So you have paddled a rental boat a few times and enjoyed it enough that you are thinking about purchasing your own. It can be a daunting process, so this will serve as a guide. The first thing to do is to determine if you actually want to own your own boat. It certainly sounds like a good idea, but there are a few things to consider before you buy.
How often are you actually going to paddle?
If you are going to paddle a few times a summer, it is probably best to just rent from a livery. But, if you plan to paddle more than 4 or 5 times a summer, getting your own boat may be a good idea. If renting a kayak cost about $45 dollars a trip, you can rent 10 times for about what you will invest into a decent kayak. Plus, you do not have to worry about storage and transporting your own boat. You just show up where you want to paddle and everything is taken care of.
What is it going to cost?
Entry level kayaks, or used boats can be purchased for about $200 for a passable craft. Figure another $50 for a paddle, and $50 for a vest. So you are looking at about $300 investment for an entry level setup. But then you must also think about a dry bag, roof rack, tiedowns, and other minor purchases you are likely to make… the total cost could be well over $1k to get you started. More specialized kayaks can cost over $1k just for the boat itself. High end vests can be $250 and carbon paddles can reach $400 quickly. Canoes go anywhere from $200 for a beat up used boat, to $2k for T Formex. Kevlar boats start over $2k, but you are not wanting one for the Dan anyway. Cheap canoe paddles can be $30 each, and high end paddles hit $200 and above.
Canoe or Kayak
I’m a canoe guy. I started paddling in 1984 when my dad bought a Wenonah Echo. That canoe has seen Southeast whitewater, Midwest rivers, and Northern lakes in its 30 plus years. It still hangs in my canoe rack and sees the water a few times a year. That said, most people prefer kayaks. You sit lower in the craft, allowing a lower center of gravity, making it more stable. You have a two bladed paddle that is easier to become proficient with, and you do not have to cooperate with another person to make it down the river. Canoes are called divorce boats for a reason. There is a beautiful poetry in a well paddled solo canoe or a couple that paddles as one, but those require a good deal of work. Your average Joe can plop in a recreational kayak and make it down a class 1 river the first time out. If you have children too young to paddle their own boat, dogs you want to bring, or lots of gear, a canoe may be your best bet. If you paddle alone, or simply value independence and don’t want to have to work with someone else, a kayak may be your best choice.
What type of kayak?
For our river, a 10 foot recreational kayak will serve most people well. Shorter than that, and the boats are often very slow to paddle in calm water, longer and they get cumbersome in the twisty rapids. Boats like the Old Town Vapor series and the Wilderness Systems Tarpon are good benchmarks. Now you must decide on a sit in or sit on top. Sit in kayaks tend to be dryer of you want to paddle the shoulder seasons, but sit on top kayaks tend to be easier to get in and out of and are often a bit more stable. Whatever you do, consider that you must transport the boat. A huge fishing kayak may be comfortable, but can you get a 100 pound boat on your roof rack? Another hint, (a selfish one I admit) is to purchase a boat with a grab handle or loop on both ends. Walmart sells a kayak with a squared off stern. It is cheap, but it is a hassle to load onto our trailers because it is short and there is nothing to tie to in the stern.
What type of canoe?
For the Dan, something 15 to 16 feet long and made of plastic will best serve most paddlers. If you can find an old royalex boat, it will give you a great balance of weight and resilience. Polyethylene is heavier, but it is cheaper and tougher. Stay clear of aluminum. It will grab rocks, get very hot in the sun, and make a ton of noise. I have simply never seen one I like, though some folks swear by them. Likewise, steer clear of kevlar, carbon fiber, or wood. Some of the best canoes in the world are made in these materials, but a rocky river is no place for them. Fiberglass is an oddball. It can be easily patched, so if you wear a hole in it on the rocks, just slap some glass on there and paddle it again. But i still do not recommend it as a material for the Dan. There is a new material coming out called T Formex. It is touted as a replacement for royalex, but I have not had any personal experience with it, so I can not comment on it. Specific boats that you should look at include, Old Town Penobscott 16, Old Town Discovery 158, Mad River Journey 156, Wenonah Heron, and Wenonah Aurora.
What about solo canoes, Hybrid boats, inflatables, Standup paddle boards? Well, they might be a fit for you. But, more than likely, your first purchase should be a traditional boat. You have plenty of time to fill the garage with canoes and kayaks. Over the last 10 years I have owned something like 20 different boats, so be careful- it can be addictive. That said, a good inflatable can be the answer for the apartment dweller that does not have storage for a traditional boat. Standup paddle boards are the newest rage in the boating industry, and a solo canoe is magic on the water.
Where to try and buy?
Many outdoors stores have demo days where you can paddle different boats to see what you like, so look at the website for your local retailer or give them a call to see what they offer. Different canoe and kayak liveries use different boats, so see if one near you has the boat you think you may be interested in and rent it for a trip. Many liveries sell used boats at the end of the season as well. Most areas have paddling clubs as well. Look on facebook for one near you and go to a get together. People love talking about their boats, and you may find someone looking to sell one they have had in the garage for 10 years. If you know what you are looking for, craigslist can be a gold mine, but be aware that many people on there are asking new prices for used boats. Ok, big box stores… yes, they sell cheap boats… and that cheap boat may be right for you. But do not think that the person selling it to you has any idea what they are doing. They may have just been moved over from the golf section while Joey is on lunch, or they may be a very experienced boater. I have seen both. A paddle shop will have the same name brand gear, and the salesperson will know what they are talking about.
The age old question… should I invest in good gear right away or stay cheap till I know I like it?
You have to make this decision. I will give you two scenarios. Remember that Wenonah Echo my dad bought when I was 6? I still paddle it today. Even though it was an expensive boat, the fact that it has been on the water for 33 years means that, per paddle, it is substantially less expensive than a cheap boat that would have died in a few years. And for those 33 years, it has given the paddlers the advantage of quality craftsmanship and design. It was well worth the investment. I could sell it today for more than he paid for it all those years ago. Now let’s say you go to a big box store and buy two ten foot Pelican brand kayaks on sale for $189 each, two $50 paddles and two $50 dollar vests. You have about $600 invested. Two years later you decide to upgrade everything. You can easily sell it all on Craigslist for 4 or 5 hundred netting a total loss equivalent to a day or two of renting gear. Or, if you have space, keep them for friends to use.
The decision to buy your own boat often comes down to whether or not you have somewhere to store it. A boat left unprotected in the yard will deteriorate and fall apart. It will be dirty and full of water and bugs when you go to use it. If you can not store and transport it properly, rent it.