Sea Kayak vs Rec Kayak: What’s the Difference?

4-minute read + 8-minute video

Sea kayaks and recreational kayaks, while similar, are different boats that require different skills to paddle.

In this PaddleTV video, Aqua Bound Ambassador team member, Ken Whiting, covers the basic differences between sea kayaks and rec kayaks, and the pros and cons of each:

A quick online search reveals that not everyone uses the same definition of “sea kayak.” We found a couple lists of “best sea kayaks” that were made up of kayaks we’d call “recreational” instead.

There are some key differences, which the above video explores. Here are the basic ways in which these two types of kayaks differ, and why it matters:

Sea Kayaks are Designed for Big Water and Multi-Day Trips

Sea kayaks are generally between 15-18 feet long—even longer if it’s a tandem. They have a narrow cockpit that’s easily covered by a kayak skirt—an accessory that provides a watertight seal over the cockpit to prevent splash from waves getting inside the boat.

man sea kayaking in waves

Sea kayaks are long, narrow and very maneuverable—ideal for rough waters

They’re high-performance, fast kayaks that, with the proper instruction and practice, can take on rough water. They’re designed for travel on oceans and massive lakes (i.e., the Great Lakes).

Sea kayaks have watertight bulkheads in the bow and stern that are separate from the cockpit area. These have two advantages:

They provide plenty of storage area for gear when on a multi-day trip
They won’t flood in case of a capsize, making it possible for self-rescue or assisted rescue on the water

Sea kayaks usually have a rudder or skeg, which helps with control and steering, especially in windy conditions. They’re often made of high-performance material like fiberglass or carbon, as opposed to the heavier and more sluggish ABS plastics used in most rec kayaks.

Because these boats are less stable than their rec counterparts, it takes more expertise to paddle a sea kayak.

An example of a sea kayak is Eddyline’s Fathom.

Rec(reational) Kayaks are Designed for Short Trips on Sheltered Water

Recreational kayaks can be anywhere from 9-14.5 feet. They’re wider and much more stable than sea kayaks, and therefore more user-friendly. A first-time kayaker can get in or on a rec kayak and be paddling within minutes.

two women in red rec kayaks paddling on a lake

Recreational kayaks are wide, shorter and very stable—ideal for lakes, slow rivers and new kayakers (photo courtesy of Five2Nine Media)

Because these kayaks are wider and shorter, they’re not designed for speed, and are best for sheltered areas away from rough water. They’re great for kayakers of all ages and abilities who want to enjoy the water for an hour or two at a time.

Rec kayaks come in both sit-inside and sit-on-top models. Sit-inside rec kayaks, though very stable, can’t be re-entered in the water if capsized. So it’s important to stay within swimming distance of the shore.

Sit-on-top kayaks, on the other hand, are quite easy to get back onto if needed. Since they can’t fill up with water, capsizing isn’t as much of an issue. With a broader surface area and no cockpit, you have room to bring a small child or a pet on it with you.

Sit-on-top rec kayaks are the most popular type for kayak fishing. They’re very stable and can be customized for fishing gear easily. Many sit-on-tops are made specifically for anglers, and are stable enough to stand up on.

An example of a rec kayak is Old Town’s Dirigo 106.

Touring Recreational Kayaks

Some sit-inside rec kayaks are longer and narrower, and yet shorter than a sea kayak. If you’re a serious kayaker but plan to stick to mostly lakes and slow rivers, consider one of these in the 12-14 foot range.

man kayaking in a red kayak on a calm lake

Rec touring kayaks are a happy medium for those who want better performance on smaller waters

They’ll give you better performance than the smaller, wider rec kayaks, along with some storage hatches like a sea kayak. The seat will probably be more comfortable than the budget rec kayaks, too.

An example of a touring rec kayak is Perception’s Expression 11.5.

We hope this has given you a better idea of the differences between the many types of kayaks on the market.

Happy paddling!

Do you have paddle questions our friendly Customer Service Team can help you with today? Contact them: 715-755-3405 • [email protected]

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