​Should You Buy a Surf Ski or a Kayak?

Kayaking is one of the most popular water-based activities out there – you can do it on a canal, nearby lake, or just drive to the ocean and take your kayak into the wild.

But then, finding the best kayak for your needs is complicated with so many different options, types, and materials. The more time you spend searching, the more confused you become.

Why? Simple – because sometimes, it’s not really a kayak you’re after. Kayaks are quite popular, indeed, but there are similar alternatives that could be even better for what you need.

As you search, you’ll inevitably run into surf skis as well. They look similar, but they’re quite different. What’s the difference then? Which option is more suitable for you?

This guide will explain the main differences when comparing the surf ski vs kayak and help you make the right decision.

Group of surf skiers

The Difference Between Surf Ski vs Kayak

If you’ve researched kayaks before, you’ve probably seen different types – one of them being the sit on top kayak. Now, the surf ski is quite similar to this concept.

A surf ski doesn’t allow you to get in and have some short walls around you. There’s no enclosure whatsoever. In terms of design, the surf ski is also a bit longer and narrower – meaning it’s also lighter.

The kayak can go anywhere – lakes, oceans, rivers, and streams. It depends on the shape and type. The surf ski is mostly aimed at peaceful waters – such as lakes and oceans.

However, the surf ski can also go for quiet rivers – avoid streams, as you’ll most likely end up upside down.

Given its hull design, the surf ski is quite fast – suitable for long touring, but also for racing. There are multiple differences in terms of how you run the surf ski too.

Unlike the kayak, a surf ski comes with a rudder located below the stern. You’ll need to use your foot to operate it, and it helps steering – sure, paddling is just as important, but the rudder makes it easier.

While some kayaks can be sharp too, the surf ski is always like this – its role is to cut through waves and waters with no issues at all, even when slightly submerged.

It has a bow with lots of air inside – its main role is to ensure the front is pushed back to the surface if you somehow dive a little.

Comparing the surf ski vs kayak will bring in even more differences. Most surf skis rely on self-bailers to get rid of all the water getting into the cockpit.

Apart from racing, you are more likely to see a surf ski in lifeguard facilities of water rescue teams. They’re now widely available for recreational activities too.

Based on all these differences between the surf ski vs kayak, it’s easy to tell that surf skis feature a higher level of responsiveness. They can move fast and without too much effort.

There’s a bit of an issue with the stability, though. If you’ve never ridden a kayak, you may feel a bit overwhelmed by how narrow and unstable they are. In other words, you need some experience.

This is why surf skis are mostly aimed at more experienced paddlers. Sure, you’ll get used to it if you don’t want to use a kayak first, but get ready to splash a few times.

Video Comparing a Kayak and a Surfski

Deciding with the water in mind

When not sure what to choose between the surf ski vs kayak, you’ll have to determine where you want to paddle first. What kind of waters do you go for? Is it a lake? Ocean? River?

Both surf skis and kayaks are meant to go on water, but the type of water makes the difference. Your options are quite varied if you go for still waters – both kayaks and surf skis will do.

If you are after rapid rivers and streams that involve lots of movements and require stability, you’ll need a kayak. A surf ski will get you into the water and even injured.

Furthermore, you need to determine how deep the water is too. This consideration is often overlooked by both novices and experienced paddlers, yet it can make the difference.

If the water can get shallow, it pays off having an over stern rudder. Imagine logs hitting you, as it’s not unusual at all. The situation can get even worse when it comes to rocks.

Ideally, you should avoid such obstacles, yet they are often hidden underwater and can be easily missed. The rubber will help you prevent damaging the unit.

At the same time, the kick up over the stern rudder is just as useful when going inland waters – as you can tell, the water will push you in the right direction.

Under stern rudders are just as effective when it comes to paddling in lakes or other types of wide-open waters – such as the sea or the ocean.

There are plenty of different sizes for them, so you’ll need to choose the right one based on the water conditions. When deciding on the rudder, you need to think about the steering power required in oceans.

Choose a large rudder if you have to deal with winds. If the weather in your area is not the best, a large rudder is a must. It will most likely help you keep the surf ski on track.

A large rudder represents an excellent choice if you need to deal with waves too. Unlike a small one, it will stay underwater and ensure effective steering.

While it may look like a large rudder is a must, the truth is you can also do with a small one for flat waters.

Surf Ski vs Kayak – Final Considerations

Man kayaking

Deciding between the surf ski vs kayak is easy and straightforward based on the water. But then, there are situations when both types of boat will provide a great experience.

So, what do you do then?

Just like for anything else in life, make sure you analyze your goals in this experience. What do you hope to achieve? What kind of experience do you expect from your boat?

Some people rely on surf skis or kayaks with recreational ideas in mind. Some others use it for paddling, just to get in shape and stay fit.

Then, there are people who could do with a challenging race every now and then – what can be more exciting than racing your friends?

There are so many reasons wherefore you might want to go on water, and each of them will help you figure out the best boat for your needs.

Apart from why you’re paddling, you should also think about when you’re paddling. If you think about it, it’s never really too cold to go paddling – just get the right suit and gear, and you’re ready to go.

If the weather’s not windy, nothing could stop you? However, the open cockpit in a surf ski may expose you to more severe weather conditions.

If you live in a cold climate, chances are you’ll do much better in a kayak because of the extra protection it offers.

The storage is another important consideration. If you’re planning to have a few things with you – such as drinks, fishing gear, your phone, or some snacks, you won’t have enough room in a surf ski.

If you’re after a lightweight profile and ergonomics – whether for maneuverability or for storage purposes, the surf ski is a no brainer.

Finally, it’s also worth “test driving” boats before making a commitment. Sure, you can write everything down and figure out what you need by going through the guide only.

But then, nothing beats the real experience. Nothing feels better than actually going out in a kayak or a surf ski and paddling.

You’ll know precisely what an open cockpit means, just like you’ll also figure out what stability issues you’re about to face. It’s one thing to read about all these and a different thing to feel them in person.


As a short final conclusion, comparing the surf ski vs kayak will bring in lots of similarities between these two boats, as well as many differences.

The surf ski has a self-explanatory name, while the kayak is more versatile. Some kayaks can do everything a surf ski does, but surf skis are not as versatile.

They are, indeed, lighter and more ergonomic. They have more features in terms of maneuverability, but they are not too stable, and they won’t work well in all types of waters or weather conditions.

Each type of boat has its own fans – more experienced paddlers understand that different conditions ask for a different type of boat.

If you can afford it, get one of each. There will be times when you’ll go out on water for a calm and peaceful experience. But there will also be times when you’ll need to break waves and race others.

Once you figure out what you’ll need, you’ll need to go through another similar process to identify the best brand and model.​

Vanessa Hopkins

Hi, I'm Vanessa. Long-time kayaker who's proud to be part of this community. I strive to provide our visitors with insightful guides with the aim to improve their kayaking experience. I've been working with SunshineKayaking for over 5 years, providing world-class services.

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