Kayaks come in primarily three different modes of propulsion: paddle, pedal, and motor. Two of these are pretty straight forward as you can use whatever paddle or whatever motor you would like with almost any kayak you choose. The third option leaves us with questions. How do I pick the right pedal drive? What should I look for in a pedal drive kayak?
Pedal drive kayaks are pretty diverse in the market. With varying pedal drive designs, kayak sizes, and even price points, you have a lot to choose from. Let’s break them down in this article and help you know what to look for.
Pedal Drive Styles
In looking at just the pedals themselves, you have several different styles.
Fixed Down Tube Drives
A fixed down tube pedal drive is a drive that has a prop attached to a metal tube or mast that goes through the floor of the kayak. The drive is typically mounted on a pivot or round tube assembly that allows you to raise it back into the boat for stowing during launches and landings. Another push button deployed fixed down tube exists. These drives utilize a bicycle motion while seated and have both forward and reverse options. As the kayaker pedals the prop below the boat spins.
Pros: bicycle motion is easy on bad joints, less expensive models are available, longevity in the market
Cons: underwater obstructions that are hit can cause damage to the prop, potential injury especially at higher speeds.
Price Range of Kayaks: $999-$3200 (does not include tandem or multi-seat kayaks)
Examples: Native Propel, Wilderness Helix , Bonafide PD, Perception Pilot Drive, Old Town PDL, Feel Free Overdrive
Fixed Fin Drives
A fin drive is one that utilizes triangular fins under the kayak to propel the boat forward and sometimes backwards (depending on the drive). The kayaker uses a push motion to propel the kayak pushing forward on a left pedal and then pushing forward on the right pedal. This closely resembles a recumbent stair stepping motion. The fins under the water during this motion push the kayak forward much like a bird (or penguin) flapping its wings.
Pros: with a flutter motion, can get very shallow, fins and masts are replaceable.
Cons: reverse not available on some models, some models may require you to shift a cable gear to go in reverse, older designs are less durable
Price Range of Kayaks: $999-$3700 (does not include tandem or multi-seat kayaks)
Examples: Pelican Hydrive , Vibe X-Drive, Hobie Mirage Drive, Hobie Mirage Drive 180
Specialized Fin Drives
A specialized fin drive is just that, a fin drive with a little extra. While only one company is really doing this, it is important to note for complete coverage of the options in the market. The specialized fin drives are from Hobie and have three versions: 360, Glide Technology and Kick Up Fins. Glide Technology is an improved motion technology that makes a smoother transition from the left to right when pushing the pedals. The Kick Up Fins unlike the the standard Mirage Drive or Turbo Fins have a breakaway hinge that allows them to hit an underwater obstruction and kick up so you can pass it. This also reduces the stopping force when meeting a tree, boulder, or other obstruction.
Pros: GT and 180: more durable when meeting obstructions, less likely to cause bodily injury with obstruction collisions, same pros as the fin drive
Cons: GT and 180: requires a cable shift to go in reverse, less maneuverable than auto-reverse models of drives, price point is on the upper end of the price continuum.
Price Range of GT and Kick Up Kayaks: $1650-$4500
360 Drives are exactly like what they sound like: a pedal drive that allows you to move 360 degrees. Through control levers you are able to pedal and maneuver the kayak in rotations other than a circle. Drifting with control (think drift car racing) is the name of the game here. This technology is only available on 360 model kayaks from Hobie.
Pros: 360: movement in and direction with lever steering, similar advantages to the Hobie 180 and GT
Cons: 360: many reported breakage issues in the first couple of years, complex design with many moving parts, price is the highest in the market
Price Range of 360 Pedal Drive Kayaks: $5200-$5800
Examples: Hobie GT, 180, 360
Belt Drives with Flexible Shaft
New this year to the pedal drive kayak market is a drive that is belt driven with bicycle style pedal motion, a prop, and a drive shaft that pops up and out of the way of obstructions. This is the Mark IV Flex Drive from Jackson Kayak. Unlike its predecessor, the Mark IV uses a Gates belt drive system like is used in cycling, requires no greasing or oiling maintenance, and is significantly quieter than previous versions. It has an upper and lower unit that connect on the deck of the boat so the full drive can be stowed in hull if desired. The new belt drive system has added a faster speed element not previously experienced with Jackson Kayak Flex Drive boats.
Pros: bicycle motion is easy on bad joints, quiet, easy forward and reverse, easy to maintain, faster prop speed, more durable when meeting obstructions, less likely to cause bodily injury with obstruction collisions, proven belt technology
Cons: not able to be retro fit to older Jackson Kayaks, price starts higher than half the field
Price Range of Mark IV Flex Drive Kayaks: $3000-$4200
Examples: Jackson Mark IV Flex Drive
What to Look For in a Pedal Drive Kayak
Every person is different in many ways. Some of us have bad knees, some of us don’t have unlimited funding so we have to stay tighter to a budget. Some of us want a full on tournament rig ready to go regardless of price. You’ll want to think about where you are going to fish primarily with a pedal drive, think about your physical fitness level, think about your budget, and many other things. Hopefully, this article gives you more information as you look for the right pedal drive kayak for you.
I ended up in a Jackson Knarr FD with the new Mark IV Flex Drive for the 2022 season. It’s the right boat for me, how I fish, and my current physical capabilities. I have bad knees so a recumbent stair climber action was out. I also love that the drive on the highest end Jackson Kayak is also available on the entry price pedal kayak. Same technology, different kayak.