— The following story appeared originally in C&K’s December 2014 issue.

When it comes to paddling, it's okay to think big. But more often, it's better to embrace reality. For most sea kayakers, daydreams of multi-week journeys are just that: fantasy. So why paddle an expedition-size kayak when a lighter, more nimble and compact boat meets your needs? As the market for short, beginner-oriented, value-priced recreational kayaks continues to boom, a distinct genre of high-performance, light-touring boat has emerged to bridge the gap between expedition and rec kayaks.

The upshot: The next generation of light-tourers punches well above its weight. For instance, California-based whitewater paddler Paul Gamache borrowed a friend's 14-foot Dagger Alchemy to paddle all 3,900 miles of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers on a record-shattering, 78-day source-to-sea of America's longest waterway. For one stretch of the journey, Gamache packed eight days worth of food and gear, including five gallons of water, into his pint-sized boat.

While Gamache's adventure pushed light touring to the extreme, the boats excel on more ordinary adventures. Jerry Nowak of Milwaukee, Wisc., has racked up dozens of them in his Necky Manitou 14—day-paddling on Lake Michigan, weekends on Northwoods rivers, and week-long trips on the rugged Canadian shore of Lake Superior.

"Consumers are turning away from the traditional 17- to 18-foot touring kayak in favor of shorter, sportier vessels," says David Hadden of Necky Kayaks. "These boats a can still handle a multi-day trip, but they provide a much better platform for shorter trips and after-work time on the water." Hadden knows of what he speaks. He recently traded his 18-foot touring boat for a 14-foot Manitou. "We all aspire to that long trip on the Maine coast, but family and work don't often afford that liberty," he says. "These shorter boats are better suited for convenient and realistic paddling trips."

— Read more about Gamache’s record Missouri-Mississippi River descent.

MUDDY SPEED: Paul Gamache portages Montana's Clark Canyon Dam on his 78-day source-to-sea descent of the Missouri-Mississippi.

MUDDY SPEED: Paul Gamache portages Montana’s Clark Canyon Dam on his 78-day source-to-sea descent of the Missouri-Mississippi. Photo: Amanda Buzick

Bridging the Gap

Judging by sales volume, paddlers are quite happy with these pocket cruisers. "Fourteen feet and below is where the market volume is," says Hurricane Kayaks President Steve Jordan. His company's thermoformed Sojourn line of day-touring kayaks caters to both ends of the performance spectrum: initial stability for beginners and a multi-chine hull and expedition-ready features for more advanced paddlers.

Reduced weight is a big selling point for this class of boats. Delta Kayaks, a pioneer in lightweight thermoformed plastic construction, this year debuts its new Delta 14, with a moderate V-shaped hull designed for stability and plenty of glide at cruising speed.

Riot also offers its popular Edge line in a thermoformed layup this year. Available in 11-, 13- and 14.5-foot lengths, the Edge is the quintessential light touring kayak: Compact, stable, but with enough performance features to grow with a paddler's skillset.

Meanwhile, Point 65 downsized its composite XO touring kayaks to develop a new line of roto-molded day-tourers, without subtracting features. Measuring 11- and 13-feet, respectively, the XO 11 and XO 13 include fore and aft hatches, svelte European styling and Point 65's customizable AIR seat.

Even box-store kayaks are getting performance-oriented makeovers. A unique V-shaped hull injects the Emotion Envy 11 with a boost of speed. Pelican also stretched out its popular rec boat to create the eye-catching Intrepid 120X.

Britain's Venture Kayaks has added its unique "Skudder"—a combination skeg and rudder—to the 12- and 14-foot Islay models. Also entering the fray of roto-molded sub-14-foot touring options is New Wave Kayaks, an offshoot of Hurricane, debuting its Marvel line of streamlined, full-featured sit-insides.

Finally, touring kayak stalwart Current Designs downsized its ever-popular flagship Solstice expedition kayaks. The result is the Equinox, a sleek, mid-volume, 16-foot composite tourer boasting premium made-in-USA construction. The company also added performance-oriented skeg options to its shorter, sub-12-foot Vision line.

— Check out C&K’s rundown of six light touring kayak options.