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Things To Know And Consider When Choosing A Touring Kayak

The purpose of this article is to explain the basic terms and facts related to kayak touring in order to enable the reader to make informed decisions when choosing a touring kayak.

Kayak touring is a recreational paddling activity involving one or more kayakers going on medium to long range trips on freshwater and/or at sea. Kayak touring usually does not include traveling in whitewater, fishing and hunting, but it is sometimes combined with camping, bird watching and photography.
A touring kayak is a kayak designed for one or two kayakers (tandem) going on kayak touring trips.  In the range of kayak speeds touring kayaks offer average to high speed.




1. A Brief History Of Kayak Touring

1.1    The Origins Of kayak Touring
Native peoples of the Arctic Circle used kayaks for touring expeditions for hundreds and possibly thousands of years before kayak touring became a recreational activity sometime around the beginning of the twentieth century. Their custom sit-in kayaks were hand crafted, and already had the basic design of modern days touring kayaks except for the fact they featured no kayak seat, rudder or hatches that were introduced only in recent decades. Some of the native kayaks were narrow and designed to be easily rolled in case of capsize, and others were wide enough to offer sufficient stability for a native kayaker. It is important to note that native kayakers were considerably lighter as well as shorter than the average, modern North American paddler. On top of this, native kayakers practiced kayaking for long hours since early childhood and were in most cases more athletic and in better physical shape than the average North American touring kayaker. Such differences in stature, weight and skills have a critical effect on essential issues from safety to comfort, recovery, speed, tracking and maneuvering etc.

1.2    The Beginning Of The Kayak Touring Era
Canoeing became popular among settlers in North America, who adopted various native canoe designs for touring the continent's waterways as well as for transportation of people and goods. Kayaks remained unused because canoes had the advantage of having a greater load capacity and were easier to paddle with a crew of two or more passengers. Sometime after the middle of the nineteenth century trains, motorized boats and later trucks and cars made canoes obsolete for utility touring, but at the same time people began to have more free time and disposable income, and began paddling canoes instead or rowing boats as a popular recreational, outdoor activity.  Kayaks were accepted as mainstream recreational paddle crafts starting in the sixties, as the new American society became increasingly centered on the individual. For this matter, the kayak had the advantage of being easier to handle and propel by a single passenger than a canoe is. It is then that the traditional sit-in kayak design was hybridized with the paddle board and the first commercial sit-on-top (SOT) kayak came to this world (1). Gradually, with the evolution of the consumer society it became fashionable to own a touring kayak, similarly to owning other individual recreational equipment such as a pair of name brand skis, a set of golf clubs or the latest model of fancy bicycle.  

1.3    The Roaring Nineties
This trend reached its peak during the second half of the 1990s, as the soaring stock market coupled with the boom in Information Technology markets made it easy for urban professionals to buy increasingly expensive recreational sporting gear. It is during that period that expensive touring kayaks hand made from new, fiber reinforced plastics (FRP) became fashionable, and many small and medium size touring kayak manufacturing businesses thrived. This trend was equally fueled by the natural tendency that people have to compare the gear they're using, and to assume that the more expensive the kayak the better it is.  It is in this brief half decade that many kayak touring clubs were founded and many paddle shops got into the business of selling touring kayaks.

1.4    Kayak Touring Today
Things have taken a downward course around the 2001 depression, and a new era in kayak touring has begun. Some called the beginning of this new trend the 'Touring Kayak Meltdown', and it reflected a number of developments - The first being a considerable drop in sales of expensive touring kayaks and at the same time a rise in sales of low-cost recreational kayaks. The second is a decline in participation in kayak touring activities such as club tours, and a rise in recreational kayaking activities including rentals, non organized short trips and kayak fishing. The difference between the trend setting kayaks in the nineties and the trendy kayaks today is not only in price and materials (rotationally molded polyethylene being the most popular material today), but also in the basic design concepts. The typical touring kayak used to be a very long, very stiff (I.E. brittle) and very narrow sit-in kayak. These attributes served the purpose of enabling higher speed and practicing the Eskimo Roll. In comparison, today's typical touring kayak is shorter, wider and roto-molded I.E. not as rigid as an FRP ('composite') kayak, and it's as likely to be a sit-on-top as it is to be a sit-in kayak.  As for the sit-in concept, a greater part of these modern kayaks are very wide and not used with a spray skirt since they are not intended to be rolled.



2. Categories Of Kayak Touring

·    Expedition - Many miles and several days or more. This type of kayak touring is the most demanding from both kayak and kayaker.  The kayak needs to be solidly built and gig enough to store the gear and provisions required for a long trip. Because of its size a weight it should be stable enough to minimize the need for rolling.
·    Sea Kayaking - Kayaking on very large bodies of water (E.G. Great Lakes, Ocean) in a group of at least two kayakers. Typically, sea kayaking trips are not longer than one day.  The sea kayak is required to be fast enough for its user to keep in pace with the other kayakers in the group. As for the actual seaworthiness of such boats, the reader is welcome to read the article 'Are Sea Kayaks Seaworthy?' (Article)
·    Tripping - Long journey, mainly on rivers and lakes. The tripping kayak is required to be strong enough to withstand the hardships of going down rapids, multiple beaching on rocky shores etc. It also has to offer sufficient load capacity for gear and provisions.
·    Touring - General term for recreational paddling through longer distances, usually in groups and sometime for more than one day. Touring is often combined with other recreational activities such as camping, photography, bird watching etc.  Touring kayaks include a broad range of designs that are generally faster than whitewater, surfing and recreational kayaks and slower than racing kayaks.
·    Day Touring - Leisure kayaking for trips shorter than one day.
·    Recreational Touring - Leisure paddling limited to short trips in both time and distance terms.




3. The Touring Kayak Design

The touring kayak has to fulfill a number of sometime contradictory requirements of which the two essential ones are safety and comfort. Next come speed and maneuverability, which are important as well but not critical. Load capacity and storage come last and their importance is reduced if the kayak model is designed for shorter trips and calmer waters, as most touring kayaks are nowadays.

3.1    Safety
This is obviously the most critical requirement, and it is a complex, multidimensional one.
The first thing that comes to mind when discussing kayak safety is the ability of the kayak to protect its passenger from dangers including drowning, injury, exhaustion, hypothermia etc.
For example-
A kayak with too little freeboard might eventually fail to prevent water from getting inside the cockpit. In extreme cases the extra weight might impede and even sink the boat, and in cold water and weather it could cause the passenger severe discomfort, exhaustion and even death as a result of hypothermia.
A kayak that's too narrow to offer sufficient lateral stability to its passenger is prone to being overturned by external forces such as waves, boat wakes etc., or as a result of an accidental error made by the passenger in a moment of inattention.
The paddling community is divided between the traditional, small and diminishing minority of those who see the Eskimo Roll as the ultimate recovery method and an already overwhelming and growing majority of those who prefer to paddle wider, more stable boats than increase the risk of capsizing by paddling narrow ones.
A kayak that does not offer sufficient legroom and good ergonomics will cause its passenger to suffer from discomfort, fatigue and sometime exhaustion. Such kayaks often cause cramps in the legs and thighs, leg numbness and back pain that could lead to serious boating accidents. In the long run uncomfortable kayaks might cause lasting back injuries.
A kayak designed for high speed and therefore made from very lightweight and rigid materials such as carbon fiber is also more brittle than a kayak molded from polyethylene, and might develop cracks when hitting rocks or ice.  Needless to say, that a cracked hull in cold water can be fatal. Unfortunately for passengers of such kayaks, the colder the temperature the more fragile the hull becomes.
These examples show how the requirement for additional speed might reduce both the kayak's mobility and safety.
In this context it is appropriate to stress that designs and techniques that were perfectly acceptable and useful for native kayakers are no longer practical for most modern non-professional kayakers - including those who think otherwise.

3.2    Ergonomics and Biomechanics
These subjects are already discussed in depth in another article called 'Biomechanical and Ergonomic Solutions To Modern Kayaking' (Article).
In essence, when choosing a touring kayak it is useful to remember the following points:
You are going to spend many hours at a time in this kayak, and what may seem comfortable to you in the first fifteen minutes of paddling might turn to be a nuisance and sometime a source of pain after an hour or two, and it may even cause back injuries over longer periods of time. 

3.3    The Kayak Seat
This is a modern-days accessory that native kayaks did not feature. Kayak manufacturers introduced it as a support for the kayaker's back in order to prevent it from 'falling' backwards as a result of sitting in a position that's not appropriate for people who are no longer used to sitting on the floor, that is nearly all of us Westerners.
But the seat has not solved the ergonomic problem at its root- it just changed the symptoms: Now the supporting structure itself I.E. the seat's backrest created a pressure point in the kayaker's lower back, and while generous cushioning may dissipate to a certain level and postpone the discomfort it certainly does not eliminate it.
In fact, the kayak seat created a second problem, which is the lack of sufficient support for the kayaker's feet: Instead of the back 'falling' backward the feet are 'sliding' forward, which is why they require a rigid, vertical accessory to stop them, and that's what the foot rests or foot braces effectively do at the cost of increasing the pressure on your lower back.  
And while the kayak seat has become standard in all commercial kayak models because without it hardly anyone would be able to paddle them, it has also become the Achilles Heel of the touring kayak since it merely transforms one ergonomic problem to another, and touring kayakers paddle for long hours…

3.4    The Cockpit
What's a cockpit?  -Basically, it's the space in the boat from where the person who controls the vessel sits or stands.
Sit-in kayaks have a small cockpit in the boat's center, where the seat is fixed in its place. This design offers little protection from waves and spray, and enables a single sitting position with restricted legroom. If you want better protection you can cover the opening with a tight spray skirt, and by doing so you'll be locking yourself inside the cockpit for better or for worse… with intermediary degrees of discomfort such as being seated for long hours in a puddle of water since eventually water doesn't fail from getting inside.  You may also experience overheating in the summer and cold in winter, and acute discomfort resulting from the fact you are forced to remain seated in the one and only sitting position that's offered to you - and it's not even a comfortable one.
When it comes to sit-on-top (SOT) kayaks, you're not even offered a proper cockpit space to speak of but rather an area on the open deck of a craft that's basically little more than a re-designed paddle board that's paddled like a traditional kayak.  The (virtual) cockpit of a SOT offers you no protection at all. In fact, SOT kayaks' cockpits have holes in them that go from their deck to the bottom of the kayak.  These 'scupper' holes are there to drain the water that accumulates in seat area, but as soon as the water gets a little rough they also let water go up in the other direction, wetting you and your gear…
As far as comfort goes a SOT's cockpit may be somehow less restrictive than the cockpit of a sit-in kayak, but the essential problems remain the same, plus you're more likely to go overboard unless you attach yourself to the deck with 'thigh straps', which isn't safe even if you can roll a sit-in kayak.
The SOT's cockpit (or lack thereof) is the reason why you would hardly see SOT touring kayaks anywhere in colder regions.
In sum, as a touring kayaker you should consider whether the cockpit of a kayak model offers you a functional space or if it is just a 'place' inside the boat or on its deck.

3.5    Storage Hatches
Imagine yourself paddling your new touring kayak on a big lake or some other large body of water, and the weather is getting windy and unexpectedly cooler so you'd like to wear your sweatshirt, which you stored just two feet away from you… but you're unable to grab it because it's in the hatch…
Then your cell phone rings and you'd like to answer the call but although your cellphone is just a couple of feet away it's unreachable because it's in the hatch… Then you run out of paper handkerchiefs for your running nose, and although the extra package is onboard your kayak there's no way for you to reach it until you beach somewhere - because it's in the hatch…
So, the rule for hatches is that they are designed for storing objects that you wouldn't need onboard.
Now that same unexpected change in the weather is generating some waves. -You paddle to shore and beach your kayak (while stepping in water) and open the hatch just to find that the sweatshirt you stored there for such cases got wet from water that got in, as well as the extra package of paper handkerchiefs and your cellphone…
Such stories are so common that some kayak outfitters would tell you that whatever you bring onboard your kayak is likely to get wet - including yourself.

3.6    The Rudder
Even your kayak dealer or outfitter is likely to tell you at some point that you should try to avoid using one…
Native kayaks had no rudders but modern kayak manufacturers noticed that most of their customers were facing difficulties in tracking and maneuvering their kayaks.
The problem with conventional (I.E. mono-hull) kayaks is that the longer they are the harder it is to maneuver them, which could be a severe problem in rough waters and weather since you may be going in a straight line but not necessarily in the direction of your choice because the wind, waves and currents would outmaneuver you…  -But the shorter the kayak the less well it tracks, which is too bad since in a short rudderless kayak you'll find yourself zigzagging your way to your destination instead of going straight there.  
So why are rudders so controversial?  -Simply because they obviously add an element of complexity and technical difficulty to the kayaking experience.  However, there is another tradeoff to consider - one that's less apparent, which is the fact that a rudder slows your kayak down by 10% in average. In other words you have to spend 10% more time to get where you want to go, and you're likely to work harder getting there because using a rudder requires that you overcome a new set of hydrodynamic and biomechanical problems…(2)

3.7    Additional Passengers Onboard
Traditionally, touring kayaks are solo boats, and if you want to go kayak touring you need a tandem model, which is not practical for a single kayaker.
This is a less than optimal solution, and in fact it's even inferior to solutions offered by canoes.  
SOT kayaks are somehow more flexible on this issue, and in some cases the 'guest seat' on the deck can accommodate an additional passenger for short rides, but in such cases the kayak becomes laterally unstable and is not it's not balanced fore and aft and therefore becomes even more difficult to paddle.
But additional passengers don't necessarily have to be paddlers like you - They can also be small children or dogs, and it goes without saying that both their safety and comfort must be assured.

3.8    Speed
This is possibly the most discussed subject related to kayak touring yet it seems to be unclear to many kayakers.
The first issue that needs clarification is what makes a kayak go faster?
The answer is obviously the power and skill of the kayaker, plus the design of the kayak itself that enables the kayaker to use these resources efficiently.  Since kayakers differ greatly in physical attributes such as height, weight and strength as well as in their specific paddling skills and touring style a kayak that's fast for one paddler may be slow for another, and vice versa in some cases or even as a general rule.
For example, a very narrow and long sea kayak may enable a kayaker to go faster on flat water than a shorter and wider kayak would, but it could be difficult to control in moving water such as rapids and surf, and therefore force the kayaker to go slower or even give up paddling it in such waters.
The classic example used by both kayak designers and outfitters is a very long and therefore potentially fast kayak that requires more power from its paddler because its increased length inevitably increases its surface area and thus also the frictional drag it generates when moving in the water…
Since the kayak is a passive object without a motor or sail of its own its speed depends its hydrodynamic qualities but possibly even more on its ergonomic and biomechanical design, or simply on what its physical impact on the paddler is.
Therefore, when choosing a touring kayak it would be beneficial for you to consider speed not necessarily as the first and foremost parameter but as yet another feature that comes at a certain price that you may or may not want to pay. You should take into consideration what type of kayak touring you're likely to practice, and who are going to be your paddling partners. Obviously, if you intend to paddle together with kayakers who paddle fast you'd better paddle a fast kayak - but only if you're a good kayaker yourself.  Otherwise, if like most touring kayakers you're planning just to spend time kayaking alone or in the company or others who share the same mindset without rushing anywhere you should put speed in a much lower priority.



4.    The Kayak Touring Experience


4.1    Comfort
After reading about the safety requirements it's easier to understand why comfort should be a critical requirement from your touring kayak.
Comfort is a multidimensional issue as well, which pertains to ergonomics (mainly minimizing fatigue), biomechanics (mainly efficiency of paddling and injury reduction) and easing the operation of the boat (just 'Keep It Simple S…')
In previous sections of this article we discussed some comfort issues in a safety context, but comfort is also important in itself since it's the number one factor that's likely to determine the overall quality of your kayak touring experience, and thus will determine if you'll be satisfied with your kayak choice and possibly even whether you'll stick with kayak touring as a preferred outdoor activity.

4.2    Mobility: Launching, Beaching Etc.
Both launching and beaching go to the kayak's performance in terms of mobility, which is at the core of kayak touring: A good touring kayak should offer you the ability to launch from more places and get back to land whenever you want.
Many people find it difficult to enter a sit-in kayak, and they don't appreciate the elaborate maneuvers required to perform what should be a simple thing. Obviously, the same thing goes for beaching your kayak and exiting it…
This is not just a matter of basic convenience but also one that has safety implications, especially if your kayak is made from one of those extra-light materials (E.G. carbon fiber reinforced plastic) that are very rigid as well as brittle. You may find that your pride and joy developed a crack in its hull because you beached it a bit too roughly, and such a discovery may occur while you're paddling it…
So a touring kayak should be easy to get into and out of, and it should better be 'built tough'.  
Sit-on-top (SOT) and open-cockpit kayaks are much easier to enter and exit than sit-in kayaks, and this is one of the reasons that make them more popular than sit-in models. However, what makes such kayaks easier to enter and exit is what eventually will offer you less protection from the elements…



5. Summary - What's Important To Remember

The kind of kayak touring you practice may be different from someone else's, but all touring kayakers are basically seeking an experience that may have to do to some extent with nature, freedom, escape, adventure, group participation, family, friends, healthy exercise and most of all - fun.  
This precious, personal experience could be damaged by people who confuse kayak touring with racing, or others that have a tendency to compete in kayaking skills and knowledge, or by those who show off their latest acquisitions in expensive kayaking gear, electronic gadgets etc.
Your kayak touring experience can also be ruined by an inadequate kayak:  Regardless of price, your kayak is no good if it doesn't contribute to your own, personal touring experience, so if anyone tells you what experience you should be after or what boat is proper for you just remember that these are personal things that you need to discover by yourself and for yourself - even if it takes a long time and possibly switching kayaks.  
The type of kayak touring you like and the touring kayak you like are best for you, period. You shouldn't let individuals who may be 'purists', 'gear freaks' and 'tribal chieftains' affect your personal judgment.
It is inconceivable that your choice of a touring kayak would be affected by considerations that may have been relevant to native hunters of the polar circle in the distant past.  Things have changed since then, and both your needs and capabilities are very different form theirs, as well as the number and types of kayak concepts and designs you can choose from nowadays.




6. New Approach And New Solutions For Kayak Touring

We hope this article has informed you in some way about the subject. 
You are welcome to learn about the solutions offered by the W Kayak in this website's Touring section, and watch
W Kayak demo movies.


(1)    Interestingly, small, personal sit-on-top board-like paddle boats were quite common around the world for millennia, of which some were paddled with dual blade paddles similar to kayak paddles E.G. in Italy, Pre-Colombian South America etc.
(2)    More information on rudders is available in the article 'Are Sea Kayaks Seaworthy?' (Article)


Questions? Comments? Please call us toll free at 1 (877) 916-2250 or email us to WaveWalk



7. REFERENCES


What do professional and amateur paddlers have to say about the W Kayak?  Reviews of the W Kayak

'Safety Scenarios'  April/May 2006 issue of WaveLength Magazine: http://wavelengthmagazine.com/2006/am06.pdf

'Multihull Design Considerations for Seaworthines' by John Suttleworthhttp://www.john-shuttleworth.com/Articles/NESTalk.html#Ref1

The Canadian Museum of Civilization: http://www.civilization.ca/aborig/watercraft/wak01eng.html

Kayak Newfoundland and Labrador Kayaking Club:
http://www.kayakers.nf.ca/sea_kayaking/labrador_kayak/inuit_kayak.html

Articles by Wayne Horodowich, University of Sea Kayaking: http://www.useakayak.org/

The Seaworthy Kayak, article by John Winters: http://www.swiftcanoe.com/kayak/article_results.asp?ID=1


Kayak Design Articles by Nick Schade of Guillemot Kayaks: http://www.guillemot-kayaks.com/Design/index.html

'Choosing a Sea Kayak' by Vaclav Stejskal of One Ocean  Kayak: http://www.oneoceankayaks.com/kayakpick.htm

Speed Fundamentals, the Twinhull Advantages and the Principles of the W Kayak Concept:
http://www.wavewalk.com/COMPARISON.html

Biomechanical and Ergonomic Solutions to Modern Kayaking:
http://www.wavewalk.com/KAYAK_FISHING_ERGONOMICS_and_BIOMECHANICS.html

A Wet Ride - Problem Overview and New Solutions


POPULATIONS HEIGHT and WEIGHT:

Mean Body Weight, Height and Body Mass Index, United States 1960–2002

Encyclopedia MSN Encarta: Inuit http://encarta.msn.com/encyclopedia_761561130/Inuit.html


ADDITIONAL INFORMATION

Visit a gallery of possible W boat designs: http://www.micronautical.com