Put some consideration into the type of paddling you want to do before you commit. Be practical: there’s no shame in getting a well-made beginner boat like the West Marine Saba if it means you’ll paddle more. While your search can start online, it should end at a specialty shop staffed by knowledgeable employees who’ll take the time to talk to you about their boats, let you get in some, and even put you on the water before you make a purchase. When looking at stores, pay attention to location. If you plan to paddle in a bay, shop near a bay. That’s where the owner and the employees are paddling, so their advice will come from on-the-water experience.
Current Designs Ignite
Officially, it’s a surf ski—a notoriously tippy breed of boat that’s also insanely quick. In reality, it’s 40 percent surf ski and 60 percent sea kayak, with a wider 24-inch hull and soft chines that make this fiber-glass and Kevlar speedster less likely to roll. Which is to say, the Ignite ($2,599) is a brilliant compromise. Read the full Gear of the Year review.
Hobie Mirage Outback
Best For: Catching the big one.
The Test: The update to Hobie’s fishing-focused boat ($2,299) adds a deluxe mesh seat with easily adjustable lumbar support and the ability to sit flush with the deck or perch five inches higher with the pull of a lever. This is a monster vessel (it took two people to get it on and off a roof rack), but the bulk affords remarkable stability and room for an expedition’s worth of tackle. Thanks to the ever improving MirageDrive pedal system, you’ll go faster than most paddlers.
The Verdict: Cast in comfort, big guy. 82 lbs; hobiecat.com
West Marine Saba 9.5
Best For: Getting started.
The Test: “A perfect in-law boat” was how one tester put it. As in, you buy it when you get into paddling, appreciate it for its stability and portability, then give it to your father-in-law when he says he wants to take up kayaking. The Saba’s ($359) smartly designed seat features an extra-tall padded back that folds down, enabling you to slide the whole thing forward to access the storage area in the stern. Two shallow channels on the underside of the 30-inch-wide hull help the boat track well despite the squat frame. Note: it’s a tight fit if you’re taller than six feet.
The Verdict: Easy to paddle, easy to transport. 35 lbs; westmarine.com
Old Town Next
Best For: Solo adventures.
The Test: We love canoes for their elegance and ease of entry, but all the steering strokes and switching sides while paddling can feel like a chore. Enter the Next ($1,000), which features shorter gunwales that make it easier to use a kayak-style double-bladed paddle. A rockered shape and short 13-foot length allow it to turn on a dime, while the low weight (for a canoe) means a single paddler can pull off a portage. With 450 pounds of capacity and a durable, three-layer poly-ethylene layup construction, it’s capable of serious wilderness trips.
The Verdict: A breakthrough in canoeing. 59 lbs; oldtowncanoe.com
Pyranha Fusion C4S
Best For: Doing it all.
The Test: This kayak ($1,099) thrives anywhere you want to play, from a calm lake to a rolling ocean to a Class IV rapid. We took it on a three-day mission down Oregon’s Rogue River and had a blast. Just over ten feet long, the medium-size version we tested was no playboat: well-defined chines and a rockered profile make it ridiculously fun to paddle, even when loaded with gear. It tracked fantastically when we deployed the deep skeg and boofed like a champ (seriously!) over a six-foot waterfall. Testers raved about the endless storage: a 78-liter rear hatch, a bulkhead in the bow, and a lunch-securing pod on the deck.
The Verdict: If you can get only one boat, get this. 46 lbs; pyranha.com
Dagger Roam 9.5
Best For: Dipping a toe into the rapids.
The Test: With its huge hull and plush seat, this sit-on-top is crafted to lure -novices onto mellower rivers, but even veteran testers were blown away by its snap and responsiveness. The secret lies in contoured sidewalls that offer plenty of secondary stability, so you can get it on an edge and manage turns in tight eddies. Massive padded thigh braces—the biggest we’ve ever seen—boost control, while hull channels improve tracking. A utility player, the Roam ($855) can hold enough gear for a mellow overnighter but is just as happy spending a lazy day lake fishing.
The Verdict: Equal parts friendly and versatile. 56 lbs; dagger.com
Klymit LiteWater Dinghy
Best For: Fast and light adventures.
The Test: The hard part of pack rafting isn’t carrying your deflated boat to the next put-in—it’s hunching in the bare-bones cockpit. Klymit solved this problem by adding a few inches of height to the back of this six-foot-plus raft, creating a backrest. The funky-looking angular (rather than oval) waterline gives you a better view and helps you rip aggressive strokes, because the LiteWater ($200) dips lower where your paddle enters the water. The included drybag doubles as a bellows that can inflate the craft in five minutes. Note: not suitable for anything more advanced than Class II waters.
The Verdict: The smartest, comfiest pack raft yet. 2.2 lbs; klymit.com