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Recreational Kayak vs Touring Kayak: What's the Difference?

If you’re just starting out on your kayaking journey, selecting a boat can be confusing. There are many different types, and it can be tricky to identify the features and style that you need for different boating conditions. The first hurdle you may encounter is deciding between a touring or recreational kayak, as both are relatively beginner-friendly.

Recreational and touring kayaks sound similar, but they will actually give you very different experiences on the water. Depending on where you’ve kayaked before, you might have experience with a recreational kayak already. Understanding the pros and cons of each boat is helpful in making an investment that will serve you well in your paddling ventures.

Recreational Kayak Design

If you’ve ever rented a kayak to go out on the lake or down a calm stream, you’ve probably been in a recreational kayak. These kayaks are wider and shorter than touring kayaks, which causes them to move at a more leisurely pace, and be more stable and easier to turn than a touring kayak.

Function: Excellent, stable kayak for lakes, lazy rivers, and near-shore excursions. Very accessible and easily used for anglers, beginners, and paddlers of all ages and skill levels.

Length: Recreational kayaks tend to be shorter than their touring / sea kayak brethren. This short length makes them more maneuverable. They turn easier and respond more quickly to shifts in direction. On the other hand, a shorter kayak doesn’t track quite as well. So, you lose the ability to stay in a straight line with a shorter kayak.

Recreational kayak length: 8-12 feet

Width: The wider width is what most contributes to the recreational kayak’s stability. This is a great pro for those new to the sport of kayaking, such as those interested in fishing, or taking pictures while out on the water. You can focus less on not tipping over and develop your paddling technique more with this type of kayak. Additionally, it allows you to take in the views around you better while you’re out on the water. The width creates a more stable platform which provides excellent secondary stability (side to side) and you don’t feel like you are going to tip over. But, it creates drag which makes them slower than their touring cousins. 

Recreational kayak width: 26-30 inches


  • Sit-in or Sit-on-top: Recreational kayaks are extremely versatile and can be found in both sit-in and sit-on-top designs. The SOT kayaks are excellent for fishing as you can keep equipment easily accessible. And speaking of accessibility, these types of kayaks are wonderful for those with mobility issues who still want to experience the joys of kayaking. They are much easier to get in and out of. 
  • Multiple paddlers: This can also be a great type of boat for group travel. Its accessibility opens itself to groups of all ages and skill levels, so if you have more than one you can easily bring a friend or family member out on the water with you. 
  • Less Expensive: Recreational kayaks tend to be less expensive than other types of kayaks, so there are even fewer barriers to entering the sport of kayaking with this type of boat.

The only thing to note with this type of kayak is that, because of the extra width, it’s not the best at cutting through waves or maneuvering in strong currents. In this respect, you will want to stick to calmer waters like a lake or low-rapids river. You’ll still reap all the benefits of kayaking in these locations, as it’s a great way to see the nature around you or get in a low-impact workout with a change in scenery.

Touring Kayak Design

Touring kayaks are a great pick for more experienced kayakers. In combination with their more angular hull designs, the longer, narrow kayak is better suited for a more active kayaking session where you’re met with a lot of turbulence and strong currents that you have to navigate. This design also enables them to move faster through water, so you’ll be moving at a good pace through these conditions, as well. Fast reaction times, core strength for balancing, and an ability to think further upstream are key for trips in touring kayaks.

Function: Touring kayaks are narrower and longer than recreational kayaks. These boats are more adept at navigating extreme water conditions, like rapids or ocean waves, so they do require a moderate familiarity with kayaking to be able to balance and steer in them.

Length: What you gain in hydrodynamic ability with a touring kayak (namely speed), you may lose slightly in stability and ease of steering. The longer the boat, the more challenging it is to make turns, as you have more boat to redirect. So if you’re not used to it, the handling of touring kayaks can have a learning curve. 

Touring Kayak length: 12-20 feet

Width: Similarly, since the kayak is narrower, you may need to balance more intentionally so as not to tip over. You can track in a straight line better because of these features, however, which is helpful in staying on course out on the ocean or when navigating strong river rapids.

Touring Kayak width: 18-24 inches


  • Sit-in design: A touring kayak usually has a sit-in design and adjustable footpegs so that you can paddle efficiently and protect yourself from waves. 
  • Deck space & bulkheads: A longer boat usually means more square footage. This translates into potentially more water-tight storage - fore & aft - as well as a deck space for tying down equipment. 
  • Little (to no) rocker: This means that the kayak will be basically flat on the water. There isn’t a bend in the boat from bow to stern. This keeps the entire hull in constant contact with the water ensuring excellent tracking.
  • Rudder or Skeg: This is a common feature on touring kayaks that helps to control and steer that kayak. Since longer kayaks are harder to course correct, this is a helpful feature.


At the end of the day, the type of kayak you invest in depends on the environment and experience you’re looking for. Recreational kayaks are a great investment for beginners and those seeking less intensive expeditions, ready to explore the lake and river scenery around them.  Touring kayaks are best for those looking to reap the more athletic benefits of kayaking and challenge themselves to navigate more challenging currents. Either way, you’ll win by getting on the water and enjoying the outdoors! Happy Paddling!

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