Getting 'off-trail' doesn't always mean hiking straight across the blank parts of the map. Waterways were the original superhighways, and can still take you places feet can't, and many channels are too shallow for a motorboat, leaving the path clear and quiet for human-powered craft.
A kayak is generally smaller and sleeker than a canoe, and are most commonly 'solo' boats for a single paddler using the double-ended paddle for both propulsion and steering. Many variants exist, as manufacturing and design capabilities improve and the number of paddlers grows every season. The three main categories of kayaks are Sit Inside, Sit On Top, and Hybrids.
Sit Inside, or 'cockpit' kayaks are the classic style that looks like what the dictionary defines as a kayak. Very pointed at bow and stern, they are not much wider than the paddler, and have a very rounded hull shape when viewed along the keel. The main design feature is the 'cockpit' in the deck. The paddler sits in through the cockpit and on the bottom of the boat with their legs straight out in front, sometimes with a 'skirt' sealing the opening from weather and water. Sit inside boats are best suited as a mode of transportation or fitness and less as a platform for activities.
If you are paddling to a destination or purely as a workout, sit inside 'cockpit' boats are where you want to look. Specialized designs like long, graceful sea kayaks can be a great for covering distance on open water, or a whitewater boat's aggressively curved shape and flatter hull is fun on a river with a good current and rapids to play in. Both expect a high stroke rate and angle, meaning you are holding the paddle close to vertical in the water and paddling more often than 'coasting.'
The majority of sit inside kayaks are some variation on a recreational design, with a larger cockpit allowing for changes in seating posture or small passengers (infants or dogs), but still be smooth and fast enough to enjoy paddling at a lower stroke angle and rate, perfect for just cruising over to the neighbors to say hello.
Sit on top kayaks have an open deck and no cockpit. Most designs have a seat molded into the deck with padding on top and adjustable footstops that may also be part of the propulsion or steering system. Wider and heavier than their sit inside cousins, sit on top kayaks are well suited for fishing, photography, or just exploring the whorls and eddies of side channels. The hull designs tend to be flatter and the boats feature the most options for guidance, propulsion, and utility.
Hybrid kayaks most resemble a canoe with the paddler sitting on a seat very close to the bottom of the boat, and feature thwarts and gunwales along with the option for rudders and propulsion systems. Hybrids have the most cargo space and weight capacity compared to other types in the same length. The 'tunnel' hull design common to these boats is a compromise between speed and stability and seems to do both reasonably well. These designs are becoming very popular, but note that both other types have internal hull storage while a hybrid has no such facility.
Not every kayaker wants to actually paddle the whole time they are on the water, and several propulsion systems are available for sit on top and hybrid kayaks that can get your boat moving with less or no effort compared to a conventional kayak paddle. Some involve a bicycle-style pedal assembly, some are simpler and have a different, front-back action for the feet. The propulsion elements will be removable and have some accommodation to clear the bottom of the boat to reduce potential damage from snags and banks. Some brands have introduced battery operated versions of these, so you might not use any major muscle groups at all. Keep in mind that in most states any motor-powered watercraft must be registered. If you are considering a propulsion boat, the hull will need to be designed to accept it. A cottage industry exists to attach trolling motors to kayaks, but if the designer didn't intend that kind of design, it probably won't work out too well.
Fishing is all about getting to where you *know* they're biting, and sometimes a powerboat just won't get you there, or will make too much noise trying. This is where an angler-outfitted kayak will rule. Most are made with roto-molded hulls that can be modified easily and will accept mounts on almost any surface, meaning whatever piece of gear you need, it's right where you want it. A propulsion system can get you out to your spot with much less effort, and more energy left to fish. Most feature a stable hull design meaning you can sit sideways with your toes in the water, or get up to stow something or cast without ending up all wet.
Before even test-paddling, you should know where and how you expect to be using the boat. As a rule of thumb, a longer, narrower boat will go straighter and faster with less stability and effort. Shorter and wider designs will improve maneuverability and stability at the price of speed and effort. To put it another way, in a 14' boat you'll go fast but not turn very easily, while in a 10' boat you can turn on a dime, but will spend much of your energy correcting course instead of moving forward. When looking at boat dimensions, expect most designs under 29" wide will be faster, over 30" more stable.
The symmetry of a kayak refers to the widest part in relation to the midpoint of the boat on its long axis. 'Swede form' will be wider toward the stern, 'Fish form' toward the bow. Swede is very popular because the narrow bow entry makes the boat a bit faster and more agile. Fish form has a wider, more buoyant bow with a flatter entry.
The shape of the hull in cross-section will also inform its handling. The general shapes used in sit inside kayaks are rounded, V, and chined, and you should expect some mix of the three elements in most boats. Rounded simply means the overall shape is more rounded as opposed to chined, where the shape is created with flat sections. A V shape creates a ridge running from bow to stern, and a deeper V will result in straighter tracking but less maneuverability.
Recreational sit insides will have a slight V, while sit on top boats will usually have a flat hull shape with rounded sides and inset channels to act as a keel, improving the tracking. Hybrid kayaks have their own shape, the Tunnel Hull.
Tunnel hulls are a variation on a catamaran design, with two rounded 'hulls' connected with a solid section that creates an air space on the long axis which also acts as a vacuum, creating a very stable hull that is also relatively fast and maneuverable. This style is very popular for fishing and 'lazy water' paddling.
Materials and Construction
How a boat is made an important consideration for weight, durability, handling, and cost.
The heaviest and most economical construction is roto-molding, a process where a granular polyethylene material is placed in a mold that is heated while being rotated on the long axis, resulting in a boat that is hollow, but has no assembly seams. 'Roto' boats usually have a dull finish and very rounded edges, and take lots of abuse without showing it. Most 'recreational' and whitewater kayaks are roto-molded.
Thermo-molded boats have a hull and deck that are made separately in conventional fixed molds, then assembled with a combination of adhesives and hardware. The plastic materials used will be lighter, stiffer, and much smoother, meaning that for the slightly higher price, you will have a fast, shiny, efficient and much 'prettier' boat. The decreased weight means the boat may ride higher in the water, improving handling as well.
Composite kayaks are hand built by 'laying up' fiberglass, Kevlar, or similar industrial fabrics on molds. The fabric is soaked with resin, bonding the layers together. A color coat and finishing gelcoat may be applied for texture and protection. 'Laid' boats are the most expensive and will have finer details and design elements. Composite is most commonly found in touring-style kayaks where stiffness and weight savings are a priority and cost less of an issue.
Paddles, PFDs and Transporting
Safety on the water comes from equipment and behavior. If you've ever been on a boat, someone should have mentioned lifejackets or PFDs. These are required by law in many states and are always a good idea, especially for casual paddlers. Whichever you choose, have enough for everyone who will be in the boat and make sure they are worn by younger paddlers and while sharing the channel with powered vessels, or readily available in calmer sections. More on PFDs HERE.
Kayak paddle shape and design hasn't changed much in the last few years, but your price and construction options are fairly broad. Selecting your paddle is covered HERE.
Another factor is how often you will be transporting the boat. Almost regardless of the boat or vehicle, roof rack companies offer durable and secure ways to keep your craft on the roof, but getting it up there and down again is up to you. Shorter craft are easier to pick up and haul around but may limit how long you can enjoy a day on the water, either because of handling or cargo, while a bigger boat might require two (or three) people just to load up.
Bow: Front of the boat.
Stern: Back of the boat.
Hull: That part of the boat always in the water.
Keel: Center line ridge in the hull from bow to stern
Starboard side: Right side of the craft when looking toward the bow.
Port side: Left side of the craft when looking toward the bow.
Deck: Upper part of the boat. A separate piece from the hull.
Rudder: Composite or metal assembly that extends vertically into the water at the stern. Pivots to change the direction of travel. Standard on foot-drive boats and common on 'angler package' outfitted boats.