What Size Kayak Do I Need

What Size Kayak Do I Need? The Compete Guide10 min read

Having trouble figuring out what size kayak you need? Maybe you’re tall and you have to make sure there’s enough leg room. Or do you really need a wider kayak for better stability?

How do you know which kayak length and width will work for you and which won’t? 

This article breaks down sizing a kayak for a paddler into 3 distinct factors we must consider:

  • Type of kayak chosen
  • Paddler height and weight
  • Kayak weight capacity and volume

The transportation method and vehicle are other factors to think about:

  • How you will carry your kayak
  • The weight and length of the kayak 

At the end of this read, you will:

  • know how to estimate the true weight requirement for any kayak your are considering
  • understand the cargo weight you can actually carry
  • be able to fit a paddler comfortably for a sit-inside or sit-on-top kayak
  • know how a kayak size impacts transporting with your vehicle
  • use all this information to pick the best kayak for you!

Let’s get started!

Sizing Kayaks By Type

There are two main types of kayaks on the market: sit-inside and sit-on-top. Sit-on-top models are generally classified as fishing kayaks and some recreational kayaks while sit-inside models are categorized as whitewater, recreational, sea (or touring) kayaks.

I want to be upfront when I say sizing kayaks is not an exact science. There are lots of opinions on this matter. So, I will throw in mine as well.

Time and again you will see lots of detailed analysis on the size and fit for selecting a kayak, particularly in regards to sit-inside because of all the variables in regards to this particular kayak.

But in an effort to give you tips for sizing your kayak, I’ll keep this as simple and useable as possible.

I have identified 3 main measurements for this purpose: 

  • kayak weight capacity
  • kayak volume
  • cockpit dimensions

Kayak Weight Capacity

Every kayak lists a stated weight capacity. If a kayak lists the weight capacity at 300 pounds, it doesn’t mean it can carry a 300-pound person. It means it should “float” with 300 pounds of total cargo, including a paddler.

Be aware that carrying more weight is considered overloading the kayak and will lower the water level. For sit-on-top kayaks, the main concern is water coming in the scuppers. Standing water on the decking and splashing water over the gunwales can really spoil a trip.

kayak stated weight capacity
Kayak Stated Weight Capacity

Another consideration for all kayaks is that paddling efficiency (how well the kayak moves per paddle stroke). This tends to drop for all types over 75% weight capacity.

So, there are many reasons to try to keep the cargo weight at a comfortable level below the stated weight capacity. And this can be done with just a few simple steps.

Kayak Volume

Next, estimate a kayak volume that is a “good fit” for you and your gear when dealing with sit-inside kayaks. This metric specifies the room available for the paddler and all gear and equipment carried in the cockpit. This is computed from the bulkhead behind the seat to bulkhead beyond your feet. It is typically measured in gallons or cubic feet while Sea kayaks, for instance, use small, medium and large designations.

Imagine pouring gallons of water into the kayak cockpit until it fills. That’s the volume capacity it has in gallons.

There are no real ways to estimate the volume you will require. And does not include cockpit size. So, the volume should be treated as a size estimate only for fitting a paddler like you would pants or a shirt. Not all venders’ cockpit volume will fit the same. Some run small and others fit better than others. Try on a few kayaks and see what they say your volume “size” is, then you will know how a particular size runs for this maker.

Cockpit Size Dimensions

Most cockpits are oval in shape, longer length than width. Take note of how tall the cockpit is in relation to hips, thighs, and shoe height.

Sit Inside Cockpit
Sit In Kayak Cockpit

Rule of thumb is to have just enough room for the hips to turn from side-to-side, the thighs to rest in a comfortable, wide position, and the foot area tall enough to accommodate shoe length and leg length.

Actual Weight Requirement

First off, compute the actual weight requirement. One method is to use 75% of capacity. This will ensure that your weight does not overload and interfere with kayak stability, padding efficiency, and water level. This can be done with a little simple math to calculate the minimum capacity required of the kayak.

Just calculate the minimum weight capacity you need for you and your gear. Take the paddler’s weight and add all the added gear and equipment that will travel on the kayak to get the “cargo weight”. If the paddler is 200 pounds and will take 25 pounds of gear, then the cargo weight is 225 pounds.

Calculate the “actual weight requirement” needed by dividing the cargo weight by 75% as:
Actual weight capacity needed = cargo weight divided by 75%

So for our 225-pound cargo weight example, 225 / .75 = 300 pounds. This is the actual weight requirement which you will use as a minimum kayak weight capacity.

Paddler Characteristics

Paddler Weight

How is my weight a factor? As you read before, your weight is an important factor to consider when sizing kayaks. It will surprise you how much paddler weight will affect what kayak you should consider before purchase.

Rule of thumb: keep your actual weight requirement at or under 75% of the stated kayak weight capacity.

Paddler Height

The first thing you need to know is for sit-on-top kayaks, your height really doesn’t impact your fit and size as long as you watch the kayak weight limit we discussed earlier. With one exception – fishing kayaks.

Sit-On-Top Fishing Kayak
Sit-On-Top Fishing Kayak

Fishing kayaks, especially the higher-end ones, tend to have tall, adjustable seats. For tall people, this can cause the kayak to appear less stable considering the higher center of gravity. The solution for this is to ride in the low seat position, especially when paddling. This will measurably increase stability.

Height Matters More When Sizing Sit-Inside Kayaks

After knowing what volume you require, the next thing is actually to try one out, sit inside one.

Most kayaks have similar cockpit sizes depending on kayak type, but I believe, without extensive experience, these measurements are somewhat of a swag and I’ll tell you why.

Paddler Body Dimensions

Each person will use a different technique to enter and exit a kayak. Kayaks will come equipped with different thigh braces. The cockpit will flex and rub differently. And those are just a few of the differences, even when the cockpit dimensions are similar.

Primarily, there are four characteristics that will affect fit and comfort:

  • Waist width
  • Thigh width and comfortable leg spread
  • Leg length
  • Foot Size

Tall people with long legs should look for kayak cockpits that are long and taper gradually. If your shoes are long, make sure you can size them with the toes up to allow for better comfort.

Short people with short legs should look for kayak cockpits that are shorter and taper less gradually. If your shoes are shorter, then make sure the foot height is not too roomy. A loose-fitting cockpit can lead to less maneuvering control and harder to keep your body stable inside. Too loose can be worse than too tight most of the time.

Multiple kayaks on vehicles

Transportation Method

How will you transport your kayak? This should be one of your main decisions you make initially.

This is to make sure, first of all, if your vehicle can actually carry the length and weight of your kayak. Not all vehicles are the same and you will need to account for this.

Based on hauling method, typically, kayaks under 10 feet are the top picks for cars because they are easier to tie down. Longer models such as sea kayaks (usually over 14 feet), best travel with on a lightweight kayak trailer.

These are just some general examples and tips of what you can look for as you study perspective kayaks, so we will be able to go into more detail about what will work for you.

Don’t worry, this post will give you not only some suggestions on how to select the length and width but also helpful tips and details about kayaks to help assist with your decision making process.

Where Will You Carry Your Kayak?

Another huge factor to consider, especially if you are going to load it on the vehicle roof, make sure to consider a kayak you can lift and load onto your roof. Fortunately, there are automated side loaders that assist loading if needed. A word of caution though, these devices can be expensive and complicated to install. Review your choices carefully when considering this option.

If you have a truck then your options are easier. Your vehicle is more than capable of handling any sort by using a truck bed extender or using a lightweight trailer.

The size of your car will determine your kayak weight limit. However, most cars handle kayaks below 100 pounds without issue. This will usually restrict transporting heavier fishing kayaks.

Find out more about how to transport a kayak by vehicle type here.

How Heavy A Kayak Can Most Cars Handle?

Typically, most cars can handle hauling kayaks between 6′ to 10′ utilizing roof racks and crossbars. I went into great detail and effort documenting the choices with charts and photos included. You can read about crossbars and roof racks for all types of vehicles here.

You will find most SUVs are capable of handling larger kayaks on the roof implementing roof racks that can support the 165 pounds. Alternatively, SUVs have been known to carry them in the rear compartment with the doors open, requiring expert tie-down and securing.

Worst case scenario, you use a lightweight kayak trailer for any vehicle above that can tow. Typical single kayak trailers start at $1500.


In this article, you learned the important factors in sizing a kayak for your needs. 

You now:

  • know how to estimate the true weight requirement for any kayak your are considering for you and your gear
  • can estimate the cargo weight you can actually carry for a particular kayak
  • understand how volume is used for sizing sit-inside kayak
  • can take your height and weight to fit yourselft comfortably for a sit-inside kayak
  • size a sit-on-top kayak based on your weight and comfort requirements
  • know how use size a kayak to your vehicle based on how you will transport it

Take this information to narrow down your choices, sit in similar kayaks, check for fit and comfort, and buy the perfect kayak!

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