Wilderness Systems Tarpon 160 kayak review

The more I paddle the Wilderness Systems Tarpon 160 Sit On Top Kayak, the more I like it. If it is stolen I will buy a new one and hope that I never find out who stole it. I’d be far too upset.
Wilderness Systems Tarpon 160 kayak review

Wilderness Systems Tarpon 160 and Heritage Featherlite 14

Review of the Wilderness Systems Tarpon 160 Sit On Top Kayak

If you are in a hurry, skip to the “Jeff Likes:” section below. I got a bit long-winded on this one.

My 6th kayak purchase brought me full circle to the make and model that ignited my interest in kayaking. You may have read that my introduction to kayaking was a chance encounter with a stranger who offered to let my wife and I try his kayak, as to say thanks for lending him a lifejacket. That first paddle was on an older blue Wilderness Systems Tarpon 160 sit on top (SOT) kayak. I was nearly instantly comfortable with the level of stability, and found the 16 footer sufficiently maneuverable.


However, when we went kayak shopping the next weekend, we ended up with 8, 10, and 13 foot Ocean Kayak (OK) brand SOTs. The prevailing wisdom was that shorter = more maneuverable, and wider = more stable, and those were important features for kayak rookies like us.

Who am I to argue with prevailing wisdom?

The only problem was that the Ocean Kayak brand kayaks we purchased were not built for speed, and that drove me nuts! I don’t know why I always want to go faster, but I do. Cars, motorcycles, PWCs, planes… if I’ve been at the controls, I’ve likely mumbled something like “can’t this thing go any faster?!” We call our biggest OK, the Malibu Two tandem, “the bus” because paddling it feels like driving a school bus… and it is bright yellow.

Harmony Adventure TAP kayak paddle review

Harmony Adventure TAP kayak paddle review

As I would hit the water in the morning before the family woke up, I often longed for something that would push less water and glide more than the OKs. A brief affair with a Heritage Featherlite 14 left me a bit jaded. Why did speed have to come in a package that is so hard to turn? And the short cockpit didn’t have vertical space for my size 13 feet.

Then fate guided me to Craigslist where I found a young lady in a pickle (no, not literally, silly). She posted on a Saturday that she needed her Wilderness Systems SOT sold by the end of the weekend. The grainy pictures made it hard to tell, but it looked like the Tarpon 160 “double hatch” that introduced me to kayaking. Sure enough, she confirmed that it was a Tarpon 160. It was several years old, and coated in light scratches, but otherwise fully functional. Several calls and emails, a trip to the teller machine, significant rationalization to my wife, and I was off to bring home another “new” kayak.

So, did the Tarpon live up to my recollection?

Wilderness Systems Tarpon 160 kayak review (9)

The cockpit

Yep, and then some.


The Wilderness Systems Tarpon 160 Sit On Top Kayak, stem to stern:

Stem (you know, the pointy leading edge of the bow): Really pointy. I know, not really a useable technical description. For a 16 foot boat, she turns rather well, thanks to the rocker of the hull. That rocker is one of the first things that I notice about the Wilderness Systems Tarpon 160 Sit On Top Kayak when looking at it’s nose.  There is also a nice screwed-in carrying handle on top with a molded grip. There are no holes or hardware to tie a bow line to, so the bow line gets tied to the carry loop.

Topside forward and aft:

Wilderness Systems Tarpon 160 kayak review

You call that a hatch? THIS is a hatch!

One big-ass, oblong hatch at each end. These are truly large holes in the top of the boat, covered by a single black plastic hatch cover each. Fortunately the design of the hatch, along with a rubber seal around each hatch cover result in very little, if any, water finding its way past the hatch and into the hull. Each hatch cover is secured by three 1 inch wide webbing straps with plastic clip buckles in the middle. Inside the hatch is enough room to thoroughly overload the boat with gear. I think most folks will have their boat over-weight before they run out of space. Tent, sleeping bag, food,  small children (no, I’m not joking this time), etc…. plenty of room.


Aft of the forward hatch is the oddest feature of the Wilderness Systems Tarpon 160 Sit On Top Kayak, a sculpted wave splitter to divert water that comes over the bow to the sides and away from the cockpit. The designers obviously envisioned the Wilderness Systems Tarpon 160 Sit On Top Kayak being used in rough seas, modest rapids, or… actually, I’m not quite sure what else might cause water over the bow sufficient to require a wave splitter.

Just aft of the wave splitter and on centerline is a flat-ish circle that appears to be made to fit a compass or any of a variety of bolt-on accessories. I hoped to fit a Harmony 5inch screw on hatch, but the hatch was too big. This little platform is on the forward edge of the cockpit.

Features in the cockpit are:

  • Two little shelves molded in to the vertical face just in front of the foot pegs. Each shelf has its own pad eye. Good places to clip your car keys, paddle leash, or dry box lanyard.
  • Adjustable foot pegs. Mine has the uncomfortable, flat faced Heritage-type foot pegs and rails where the foot peg mounts by sliding over the plastic mounting rail. Frankly, the rails and pegs feel pretty flimsy, and don’t hold up well under heavy paddling. I think later models have a different type of foot peg that is more rounded for comfort, and mount by sliding inside a more rigid mounting rail.
  • Wilderness Systems Tarpon 160 kayak review

    Wilderness Systems Tarpon 160 kayak cockpit w/o foot pegs

    At 6’4” tall with long legs, the stock mounting points for the foot peg rails mean that I can only paddle with my legs extended comfortably if I take my shoes off. Well, then the terrible foot pegs hurt my feet. There is room to move the mounting rails forward to gain an inch or two of leg room… if you can figure out how to secure the aft mounting nut to the bolt… that you can’t reach from the inside. Tricky!

  • Angled forward along the centerline is an indention for a water bottle, with a recessed connector to hold a loop of ¼” line. This is very handy and fits my wide-mouth Nalgene bottle or a smaller water bottle.
  • On the “floor” aft of the water bottle indention is a rectangular indention that might be made for something specific, but I haven’t identified it yet.
  • As you might expect in an American boat, there is a standard cup holder indention right between the legs of the paddler. Perfect. Guys can carry their second favorite thing (beer), right in front of their favorite thing (don’t make me say it).
  • On the outboard gunwales, in molded indentions are a carry handle on each side. Same carry handles as on the bow and stern. There are also pad eyes along the gunwales for attaching thigh straps. My Wilderness Systems Tarpon 160 Sit On Top Kayak has brass pad eyes. I’ve read that later models use plastic pad eyes.
  • The seat can be a show stopper feature of the Wilderness Systems Tarpon 160 Sit On Top Kayak. With a very odd hump in the center, I’m told that folks either like how it fits their fanny, or hate it. I guess I’m lucky, as I’ve paddled for 4 hours straight with no seat pad and was still able to walk. Reports indicate that some posteriors are simply rubbed the wrong way by the contour of the seat, making this model of Tarpon a very painful ride for some. While I might not say I “Love” the seat, it doesn’t cause me any issues. Adding a thin (maybe 1/8 inch) piece of closed cell foam that I liberated from a throwable PFD improved the seat comfort a bit.
  • Come to think of it, I’ve read some minor holy-war type arguments about the Wilderness Systems Tarpon 160 Sit On Top Kayak’s seatback, as well. The hard plastic seat back is held in place by a strap that extends forward to the gunwales on either side and controls forward/aft tilt, and a bungee cord attached at the back centerline of the seat and connected to a pad eye just aft of the seat on the aft deck. The seatback pivots on two, uh, “nubs?” that sit in indentions on the aft deck. The hard plastic seat back provides no padding, just like the hard plastic seat bottom. However, I don’t mind, as I’m rarely leaning on the seatback. It provides support, and is slick, so my back slides on it as my torso rotates on each paddle stroke.

Just aft of the seatback are two raised, flat-topped bumps that appear to be made for mounting fishing rod holders.

Aft of the previously mentioned BAH (big-ass hatch) is a stainless U-bolt mounted on centerline of the top deck, installed as a lifting point. Great place to secure the stern line instead of on the aft carry handle.

The pointy tail of the Wilderness Systems Tarpon 160 Sit On Top Kayak is molded to accommodate installation of a rudder system. Mine has no rudder, so I can’t speak to the use of the rudder.

Wilderness Systems Tarpon 160 kayak review

Smooth bottom, only two scupper holes

The bottom of the Wilderness Systems Tarpon 160 Sit On Top Kayak has only two drag inducing scupper holes, which are connected to cockpit drains in the forward floor of each foot channel. Don’t let anyone tell you it is OK to pee in the cockpit, as it will drain out through the holes. That’s just gross!


Have you seen the YouTube video of a demo tank set up at an outdoor show where they offered a prize to anyone that could stand in a Tarpon 160? I wish I had been there, as I have stood many times, often for more than 5 minutes. It isn’t easy, and years of playing hockey have honed my balance a bit more than most… but it can be done.

No kayak review would be complete without the word “tracking”, so here goes… it tracks well. Yeah, I know. That doesn’t really tell you much. I can say that even pretty strong straight, forward strokes don’t turn the boat more than ~5-7 degrees. Comparatively speaking, our Ocean Kayak Yak Board probably turns 15 -20+ degrees on each stroke (with my unrefined paddle stroke, at least). I’m sure that the rocker in the hull that makes it turn easier also contributes to less persistent tracking, but the Wilderness Systems Tarpon 160 Sit On Top Kayak tracks as straight as my Harmony Featherlite 14, which was a nightmare to turn.

I can’t really skip “stability” either, as EVERYONE mentions stability in reviews… Without diving into a long definition of primary vs secondary stability, I’ll say this: Wilderness Systems Tarpon 160 Sit On Top Kayak wiggles a bit, and you’ll need to get a feel for it. I would not call it “rock solid stable”,  but as long as you don’t do anything too outrageous, your very unlikely to inadvertently turn the Tarpon over. A friend describes the Tarpon as requiring a certain hip motion that some folks have trouble adjusting to. I never had any issue, nor has my wife.

Wilderness System’s Original Tarpon specs from Tom at TK:
16′ X 28″ 63 pounds
Maximum Capacity 325 pounds
Outfitted w/ 2 cargo hatches, rudder,
plastic backrest, self-adhesive foam seat pad

Jeff likes:

  • Combination of speed and maneuverability. A rare find.
  • Long cockpit that can accommodate tall paddlers
  • Subtle, but effective rocker to aid maneuverability
  • Water bottle and cup holders in the cockpit
  • The funky hard plastic seat back
  • Carry handles on the ends and sides
  • HUGE cargo hatches forward and aft. My 6 year old daughter likes to remove the hatch cover and sit in the aft hatch while I paddle. It is like she is in a Sit In Kayak, instead of a SOT.

Jeff doesn’t like:

  • The Wilderness Systems Tarpon 160 Sit On Top Kayak is not light weight. Car topping alone will be challenging for some non-weight lifters.
  • The wave splitter. Without it, I think the 5” hatch would have fit, allowing me a sealed cat bag for keys, wallet, etc.
  • That it isn’t a more visible color to help power boat drivers see me on the lake.

Overall conclusion:

Although I wish it were Red or Yellow, that is about my only complaint. Sure, it could be lighter also, but that would sacrifice durability. The more I paddle the Wilderness Systems Tarpon 160 Sit On Top Kayak, the more I like it. If it is stolen I will buy a new one and hope that I never find out who stole it. I’d be far too upset.

Jeff’s rating:

Gear Score
A good all around performer. Wide and stable, but with a smooth, fast bottom and rocker for maneuverability.

Please leave a comment to let me know if this review was helpful to you.


About Jeff

Jeff is the Editor in Chief of Gear Report and a National Shooting Sports Foundation Media member. He reports on the outdoor industry, reviews gear for camping, hiking, shooting, hunting, paddling, backpacking and other active pursuits. A USAF veteran, Jeff earned a MBA in Marketing and Health Services. He specializes in consultative selling and internet marketing. As the VP of BD & Marketing, Jeff provides sales and marketing leadership to MGECOM, Inc. and helps http://MGECOM.com acquire new clients in need of solutions for online merchants in need of Affiliate Marketing program management. Jeff founded and manages Cress Sales & Marketing LLC, offering online sales and marketing consulting and services to online merchants and service providers.