Even though Fall is turning into Winter and many boaters are shifting away from kayaking, your timing is impeccable, Joe. I am currently neck deep in kayaks, testing for Outside's Summer '14 Buyer's Guide. I don't want to let too much out of the bag for what we have in the works for next year's boats, so I am going to stick with products you can buy now. To test kayaks, I have teamed up with Sea Trek, a 30-year-old kayak outfitter plus instruction, guiding, and rental shop in Sausalito, California. My man at Sea Trek, Leo Siecienski, has been guiding at SeaTrek for over six years. Leo has been guiding formally for 10 years, at one point he led instruction for six different kayaking businesses and organizations in the Bay Area at once. He has fielded some version of this question thousands of times.
A Jackson kayak
A paddler in their Jackson kayak.
"The perfect boat is going to depend on where they are paddling and where they want to go with it," Leo told me in an email. "Regional application is paramount," Leo says. While there is an incredibly large decision tree you can go down, dependent upon how important factors like speed, comfort, and storage are to you—which is why I always suggest buying in a retail store with a knowledgable staff—Leo has some basic suggestions to get you started on buying your first kayak.
1. For lakes and slow rivers:
Jackson Rogue 9'4"-10'; $999; jacksonkayak.com - The Jackson Rogue will be easy to keep in a straight line because it has a skeg and the cockpit outfitting has a simple, extremely comfortable design for long paddles in flatwater. The Rogue has rear storage hatch for storage but is still a short boat, which means that you can put in a Rogue in the garage or potentially squeeze it into an apartment. The Rogue also has great crossover whitewater appeal if you find yourself wanting to progress on rivers.
Venture Flex 11'; $749; venturekayaks.com - The Flex has a large size range. We like it for beginners because it has a simple but versatile cockpit which features a seat back that can fold down to be a regular whitewater seat or up to perform more like a fishing or rec seat. It is a small boat, so it's easy, to get on car tops. One thing to note about the Venture is that it has no pillar—wall separating your legs in the bow—so is not suitable for whitewater.
2. For lakes, slow rivers, and protected ocean paddling if your are interested in using this boat to transition into becoming an intermediate or advanced paddler:
Venture Easky 13'; $1,199; venturekayaks.com - The Easky is one of Leo's favorite teaching boats. It is more of a sea kayak, than the other suggested boats here, but it is small and super stable but still has all of the features of a sea kayak. "You could take someone from not knowing anything, but its good enough that you could do ten miles in a day or do rough water in it," Leo says.
Jackson Journey 13'6"- 14'; $1,399; jacksonkayak.com - "I like the Journey for all of the same reasons I like the Easky 13," says Leo. A beginner is going to have a great time in it, but with the right instruction and enough boat time, the Journey offers most of the features of a more core sea kayak. Like the Rogue, the outfitting in this kayak is simple, robust, comfortable, and will encourage good form if used correctly.
Ocean Kayak Tetra 12'1; $760; oceankayak.com - This kayak is incredibly stable and the fact that you don't have to roll it softens the learning curve. It has a wide range of possible uses for a beginner, but has the achilles heel of being extremely slow. For a lot of paddlers, this is not a big deal. If you grow out of the Tetra, you can use it as a boat to introduce your friends to paddling.