a carbon fiber paddle GET ONE HERE (an upgrade I deemed worthwhile). Add in another $150-200 for a PFD (personal flotation device - life jacket), dry bags, paddle leash, broad brimmed water resistant hat, sprayskirt, etc. and the cost can add up quickly. Remember, you get what you pay for. "Toy" kayaks sold at discount stores may seem like a great deal, but they have no place in a scenario that requires any performance (see my post The "Kmart Kayaker" - Why More People Are Dying from Paddle Sports). Your safety may be at risk. Do your homework, price out quality gear, and decide if you're willing to make the investment. And please, for the love of Pete, don't waste time on an inflatable.

7. What kind of kayaking are you planning to do? Are you planning to keep a "fun" kayak at the lake, paddle on rivers (or maybe even white water), or get out in the ocean? Where you paddle will determine what kayak you buy. They are not all the same. The types and designs of kayaks are multiple, and each has its' merits and downsides. Length, sit-on-top (SOT), enclosed (cockpit - sit inside), rudder/no rudder, hull shape, material - the list goes on. Only you can decide where you're going to paddle most - and you'll probably end up changing your mind at some point (which is why junkies like myself go through several boats). After years of paddling an enclosed hull kayak, I sold it and located a touring style SOT (which was not easy, as few of them are manufactured) - the Heritage Sea Dart I bought used and paddle today. I made the change to maximize my safety, as an SOT can be climbed back onto - contrasted to an enclosed hull that needs to be "rolled" or bailed out after a wet exit (see my post Benefits and Weaknesses of SOT (Sit-On-Top) Kayaks).

8. If you buy an enclosed hull kayak, you will need to learn how to roll it. Period. I cannot overstate the importance of safety in general, and the capacity to deal with a capsized boat more specifically. You must commit to learn how to "roll" your enclosed hull kayak (to stay inside the kayak when capsized, submerge under the water, and use your paddle technique, body position, and momentum to emerge upright from the opposite side). Remember, whatever conditions caused your capsize might still be happening, and you may need to do this repeatedly. I'll tackle safety more thoroughly in a future post (see Safety is a Mindset), but know ahead of time that this will be a requirement. It might make you consider an SOT instead.

9. Do you have access to the water? Are there launches, boat ramps, beaches, etc. for you to launch your kayak? Also, is there safe parking available at these locations? Landing after a 3 hour paddle to find your vehicle towed would ruin your day.  

10. Are you independent minded? When your buddy was all fired up about kayaking, but after a trip or two, decided he was too busy, will you be willing to join a group or go it alone? If not, then reconsider a purchase. Going on a rented tour with others might be a better scenario for you. And, never buy a tandem kayak (unless you're planning on paddling with a child or your dog). When you break up with your girlfriend or boyfriend, or your wife or husband loses interest, hauling and paddling a big tandem by yourself will not be a labor of joy. 

I love kayaking. Over the past few years, I've loved surfing a waveski (see my post What's That Thing Called?) even more. Water (and for me, the ocean in particular) is a miracle. Just remember, you can enjoy it in all kinds of ways. Kayaking may be your way, or it might not be. Sometimes, the best purchase is none at all.   

- TB on the Water



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