For the most part, boat manufacturers are in a careful tinkering phase, making smart refinements to tried-and-true designs. Notably, the trend in shorter (sub-15 feet) touring boats has matured: many brands are now producing these more playful kayaks, which are a bit slower than their longer forebearers but also more versatile. Regardless of what type you’re after, try to test a few models in the water before making a purchase. And while online homework is helpful, it can’t replace talking through options with a knowledgeable specialty retailer. Finally, remember to ask yourself a couple less exciting questions before pulling out your credit card: Where are you going to store your new boat? How easily can you transport it? The answers will be major factors in how much you’ll actually paddle.

(Inga Hendrickson)

Dagger Stratos 

Gear of the Year

When a company claims to have come up with a boat that performs equally well for beginner and advanced paddlers, we roll our eyes. But Dagger actually pulled it off with the Stratos. The key to the crossover appeal: a hull with great primary stability but also defined chines and a significant amount of rocker. That combination gives newbie paddlers a boost in confidence while allowing veteran sea kayakers to play in more challenging waters, ripping efficient lean turns and punching through waves. Built with an internal hull beam similar to what you find on Dagger’s whitewater boats, the Stratos is impressively durable—we drilled a few barnacle-covered cave walls without sustaining damage. The flipside is that it’s heavy, which makes the shorter hull a little sluggish on long crossings. But that’s a minor penalty considering the overall package and low price. 14'6"; 53 lbs 

Price $1,119

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(Jackson Kayak)

Jackson Rockstar Competition 

Best For: Throwing loops. 

The Test: Our resident playboat tester fell in love with the Rockstar, and for good reason. Jackson’s designers paired a narrow hull with a carbon-fiber baseplate to shave seven pounds from the previous model and create the company’s fastest and best freestyle boat to date. The bow and stern are extremely thin, making it easy to dig under the water and initiate tricks. Nicely balanced from tip to tail, with ample foot room and a relaxed (for a boat of this kind) sitting geometry, the Rockstar also does surprisingly well on downriver jaunts. “It’s the only playboat I would take on a ten-mile run,” one tester said. 

The Verdict: Play it again—and again and again. 5'8"; 25 lbs

Price $1,249

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Aire Bakraft Hybrid  

Best For: Going way out there.

The Test: Aire has been making our favorite hardcore inflatable whitewater kayaks for decades, and that expertise clearly trickled down to the Bakraft, which can be inflated to a rock-solid 2.5 psi. Advanced boaters were able to hold a line and didn’t feel like driftwood—a common complaint about pack rafts—on southern Oregon’s Class III Rogue River, thanks to the self-bailing I-beam floor design instead of the more typical uninflated kind. Best of all, because it’s so light and rolls down to the size of a large sleeping pad, we found ourselves bringing it along to places we never expected, like on trout-fishing missions involving long hikes to lonely mountain lakes. 

The Verdict: Crazy light, super fun. 7'; 7.1 lbs

Price $1,449

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(Perception Kayaks)

Perception Access 9.5 

Best For: Getting started. 

The Test: There are other $400 sit-on-top recreational kayaks out there, but most of them aren’t something we get excited about paddling. The Access 9.5 is. Yeah, it’s short, wide, and relatively heavy—and thus slow—but the upshot is fantastic stability. Add a high-backed molded seat and molded footrests, and this is a delightfully comfortable flatwater cruiser. Constructed from a single piece of rotomolded plastic, the Access didn’t seem to mind being thrown off the roof of a Honda Element at put-ins—a huge bonus for developing paddlers or parents with teenagers who might be borrowing it.

The Verdict: Low stress, low cost, high return. 9'; 42 lbs

Price $399

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(Delta Kayaks)

Delta Kayaks Delta 17 

Best For: The open ocean.

The Test: We were nervous when the guys at this Maple Ridge, British Columbia, company told us they were redesigning the iconic Delta 17, one of our favorite touring kayaks. But it was a relief to see that the new boat is simply a lighter, faster version of its predecessor. The V-shaped ABS-and-acrylic hull and trimmed-down nose helped it slice through choppy ocean water when weighted down. Paddle it empty and the moderate rocker and hard chines make for a much more playful boat than you’d expect, in part because it’s a full two pounds lighter than before.

The Verdict: An elegant refresh. 17'; 50 lbs

Price $2,495

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Oru Coast+

Best For: Apartment dwellers.

The Test: Oru’s intelligent tweaks to its groundbreaking corrugated-polypropylene design made an already brilliant creation that much smarter. Compared with the 12-foot original, the Coast+, which collapses down to the size of a large couch cushion, was at least 50 percent faster on flatwater. Oru replaced plastic connectors with stainless-steel ratchet points, which cut a minute or two from setup and added rigidity to the hull, giving paddlers more control. The deck rigging and hatch allow you to pack a long day’s worth of gear and food. It’s still not a vessel we’d take onto the open ocean, because the bulkheads aren’t completely waterproof, making self-rescue difficult. But for noodling around in bays or flat rivers, then folding it up and squeezing it into a closet, it’s still an amazing craft.

The Verdict: Our favorite packable boat, now faster and sturdier. 16'; 34 lbs

Price $2,475

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Prijon Touryak 470 LV 

Best For: Ultimate versatility. 

The Test: “This thing is an absolute workhorse,” reported one tester after filling the Touryak’s hatches (a combined 360 liters) and taking it on a three-day trip down Northern California’s Klamath River. With good primary stability and a long waterline, the Touryak lets you happily crank out miles paddling on flatwater. Stuff it with gear like we did—our man even packed a small cooler full of ice—and it’s a sporty boat in whitewater, with mellow chines that make peel-out turns fun, if questionable. (It reached its limit in easier Class III.) Prijon is known for solid-as-stone plastic, and the Touryak is no exception, banging confidently through rock gardens. 

The Verdict: One tough touring machine. 15'4"; 57 lbs

Price $2,129

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The Best Stand-Up Paddleboards of 2016

Paddleboarding is flourishing. Though the initial sales boom has slowed, innovation continues. The newest boards are better made and more smartly tailored to specific pursuits like surfing, fishing, and whitewater adventures. Meanwhile, prices for many categories keep coming down, thanks to all the competition and increased efficiencies in production. Our picks highlight a variety of boards designed to excel at focused activities and a couple that are good at pretty much everything. Honestly, though, with all the new options out there, we’re finding it hard not to want a garageful.  (Boardworks) Boardworks Kraken 10'3"  Gear of the Year  There’s much

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The Best Water Shoes of 2016

Protect your piggies in the wet. (Inga Hendrickson) Sperry Shock Light Boat  Best for: Doing It All  With a slipper-like fit, the Shock Light happily squeezes into the bow of a whitewater boat, while the grippy, nonmarking sole won’t scuff the teak deck on your buddy’s yacht. The shock-cord lacing keeps it snug should you fall into the drink, and it dries in less than half an hour. Price $85 Buy Now (Chaco) Chaco Z/Cloud  Best for: Raft Trips How to improve an iconic, river-guide-trusted sandal? Very carefully. Chaco’s upgrades on the new Z/Cloud are minimal and smart: a soft antimicrobial topsheet

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The Fly-Fishing Essentials of 2016

Cast away with these choice tools for the discerning angler. (Fishpond) Fishpond Nomad Mid-Length Net  With a carbon-fiberglass frame and a massive lunker-ready rubber basket, the Nomad almost makes landing the big ones easy.  Price $160 Buy Now (Meow Meow Tweet) Meow Meow Tweet Herbal Bug Repellent  Bottled by a boutique skin-care company in New York’s Hudson Valley and made from organic lavender and apple cider vinegar, this elixir smells a helluva lot better than deet. Price $18 Buy Now (Nautilus) Nautilus XM Reel   Nautilus builds reliable saltwater reels designed for catching fast, powerful fish. The XM brings that same

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The Women’s SUP Essentials of 2016

Get wet. Go long. Have fun. (Mi Ola) Mi Ola X Back Bikini Top and Cya Full Double-String Bottom  With a crossback design on top and grippy waistband elastic below, this bikini stays put even when you tumble on a wave.  Price $95 and $85 Buy Now (Mountain Hardwear) Mountain Hardwear River Gorge Long-Sleeve Shirt  Stay out all day in this half-zip with UPF 50 protection. The quick-drying fabric is silky, not clingy, and a side pocket is big enough for cash, keys, and lip balm.  Price $50 Buy Now (Bureo) Bureo Kayu Sunglasses  These shades pair frames made from recycled plastic

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The Best Women’s Swimsuits of 2016

Performance can look good. (Lululemon) Lululemon Tidal Flow One-Piece  Best For: Understated Elegance The Tidal Flow is the Audrey Hepburn of sporty swimsuits. It’s classy yet playful—simple, clean lines with an overlapping stringy back are paired with a band of transparent mesh running across the torso. Think of it as a little black dress that does everything—from sunning to swimming—well.     Price $118 Buy Now (Patagonia) Patagonia Nanogrip Top and Nanogrip Side Tie Bottom  Best For: Surfing Bikinis this cute tend to fall off during your first wipeout. Not so the Nanogrip. With a sticky liner that clings like a gecko, this

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