Whitewater kayaking is an intense sport. It requires considerable skill, concentration and a solid understanding of the dynamics of water, not to mention a strong ability to control stress and fear. Despite paddling’s difficulty and inherent danger, after just a couple sessions in the water (or in my case, simply watching a few kayaking movies), it’s easy to get hooked on this adrenaline-fueled sport.
Whether you’ve been borrowing your buddy’s extra boat running Class V whitewater or you’re just getting ready to learn how to roll a boat, choosing the best whitewater kayak for you can be a daunting task. Your boat is the first step in building your complete kayaking kit.
The following whitewater kayak buying guide looks at all types of whitewater kayaks, key design features and different kayak sizes (including an informal kayak length chart) to answer the burning question question, “What size kayak do I need?”
Before I explain each type of whitewater kayak, it’s important to discuss a few key terms and design aspects of each kayak, and how these design features affect performance.
Boof: A special paddle stroke and forward thrust of the hips that boosts the paddler over obstacles and effectively raises the bow of the boat while running drops, ledges and waterfalls.
Primary Stability: Primary stability relates to the boat’s ability to stay upright and level in flat water. A kayak with good primary stability will resist feeling “tippy” while sitting flat.
Secondary Stability: Secondary stability comes into play when the boat is placed on its edge (at an angle) in the water. A boat with good secondary stability will want to stay upright even when the paddler leans past the point of primary stability.
Planing Hull: Planing hulls have flat bottoms. This flat surface allows the boat to skim over the surface of the water, rather than push through it. Planing hulls have the most primary (upright) stability because of this flat-bottom design.
Displacement Hull: Unlike a planing hull, displacement hulls feature a fully or semi-curved bottom that push their way through the water, rather than skimming over the surface. Displacement hulls generally have a higher secondary stability than planing hulls, but less primary stability due the bottom’s rounded shape.
Volume: Volume is used to size kayaks. Measured in gallons, whitewater kayaks can range from about 45 to 95 gallons. Boats with a higher volume will sit higher in the water and resurface faster than smaller boats, making high-volume boats ideal for larger paddlers and those paddling big water or dropping waterfalls.
Chines: Chines are synonymous with the edges of the boat that run below the water line, in varying degrees from bow to stern. The harder (sharper) the chines, the easier it is to make quick, powerful turns by leaning the boat onto its edge. These sharp chines, however, can be extremely “catchy” in currents if the paddler misjudges the amount of leaning required to maneuver the boat, generally forcing the paddler to brace to prevent a roll.
Boats with softer chines are more forgiving, but are a little less responsive to leaning into a turn. As a result, less pronounced edges require a little more paddle work to get pointed where you want to go. Although kayaks with softer chines may seem a little less responsive than boats with sharp edges, they excel in shallower water with lots of rock features.
Rocker: Rocker is the curve of the boat that raises the bow and stern out of the water.
The amount of rocker on both the bow and stern can vary widely from boat to boat but it’s possible to make generalizations about what a certain amount of rocker will do to a kayak’s handling characteristics:
Overall, a kayak with pronounced bow and stern rocker will offer considerable maneuverability despite the boat’s length, while a boat with overall less bow and stern rocker will move faster downriver.
Play boats are the shortest in the fleet of whitewater kayaks and are designed to surf waves and allow the paddler to perform aerial and surface tricks like cartwheels and spins. They are generally around six feet in length and can be characterized by their stubby, planing hull with a varying degree of beveled chines linking the side to the bottom of the boat.
Play boats also feature the least amount of rocker, both in the bow and stern. This allows the paddler to intentionally stuff the ends of the boat underwater to perform tricks like pop-ups and squirts.
The flat bottom and pronounced edge design are what give play boats the ability to skim loosely over the surface of the water. These characteristics are key for freestyle / play boating as they help to keep you in the wave and provide the most primary stability.
Despite this primary stability, however, the sharper edges of play boats reduce secondary stability – on these boats there is a very distinct flipping point—unless you brace with your paddle, your head will be getting wet. Additionally, the hard chines require experience with edging the boat in currents – if you don’t activate the edges of the boat correctly, they can catch and flip you very quickly. Therefore, if you choose a play boat as your first kayak, take some time on a mellow stretch of river with eddies and small surf holes to get used to its handling characteristics.
River runners are all about going fast down a variety of rivers. These are the most versatile, “all-mountain” boats in the whitewater world. They are shaped to be a cross between play boats and creekers in that river runners generally sport a semi-planing hull that has good primary and secondary stability.
Softer chines, a higher volume and a longer running length for increased tracking, quick resurfacing, and forgiveness make a river runner a great beginner whitewater kayak for paddlers who will be running a variety of different rivers at different flows and who want a boat that will grow with them as they progress.
Creekers are the largest boats you’ll see in any kayak size guide. Built to charge hard over big, frothy rapids, drop waterfalls and maneuver in tight, very technical creeks with many hazards, these burly displacement hulls are generally in the 65- to 90-gallon range and feature considerable rocker in both the bow and stern. This rocker allows the boat to turn quickly despite its length for precise maneuvers like eddy turns, as well as boof off ledges and waterfalls with ease. Additionally, the water-displacing design lightens the impact force felt by the paddler when landing from a drop.
The high volume allows a creek boat to resurface quickly once submerged and provides quite a bit of storage space; It’s possible to store items like a tent, food and other camping necessities behind the seat when you are packing for a multi-day kayak trip.
Creek boats are essentially the Cadillac of the kayak world, but they aren’t for everyone. Although the soft chines of creek boats maximize secondary stability, the rounded bottom of the boat sacrifices primary stability, making creekers feel “tippy.” They’re not necessarily the best whitewater kayak for beginners.
Being so large, they also lack the playfulness of river runners and play boats in smaller water. I wouldn’t recommend getting a creeker unless you plan on running drops and big water or going on overnighters in the near future.
Long boats are essentially extra-long river runners. Up to twelve feet long, these boats are ultra fast downriver. Along with speed, the length combined with a considerable amount of bow rocker provides extra volume and excellent maneuverability, making long boats solid creekers and multi-day kayaks as well. Capable of running pretty much any river from Class II wave trains to Class V steep creeks, long boats are a great option for anyone interested in a river runner on the longer side, or anyone interested in racing, as these boats carry some serious speed.
The most important factor to take into account when choosing a new boat is the kind of whitewater you like to paddle. Rivers vary widely – from meandering rivers with class II waves to extremely rocky creeks with waterfalls. It’s important to consider what types of river you like to paddle, or have access to. Unless you’ve got the time and budget to travel, this can have a lot to do with your geographic location. Are you limited to lazy rivers that only have a few Class II-III wave trains and holes, or do you live somewhere that has a wide variety of fast-moving Class IV-V steep creeks?
If you only have small waterways with waves and play holes in your area, you may be best suited in a play boat or river-runner. Likewise, if you live in the proximity of steep creeks that sport big water and drops, a river-runner, long boat or creeker may be your best bet. It’s important to note, however, that these are only recommendations for whitewater boats to consider– I’ve paddled with plenty of folks who run drops and pushy big water in play boats. And once you’ve settled on a boat, make sure you’re set with all the essential gear you’ll need for a river trip.
Choosing the correct boat size is just as important as choosing the correct boat type. All kayak manufacturers provide recommended paddler weights for each boat size. When taking these recommendations into account, it’s important to remember that you’ll be wearing plenty of gear that, when wet, can add anywhere from 10 to 15 pounds of weight to your body.
It’s also common to fall between kayak sizes when observing the recommended paddler weight chart. As a rule of thumb, I always size up since a boat that is too small may sit too low in the water, making it sluggish and difficult to control.
Although this guide provides insight into choosing what type of kayak is right for you, it may still be difficult to select a specific boat from one of the above categories. If you have any additional questions don’t hesitate to contact one of our Gearheads who will definitely get you pointed downriver, whether it’s on a local creek or the trip of a lifetime in the Indian waters of the Himalayas.