How to Choose the Best Touring Kayak

The Best Touring Kayaks: How to Choose the Right One

Think of kayak touring as the paddling version of backpacking. If you love getting out in the wilderness for days or even weeks at a time, this is your ticket to a whole new world of adventure. Kayak tourers load up their boats with all of the camping gear and food they need and head out to explore the wilds via lakes, rivers, bays, and even the ocean (where it’s commonly called sea kayaking, but the boats are the same). The right kayak should be comfortable, make you feel confident in rough water, and be sized correctly for your plans. Use this guide to get started. 

Ask Yourself These Questions

Finding the right boat starts with being clear about your goals, ability, and budget. 

Where do I want to kayak?

Will you be venturing into areas where wind and waves are a potential challenge, or sticking to relatively calm water? Paddling conditions affect factors like boat material and length.

How long will I be out?

Be sure to get a kayak that’s big enough to hold gear and food for your longest trips. 

How much experience do I have?

If you’re just starting out, you’ll want a stable boat that gives you confidence to get out on the water and learn. If you’re already comfortable on the water, you might favor a faster and more efficient design. 

How much weight can I lift? 

If you can't get your boat to the water, you are unlikely to paddle it. Be honest with yourself about how heavy of a boat you will be able to handle when you are not in the water. 

What’s my budget? 

Consider what you’re willing to spend for your whole kit, including costs like a paddle, paddling gear, and a car rack if needed.  


One of the main considerations is the material used to make the boat. There are a few options for touring kayaks and each material, and manufacturing process, has its own strengths and weaknesses.


Roto-molded polyethylene is commonly used. These kayaks are often the most affordable, and they’re plenty durable, even in rocky waters. Downside: This is the heaviest option.   


Thermoformed kayaks are often made with polyethylene, same as rotomolded kayaks, but they have a construction process that makes them lighter (and more expensive). Result: They’re as durable as roto-molded models but nearly as light as some of the composite boats like fiberglass. 


Fiberglass is lighter than polyethylene. Downsides: It’s not as durable as plastic, and is also more expensive. 


This is a good alternative to fiberglass, as it’s both strong and light, but it’s also more expensive.

Carbon Fiber

Kayaks made with carbon fiber are some of the lightest and strongest available (and also some of the most expensive). Their best for the most experienced paddlers.


Wooden touring kayaks are often handmade. Enthusiasts love them for the tradition and craftsmanship, and they can actually be very lightweight.


Thanks to improvements in construction that make them more rigid, inflatable kayaks are appropriate for touring these days. Still, solid boats offer more control, efficiency, and durability, so these are best if storage space or transportation is a dealbreaker. 


Compared to recreational kayaks, touring kayaks are built longer in order to move faster and keep a straighter line. Most touring kayaks range in length from 14 to 17 feet long. Longer boats in that range offer more internal storage. Just remember that anything longer than 17 feet will likely feel harder to maneuver, and anything shorter than 14 feet will feel slower. 


Width, like length, is a function of speed. Narrower boats go faster, and since that’s a priority when paddling long distances, touring kayaks are some of the narrowest boats on the water, often little wider than the paddler’s waist. The tradeoff for speed? Less stability. Touring kayaks range in width from about 20 to 30 inches, so if you’re just starting out, opt for a boat on the wider side. 


This matters less for paddling than for getting to the paddling. On the water, you won’t feel much difference with an extra 10 pounds. But you’ll definitely notice the weight when loading and unloading your kayak, carrying it to the put-in, and portaging it between two lakes. Lighter boats cost more, but are worth it if it means you’ll use it more.

Closed-Deck Cockpits

Most touring kayaks are closed decks, meaning they’re designed to be used with a spray skirt. This is a weather-resistant material, often neoprene, that goes around your waist and stretches over the lip of the cockpit to “close the deck” and seal out water. If you capsize, just pull the spray skirt off and swim to the surface (experts can roll back up). 

The key consideration is comfort and control. You want to feel engaged with your boat, through your knees and hips, so you can use your lower torso to control the boat. But you don’t want to feel cramped. Many boats come in a variety of sizes, including “high volume” for larger people and “low volume” for smaller people. 


Unlike closed-deck kayaks, sit-on-tops have no cockpit or spray skirt, so your lower half is exposed to the sun and rain and splashes. Most recreational kayaks are sit-on-tops, and some touring kayaks employ the design because it’s more accessible. New paddlers will find it more comfortable. Sit-on-tops are easier to drain in the event of a capsize, but of course they can’t be rolled like a closed-deck boat.   

Hatches and Bulkheads

You store gear and food inside a touring kayak. Bulkheads, or sealed off compartments within the boat, are accessed by hatches. Most touring kayaks will have fore and aft (front and back) bulkheads. Some have additional compartments as well. Just like with buying a backpack, you want to make sure there’s enough room for your supplies. You don’t want to end ups lashing a bunch of gear to the outside of a boat, which makes it unbalanced and increases the risk of losing stuff. 

Rudders and Skegs

Since touring kayaks are long, they’re susceptible to being pushed around by the wind. Solution: a rudder or skeg, which helps a boat track straight.

A rudder hangs off the stern (back) of the boat and can be maneuvered side to side with foot pedals. This allows you to steer with your feet while paddling. The extra control is nice to have, but rudders have more parts since they’re connected to foot pedals.  

A skeg is like a fin; it stays in a fixed position beneath your boat, slightly behind the cockpit. While you cannot turn a skeg side to side, it helps keep you on course. This is the best choice if you value mechanical simplicity.  

Both devices will help keep you tracking straight. And in some cases they’re retractable, for paddling in shallow water or pulling the boat onto the beach.


Everything above is important. But nothing trumps comfort. It’s best to try a kayak before you buy it. A touring kayak is like a shoe or work glove: You want a perfect fit. The seat should be comfortable, with your hips locked in. You want control without feeling pinched. Assess every part of your lower body and back. With a good fit, you can paddle powerfully and comfortably for hours on end. 

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.