Best Runabout Boats Guide

There are thousands of runabout boats for sale on Boat Trader right now, and if you’ve ever spent a day aboard a runabout it won’t come as any surprise that these cool little craft rank among the most popular types of boats on the water. There are many different shapes, sizes, and types of runabouts but they all share a common theme: they’re incredibly versatile fun-machines. Ready to learn more? Let’s consider:

chaparral 267 outboard
When the entire family wants to have fun on the water, few boats can beat a runabout. Photo via Lakeside Marine.

What are Runabout Boats?

The term “runabout” can be used to describe any small, open powerboat, so a wide range of boat types and sub-classes can be considered runabouts. In the past many people would have capped the runabout class at boats of 25 feet or less, however, modern trends have pushed the limit upwards. Today there are some models of 30 feet or more which could still be considered runabouts, albeit very large ones.

This genre of boat isn’t usually designed for any one specific activity but instead is arranged and equipped to be used for many different types of fun, ranging from watersports to fishing. That said, many people would still refer to some watersports-oriented boats as runabouts, or call a small open fishing boat a runabout.

There are a few traits that most modern runabouts share in common: they’re open boats with no cabin (though larger ones may have an enclosed head compartment); they tend to have plenty of seating for their size; and they have either outboard, jet, or stern drive power. Since most are relatively small, they can usually be trailered. And most runabouts are also rather peppy if not downright sporty.

Different Types of Runabout Boats

The catch-all title of runabout can be applied to many different subcategories of boats. The most common ones include:

Bowriders

bayliner VR5
Most bowriders, like this Bayliner VR5, fall into the runabout category. Photo via Smith Boys of Seracuse.

Bowriders of 30 or fewer feet will generally be considered runabouts. When they grow larger than this bowriders often begin to incorporate cabins and cruising equipment like gallies and generators, and at that point, they migrate out of the runabout world.

Deck Boats

hurricane sundeck 267 ob
The Hurricane Sundeck 267 OB is a deckboat – and it’s a runabout. Photo via Hurricane Boats.

Deck boats are similar to bowriders but few grow to the same proportions or have cabins. So, most deckboats will fall into the runabout category.

Jet Boats

yamaha 252 sd
Since they don’t have props, families with young children often appreciate jet boat runabouts like this Yamaha 252 SD. Photo via Riva Motorsports Superstore.

Many jet boats qualify as runabouts since they’re often relatively small, open-bow boats. In fact, jet boats are some of the most popular runabouts on the water today.

What about models like center consoles, pontoon boats, or speed boats? In some cases they may fit the runabout mold, and in others they might not. To some degree whether or not a boat can be called a runabout is in the eye of the beholder, so if the shoe fits, you should feel free to give that boat the moniker.

Advantages of Runabouts

Runabouts have a number of advantages starting with the fact that they’re so versatile. This makes them a particularly good choice for first-time boat owners who know that they love being out on the water, but haven’t yet necessarily found any one particular activity or use that they want to focus on. It also makes them great for families, because different members of the family may have different favorite activities — and with a runabout, you can do it all.

Runabouts also have an economic advantage over many other types of boats. Since they’re relatively small and simple they tend not to break the bank. Speaking of simplicity, it’s yet another high point of running a runabout. Since they don’t have lots of complex systems aboard there’s less to go wrong, less to repair, and less to maintain.

Finally, again a result of their diminutive size, runabouts are easy to handle. It doesn’t take long to learn how to operate them and it’s not difficult to put them on a trailer and haul them to and from the boat ramp.

runabouts on trailers
Easy trailering and storage are some of the distinct advantages of owning a runabout. Photo via Union Marine.

Disadvantages of Runabouts

Remember all those advantages runabouts benefit from because of their small size? Well, that size brings with it a few disadvantages, too. Few runabouts are large enough to handle rough seas in comfort, passenger capacity is relatively limited, and most don’t have the fuel capacity necessary for long voyages.

Another disadvantage that goes hand in hand with runabouts is exposure to the weather. Remember, these boats don’t have cabins and few have anything more than a Bimini top to provide protection from the elements. Weekending or taking overnight vacations isn’t in the cards unless you haul along camping gear and set up a tent somewhere, and if a downpour breaks out when you’re on a runabout boat, you have to expect everyone aboard to get wet.

Key Runabout Features

Virtually all runabouts will come with some basic features like seating, dry stowage compartments, cup holders, and a windshield. Beyond that there’s a long list of features that some builders may include as standard features and others will consider options or upgrades. Different features will be important to different people, since all of us have our own preferences as to how we use our boats. That said, some key features to consider include:

  • Bimini tops.
  • Canvass covers (for storage).
  • Cocktail tables.
  • Engine upgrades to more powerful powerplants.
  • Filler cushions that turn seating areas into sunpads.
  • Fishing accessories such as rod holders or livewells.
  • Freshwater systems and/or transom showers.
  • Porta-Potties (if the boat has a head compartment).
  • Stereo systems.
  • Swim platforms.
  • Trailers.
  • Watersports accessories such as a ski-tow bit or possibly an arch with an elevated tow point.
monterey 258 super sport
Some runabouts come better equipped than others – this Monterey 258 Super Sport looks like it has it all! Photo via Pier 53 Marine.

Beyond these items, when ordering a runabout new from the manufacturer you’ll likely also be choosing features like gel coat and vinyl colors, lighting options, and different electronics packages.

Runabout Costs

As we mentioned earlier, runabouts hold a cost advantage over many other types of boats. However, it’s important to recognize that there are costs associated with ownership of a runabout that go beyond the purchase price. These range from fuel to maintenance to insurance, and we cover them in detail in How to Buy a Boat: The Complete Buying Guide. We do have some good news, though, because just as with the initial purchase price, the smaller and simpler a boat is the less expensive it tends to be to own and operate. So, while you do have to plan for additional costs after the purchase of a runabout, they tend to be a whole lot less than the costs associated with most other, larger boats.

There are a lot of runabouts on the market, and literally dozens of manufacturers with entire model lines. But when you whittle the list down to the top five most popular makes on Boat Trader, you end up with these choices.

  1. Sea Ray
  2. Chaparral
  3. Cobalt
  4. Bayliner
  5. Boston Whaler

Sea Ray

sea ray 190 spx
The 190 SPX is Sea Ray’s smallest current offering, and is a quintessential runabout. Photo via American Marine.

Sea Ray is one of the most popular builders around, and although they sell many models that don’t fall into the runabout category — their current lineup includes several boats with cabins which stretch all the way up to 37 feet in length — this brand established itself by building large numbers of high-quality, reliable runabouts. Today, the Sea Rays that could count as runabouts includes their entire SPX line, as well as some boats in the SDX and SLX lines.

See Sea Ray runabout boats for sale on Boat Trader.

Chaparral

chaparral 21 ssi
Chaparral’s 21 SSi OB. Photo via Seattle Watersports.

Built in Nashville, GA since 1965, the bulk of Chaparral’s 20-model lineup is made up of runabouts. This company also offers several models with additional features designed for watersports, in the form of their Surf line, and has “Ski & Fish” models as well.

See Chaparral runabout boats for sale on Boat Trader.

Cobalt

cobalt cs22
Cobalt boats, like this CS22, are known for their good looks. Photo via Goodhue Boat Company.

Established all the way back in 1968, Cobalt builds a mix of runabouts and larger boats in Neodesha, Kansas. This manufacturer has long been known for providing a higher luxury level than usual when compared to other builds. Cobalt is also known for using high-end parts and gel coats matched with an exceptional fit and finish to create some of the best-looking runabouts around.

See Cobalt runabout boats for sale on Boat Trader.

Bayliner

bayliner m15 runabout
The Bayliner M15 may be small, but it will still provide big fun. Photo via Bridgeport Equipment and Tool.

When it comes to bang for the buck, Bayliner boats are tough to beat. This builder’s focus is on runabouts, which make up the bulk of their line (along with some center console fishing boats). They offer an unusually fresh lineup with many of their models being quite recent introductions, yet many of those new models are priced below the competition. Their smallest model, the M15, is one of the few new fiberglass runabout boat-motor-trailer packages on the market today to come in under the $20,000 mark.

See Bayliner runabout boats for sale on Boat Trader.

Boston Whaler

boston whaler 160 super sport
The Boston Whaler 160 Super Sport looks to us like super fun. Photo via Beacon Marine.

Just about everyone is familiar with Boston Whaler’s claim to fame: their fiberglass-foam-fiberglass sandwich construction that’s unsinkable. What some people don’t realize, however, is that along with their line of center console and cabin fishing boats, they also build several models that land squarely in the runabout world.

See Boston Whaler runabout boats for sale on Boat Trader.

Which of these runabouts would be best for your needs and desires? Or, might a different variety of boat be a better pick for you and your family? That’s your call, but considering how popular runabouts are, and that you read our runabout guide clear down to this last line, we’re betting there’s a good chance that one of these fun little boats will be in your future.

Written by: Lenny Rudow

With over two decades of experience in marine journalism, Lenny Rudow has contributed to publications including YachtWorld, boats.com, Boating Magazine, Marlin Magazine, Boating World, Saltwater Sportsman, Texas Fish & Game, and many others. Lenny is a graduate of the Westlawn School of Yacht Design, and he has won numerous BWI and OWAA writing awards.

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