Best Top Rated Kayak of 2018 & Buying Guide

Kayaking has a long and storied history.  Originally used by Inuit hunters in Antarctica, kayaks were made of sealskins and whalebone or driftwood, until European explorers and settlers adopted the design with fabric versions.  

In1936, kayak (or “flatwater) racing became an Olympic sport, and grew in popularity.  When plastic versions were first manufactured in the 1980s, kayaks entered the mainstream.  Since then, it’s become one of the most popular and versatile outdoor activities in the world.

Choosing the right kayak takes more than a quick online search; buyers have to consider what they’ll use their kayak for the most, what they can afford, and whether a model provides all the specs they’ll require.  All of this information is available at the simple click of a mouse, direct from the manufacturers.

There’s another element to shopping research, however, that you can’t get from a seller: reviews.  Fellow customers will provide honest reviews of the product, and many thoughtfully come back to update their reviews after several years, to attest to a model’s long-term quality.  In this buyer’s guide, we’ll assess a few of the top-rated kayaks on today’s online marketplace.

Product

Ranking

Our Rating

Price

Intex Challenger K1

Best Overall

Sea Eagle SE370K_P

2nd Choice

Sun Dolphin Journey 10’

3rd Choice

Sevylor Big Basin 3-Person Kayak

4th Choice

Ocean Kayak 12’

5th Choice

Buyer’s Guide:

What kind of kayak should I get?

Depending on what you’ll use your kayak for, there are different types that can suit your needs better than others.

  • Recreational kayaks are used for calmer waters, although many can handle river rapids, too.  They can be used for light paddling, transportation, and fishing, and come in a range of materials and styles.
  • Sit-On Style: These kayaks have a low profile, with the user positioned on top of the hull, rather than inside it (though most feature a sunken cockpit with molded seats, footrests, and storage).  Sit-on styles are easier to mount from the water, and are great for warm climates.  They can be hard shell or inflatable.
  • Sit-In Style: Users sit inside the kayak with their legs and waist in the hull, under the deck.  If using a skirt, their bodies are protected from the water—making these models ideal for cold-water climates.  Sit-in styles have better maneuverability (on average) because the user has more leverage while paddling, and can brace his or her weight against the inside of the hull.  These can be hard shell or inflatable, although hard shell is the most common type for sit-in kayaks.
  • Fishing Kayaks: These are typically sit-on styles, and have mounts for fishing rods, gear storage, and other accessory spots, like a place to put a fish GPS, and a hole or clip for a transducer.  Some have trolling motors or anchor systems, and can be inflatable or hard shell, as well as sit-in or sit-on (though most are sit-on hard shells).
  • Tandem Kayaks: With longer hulls, these models accommodate two or even three riders, and can be inflatable or hard shell, sit-in or sit-on.
  • Inflatable: Inflated with a hand, foot, or electric air pump, these kayaks are usually made of vinyl and tarpaulin.  Most are designed to resist punctures, with separate chambers so if one section is breached, the kayak will still float.  Inflatable models are best for those with limited storage space or cars without mounting racks, or for campers, hikers, and those who travel frequently.
  • Hard Shell: Usually made of polyethylene plastic, these are easier to maneuver than inflatables, more durable, and typically more expensive.
  • Touring kayaks are meant for long distances or races.  They’re usually made of plastic (hard shell), have a great deal of storage (since you’ll be on the water a long time) and have sealed bulkheads to help the craft stay afloat in the event of a breach.  They’re longer than most recreational kayaks, have tracking systems like rudders/skegs—which not all recreational models do—and are designed with paddling efficiency in mind.
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Top 5 Rated Kayak

1.  Intex Challenger K1 Inflatable Kayak Review

Intex specializes in inflatables: above-ground pools, hot tubs, inflatable couches and chairs, and air beds, which bodes well for this inflatable kayak in terms of durability (after all, any company whose products can withstand kids’ cannonballs can stand up to some water, right?).  

It does make us wonder about the performance aspect, though: serious kayakers would probably prefer a dedicated brand, rather than a do-it-all company.  The Intex Challaenger, which is also available in a tandem model, is best for light paddling and leisure use, such as exploring a lake or easygoing river.

Pros

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    Sit-in style, inflatable; not a common combination to find in a kayak. Intended for use on lakes and easy currents; made of durable vinyl.
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    Low-profile for easier steering and control; high-buoyancy side chambers make it incredibly difficult to tip; I-beam floor keeps gear from compressing deck and user’s legs.
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    Includes high-output hand-operated air pump, one 86” aluminum paddle, and patch kit, as well as a carrying bag.
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    Deck features generous storage net for gear.
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    Kayak weight: 24 lbs.
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    Kayak length: 9’.
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    Maximum weight capacity: 220 lbs.
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    Very affordable.

Cons

  •  Like most inflatable models, does not include dry storage wells or rod holders.

We recommend the Challenger K1 to nature lovers who don’t need adrenaline-inducing rapids to enjoy their kayak.  This model is perfect for lakes and calm rivers, and provides a stability and tracking advantage over inflatable sit-on styles.  That said, it won’t steer as precisely as a hard shell model—but, then again, few inflatable models can.

2.  Sevylor Big Basin 3-Person Kayak Review

The Sevylor Big Basin fits up to three people in its sit-on design, which features a generous well with spray curtains and low profile that almost makes it feel like a sit-in.  The one downside: it’s still a tight squeeze for three adults, but looks like it will function well if one rider is smaller, such as a child.  The seats are fully adjustable, as well, and come with comfortable backrests for long days on the water.

Pros

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    Inflatable sit-on design can accommodate three users comfortably.
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    Constructed with PVC sides and a tarpaulin bottom; very durable and puncture resistant.
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    Multiple air chambers; if one sustains puncture, boat should remain at surface of water for easy extraction.
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    Guaranteed against leaks from normal wear and use; patented Airtight system.
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    Adjustable backrests for comfort tailored to each user. Seats can be removed and adjusted for use as a 1- or 2-person craft, as desired.
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    Double-threaded Boston valve; easier to inflate and deflate.
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    Very affordable for any kayak, especially one for multiple users.
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    Kayak weight: 45 lbs.
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    Kayak length: 12’.
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    Maximum weight capacity: 490 lbs.

Cons

  • Does not include air pump or paddles.
  • Not as comfortable for three average-sized adults, but does provide adequate room overall; most users find 2 adults and a child/youth to be the highest occupancy with the most comfort.

With a warranty of only 1-year, this model doesn’t provide the greatest peace of mind (especially for an inflatable model that will, at some point, likely require replacement parts/repairs).  That said, the price is more than fair, and combines with the novelty of a 3-seat option to make the Big Basin worth consideration.  The adjustable seats are a nice feature, so users can remove 1 or 2 seats if desired, or compensate for legroom in taller riders.  We recommend this to buyers who plan on doing some family paddling, or hitting the water with friends for leisurely kayaking.

Related Post:  Best Fishing Kayak Under $600 of 2018 & Buying Guide

3.  Ocean Kayak 12’ Malibu Tandem Sit-On-Top Kayak Review

The Malibu Tandem kayak is technically a three-person craft, but with a unique circumstance: it can fit two adults in the padded seats at the hull and stern, and a child or youth rider in the molded seat well in the middle of the boat.  The Malibu is comfortable and stylish, as well, with good tracking stability consumers have come to expect from Ocean.

Pros

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    Sit-on style kayak that can accommodate up to two adults and a child; two Comfort Plus seats at stern and bow, plus a molded plastic seating area (no backrest) in center of hull.
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    Includes gear straps, foot wells, molded handles, and a skid plate.
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    Design is stackable; store multiple Malibu kayaks with ease. Ideal for rental companies and camps, or vacation houses with larger groups of people.
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    Kayak weight: 57 lbs.
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    Kayak length: 12’.
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     Maximum weight capacity: 425 lbs.
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    Available in Envy (green and white gradient), Sunrise (red and yellow), or yellow.

Cons

  • Paddle not included.

Ocean Kayak, which was founded in the 1970s by a surfer, pioneered the sit-on design from their very earliest products.  The Malibu Tandem is efficient, attractive, and smart: use of the hull’s center for an optional third seat for smaller riders is innovative and fun, yet easy to implement in almost any design—which makes us wonder why more manufacturers aren’t following Ocean’s lead.

4.  Sea Eagle SE370K_P Inflatable KayakReview

Pros

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    Sit-in inflatable kayak, tandem design; two seats included, but can fit a third seat and rider.
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    Raised and tapered bow and stern for better maneuvering.
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    Constructed from 38 mm K-80 PolyKrylar, a specialized PVC treated to resist punctures, UV and salt damage, and even gasoline or oil spills. Incredibly durable.
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    Kayak weight: 54 lbs.
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    Kayak length: 12’6”.
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    Maximum weight capacity: 650 lbs.
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    Includes two 7’10” paddles, inflatable seats, foot pump, carrying bag, and patch kit to make repairs.
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    Affordable for any kayak, especially a tandem style.

Cons

  • Though it can fit three people, it’s most comfortable with two adults, or two adults and one youth rider.

We recommend the Sea Eagle 370 to campers more than anyone else, though its compact traveling size makes daytrips to the lake just as easy.  There’s ample room and attachments for all your gear, and the durable PVC can tackle anything from brushes with rocks to your dog’s nails (though most kayakers would still prefer a hard shell for their pups, just in case).  This model is also one of the more comfortable options on the market, with cushy inflatable seats and ample legroom.

5.  Sun Dolphin Journey 10’ Sit-On-Top Fishing Kayak Review

Angler kayaks tend to be pretty heavy, which makes the Sun Dolphin Journey 10’ especially unique; at only 44 lbs., it features retractable handles and can easily be carried from the car to water.  It includes a comfortable seat and foot braces, three fishing rod holders, and dry storage behind the seat, along with exposed deck storage at the bow and stern.

Pros

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    Sit-on style made with high-density polyethylene (hard shell, plastic), treated to withstand UV damage.
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    Adjustable foot braces help with strong waters and tight turns.
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    Includes two flush rod mounts and one swivel rod mount; paddle holder.
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    Large cockpit with thigh pads for comfort; molded seat with cushioned backrest.
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    Retractable carrying handles for easy transport.
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    Kayak weight: 44 lbs.
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    Kayak length: 10’.
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    Maximum weight capacity: 250lbs.

Cons

  • Some users have reported poor tracking due to the lack of a rudder, which would require aftermarket purchase and installation.

The main issue with the Journey 10 SS, according to buyers, is its tendency to turn while at a standstill, such as casting off.  While some report the tracking is just fine, it might be worth adding an aftermarket rudder to help control your position.  That issue aside, the Journey is one of the lightest fishing kayaks out there, and is built with a rugged and low profile that’s perfect for lakes and mild rivers.  Even the smallest features are well thought-out—like the molded cup holder in the cockpit, positioned between the rider’s legs, and thigh pads for comfort while bracing during tight turns (or while reeling in the biggest catch of the day).

To Conclude:

Not all kayaks are created equally.  Besides their intended use, models can vary greatly in weight, material, durability, size, and price.  When it comes to honest and unbiased opinions, buyers are wise to consult reviews and pay attention to ratings—not just manufacturer’s spec lists—before making their decision.