Looking to cruise around the water and have some fun in a kayak? Don’t want to spend an arm and a leg in the process? We’ve got you covered. In this post, we’ve compiled the 8 best recreational kayaks under $500 and our pick for the number one best recreational kayak under $500.
So what is a recreational kayak exactly? Basically, a recreational kayak is any kayak suitable for cruising in calmer lakes, rivers, and bays. These kayaks are made with the weekend kayaker in mind. A recreational kayak will be very stable and maneuverable, but won’t be as fast or as efficient as a touring kayak.
They aren’t designed for serious fishing, fast flowing white water, or deep ocean use. For that, you would need a specialized kayak.
There is a huge variety of kayaks in this category, so we broke down the best type of kayak for each use case. Here’s a quick look:
Quick Answer: 8 Best Recreational Kayaks Under $500
- Best Overall: Sundolphin Aruba 12 SS Sit-in Kayak
- Best Value: Sun Dolphin Aruba 10-Foot Sit-in Kayak
- Best Solo Sit-on-Top Kayak: Ocean Kayak Frenzy Sit-On-Top Recreational Kayak
- Best Tandem Sit-on-Top: Lifetime 10 Foot, Two Person Tandem Sit-on Kayak
- Best Kids Kayak: Lifetime Youth Wave Kayak Paddle
- Best Inflatable Kayak: Advanced Elements AdvancedFrame Kayak
- Best 3-Person Kayak: Sevylor Big Basin 3-Person Kayak
- Best Fishing Kayak: Lifetime Tamarack Angler 100 Fishing Kayak
Top 8 Recreational Kayaks Under $500
How to choose the best recreational kayak under $500 – Buying Guide
As you may have noticed, recreational kayaks vary widely in price, features and best use case. To help you narrow down the best kayak for your needs – let’s take a look at the most important kayak features you need to know.
Recreational Kayak Features
While kayaks vary widely in features, most will share several basic components in common. You should have a basic understanding of these components when you are considering any recreational kayak under $500.
Spray Skirt. A spray skirt keeps out rain and choppy waves. Spray skirts can be made from a variety of materials, but nylon fabric is the most common in recreational and touring kayaks. They are treated with some form of waterproof coating – which keeps your bottom half dry in case you get hit by a rogue wave!
Skeg. A skeg is a fin that extends into the water from the bottom of the kayak. Located in the back of the kayak – known as the ‘stern’ – skegs are typically adjusted up or down with a hand control. When fully extended, the skeg will act to steady the kayak in windy conditions. When raised, the skeg will increase the kayak’s maneuverability.
Rocker. The rocker is the degree of curvature in the hull of the kayak. The more rocker the kayak has – the more maneuverable it will be, especially in rough water. The less rocker – the easier the kayak will be to paddle straight and efficiently.
Rudder. The rudder helps control the direction of the kayak. It’s different from a skeg – as it rotates from side to side – a skeg is only adjustable in the up and down direction. The rudder is controlled with foot pedals, which makes turning easier by adding additional control.
Hull Shape. Kayak hull shapes vary widely – different shapes are used for specific purposes. For recreational kayaks, most hulls will feature a flat hull or a pontoon hull design.
A flat hull simply means that the bottom of the kayak is flat – this makes the kayak very stable and ideal for flat water use.
Pontoon hulls have an inverted shape on the bottom, similar to a pontoon boat. They provide extreme stability for fishing kayaks as well as some recreational kayaks.
Types of Recreational Kayaks
There are two main types of recreational kayaks: Sit-on-top, and Sit-in (traditional). There are also Inflatable Kayaks, which are a bit less common. Each type has its own strong points as well as drawbacks. Let’s take a look at a quick comparison:
Sit-in (Traditional) Kayak
Sit-in kayaks are the traditional kayak design, where your lower body is enclosed inside the hull of the kayak. These kayaks sit lower in the water than sit-on-top kayaks – this gives the kayak a lower center of gravity – which increases efficiency and stability in the water.
Sit-in kayak Pros:
- Good for colder and wetter environments – as your lower body is protected from the elements.
- Can attach a spray skirt to further prevent water from getting in.
- Low center of gravity makes them more stable and efficient in the water.
Sit-in kayak Cons:
- More difficult to enter and exit the kayak.
- If the kayak capsizes, it will be more difficult to flip over and re-enter.
Sit-on-top kayaks are great for casual use and are especially fun when the weather is nice. The open hull design allows you to take a dip in the water and re-enter easily. These kayaks work well for beginners as well, as capsizing is not really an issue.
Sit-on-top kayak Pros:
- Works well in warm weather, as you can easily get in and out of the water.
- Beginner friendly, as they are easy to get in and out of. Also, if the kayak capsizes, it’s easier to flip over and climb back in.
- No restricted feeling – your legs are free and not confined in the hull.
Sit-on-top kayak Cons:
- Not ideal for colder conditions, as you will likely get wet from waves.
- Less stable in the water than a sit-in style kayak.
Similar to inflatable stand up paddle boards, inflatable kayaks have come a long way in recent years. They are made of durable, puncture-resistant PVC, which stands up well to most conditions. If space is a premium for you, then an inflatable kayak is a great choice. They are also great for hiking and camping trips – as you can bring a full-sized kayak with you – and it folds up to the size of a small duffel bag.
Inflatable kayak Pros:
- Light, compact and easy to travel with.
- Can inflate and deflate fairly quickly with a good electric pump.
- Durable PVC construction.
Inflatable kayak Cons:
- Performance will not be as good as a hard body kayak.
- Need to inflate and deflate every time you use.
Kayak Construction and Materials
Most recreational kayaks manufactured out of polyethylene plastic. Polyethylene is a tough, durable material that can withstand almost any conditions. You don’t have to worry about breaking a polyethylene kayak on the rocks!
Polyethylene kayaks do have several drawbacks though. They are heavier than fiberglass kayaks and can become UV damaged if left out in the sun for too long. Make sure to store them in the shade when not in use.
ABS kayaks are similar to polyethylene, but are lighter and have greater UV protection. They are usually a bit more expensive.
Fiberglass composite / Kevlar boats are the most expensive and highest performing kayaks. They are very lightweight, fast in the water and fairly easy to repair. For a recreational kayak under $500, you probably won’t find one of these.
Inflatable kayaks are typically made of durable, puncture-resistant PVC. These kayaks are tough, but as with anything inflatable, there is a chance a leak may form. Most inflatable kayaks will come with some type of repair kit.
For an in-depth look at kayak material and construction processes, check out my post here.
Storage space is an important consideration, especially if you plan on taking your kayak on overnight trips. A good kayak will hold a surprising amount of gear if packed correctly. Backpacks, tents, sleeping bags and dry bags will fit inside the bow and stern of a traditional kayak. Adding an aftermarket kayak seat is a good idea, especially if you plan on longer kayaking sessions.
Generally, traditional sit-in kayaks will have more storage space than the sit-on-top style. Many also feature a watertight storage compartment which keeps your most important gear safe and dry.
Most kayaks will have some form of bungee lashing system on the front or rear of the kayak. This is very useful for storing lightweight items that you may need to access quickly – like a map or an extra paddle. You don’t want to store heavy items here though – they should go inside the hull to keep the kayak’s center of gravity low.
As you might have noticed, picking the right kayak is largely going to depend on what you plan on using it for.
Sit-in kayaks are great for longer kayak trips or when you have a lot of gear to transport. Sit-on-top kayaks have come a long way in recent years and are a viable option for day trips, general fun, and playing in the ocean surf. They also work well as fishing platforms due to their excellent stability. Inflatable kayaks are super light and portable and great for hiking/camping or people who don’t have the storage space for a full-sized kayak.
I’ve loved being in the outdoors for as long as I can remember. I grew up fishing, canoeing, and camping throughout the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia. It’s what lead me to start this site and share my passions for fishing, diving, kayaking and more. Nowadays you can find me writing about my passions or (preferably!) preparing for my next outdoor adventure.