Maybe you’re getting into whitewater kayaking and it’s time to take the plunge into buying your own boat, or you already have a boat but it’s just time for a change. Either way, for veteran paddlers and beginners, knowing how to buy a whitewater kayak has its challenges.
What type of boat should you get? What size? Where should you look? The following suggestions from Darren Bush in this whitewater kayak buying guide will help you through the process so you can find the boat that works best for you. Just make sure that before you throw down your cold, hard cash, you’ve taken it out for a test drive.
What to know before buying a whitewater kayak
1. Buy the kayak that suits your skill level NOW. “It’s often a good idea to buy a boat that is just slightly more advanced than you can handle so you improve your skills,” says Darren Bush, owner of Rutabaga Paddle Sports, “but with whitewater, especially playboats, I don’t recommend that strategy.
Usually, you’ll know when you grow out of a boat because it won’t do things you want it to do, which is better than it doing things you don’t want it to do.”
Where to buy a whitewater kayak
2. The internet is a resource-rich place for prospective buyers, but Google hasn’t yet figured out how to simulate the feeling of a boat on the water. The Paddling Buyer’s Guide is a great place to start. Try it before you buy it.
3. So you tried your buddy’s boat and want one just like it? Look into boats of a similar style to find one that suits your body type and paddling style.
Bush recommends his customers try three kayaks to compare similar boats—less than that, you may not have explored all your options, but trying too many can leave you overwhelmed by too many variables.
What do you want your kayak to include?
4. Kayaks with displacement hulls have relatively continuous curves front to back and side to side, which helps them move forward through the water efficiently. Flat-bottomed planing hulls can be harder to keep tracking straight but are great for surf and play moves.
5. Length = speed. The longer a boat—more specifically the longer the waterline—the faster it’ll be.
6. If you find yourself on the cusp of the weighing range between boat sizes, always size up, advises Bush. A slightly larger ride means more stability. “If it’s not comfy, it’ll collect dust.”
Simon Coward, the owner of Aquabatics, adds that many people step on the scale without considering what their gear weighs. “Put on your layers, PFD and helmet, and throw in some rescue gear, lunch, and a water bottle, and you’ve easily added 10 pounds,” he says.
Kayak accessories and outfitting
7. It’s what’s inside that counts. Don’t underestimate the importance of outfitting. The more time you spend in your boat, the more any outfitting issues will nag.
Bush recommends spending time in it before you buy it. “Sit in it, even just on the store floor,” he says. “Are your legs going to sleep? Adjust it and sit for a while longer.”
9. If you want to go on overnight missions consider three things: How much stuff you need to fit inside, how easy it is to access your gear and how your boat will perform once loaded.
Some kayaks have removable rear pillars, clever backband releases and lash points behind the seat.
10. Consider whether your skirt will be compatible with your kayak’s cockpit size and rim, or if you’ll need to invest in a new one. You should always be able to get it on and, most importantly, off by yourself.
Know the types of whitewater kayaks
Simon Coward, the owner of shop and kayak school Aquabatics, helps us break down the differences in boat design:
11. “River running kayaks are for people looking to improve their technical paddling skills on rivers where there are moves to be made but that aren’t super technical,” says Coward. These boats are a stable downriver ride great for carving in and out of eddies, and their planning hulls allow for an on-the-go play like surfing and flat-spins.
12. Creek boats are high-volume kayaks ideal for low-volume rivers. Their volume will take weekend warriors down rivers with confidence, and can also handle extreme maneuvers like boofs and drops.
“They’re great for steep, rocky runs requiring technical maneuvers,” says Coward. Creekers have displacement hulls and ample rocker to roll up and over obstacles and make tight turns a breeze.
13. “Freestyle kayaks are short boats with a high concentration of volume in the bow,” says Coward. You want a freestyle kayak if you live near park ‘n’ play spots, or river runs with hit-on-the-fly waves and holes.
Though these boats don’t track well on flat water, they can bring extra enjoyment to nearby runs that aren’t otherwise challenging, since they perform well on high- or low-volume play features.
14. Crossover boats are all the rage right now. These long, high-volume boats are stable and confidence-inspiring for beginners. They generally include a retractable skeg for smooth flatwater use, equally able to take you down a river or to a remote fishing or climbing spot. Coward and his team at Aquabatics have also tested them off drops and down class V rapids to prove they can handle the hardcore, too.
Best whitewater kayak brands
When starting your search, look among some of the top brands producing whitewater boats today:
Down the river we go, one or two kayaks at a time. Feature Photo: John Webster