Choosing a Whitewater Kayak

Choosing a Whitewater Kayak

When choosing a whitewater kayak there are multiple factors to consider. It takes some time to really understand which kind of boat will really suit us, so here we try to provide some general guidelines to consider.

Where are you going to kayak?

The rivers close to your home are the ones that you will probably visit the most, so it makes sense to take them into consideration when we are selecting a boat. Living close to big volume rivers with high water flows and good road access or paddling remote steep rocky creeks might direct you to different boat designs and sizes.

Which kind of paddling style you are looking at? You want your boat to perform like a tank that crashes obstacles on its way, or you want an agile design that will allow you to sneak around obstacles? Or maybe a little bit of both? You look at running steep, big drops, or you wish to keep on surfing a fast river wave, maybe throwing your boat in the air every now and then?

Many boats today are designed to be used in multiple terrains, even though each model will perform at best in its specific usage.

There are mainly three big categories of whitewater boats. Playboats, Riverrunners, and Creekboats.

Playboats are short kayaks, with low volume, planing hull, sharp edges, near vertical sidewalls, and they are designed to perform tricks and freestyle maneuvers in any kind of water (including flatwater or ocean waves). They are generally lightweight, easy to transport and store, they are designed for FUN! They will excel in river waves and holes, mostly in park-and-play spots but they can be used to run rivers. On the other hand they will have some limits for long distance paddling or multi-day trips in remote areas, because of the reduced legroom and loading capacity. They are generally paddled by experienced boaters  and perform well on moderate to big waters. They are also known as rodeo/freestyle boats.

River runners are designed to adapt to every kind of river and  for paddlers of all skill levels. They can take you from the local play spot to the big himalayan river, and they can also be used on some intermediate steep runs. They have decent legroom and medium-to-big volume, so they are comfortable also for extended river trips. They normally have a planing or semi-planing hull, they are extremely maneuverable, fast in acceleration and precise while carving in and out of eddies and great for punching big huge holes and making long ferries. There’s a sub-category of river runners called free runners, or river-play, which define kayaks combining river running and playboat features. They are medium length, medium-low volume boats, that can perform well in freestyle kayaking as well as in medium difficulty river runs. Both river runners and free runners are ideal to learn kayaking, but they also answer to the needs of the experienced paddler who knows exactly what he wants.

Creekboats respond to the extreme needs of steep, low volume river runs, pushy waters and highly technical rocky terrains. They are designed in order to land from high drops, resurface quickly, turn direction instantaneously but also feature forgiving displacement or semi-displacement hull . Safety features are emphasized on this category of boats, so that we find features like extra grab loops, reinforced padded bulkheads, reinforced bow and stern pillars for extra boat structural integrity in pin situations. They are generous in volume, in order to be always “on top of the water”, consequently they offer good legroom and a lot of extra space for long trips/multi-day. They are generally heavier than river runners.

Take a look to a chart summarizing the features of the 3 categories (courtesy of Dagger Kayaks)

Attributes Playboats River Runners Creeker Boats
Ideal type of Whitewater Moderate to high volume rivers with waves General whitewater, medium to high volume rivers Steep techinical water, rocky enviroment
Trip Duration Day trips, Day to multi-day Day to multi-day
Skill Levels Intermediate to Advance Novice to Advanced Intermediate to Advanced
Example Activities Surfing, vertical moves, aerial maneuvers, other freestyle moves Front-surfing, catching eddys, ferrying Boofing, navigate highly technical water, vertical drops

 Boat size: what is the right boat size for me?

After we are clear about the type of boat that we like we need choose the right size, which is equally important. In some occasion we can reach the extent of choosing a particular boat because it comes in a size that fits us perfectly. What is the right size? It depends on multiple factors. A starting point is always the manufacturer chart, that will suggest us the recommended weight span of the paddler for a particular boat size. Fine, but what if I am close to the lower or higher recommended weight? Or what if by the chart I can fit two models? Then we have to go back to the starting point: which kind of paddler do I am (or I want to be)?

We can refer to the general concepts popular among kayakers that we want to be in the smallest playboat that we can fit and the bigger creeker that we can paddle comfortably. And in a river runner we know that the less volume we have, the more we will be able to “play”, and the more volume we have, the more we will be comfortable in high, pushy waters and when we stay for long days inside the cockpit. But these are not fixed rules. We might love to creek in small boats or we might find that we can play better in a comfortable, big playboat. Those general concepts have to be considered along with our personal experience and our “comfort factor”. If I don’t feel good inside a boat, the fact that the manufacturer chart says that is perfect for my bodyweight won’t help me feel better. Moreover we should not forget that those calculations are based on general paddler’s structure. Our body structure may differ from the average, for example if we are tall and lean, despite what the recommended body weight says, we need enough legroom in the cockpit, and if we are short and relatively heavy “the book” might suggest a boat that is too big for us to handle.

Finally, if you are not too far from your local outfitter, demo, demo, demo! An hour spent inside a boat will tell you many, many things.

What else?

Well, of course, the don’t forget five essentials of whitewater kayaking:

  1. Kayak
  2. Paddle
  3. Spraydeck
  4. Helmet
  5. PFD

See you on the river !

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