So, you want to buy a whitewater kayak. There are several Things to Consider When Buying Your Next Whitewater Kayak and our team has broken down some important options you’ll be weighing.
Even though whitewater kayaking is a small industry, the number of boat choices on the market can feel overwhelming. Luckily, no kayak manufacturer CKS Online carries makes a bad kayak. But, some kayaks will be better or worse for beginners, and choosing appropriately will dramatically better your experience starting out and how you quickly improve.
We will cover the following so you can decide what kayak is best for you!
- Common Features and Kayak Terms Used
- Whitewater Kayak Types
- Your goals and learning style
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- Common terms to understand when buying a kayak
- Types of kayaks
- Goals and learning style
- What boat is best for me?
- CKS Online’s Top Choice(s)
- What else do I need to start kayaking?
Common terms to understand when buying a kayak
Outfitting is the stuff inside the boat that holds you in and makes you more comfortable.
Your seat, backband, thigh hooks, and bulkhead (foot brace) are the main points that hold you into your kayak. Any new kayak will come with a variety of pads to help you make your outfitting fit you well.
While every company makes high quality adjustable outfitting, many seasoned paddlers will have preferences on specific outfitting based on what feels best to them.
Read our blog our Making Any Kayak More Comfortable Here
Where the kayak transitions from the bottom (hull) to the side is referred to as the edge of the kayak.
In water, the edge sits just below the kayak’s waterline and plays a large role in how your kayak interacts with the water. Kayaks can have sharp edges that cut into the water, or soft edges that are more curved and forgiving. Sharp edges allow you to carve across current better, but are less forgiving and allow you to flip easier if your technique is off.
Rocker is how much curve the hull of your kayak has from front to back (bow to stern).
Rocker helps get the bow of your kayak up and over waves. A banana shaped kayak has a high rocker, while a flat kayak has a low rocker. Many modern designs have rocker in the bow and stern, and a flatter section in the middle of the boat.
Kayaks traditionally have one of two hull types: Displacement hull or planing hull.
Displacement hull kayak
Planing hull kayak
Some kayaks still offer a displacement hull or a hybrid of the two because displacement hulls are more forgiving and offer advantages in shallow, rocky rapids.
A perfect example of this would be the Jackson Kayak Gnarvana.
Most boats come in different sizes of the same design.
When you look at the specs for a kayak, the manufacturer always provides a weight range so paddlers can choose the right size based on their weight.
The volume of a kayak can give you another insight into the size of the boat. While comparing volume is helpful when determining the relative size of a boat, often the way the volume is distributed can have more of an impact.
Length + Width
Manufacturers also publish a width and and length for all kayaks. Wider kayaks are often more stable than narrower kayaks, and shorter kayaks are easier to turn but also slower than longer kayaks.
Types of kayaks
Historically, whitewater kayaks have been split into three categories:
Lately, the term “river runner” is falling out of style, and new designs referred to as “half-slice kayaks” have taken their place in most kayak manufacturer’s line-up.
Creek Boats (Creekers)
Creek Boats are the most forgiving kayaks and are often designed to make hard rapids feel easier. Large volume and softer edges make creek boats perfect for running the steepest, toughest rapids.
They are also a great choice for a beginner who wants to accelerate the learning curve so that they can start feeling comfortable in a kayak as quickly as possible. While a creek boat won’t help quite as much to dial in your technique, a creek boat will help keep you upright and will make rapids that are challenging in other boats feel easier.
One recent trend in creek boats has been to make longer, faster kayaks designed for racing. These designs are usually 9 feet long and are less stable, but faster than traditional creek boats that are usually in the 8’ to 8’10” range.
Playboats are the opposite of a creek boat in most ways. These designs are low volume with very sharp edges. These designs make rapids harder but allow you to do tricks as you run rapids or surf waves along the river.
Playboats often come in two styles: Competition Style + Slice Style.
For many people, a playboat isn’t the best choice for a first kayak because these designs are tough to paddle and lack stability. While it is hard to learn in a playboat, it is not impossible.
For a motivated beginner who doesn’t mind “falling on their face” MANY times, learning in a playboat will ultimately dial in technique and promote habits that will make for a stronger paddler in the long run.
For many kayakers starting out in a playboat, it can take 5 or more days on the water to feel comfortable enough to truly enjoy paddling, while other boats might offer you the same comfort during day one or two.
A half-slice kayak has a high volume bow similar to a creek boat, but a low volume stern similar to a playboat. This combination offers playful feel while maintaining stout downriver performance.
Half-slice boats are usually as long as creek boats and have sharp edges allowing kayakers to carve across current. They are really popular because they feel fun and sporty on almost any river, yet still perform in difficult rapids.
The volume in the front keeps your bow up above waves while the low-volume, “slicey” tail lets you pivot the boat quickly and do tricks such as stern stalls.
For many beginners, a half-slice can make a great first kayak as the sharper edges promote good technique while the high volume bow and longer design provide enough stability to prevent people from becoming too discouraged as they learn.
Goals and learning style
The first step to buying a kayak is determining your whitewater kayaking goals.
A paddler who is ready to get on the river 5 days a week, year round will be looking for a very different boat than someone who is looking to get out once or twice a month as they learn.
If you’re wondering, “Is whitewater kayaking is hard?”, there is no sugarcoating the fact that kayaking can be a difficult sport to learn. The first few days in a boat can often be just as frustrating as they are rewarding.
Consider what you want
What boat is best for me?
Over the years, kayaks such as the Liquid Logic Alpha, Pyranha Scorch and the Jackson Zen (first, second generation and third) have all been top choices for beginners, because these designs offer stable and forgiving kayaks that make paddling feel easier.
Recently, newer designs such as the Dagger Code and Jackson Gnarvana have become the go-to options for beginners looking for a creek boat that will take care of them.
With half-slice boats becoming more popular, beginners are often choosing these kayaks because they are better for learning skills such as edge control and they remain a fun choice as kayakers progress to expert-level kayaking.
Kayaks like the Dagger Rewind and Pyranha Ripper 2 are loved by experts and beginners alike as they offer a great combination of features to make paddling fun without making it too difficult.
While a little smaller, the Jackson Antix 2.0 also fits the bill and is a great choice for an enthusiastic beginner.
While playboats aren’t a good choice for most people, those who are willing to be patient and fall a lot before they succeed are rewarded with strong technical skills.
The Dagger Nova and the Pyranha Ozone are good full slice boats for a highly motivated beginner looking to learn technical skills early on in their paddling.
High performance playboats such as the Jackson Rockstar V and the Pyranha Jed are often reserved for paddlers specifically looking to train for freestyle.
CKS Online’s Top Choice(s)
For the casual paddler, we recommend either the Pyranha Scorch or Jackson Gnarvana. Both of these creek boats promote stability and let you enjoy paddling without too steep of a learning curve.
For the paddler looking to dial in their skills with the goal or running harder rapids, the Liquid Logic Party Braaap, Dagger Rewind, and Pyranha Ripper 2 are our top picks.
For shallow rivers and creeks, the soft edges of the Braaap are a little more forgiving, and while the Rewind is slightly wider and more stable than the Ripper, the narrower hull of the Ripper makes it one of the best all around kayaks and great for building skills.
The Jackson Antix 2.0 is another popular choice for motivated beginners and while it is a little shorter than the rest, the playful design is extremely fun as you progress from a beginner to intermediate paddler. Jackson Kayaks are also infamously easy to roll, and the Antix 2.0 is no exception.
What else do I need to start kayaking?
Paddlers often refer to the 5 essentials
- PFD (personal flotation device or lifejacket)
- Spray skirt
These 5 pieces of gear are the minimum you need to get out on the river.
Additionally, solid shoes and warm layers are essential for beginners who may spend some time in the water before they dial in their paddling.
Finally, we always recommend getting float bags to go in the back of your boat – if you take a swim out of your kayak, this will keep your kayak floating. Float bags also make rescuing your boat easier and will help keep if from being damaged by rocks on the bottom of the river.