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Sea Kayak vs River Kayak vs Lake Kayak: What’s The Difference?

Kayaking enthusiasts tend to be very specific about their preferences for kayak type, because each one offers a distinct experience.

Each different type of kayak is optimized for the particular aquatic environment in which it will be used, since concerns ranging from water speed through depth need to be factored in for an optimal experience.

Let’s review the specific behind each type of kayak before reviewing the benefits and caveats that come with each different category.

Sea Kayaks

The sea kayak is also known as a touring kayak, and it is perhaps the most commonly encountered type of kayak out there.

Sea kayaks are meant for open bodies of water like oceans or bays.

Less maneuverable than a whitewater raft, a touring kayak is capable of easily cruising in a straight line, all the while carrying cargo.

In order to facilitate this straight-line cruising, sea kayaks are designed to be longer and leaner—and therefore they do not have the maneuverability of other kayak models.

Their long length is one contributing factor to this, since ocean kayaks may be as long as twenty-four feet, while never really measuring in at less than twelve feet.

Fortunately, ocean kayaks usually get a bit more advanced notice of obstacles that they must avoid, and so they don’t need to same rapid maneuverability of other kayak types.

Ocean kayaks are also narrower and have more angular hulls, placing the distribution of weight into a minimally impactful shape that favors speed and smoothness over maneuverability.

This narrow, angular width helps these kayaks cut through was and other turbulence. 

kayak on shore

Touring kayaks now often come equipped with a front hatch that allows for some storage.

This keeps items tucked away in some fo the long and narrow parts of the kayak instead of obstructing the foot pegs in any way.

Storing items at one’s feet in the average river kayak would be particularly problematic since that space tends to be rather difficult to reach.

Currently, sea kayaks exist primarily as either rigid kayaks or folding kayaks.

Folding kayaks are easier to store and to transport, making them a better option for people who might be limited on space.

While people report personal preferences in terms of the type of sea kayak they choose, it is worth noting that major advances in the materials used in kayaks means that there is no major difference in quality between the two types of kayaking experiences.

One interesting tidbit about sea kayaks is that they weren’t known by this name until the early 1980s, when John Dowd published a book on them; little did he know that his name for these vessels would stick!

Before Dowd’s publication, there was an entire smattering of different names used for these watercraft, including “sea canoes” and “blue-water paddling.”

The sea kayak design was first developed by ancient Alaskan Inuits, who needed a fast watercraft that they could use for hunting.

In fact, the basic design of a kayak has been around for over four thousand years.

River Kayaks

For kayaking enthusiast seeking an adventure with a bit more adrenaline pumping, river kayaks are the way to go.

On one hand, the river current can push your kayak forward and therefore require less physical effort from you.

However, rivers can also come with more rapids that need to be faced head-on.

Persisting through fast rapids can be quite a big physical challenge, although these rapids do tend to come in stretches that offer small breaks in between.

River kayaks are designed for maximum maneuverability in these rapids.

They have hulls that are both shorter and flatter; since hulls help push water out of the way so that the ship may be steered, this makes sense.

Another layer of maneuverability is conferred by the way river kayaks are designed to bear the rider’s weight, so that you can use your body to drive the steering.

River kayaks are fitted with a fair number of gears that help provide tools that someone can use to rescue themselves in the event of a capsizing or other incident. 

Much like sea kayaks, river kayaks have an enclosed, water-resistant spray deck that keeps the bottom half of the rider’s body completely dry.

Many kayakers report that this makes all the difference on colder days, as well as if there is any precipitation.

These enclosed kayaks do offer a bit less stability than other types of kayaks, and so it is easier to capsize—and harder to recuperate if you do.

The good news is that it only takes a kayaking buddy or a quick swim to the nearest shore in order to right the course.

Some river kayaks are now designed with a handle that, when turned, releases a rudder from the kayak.

This rudder empowers the kayak to maintain a straight line on its course, no matter the weather conditions.

It is extremely easy to release or pull in this rudder, further enhancing any hopes of quick responsiveness and maneuverability on the part of the rider.

Interestingly enough, kayakers tend to sit a bit lower in river kayaks.

This enhances the sportiness of the ride, and helps feed a more adrenaline-infused vibe to any rides.

Many kayakers choose a paddle with a shorter handle for steering these kayaks, because they confer more control.

Lake Kayaks

Lake kayaks are also known as recreational kayaks, and they are meant for very slow-moving waters.

After all, lakes are not exactly known for being hotbeds of activity.

Another key consideration is that you do not want to disrupt the lake waters too much with your watercraft; therefore lake kayaks are designed to trek through waters while causing minimal-to-no disruption.

The entire experience of kayaking in a lake is very specific.

You are not looking to go very fast, and you likely will not be out for very long; this means you have less of a need for much equipment or storage.

You will also likely be facing the most favorable weather conditions, and the relative brevity of your ride means you are less likely to face an unwelcome surprise of terrible weather. 

The most accessible and perhaps most common lake kayak style is the “sit on top” model, where the rider fits into leg- and hip- shaped molding on the top of the watercraft.

This makes it easier to get onto or off the kayak, as well as to maneuver them with your body weight.

The way the rider’s weight is distributed on the top of the kayak lends itself to increased stability and minimal effort.

Lake kayaks themselves are known to be on the heavier side of kayaks, which does help them maintain some stability through their inertia.

Typically, lake kayaks have so-called “scupper holes” that drain out any excess water that may have splashed onto the kayak, keeping them dry and mobile.

Lake kayaks are the shortest kayaks, sometimes reaching as short as eight feet but never going above fourteen feet.

This short range allows for easier mobility, so that the rider may quickly swerve past obstacles and also avoid getting stuck in shallow waters.

The broad width of lake kayaks allows them to slow down and ride on top of the waves instead of cutting through them, reinforcing a minimally impactful presence and acknowledging implicitly that lake waters are the calmest.

Because of the short distances and lighter days traditionally associated with lake kayaks, they come with extremely limited storage space.

They also are not designed to be quite as durable as an ocean kayak; after all, they will not be facing fast-moving water or (likely) any saltwater conditions, and therefore there is no need to invest in premium materials.

The whole point of lake kayaking is to be able to smoothly, calmly, and gently cruise around a chill lake, enjoying the warm and sunny day, preferably in the company of friends.

Alternatively, you can fish out of a lake kayak, but that experience too is meant to be extremely calm and relaxed.

One feature to keep an eye out for on lake kayaks is a skeg, which can be positioned up or down.

When the skeg is up, the kayak will be a bit more responsive in its handling and turning.

When the skeg is down, the kayak will be more focused on efficiency and straight-line motions.

In larger boats, the function of the skeg is handled by a rudder, but lake kayaks are too small and simple for it to make sense to mount a rudder.

As noted, some people rely on lake kayaks for kayak fishing.

In watercraft intended for this past time, there are usually fishing rod holders already mounted to the kayaks. 


Whether you have a preferred waterway or there is a particular body of water that is most convenient for you, selecting the right kayak for your aquatic adventures can make all the difference in terms of the type of kayaking experience you will.

Carefully consider where you plan on taking your water sports adventures, and choose the type of kayak best suited for that environment.