Choosing a good whitewater kayak can seem overwhelming at times. There are a lot of different boat designs available and a lot of factors to consider when choosing a kayak. These factors include your size, weight, skill level and comfort. Deciding what kind of kayaking you want to do is important as well. It’s a lot of information to process! This article contains information that helps you sort through the information to make the right choice.
Let’s start with the basics. Compared with recreational kayaks, whitewater kayaks are short and small with smaller cockpits. Whitewater kayaks are designed to turn so that they can easily be maneuvered around obstacles in rapids. Some of them turn quicker and more easily than others. Whitewater kayaks are also designed to remain relatively stable in waves and current. Some are more stable than others. High performance, adjustable outfitting is important in whitewater boats to ensure a snug fit for maximum responsiveness to hip and knee movement.
A big part of choosing the right kayak is acknowledging your skill level and what kind of kayaking you want to do. Here’s a breakdown of the kinds of whitewater boats to choose from based on what kind of paddler you are.
If you’re a flatwater or easy-going river paddler who’s looking to cross over into some Class II whitewater then a hybrid rec/whitewater kayak will probably work for you. Models include the Dagger Approach and the Liquidlogic XP. These kayaks have the speed and stability of a flatwater kayak with the hull (the bottom) of a whitewater kayak to handle waves and current with stability and ease. They also have a large cockpit that doesn’t feel restrictive and are easy to exit out of if you flip over. They have a storage hatch and a drop-down skeg that are great for paddling on lakes. You can choose to use a sprayskirt over the cockpit or just paddle without one.
The hybrid rec/whitewater boats can even handle up to easy class III rapids if you’re feeling adventurous. Once you’ve decided to pursue pure whitewater on a full time basis then it’s time to move into a pure whitewater kayak for better control, safety and fun. Below are outlines of the different types of whitewater kayaks and what skill level they best suit.
Beginner whitewater paddlers who are focusing on feeling comfortable in Class II and working up to feeling comfortable on Class III want a kayak that’s stable, fast, is easy to learn to roll and comfortable. The category of kayaks that are great for this skill level are usually referred to as‘river runners.’ Good river runners for beginners include models like the Dagger Mamba and the Wavesport Diesel.
If you’re an intermediate paddler who enjoys paddling downstream on class III and some easy class IV and likes stability then a river runner is also a good choice. If you’re an intermediate paddler who wants a more playful river runner then a hybrid play/river runner is a nice way to go. These kayaks give the paddler an opportunity to practice basic playboating moves like stern squirts and surfing while maintaining stability, speed and ease of control for paddling through rapids.
Examples of hybrid play/river runners are the Dagger RX and the Dagger Axiom. You’ll notice that kayaks in this category can look very different from one another. Some, like the RX are shorter and smaller with ‘squished’ ends. This type of hybrid whitewater kayak is more playful and will handle more like a playboat than a river runner. This is the kayak you want if you’re not afraid of edgy boats and you want to go beyond tricks like the stern squirt and front surfing (if you don’t know what either of these tricks are then a regular river runner is probably just fine!)
Boats like the Axiom are long and stable like a river runner, but their shape makes them a bit edgier in the water and able to front surf better and perform tricks like stern squirts. A boat like this maintains good speed, stability and tracking like a river runner, with the ability for more play.
Playboats are for paddlers who’s main focus is freestyle kayaking. Surfing waves and holes and performing tricks. Playboats are very edgy and flip over easily in the current because they are designed to be very responsive. If you want to perform tricks like loops and blunts then you’ll want to look into playboats. If you have no idea what I’m talking about then stick with a river runner or hybrid! My favorite playboat is the Dagger Kingpin. Even though it’s an older model I feel like it’s still one of the best playboats out there.
Creekboats are for advanced paddlers who enjoy paddling difficult class IV and V low volume creeks and rivers. Important aspects of a creekboat are the ability to resurface quickly, stability and speed. Until you’re paddling class IV and V you don’t have to worry about this type of kayak. And when you’re ready, you’ll know what you’re looking for.
The type of boat you choose really depends on where you live and what type of river you’re going to paddle the most. For example, if there are no surfing waves or holes on your local river then there’s really no point in you investing in a playboat. If your local run is class III and you enjoy paddling downstream through the rapids and performing river running moves then a river running kayak is perfect for you. If you enjoy paddling downstream, but also want to front surf every wave you see then a hybrid may be most enjoyable. If you live on a river where there’s an amazing play feature in every rapid then you’ll probably get a lot out of a playboat.
To make the right decision it’s important for you to know the rivers in your area and know what you like. If you’re a beginner you don’t have to know this stuff right away. Pick the river runner that’s most comfortable for you and allow yourself to progress in it. As you spend more time on the water, you’ll discover what you enjoy and if you want to move into a different type of boat.
Most whitewater kayak models come in at least two sizes, if not more. This is important because you want to make sure that you have the right size boat for your height and weight. For women, a big consideration is the size of the seat where the hips fit. Comfort is an important part of choosing a kayak because you’ll be spending hours at a time in the boat. If you’re not comfortable it takes away from the experience.
Now, it’s also important to note that a river runner or creekboat is going to have more room in the legs and feet than a playboat. The design of the kayak will affect how comfortable it feels. Most freestyle paddlers are ok with squeezing into their playboats because they know the smaller size of the boat will help them perform more tricks.
In the past I’ve seen women who were put into whitewater kayaks that were too small or aggressive for them because they were marketed as a ‘woman’s boat.’ I watched these women struggle and lose confidence, not because their skills were poor, but because they were in a kayak that was too aggressive for them.
After they moved into a river running kayak more suitable for their size and ability their confidence and skills improved immediately. It’s important to do your research first and get a feel for the boat. Sit in the kayak on the showroom floor before buying or go out to your local outfitter’s demo days.
Ideally, if you’re a beginner, you’ll take a class from a reputable paddling school that will have a wide selection of kayaks that you can try during your course. This is not only a great way to find out if you like the sport, but it’s also a great way to try different kayaks to find the right fit for you. Now that we’ve gone over aspects of what kind of kayak to look for, let’s talk about how a whitewater kayak should fit.
The first time you sit in a whitewater kayak it may feel strange because you have to externally rotate your legs to fit under the thigh braces. It may even feel like you don’t fit. The truth is you just have to get use to the feel of sitting in this position. It’s easiest if you loosen all of the outfitting before sitting in a kayak for the first time. Loosen the back band, remove the hip pads and make sure that the feet are far enough forward for you to get your legs in.
In the proper seated position, your legs will be externally rotated with your thighs under the thigh braces. The balls of your feet will be pressing firmly against the bulk head, foot braces or foot foam and will also be externally rotated (heels towards one another). Your back band will feel tight enough to hold and support you in an upright position. The back band isn’t a backrest, it’s there to assist your abs in sitting up nice and straight.
There’s hip padding that you can add or subtract to get a snug, but comfortable feel. Some women prefer to paddle without hip pads because their hips fill out the seat nicely and they don’t need the extra snugness. Some women prefer that extra room for their hips. For smaller women the padding is very important as it keeps them from falling out of the kayak!
Different body shapes require different outfitting. The beauty of whitewater kayak outfitting is that everything is adjustable. The seats usually move, the feet braces move, the hip padding can be adjusted, the back band can be adjusted and the thigh braces on certain models can even be moved. You want your kayak to fit you like a comfortable glove.
I would like to put emphasis on the word comfortable. Even though it may feel strange at first to sit in a whitewater kayak, you shouldn’t feel any pain. If you’re feeling pain then you need to adjust something or you need to try a different size or a different boat altogether. It’s also important to be patient with yourself and with the kayak. It may take you a few outings before you get the outfitting just right for you. This is normal. After a day of paddling you may decide to move the feet or add hip padding. Take your time and don’t expect your kayak outfitting to fit perfectly right away.
In the end most important quality in a kayak is that it feels comfortable and fun to paddle. So, after considering your size, your skill level and the type of paddling you want to do make sure that the boat you choose feels good. Good luck and have fun out on the river! If you have more questions feel free to post a comment.