How to Choose a Whitewater Kayak?

Whitewater Kayak

Whitewater Kayak

Abigail Scott

Abigail Scott
Mother, Professional Kayaker, and Software Engineer

Updated on 12/6/2022

Whitewater kayaking is a physically demanding sport. It necessitates a high level of expertise, attention, and a thorough understanding of water dynamics and a strong ability to manage stress and terror. Despite paddling's difficulty and inherent danger, it's easy to become addicted to this adrenaline-fueled sport after just a few sessions in the water (or, in my case, simply watching a few kayaking movies).

Choosing the finest whitewater kayak for you can be a difficult endeavor, whether you've been borrowing your buddy's extra kayak to run Class V whitewater kayak or you're just learning how to roll a kayak. Your kayak is the first piece of your kayaking equipment.

To address the burning question, "What size kayak do I need?" the following whitewater kayak buying guide examines all sorts of whitewater kayaks, major design elements, and different kayak sizes (including an informal kayak length chart).

Features of Hull Design and Terminology

Before I go into detail about each style of whitewater kayak, I'd like to go over a few key terms and design elements, as well as how these features effect performance.

Boof: A unique paddle stroke combined with a forward hip push that propels the paddler over obstacles and successfully elevates the kayak's bow while navigating dips, cliffs, and waterfalls.

Primary Stability: In flat water, primary stability refers to the kayak's ability to stay upright and level. While resting flat, a kayak with good primary stability will not feel "tippy."

Secondary Stability: When the kayak is positioned on its edge (at an angle) in the water, secondary stability comes into play. Even when the paddler leans past the point of primary stability, a kayak with high secondary stability will desire to stay upright.

Hulls with flat bottoms are known as planing hulls. Instead of pushing through the water, the flat surface allows the kayak to glide across it. Because of their flat-bottom construction, planing hulls have the best primary (upright) stability.

Displacement Hull: Unlike planing hulls, displacement hulls have a completely or semi-curved bottom that pushes through the water instead of skimming over it. Because of the rounded form of the bottom, displacement hulls offer more secondary stability than planing hulls, but less primary stability.

Kayaks are measured by their volume. Whitewater kayaks may hold anything from 45 to 95 gallons of water. Larger paddlers and those paddling vast water or plunging waterfalls can benefit from high-volume kayaks, which sit higher in the water and reemerge faster than smaller kayaks.

Chines: The edges of the kayak that go below the water line in varied degrees from bow to stern are known as chine. The harder (sharper) the chines, the simpler it is to lean the kayak onto its edge and perform swift, powerful spins. In currents, however, these acute chines can be particularly "catchy" if the paddler underestimates the amount of leaning required to steer the kayak, forcing the paddler to brace to avoid a roll.

Softer chines are more forgiving but less sensitive when leaning into a turn. As a result, less defined edges demand a little more paddle work to get pointed in the right direction. Although softer chines appear to be less responsive than sharp-edged kayaks, they excel in shallower water with numerous rock obstacles.

The curvature of the kayak that elevates the bow and stern out of the water is known as the rocker.

Although the amount of rocker on the bow and stern varies greatly from kayak to kayak, generalizations about what a specific amount of rocker will do to a kayak's handling characteristics may be made:

  • More bow rocker: Helps keep the bow above water while landing from a dive and allows the kayak to ride over heavy waves.
  • Less bow rocker: This allows the kayak to punch through heavy waves, but it can also bury the bow when landing from a drop.
  • More stern rocker: Makes boofing off of drops simpler.
  • Less stern rocker: Improves the kayak's speed and tracking while reducing boofing.

A kayak with a noticeable bow and stern rocker will give significant agility despite its length, but a kayak with less overall bow and stern rocker will travel faster downriver.

Types of Whitewater Kayaks (Whitewater Kayak Buying Guide)

Play Boats

Play boats are the smallest whitewater kayaks in the fleet, and they're meant to surf waves and do aerial and surface feats like cartwheels and flips. They're around six feet long and have a stubby, planing hull with variable degrees of beveled chines connecting the side to the bottom of the kayak.

Both the bow and stern of playboats have the least degree of rocker. This lets the paddler to perform feats like pop-ups and squirts by purposely stuffing the kayak's ends below.

Play boats' ability to skim carelessly over the surface of the water is due to their flat bottom and noticeable edge design. These qualities are essential for freestyle/playboating since they help you stay in the wave and provide the most primary stability.

Despite this primary stability, the steeper edges of play boats limit secondary stability - there is a noticeable flipping point on these kayaks, and unless you brace with your paddle, your head will get soaked. Furthermore, hard chines demand skill edging the kayak in currents — if you don't activate the kayak's edges effectively, they can swiftly snag and flip you. If you choose a play boat as your first kayak, spend some time on a calm river with eddies and modest surf holes to familiarize yourself with its handling qualities.

River Runners

River runners are all about speeding down different rivers. These are the whitewater world's most versatile "all-mountain" kayaks. River runners are shaped like a hybrid between play boats and creekers, with a semi-planing hull that provides good primary and secondary stability.

A river runner is a great beginner whitewater kayak for paddlers who will be running a variety of rivers at different flows and who want a kayak that will grow with them as they progress. It has softer chines, a higher volume, and a longer running length for increased tracking, quick resurfacing, and forgiveness.

Creekers 

Creekers are the largest kayaks in any kayak size chart. These hefty displacement hulls are often in the 65- to 90-gallon range and include extensive rocker in both the bow and stern to charge hard over big, foamy rapids, drop waterfalls, and negotiate in narrow, very technical rivers with many hazards. This rocker allows the kayak to turn fast despite its length, allowing it to do precise maneuvers such as eddy spins and boofing over ledges and waterfalls. Furthermore, the water-displacing design reduces the paddler's impact force while landing from a drop.

When packing for a multi-day kayak journey, the huge volume helps a stream kayak to emerge fast once submerged and provides a lot of storage space; you can put stuff like a tent, food, and other camping needs below the seat.

Creek kayaks are the Cadillac of the kayaking world, but they're not for everyone. Although creek kayaks' soft chines increase secondary stability, the rounded bottom compromises primary stability, making creekers feel "tippy." For beginners, they may not be the greatest whitewater kayak.

They lack the playfulness of river runners and toy kayaks in smaller water because they are so enormous. Unless you plan on running drops and huge water or going on overnighters in the near future, I wouldn't advocate getting a creeker.

Long Craft

These kayaks may be up to twelve feet long and are extremely swift downriver. Along with speed, the length, when combined with a significant degree of bow rocker, provides additional volume and exceptional maneuverability, making long kayaks excellent creekers and multi-day kayaks. Longboats are a wonderful option for anyone interested in a river runner on the longer side, or anyone interested in racing, as these kayaks can run pretty much any river, from Class II wave trains to Class V steep creeks.

How to Shop Whitewater Kayaks

The type of whitewater you like to paddle is the most crucial consideration when purchasing a new kayak. Rivers come in different shapes and sizes, from meandering rivers with class II surf to highly stony creeks with waterfalls. It's crucial to think about the types of rivers you want to paddle or have access to. Unless you have the time and money to go, your physical location can play a big role. Do you live in an area with a large variety of fast-moving Class IV-V steep streams, or are you limited to calm rivers with only a few Class II-III wave trains and holes?

If your neighborhood just has tiny rivers with waves and play holes, a play boat or river-runner may be the ideal option. Similarly, if you live near steep streams with big water and drops, a river-runner, long kayak, or creeker may be your best option. It's important to remember that these are merely suggestions for whitewater kayaks to consider– I've paddled with lots of people who use play boats to run drops and forceful big water. Once you've decided on a kayak, ensure you have all the necessary equipment for a river trip.

Size

It's just as vital to pick the right kayak size as it is to pick the right kayak type. All kayak manufacturers suggest paddler weights for each kayak size. When considering these suggestions, keep in mind that you'll be wearing a lot of gear, which can add anywhere from 10 to 15 pounds of weight to your body when wet.

When following the appropriate paddler weight chart, it's also usual to fall between kayak sizes. I always size up as a matter of thumb since a kayak that is too tiny will sit too low in the water, making it sluggish and difficult to steer.

Although this information will help you decide which sort of kayak is best for you, picking a specific kayak from one of the above categories might be tough. If you have any additional queries, don't hesitate to contact one of our Gearheads, who will gladly lead you downriver, whether a local creek or a once-in-a-lifetime excursion through the Indian Himalayan waters.

Frequently Asked Questions