Kayak Buyers Guide: Saving Money, Without Sacrificing Durability

Kayak prices vary widely depending upon the material they are built of. Here's a run-down of available materials and what you can expect to pay for each.

Modern touring kayaks come in a wide variety of materials from the cheapest plastic to the most exotic Space Age composites. The would-be beginning kayaker looking at the vast array of kayaks available on the market will naturally be confused and perplexed as to why some kayaks cost $500 or less and other, apparently similar boats, cost as much as $5,000. All kayaks are derived from the sealskin-covered boats built by the Eskimos of the Arctic, but today the only boats of this material you will find are housed in museums.

The first recreational kayaks were close copies of the native skin boats, built with a wooden frame and a fabric covering, such as canvas that was heavily waterproofed with paint. Some fabric-over-frame boats are still available, mostly in the form of expensive take-apart kayaks that can be disassembled for air travel to any corner of the globe. Other than these specialized travel kayaks, the material choices available today are: wood, roto-molded plastic, plastic and foam composites, fiberglass, and Kevlar. All of these materials can produce durable kayaks if correct building techniques are used, but costs vary widely.

At the top of the price range are the Kevlar and the wooden kayaks. The Kevlar is expensive because this bullet-proof laminating cloth is costly in the raw form, and it has to be put together using expensive epoxy resin. Kevlar boats are superior in impact resistance and are extremely lightweight. Wooden kayaks are costly because they are painstakingly built by hand. Built by a skilled craftsman, wooden kayaks are the most beautiful of all kayaks and can be as durable as any other boat when assembled with epoxy resin and sheathed with a clear layer of fiberglass cloth as most modern wooden kayaks are. They are also equal to Kevlar for light weight, but expect to pay thousands of dollars for one unless you can build it yourself.

Fiberglass boats are usually in the middle of the price range. Building with this material still requires a good deal of skilled labor, but the result is a strong, moderately-heavy boat that can be easily repaired if damaged. Most kayak companies offer at least some of their models in fiberglass, usually in the $1500 to $2500 price range.

For the $1500 and under club, you choices will be limited to plastic or some type of plastic composite boats. The cheapest of all are the simple molded plastic kayaks that start at around $500 or even less. These are mass-produced in a factory, which is why they can be sold at such low prices. This type of plastic can be tough, but it makes a heavy boat for a given size, and it will eventually break down from prolonged exposure to the ultraviolet rays of the sun. Better plastic boats are now being produced by the major kayak companies, and these are built with different variations of an inner core of foam or air between two layers of plastic. These kayaks are stiffer and lighter than the solid plastic ones, and perform similarly to better fiberglass kayaks. They are durable and reasonably priced.

Just about all the kayaks on the market today will last for years of hard use. Ultimately, it is the buyer's budget that will determine what his first or next boat is built of. The best way to make a decision is to visit a dealer that offers rentals or trials, or go with friends or a club that will let you paddle a variety of models before you buy.

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