Whether you're a seasoned paddler looking to run some rapids, or simply after a cruise out on the lake, having the right gear is essential for any kayaking expedition. Factors such as the weight, length, and width of your kayak are all important to consider. How you match your kayak with the river or lake you're keen to tackle can make or break your expedition.
This blog post runs through our list of the best kayaks for lakes and rivers, and outlines some of the key differences in kayak form and function.
Table of Contents:
Types of kayaks
- 'Sit on top' kayak
- 'Sit in' kayaks
Different kayak materials
- The hard-shell kayak
- The inflatable kayak
Best kayaks for rivers
- All-round best river kayak: AQUANAUTA PRO 2022 - 3.3M SINGLE SIT IN KAYAK
- Best for bringing friends and fam along: HUG XL - 5.5M TRIPLE SIT-IN, FAMILY TOURING KAYAK
- Best for touring: QUEST 518 ABS SUPERLITE - 5.18M SINGLE SIT-IN TOURING KAYAK
- Best river kayak for white water and rapids: GLADIATOR WHITE WATER KAYAK
- Best for leisure and/or beginners: NEREUS 1 - 3.7M SIT ON TOP DOUBLE KAYAK
Best kayaks for lakes
- All-round best kayak for lakes: KXONE SLIDER 410 SUPERLITE - 4.1M DOUBLE INFLATABLE KAYAK
- Best for bringing the kids (or the dog) along: NEREUS 2 - 3.7M SIT ON TOP FAMILY 3-PERSON KAYAK
- Best for fishing: PEDAL PRO FISH - 3.2M PEDAL-POWERED FISHING KAYAK
- Best kayak for longer lake expeditions: SPEEDY - 3.4M SIT ON TOP TOURING KAYAK
- Best for leisure and beginners: AIR GLIDE HYBRID 385 - 3.85M TANDEM INFLATABLE KAYAK
Important things to remember before your paddle
- Know the area
- Check the weather
- Make a judgement on the day
Types of kayaks
One of the most important distinctions to make is between 'sit on top' kayaks and 'sit in' or 'sit inside' kayaks. Whether you sit above the water or further down into it makes a huge difference when it comes matching your kayak to your expedition.
'Sit on top' kayak
What is a 'sit on top' kayak, and what is it best suited to?
- A sit on top kayak refers quite literally to kayaks that you sit on top of, rather than within. They generally run flatter and wider than sit in kayaks, and are usually better suited to beginners due to the solidity and stability this design offers. Moreover, sit on top kayaks are self-bailing (they have small holes called 'scupper holes' that let water run out– but not in!) and are easier to hop in and out of, and flip back over if you do happen to capsize.
- When it comes to lake and river paddling, sit on tops are better suited to flatter water and less intensive kayaking expeditions. The added width may make them more stable and easier to hop in and out of, but it also makes them slightly slower through the water and less agile. Kayak fisherman and people taking their kids or pets for a paddle also prefer sit on top kayaks for their ease of access. For these reasons they are better suited to slow moving rivers and lakes.
'Sit in' kayaks
What is a 'sit in' kayak, and what is it best suited to?
- Contrary to the sit on top design, sit inside kayaks have a cockpit that encloses the paddlers legs and waist and keeps their weight lower in the water, thereby keeping the hull of the kayak lower in the water too. These kayaks are faster, better suited to longer and more intensive expeditions, and– by keeping the paddler's lower body covered– minimise exposure to sun, wind, and water that splashes over the sides of the kayak. These features do, however, make sit in kayaks somewhat less stable, and they are therefore better suited to intermediate or advanced paddlers.
- The sleeker design, dry-storage capacity, and added insulation from the elements that sit in kayaks provide make them better suited to longer expeditions such as river journeys. Most touring kayaks are sit ins due to these features. More intense white-water expeditions are also undertaken in sit in kayaks that are wider and shorter in length for added stability and manoeuvrability.
Different Kayak Materials
Another important aspect of kayak construction is material choice. Although this can get very complicated, we'll keep it simple for you, and focus briefly on one major distinction: that of hard shell and inflatable kayaks.
The hard-shell kayak
A hard shell kayak is made from durable materials like our ABS thermoformed plastic, or UV stabilised HPDE. Almost all sit in kayaks will be hard shells, and most sit on top kayaks will be too.
The inflatable kayak
Inflatable kayaks are made from synthetic polymer material that can be inflated and deflated for storage and transportation. The obvious benefit to this design is the easy storage, but inflatable kayaks also offer unrivalled stability. Downsides to be considered are that they are slower than hard shell kayaks and more susceptible to being pushed by the wind. Inflatables most closely resemble sit on top kayaks and are therefore better suited to slow moving rivers and lakes.
Best kayaks for rivers
All-round best river kayak: AQUANAUTA PRO 2022 - 3.3M SINGLE SIT IN KAYAK
When it comes to recreational kayaks for rivers, you can't go past the Aquanauta Pro 2022. It’s a long-distance beast, easily taking on 10km+ adventures on slow moving rivers while keeping you dry and comfy throughout. Moreover, its compact design (it is shorter in length, has a wider beam, and is lighter in weight than most sit ins) makes it easier to transport and an ideal choice for those with limited storage space. Comfort is a priority in this one, with our ComfortFlex Seating System keeping your back supported and your paddling dialled in.
Best for bringing friends and fam along: HUG XL - 5.5M TRIPLE SIT-IN, FAMILY TOURING KAYAK
The Hug XL can get you and two other paddlers up and down river comfortably, without sacrificing speed or versatility. Despite this large carrying capacity, the HUG XL still tracks through the water effortlessly– even in a strong current– making it the perfect sit inside choice for all sorts of tandem river expeditions. Keen to go solo every once in a while? Easy. The centred rear seat allows for one person to paddle if the front and rear seats are empty or used as storage for touring and camping gear.
Best for touring: QUEST 518 ABS SUPERLITE - 5.18M SINGLE SIT-IN TOURING KAYAK
If you're into solo touring, the Quest 518 is a kayak to check out. Made from ABS thermoformed plastic, the Superlite is a cut above the rest– stronger, lighter, and more scratch-resistant than conventional PVC kayaks. If you're after plenty of storage on your river journeys, this boat fits the bill. VCP-style bow and stern storage hatches allow you to store gear for camping and fishing, while a smaller day-pod storage hatch, accessible from the cockpit, keeps your food, water, and essentials close by, and– most importanly– dry.
Best river kayak for white water and rapids: GLADIATOR WHITE WATER KAYAK
White water kayaking is usually reserved for the experienced river adventurer. If you're thinking of running the rapids, you'll need gear you can trust. The Gladiator White Water Kayak is a great boat for the job, with a deep sit-inside cockpit, and a shortened length and wide beam for improved manoeuvrability and responsiveness. A competitive price rounds the Gladiator off as an excellent choice for your next white-water paddling adventure.
Best for leisure and/or beginners: NEREUS 1 - 3.7M SIT ON TOP DOUBLE KAYAK
The Nereus 1 is a premier sit-on top tandem kayak. This super wide (86cm), ultra-stable boat makes for easy, accessible paddling and hassle-free fun on the water. With an impressive 250kg (550 pounds) carrying capacity, the extra space between the two front and rear seats can comfortably and safely function as a third seat for a child or pet. All-in-all the Nereus 1 is a great, easy-to-use river kayak for any skill level to get out and enjoy the waterways.
Best kayak for lakes
All-round best kayak for lakes: AIR GLIDE 410 - 4.10M DOUBLE INFLATABLE KAYAK
The Air Glide 410 is the ultimate inflatable recreational kayak. Bay Sports' updated 2022 version features a new, optional foot controlled rudder system, an improved high quality 1680D All-Terrain bag (as the name suggests, rugged and ready for use over any terrain), and overall improved footrests, paddle quality, and drainage system. The Air Glide has tandem and solo capabilities, but still remains super light weight, coming in at a neat 16kgs (roughly 35 pounds). We can safely say that the Air Glide 410 doesn't sacrifice performance for convenience and versatility. Advanced drop stitch fabric keeps the side chambers and deck of the kayak rigid, highly pressurised, and resistant to abrasion. Moreover, an extra durable, hydrodynamic V-shaped bow and stern and a clever slide-in skeg make for a fast kayak that tracks effortlessly across the water, even in steady wind. It is these features and more that make the Air Glide 410 our pick for the best all-rounder on the lake. It's easy, compact, durable, and stable, making for great lake cruising or longer lake explorations.
Best for bringing the kids (or the dog) along: NEREUS 2 - 3.7M SIT ON TOP FAMILY 3-PERSON KAYAK
The Nereus 2 shares a similar design to the Nereus 1, but comes with a stack of extra gear, such as four flush insert fishing rod holders, one 360° mounted fishing rod holder, and an extra paddle and backrest. To account for the extra load of a third paddler (or dog), this sit on top boasts a wider internal cockpit and seat width that increases weight capacity while also ensuring a more comfortable tandem kayak experience. These tailored features and more make the Nereus 2 a great candidate for an array of lake adventures, from tandem fishing trips to short, medium, or long-distance paddling.
Best for fishing: PEDAL PRO FISH - 3.2M PEDAL-POWERED FISHING KAYAK
As any angler will tell you, having your hands free is a must. The Pedal Pro Fish features a lightweight (8kg/17 pounds) geared pedal drive system that allows you to paddle forwards or backwards through the water effortlessly with the power of your legs. It has plenty of storage in the rear and comes with bow to stern track rails for mounting Go Pros, extra fishing rods, and fish finders, two pistol grip fishing rod holders, and two trolling rod holders conveniently located behind the seat. This kayak is EXTRA wide (85cm, to be exact), creating a huge 250kg (550 pounds) weight capacity, and more importantly, making it stable enough to stand upright in, for serious fishing. To finish it off, a raised, adjustable seat will keep you comfortable for long days out on the water, making this one of the best kayaks for lakes and fishing.
The Pedal Pro Fish also comes in a longer 4 metre size for an even more stable fishing kayak with an increased weight capacity.
Best kayak for longer lake expeditions: EXPEDITION 3 - 5.25M SINGLE SIT IN TOURING KAYAK
The Speedy is Bay Sports' response to customer feedback that asked for a boat that paired the stability and accessibility of a sit-on top kayak, with the speed and glide of a sit inside kayak. The result is a super light-weight (23kg/50 pounds), open-cockpit touring kayak that, thanks to its dialled hydrodynamic hull, is easily capable of 5km+ kayaking expeditions. With ample storage in the back and a storage hatch up front you'll easily be able to bring a day's worth of food, water, and other gear on your paddle, making the Speedy an excellent kayak for lakes and big estuaries. A 155kg (341 pounds) weight capacity secures this kayak as one of the most stable touring boat s on the market– with a competitive price to boot. As you might have gathered, these features also make it an excellent contender for slow moving river adventures.
Best for leisure and beginners: AIR GLIDE HYBRID 385 - 3.85M TANDEM INFLATABLE KAYAK
Whether learning or chilling, tandem makes for a better time. The Air Glide Hybrid kayak adds to this winning formula by combining compact storage capabilities (like our other inflatables, it deflates to fit in an easy to store bag) with forgiving handling and an easily accessible cockpit. Some kayaks tend to be a bit tippy, but the width and rigid drop-stitch tech of the Air Glide keep this kayak just about impossible to capsize. This tech also gives the Air Glide a massive 280kg (617 pounds) weight capacity, making it one of our most stable kayaks. Removable seats and footrests can also turn this kayak into the ultimate leisure boat. These features and more make the Air Glide Hybrid a great beginner and leisure kayak for lakes.
A few things to remember before taking on the lakes or rivers
Know (or get to know) the area
It goes without saying that rivers are changing environments. It can be calm, flat, and tranquil for one stretch, but a raging rapid just round the next bend. Doing some research on the river or lake you're visiting is essential to avoid disaster. Some will be perfect for beginners, while some should only be paddled by experts.
Check the weather
As with any kayaking trip, checking the weather before river or lake paddling is a must. Rivers are complex wilderness systems that can change drastically with fluctuations in rain. The Australian Government Bureau of Meteorology has a great interactive map of Australian rivers that details how much rain each has received in the last 24 hours (check it out here) . Using online tools like this one is an excellent way to avoid unecessary danger.
As for lakes, wind can make a huge difference. Websites such as Seabreeze or Willyweather are great tools for checking the wind to make sure it isn't already too strong for kayaking, or perhaps more importantly, won't get too strong while you're out on the water.
Make a judgement on the day
Your own assessment on the day is vital. If it looks too rough, don't push your luck. Trust your instincts. If something feels off, best to play it safe. If in doubt, asking around is another great way to make a good call on the day. Kayakers are a friendly and knowledgable bunch, and will often have a wealth of knowledge regarding your lake or river of choice.
Having the right gear is essential for a successful kayaking trip. This blog post has listed our pick of the best kayak for lakes and rivers, and one major difference in kayak design– that of the sit inside kayak vs. the sit on top. Features such as storage space, carry weight, length and width, carrying/weight capacity, and cockpit type are all important to consider when purchasing a lake or river kayak.
With the right gear choice and planning, your paddle will be a blast!