Kayak Size Buyer’s Guide

When setting out to buy a kayak, you’ll have to make lots of decisions. For instance, hard-shelled or inflatable? Fishing or recreational kayak? Another consideration to add to your list is the kayak size. If your boat is too large or too small for you, you won’t enjoy using it, end of story. How do you choose the right kayak size for you?

To determine your proper kayak size, you need to consider your own weight and height, how many people you’d ideally travel with, and what kind of gear you’d bring. The best kayak for you can fit all the above with room to spare!

This buyer’s guide to kayak sizes will provide you with all the info you need to know ahead of buying your first kayak. We’ll review the kayak size classes, discuss what your kayak size should be based on your own size, and provide kayak buying tips. 

Let’s get started. 

The Kayak Size Classes

Before we can get into how to choose your correct kayak size, you need to be aware of what’s out there. Here’s an overview of the various kayak sizes on the market. This section will help you begin to narrow down your options. 

Whitewater Kayaks

As you might have guessed, whitewater kayaks are designed for whitewater kayaking. Since it’s among the most difficult and riskiest types of boating, whitewater kayaks must be built sturdy from the stern to the rear. 

Compared to many other kayaks you’ll come across both in stores and online, whitewater kayaks are decidedly tiny. The average size of one of these boats is six feet long. 

Youth Recreational Kayaks

The second-smallest type of kayak is a youth recreational kayak. Unlike whitewater kayaks, which have rounded edges, a youth recreational kayak looks more like a traditional kayak with a long, lean profile and pointed ends on both sides. 

Since they’re made for young kayakers such as kids, a youth recreational kayak is usually not a big boat. These kayaks average out at six to eight feet long. 

Sit-in Recreational Kayaks

A sit-in kayak is one in which the cockpit is open with room for a seat, storage, and other amenities. For many people, sit-in kayaks are the more traditional kind. You have the protection of the boat from all sides so water is less likely to splash into the cockpit.

Sit-in recreational kayaks are about 10 feet on average. That’s just enough room for one, maybe two people to comfortably paddle about in the water all day. The molded-in cockpits should give you the space to carry your gear as well, even if you store it under your seat or behind you. 

Sit-on-Top Recreational Kayaks 

The opposite of the sit-in kayak is the sit-on-top. Besides the benefit of elevation, you’ll also enjoy the ease of use that is getting on or off one of these kayaks. The molded cockpit of a sit-on-top is usually not as deep as in a sit-in kayak, but storage compartments and cubbies throughout the rest of the boat should make up for that.

If it’s a sit-on-top recreational kayak for one we’re talking about here, then its size might not be much bigger than a sit-on kayak. For tandem sit-on-top kayaks, they have to be longer, as the boat must have the legroom for two kayakers. These kayaks can be up to 12 feet and sometimes longer.

Fishing Kayaks

Now we’re getting into the king of boats, the fishing kayak. We’ve talked about fishing kayaks on the blog recently, so you should check out our review post if you missed it. 

Fishing kayaks are loaded with amenities that anglers need, such as built-in rod holders (some that are stationary and others that can rotate), nooks and cubbies for fish finders and other fishing accessories, and gear storage galore, including in the rear and front of the kayak.

They’re also on the bigger side, at least usually. While some smaller fishing kayaks abound that are 10 feet, the average size is 13 feet and up. If it’s a tandem fishing kayak, then like a sit-on-top kayak, it’s going to be a bigger boat still, measuring 14 feet in some instances. 

What to Keep in Mind When Choosing Kayak Size

Selecting the type of kayak you’re interested in is only the beginning. You must also consider the following factors. 

Your Size

This is something we’ll talk about in a later section, but your own size is incredibly important. It’s not only your height that matters when determining your perfect kayak size but your weight as well. 

Ideal Number of Passengers

Are you someone who primarily does solo kayaking or are you known to bring a friend or partner on most of your adventures? If the former is true, then a one-seater kayak is an appropriate choice for you.

If you don’t kayak alone, then you’ll need at least a tandem boat. You can also buy a three-seater kayak.

Keep in mind that the more seats your kayak has, the longer it will be to accommodate the extra number of passengers. This can bloat the size of a kayak based on its type, making a recreational kayak on par with the size of a fishing kayak in some cases. 

Average Amount of Gear 

Besides the number of people aboard your kayak, you must mentally imagine how much gear you’d bring on an average day of kayaking. If you’re someone who’s mostly doing recreational kayaking, then you can afford to travel light. You’ll need your paddles, maybe a cooler, and that’s about it.

For those who fish in a kayak, the amount of gear you’ll bring is much more by comparison. We talked in the last section about the items you’d need, but to reiterate, it would include gear such as fishing rods, fish finders, tackleboxes, and coolers. 

If you need less gear, then a kayak with a smaller, less deep cockpit such as a sit-on-top kayak could suffice for you. For those kayakers who can’t travel as lightly, a sit-in kayak or a fishing kayak are suitable solutions. 


Unlike some forms of boating, kayaking isn’t about cool tricks. That said, you need a boat that’s going to be able to freely maneuver when, where, and how you want it to. The longer your boat is, the wider it typically is too, which means you’re sacrificing maneuverability compared to a smaller, slimmer kayak.  


Taller kayakers need more legroom or else boating will quickly lead to cramped, sore legs. You might not be able to paddle properly because your elbows always collide with your knees whenever you pull the paddle through. 

In the times you’re not paddling, you still can’t get comfortable, as you can’t even stretch your legs out in the cockpit. If you put your legs out over the cockpit all the way out, they’d probably be in the water.

Shorter kayakers won’t have an issue with legroom, but then the problem could become that your kayak’s cockpit is too spacious, perhaps needlessly so. 

Length-to-Beam Ratio

You should also be privy to a kayak’s length-to-beam ratio before you buy it. A kayak’s beam refers to how wide the boat is when measuring its widest area. Once you know the length of the kayak, you can then divide that number by the beam to get the length-to-beam ratio.

What does this number tell you? A lot! The length-to-beam ratio can clue you in on how well your kayak will maneuver, how stable it will be in the water, and what its speed will be like. The higher the length-to-beam ratio, the faster your kayak usually is. The boat will also maneuver well thanks to its narrow hull.

Now, speed in a kayak matters more in some applications than in others. For fishing kayaks, you want speed in only certain instances, as being too hasty can sometimes scare the fish away. When kayaking recreationally, there’s never a requirement for too much speed, but for kayak racing, there certainly is. 

Kayak Volume and Its Importance in Choosing the Right Kayak Size

You cannot select the proper kayak size for you without understanding kayak volume. Most kayaks have one of three types of volume: low, medium, or high.

A kayak with low volume can support kayakers weighing under 140 pounds who are shorter than five feet, six inches. A medium-volume kayak is recommended for kayakers weighing 140 to 189 pounds who are up to five feet, 10 inches tall.

If yours is a high-volume kayak, it’s built for kayakers who weigh at least 180 pounds, but usually more. This type of kayak is recommended for those who are taller than five feet, 10 inches. 

Sometimes the volume of a kayak is measured in gallons and other times, it’s in cubic feet. Both these measurements refer to how much space the entire boat has within. 

How Your Size Determines Your Kayak Paddle Size

Now that you’ve found the correct size for your kayak, you need to measure your paddle size too. That’s right, paddles don’t come in one uniform size. 

If your paddle is too short for you and your boat, its blades will never even reach the water. Paddles that are too long will be unwieldy. You’ll expend too much energy on paddling and exhaust yourself early.

So how do you select a kayak paddle size for you? Here’s how to do it.

Calculate the Width of Your Kayak

Since you already found the length-to-beam ratio of your kayak, this first part shouldn’t be too difficult. If your beam is very wide, then your kayak paddle will be bigger than average. A smaller beam necessitates an equally small paddle. 

Measure the Height of Your Torso

Next, you must take some measurements using a flexible measuring tape. You can’t easily do this yourself, so have a buddy or family member help. 

To determine your torso height, angle your head down. When you feel the first vertebrae in your neck, that’s where you should start measuring your body. This area is usually where your neck and shoulders meet.

The area where you should stop measuring is the end of your torso, which is where the hip bones end if your thumb and index fingers are on your hips but pointed back. 

You want to measure the distance between these two areas. You should always round up your measurement. Here’s how your torso length correlates to paddle size:

  • 22-inch torso – 180-centimeter paddle
  • 24-inch torso – 180 to 200-centimeter paddle
  • 26-inch torso – 190 to 210-centimeter paddle
  • 28-inch torso – 200 to 220-centimeter paddle
  • 32-inch torso – 220 to 240-centimeter paddle
  • 34-inch torso – 230 to 250-centimeter paddle 
  • 36-inch torso – 240 to 250-centimeter paddle
  • 38-inch torso – 250-centimeter paddle

We’re sure you’re wondering why kayak paddles are measured in centimeters rather than inches. That’s the standard, but fortunately, you can easily translate centimeters to inches and vice-versa. 

Then Determine Your Height

Finally, you need to measure your height. You shouldn’t be wearing shoes when doing this. Make sure you stand up straight, but don’t stretch, as that can result in an inaccurate reading. 

For kayakers who are five feet, five inches or under:

  • With a 23-inch torso or shorter – use a 210-centimeter paddle
  • With a 24-to-32-inch torso – use a 220-centimeter paddle
  • With a 29-to-33-inch torso – use a 230-centimeter paddle
  • With a 34-inch torso or more – use a 240-centimeter paddle

For kayakers who are five feet, five inches to five feet, 11 inches:

  • With a 23-inch torso or shorter – use a 230-centimeter paddle
  • With a 24 to 32-inch torso – use a 240-centimeter paddle
  • With a 29 to 33-inch torso – use a 250-centimeter paddle
  • With a 34-inch torso or more – use a 260-centimeter paddle

For kayakers who are six feet or taller:

  • With a 23-inch torso or shorter – use a 220-centimeter paddle
  • With a 24 to 32-inch torso – use a 230-centimeter paddle
  • With a 29 to 33-inch torso – use a 250-centimeter paddle
  • With a 34-inch torso or more – use a 260-centimeter paddle 

Final Thoughts 

When buying a kayak, you can’t get too distracted with the features and the colors that you buy the wrong type. The information in this guide should help you size out the perfect kayak for you. We always recommend visiting a store and trying kayak sizes personally, even if you intend to shop online, just to make sure you’re the perfect fit!

Geoff Southworth

I am a California native and I enjoy all the outdoors has to offer. My latest adventures have been taking the family camping, hiking and surfing.

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