Whether you prefer heart-thumping whitewater or mellow jaunts across the local pond, we’ve got the right vessel for you.
Designing a fun and truly versatile crossover kayak that’s as adept in whitewater as it is in flatwater is extremely difficult to do. Dagger nails it with the Katana ($1,029). Its moderately aggressive rocker profile made it plenty maneuverable for eddy hopping in Class III rapids. We were also impressed with how well this longish boat (at ten feet four inches, it has plenty of waterline) tracked on lazy sections of river and cruised around small lakes, especially with the retractable skeg deployed. Beginners will appreciate the Katana’s primary stability, which inspires confidence in whitewater. Though it makes the boat a bit heavy, the well-padded cockpit is extremely comfortable—a good thing, since you might be in it awhile: you can squeeze enough gear into the bulkhead system and ample back hatch for a multi-day trip. 56 lbs
BEST FOR: Big boys.
THE TEST: Thanks to a roomier hull design, the Denali ($2,499) is the first true performance-touring and recreational kayak that guys over six-two don’t have to squeeze their legs and feet into. Even better, Eddyline was able to keep this decidedly large (it’s just over 15 feet) boat’s weight down to 50 pounds, thanks to the proprietary Carbonlite layup—an extruded plastic that’s nearly as light as fiberglass and doesn’t splinter on impact. Although the boat looks thin and fragile, it resisted abrasion and didn’t warp when we yarded it down on roof racks. The Denali also has a massive amount of primary stability, thanks to its wide hull.
THE VERDICT: We wouldn’t call it nimble, but it’s plenty agile for its size. 50 lbs
BEST FOR: Rock gardening, rough-water paddling.
THE TEST: P&H built the Hammer ($1,799) for rock gardening—an ocean discipline that requires whitewater-type skills (think bracing and dodging boulders) to navigate rocky areas in surf. The extremely flat hull and hard-lipped cockpit take their design cues from creekboats, while the rest of the craft is shaped more like a traditional touring kayak. The result is truly revolutionary. The short stern, hard rocker profile (particularly in the rear), and flat hull made the Hammer incredibly agile in surf. The only drawback is the weight: it’s pretty darn heavy, so it felt sluggish on longer point-to-point paddles.
THE VERDICT: Not great for long distances, but a total blast to dodge rocks in. 62 lbs
BEST FOR: Touring.
THE TEST: Paddling this ultralight (just 44 pounds) touring boat ($2,295) is about as fast and fun as it gets. Also enjoyable: geeking out on the cool design tricks Delta used to save all that weight, like incorporating the cockpit ring, seat adjustment, and hatch rings into the mold rather than attaching the pieces as accessories. (The other upside to this: there are less pieces to break, lose, or corrode.) The narrow hull allows the boat to speedily slice through chop, while the hard chines—angular contours below the waterline—don’t sacrifice too much stability. Specifically designed to fit small to medium-size paddlers best.
THE VERDICT: Our favorite touring sea kayak and runner-up for Gear of the Year. 44 lbs
NRS Outlaw 140 Raft
BEST FOR: Family float trips and fishing.
THE TEST: Because rafts fit lots of stuff (kids, dogs, coolers), happily bounce off rocks, and are nearly impossible to flip in gentle rapids, they’re the ultimate family-friendly craft. They can also set you back several thousand dollars. To help keep the price down on the 14-foot Outlaw ($1,995), NRS designed a removable inflatable insert for the floor. It's self-bailing, a nice feature even if you're just on mellow whitewater. For midsize western rivers, the Outlaw hits the sweet spot, easily holding six passengers as a paddle raft or four with an oar frame (from $425) inside.
THE VERDICT: The perfect entry-level boat for rapids Class III and below. 140 lbs
BEST FOR: Space-constrained recreational boaters.
THE TEST: Constructed out of a single piece of corrugated plastic, the ultralight Oru ($1,095) transforms from a folded-up bundle to a fully functioning kayak in about five minutes. To test how structurally sound it was, we paddled it out into dumpy beach break and rammed it into a few rocks. And while it doesn’t move as fast or hold a line on a wave nearly as well as a traditional boat, the Oru performed admirably—the folds on the hull act as chines, which lend it a ton of stability. Note: the absence of watertight hatches makes self-rescue all but impossible, so keep it mellow or close to shore.
THE VERDICT: A fun and highly packable boat. 26 lbs
Hobie Mirage Sport
BEST FOR: Hands-free paddling.
THE TEST: In 1997, when Hobie brought out its Mirage system ($1,799), which allows you to propel the boat via bicycle-style pedals that are connected to underwater fins, we wrote it off as a gimmicky toy. But Hobie has refined the design over the years—making the hulls more rounded and less aggressive, for example—and we have to admit that, after a few months of testing, we’re fans. In pedal mode (with your paddle left on shore or affixed to the side of the boat), you can pretty easily get going about twice as fast as someone paddling a traditional boat with similar effort. Remove the pedal module and it paddles like a typical recreational boat, with the primary stability of a barge.
THE VERDICT: Great for newbies and families. 68 lbs