From the thrill of paddling wild rivers to the satisfaction of successfully navigating a tight rapid, it’s no mystery why many paddlers consider whitewater kayaking to be the pinnacle of paddling. But to be honest, it can be just as satisfying to cruise a class II run with friends on the weekend, or spend a session at the local whitewater park. The sport is a blast for all levels, but one of the most important parts for enjoying it at any level is choosing a whitewater kayak.
Whitewater kayaks come in all sorts of types and shapes. There are kayaks built for the purpose of getting downstream, while others excel at catching a river wave and throwing aerial maneuvers.
The best whitewater kayak for you will be determined by your ability levels and how you plan to use your kayak on the river. In this article we’ll share advice on how to buy a whitewater kayak, and which are the best whitewater kayaks of the year.
Top picks: Best whitewater kayaks for 2023
Best Whitewater Kayaks
Mamba Creeker 8.6
MAMBA 7.6 CREEK ASTRAL
MAMBA 8.1 CREEK ASTRAL
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The Paddling Buyer’s Guide is your resource for every whitewater kayak on the market. In the buyer’s guide you’ll find reviews specifications, prices and where to buy each model of whitewater kayak. To streamline your search we’ve taken the buyer’s guide and provided links to filtered results, so you can view kayaks by type, brand and even material.
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Best whitewater kayaks
Interested in buying a whitewater kayak, but aren’t sure what kind you need? Below you’ll find our articles about more specific types of whitewater kayaks. You’ll learn what the boat is used for and what to consider when buying, as well as get a rundown of some of the top models.
Shopping for a used whitewater kayak?
A used whitewater kayak can be a great way to find a deal, or locate a boat currently unavailable at your local paddle shop. But when shopping for second-hand whitewater kayaks you have to think the same way you would when looking at used cars.
Here are a few tips to follow when kicking the tires to help you buy a kayak used.
Be cautious of great deals on older boats
If you are new to the sport and think you have found a great deal while scanning whitewater kayaks on Craigslist, first look up the kayak model and see when it was made and what it was used for. Share the listing with an experienced paddling friend or your kayak instructor, and ask the seller questions about how they used it.
Excited whitewater rookies jump on deals for $200 kayaks, but we’ve learned a lot about kayak design, and outfitting since the turn of the century. Sure the Wavesport XXX is having a resurgence with the slicey kayak comeback tour, but having a paper-thin bow and stern and an excruciating seating position can be a tough set up for learning.
An 8- to 9-foot river runner built within the last 10 years is a great starting place. Expand your search from here to find the right size. Brands often have whitewater kayak sizing guides for recent models available on their website.
Ask how and where the kayak was used
Whitewater kayaks see more wear and tear than any other type of kayak. A kayak paddled often on some rocky, shallow class III gets grated more than a block of parmesan over pasta. Take the kayak’s use into consideration when looking at the posted price.
Inspect the kayak carefully
Look for cracks or deep gouges in the kayak. A crack on the hull or around a screw hole compromises the kayak’s integrity and might leak. Cracked whitewater kayaks should be avoided.
Also, look for oil canning, which occurs from long-term sun exposure, or storing the kayak flat on its bottom for long periods of time. The rotomolded plastic warps, and creates a divot on the bottom of the kayak. This divot makes for a less efficient hull, and marks a kayak’s road to deterioration.
The only way you’ll know for sure if this is the best whitewater kayak for you is to get it on the water. Ask the seller if you can take it for a demo. Flatwater may suffice, but try to meet the seller at a river with a few eddies or a whitewater park. Be sure you’ve packed a paddle, helmet and PFD if they aren’t included in the deal.
For more tips on what to look for when selecting a used kayak, read our article How To Buy A Used Kayak.
Whitewater kayak buying guide
Maybe you’re getting into whitewater kayaking and it’s time to take the plunge by buying your own boat, or you already have a boat but are looking 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 and thoughts from paddle shop owners in this whitewater kayak buying guide will help you through the process so you can find the best whitewater kayak for you. Just make sure that before you lay down your cash, you’ve taken it out for a test drive.
What to know before buying a whitewater kayak
Buy the whitewater kayak that suits your skill level now, not where you hope it is two years from 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.” If the boat is too advanced, it will frustrate your development of the fundamentals.
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:
“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 stable downriver rides great for carving in and out of eddies, and their planing hulls allow for on-the-go play like surfing and flat-spins.
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.
Both river runners and creek boats also make some of the best whitewater kayaks for beginners.
“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 flatwater, they can bring extra enjoyment to nearby runs that aren’t otherwise challenging, since they perform well on high- or low-volume play features.
Half-slice kayaks are a type of whitewater kayak enjoying a recent resurgence in popularity. Half-slice kayaks take a kayak like a river runner, and turn it into a more playful kayak by cutting down the volume. A half-slice kayak has a similar bow to a river runner, but the stern is squashed to a low volume.
This allows the paddler to sink the stern under the water for moves such as squirts, splats, and pivots. Half-slice kayaks also have crisp rails for carving waves. They excel at allowing paddlers to perform maneuvers as they paddle downstream.
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, making them 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.
There are also sit-on-top kayaks designed for whitewater. Whitewater sit-on-tops are a great way to introduce someone to the sport without them being enclosed in a kayak cockpit. Rather than having to learn to roll, when a sit-on-top capsizes the paddler can just climb back on.
Sit-on-tops are best-suited to intermediate or easier whitewater, such as class II or class III. Not just any sit-on-top will work best. There are a few models built specifically for this use, which also include thigh straps to help paddlers stay in the boat and control it. Refer to the segment below for more info on how a whitewater kayak and recreational kayak differ.
Inflatable kayaks, which are also called IK’s or duckies, are inflatable sit-on-top kayaks made of materials such as PVC, similar to a whitewater raft. They are durable and forgiving. They can bounce their way down a river and are difficult to capsize. Like a sit-on-top, inflatable kayaks are a great way to introduce paddlers to whitewater.
What do you want your whitewater kayak to include?
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.
Length = speed. The longer a boat—more specifically the longer the waterline—the faster it’ll be.
If you find yourself on the cusp of the weight range between boat sizes, always size up, advises Bush. A slightly larger ride means more stability. “If it’s not comfortable, 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
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.”
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. These make it easier to store gear.
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.
Where to buy a whitewater kayak
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.
Ultimately though, you should try it before you buy it. Your nearest paddling shop is the best place to test kayaks and ask questions.
Speaking of questions, here are some discussions around some of those most commonly asked for whitewater kayaks.
What is a whitewater kayak?
A whitewater kayak is a kayak designed for navigating rivers with strong current and volatile water. Whitewater kayaks come in many different styles. They are largely sit-inside kayaks, but there are also a few sit-on-top kayak designs for whitewater.
Whitewater kayaks are generally shorter than most other types of kayaks. The majority of whitewater kayaks produced today are less than 10 feet long. Whitewater kayaks have smooth hulls which are more maneuverable than a recreational or touring kayak which often have keels and skegs.
Whitewater kayaks also tend to have blunted ends, and rocker in the profile. Rocker is the curved shape of the kayak from bow to stern. Rocker releases the ends of the kayak from the water so it’s easier to turn, carve and spin. Rocker also gives a whitewater kayak the ability to ride over difficult river features like drops and holes.
What kind of kayak is best for whitewater?
The best kind of kayak for strong currents and moving water is referred to as a whitewater kayak. Whitewater kayak designs can vary depending on how you intend to use your kayak. For most beginning whitewater kayakers it is best to start in what are called creek boats or river runners. These types of whitewater kayaks feature more volume for buoyancy and stability.
Whitewater canoe vs kayak
In a whitewater canoe the paddler is kneeling and using a single-bladed paddle. In a kayak the paddler is seated and using a double-bladed paddle. Canoeists will often take whitewater kayak hulls and re-outfit them for use as a whitewater canoe with a saddle, skirt and canoe paddle. This is referred to as a C1.
Whitewater kayak vs recreational
Whitewater kayaks are meant for maneuverability and safety in moving water. Whitewater kayaks feature a smooth bottom and blunted, uplifted ends, allowing the kayak to turn quickly and go over potentially troubling features.
A whitewater kayak also has safety features including vertical pillars to keep the kayak from collapsing, and a relatively small cockpit opening for sit-inside kayaks. This small cockpit opening allows the cockpit to be covered with a tight-fitting neoprene sprayskirt.
A recreational kayak is built for comfort and stability on flat and slow-moving waterways. Recreational kayaks feature a wide hull which turns more gradually. Recreational kayaks also feature a keel which keeps the kayak traveling in a straight line, but decreases maneuverability.
A sit-inside recreational kayak may or may not have vertical bulkheads, and the sit-inside kayaks feature a large cockpit opening to make entering and exiting the kayak easier.
Sea kayak vs whitewater kayak
Sea kayaks have elongated hulls, with keels and often skegs and rudders. They are designed for traveling in straight lines on open waterways. A sea kayak is regularly between 14 to 18 feet long.
A whitewater kayak has a shorter, often wider hull with a smooth bottom. Whitewater kayaks are made for agile, quick maneuvering on whitewater. Whitewater kayaks are used on fast-moving rivers. Their ability to turn quickly also means they do not travel in a straight line well, and require correctional strokes, which can feel like a lot of work on flatwater.
Types of whitewater kayaks
There are various styles of whitewater kayaks available. Some of the most popular types of whitewater kayaks are river runners, creek boats, freestyle kayaks, half-slice kayaks, crossovers, sit-on-tops and inflatable kayaks. For more detailed info on choosing a whitewater kayak type, please read the Kayak Type section in the buying advice above.
Parts of a whitewater kayak
The parts of a whitewater kayak include:
Hull – the bottom of the kayak
Deck – top of the kayak
Bow – the front end or nose of the kayak
Stern – the back end or tail of the kayak
Rail – area where the side of the kayak meets the bottom
Cockpit – the hole in the kayak where the paddler slides into and is seated
Cockpit rim – the ridge around the cockpit where the paddler’s sprayskirt attaches
Grab loop – Fabric or metal handles on the outside of the kayak
Rocker – the lengthwise curvature of a kayak’s hull
Seat – interior seat within the cockpit
Backband – the backstrap behind the seat to help with upright posture and contact
Thigh/knee brace – Where your thighs and knees make contact with the kayak
Hip pad – foam shims to establish contact between your hips and the side of the seat
Foot braces – Where your feet make contact with the kayak, sometimes a block
Bulkhead – vertical pillars within the kayak
Whitewater kayak design
Whitewater kayak design is specifically geared toward the demands of navigating whitewater. Whitewater kayaks are short, usually less than 10 feet long. They have smooth hulls without keels. Whitewater kayaks also have rocker, which is the curvature of the kayak from bow to stern.
These elements allow a whitewater kayak to be agile and stable in the fast, dynamic elements of a whitewater river.
Whitewater kayak sizes
Whitewater kayak sizes may be listed in different ways, for example small, medium and large. Just like a pair of jeans, sizes tend to be within a consistent range, but are ultimately arbitrary compared to objective measurements.
Volume is a much more precise way to measure the size of a whitewater kayak. Note that volume ratings need to be viewed through the lens of intended use. For example, a creek boat that has 90 gallons of volume, and a freestyle kayak which has 60 gallons may both be listed as medium. This is because they have different applications and a creek boat needs more volume to be effective at what it’s supposed to do.
The best way to know which kayak size you need would be to refer to a brand’s whitewater kayak size guide, and to try out different sizes.
How long should my whitewater kayak be?
The length of a whitewater kayak will vary based on how you plan to use it. Most whitewater kayaks are less than 10 feet long. If you are new to the sport a river runner kayak between 8 to 9 feet would be a good starting point.
Whitewater kayak weight limit
The maximum weight for a whitewater kayak will vary with each model and size. Check the specifications for the specific kayak model you are interested in, as well as the brand’s whitewater kayak size guide.
Whitewater kayak manufacturers
There are many whitewater kayak manufacturers available. Some popular brands are Jackson, Riot, Pyranha, Dagger, Wave Sport and Liquidlogic. For a complete rundown of manufacturers visit the Paddling Buyer’s Guide.
How much does a whitewater kayak cost?
Whitewater kayak cost varies. Expect to spend between $1,000 to $1,500 USD to buy a whitewater kayak new.
Can you use a whitewater kayak on a lake?
Technically, you could use a whitewater kayak on a lake or other flat water, though they aren’t as efficient (read: fun and fast) as a recreational or touring kayak would be.
Whitewater kayaks, especially planing hulls, are slow and plow through the water. Also, the same attributes which make them turn easily in rapids mean they do not want to travel straight (track). This makes paddling a whitewater kayak on a lake laborious.
Can you use a whitewater kayak in the ocean?
Just as on a lake, technically you could use a whitewater kayak in the ocean. But depending how and why you are paddling it, it may, or may not, be effective and fun.
If you are trying to paddle point-to-point on the ocean a whitewater kayak which is slow, and does not track well, will struggle in headwinds and tidal currents. This can even become a dangerous situation if you are unable to make headway.
One place where a whitewater kayak in the ocean can be fun is in the surf zone. The breaking waves and dynamic current here are where a whitewater kayak shines. A whitewater kayak makes a reasonable substitute if you do not own a surf kayak, which you can read about in our article of the best surf kayaks.
Can you use a whitewater kayak on flatwater?
A whitewater kayak can be used on flatwater but it isn’t very fun or efficient. The same attributes which make whitewater kayaks turn easily in rapids means they do not want to travel straight (track). This makes paddling a whitewater kayak on a flatwater a labor.
Are whitewater kayaks stable?
Whitewater kayaks are stable in a different sense than recreational kayaks. Recreational kayaks are stable when sitting flat, thanks to their wide hulls. This is called initial or primary stability.
Whitewater kayaks tend to have great secondary stability. This is how stable a kayak feels when it is tilted to one side or another. Secondary stability feels odd to new paddlers, but is valuable in rapids.
Fastest whitewater kayak
The fastest whitewater kayaks are racing kayaks known as wildwater kayaks. Wildwater kayaks are just under 15 feet long and built of composite materials.
Some of the fastest kayaks are called long boats, which are elongated versions of river runners and creek boats. These kayaks are around 12 feet long.
Lightest whitewater kayak
The lightest whitewater kayaks are those constructed of composite materials such as carbon and Kevlar. These are usually specialty kayaks for racing, though it is becoming more common to see composite freestyle kayaks for uses such as freestyle.
Most stable whitewater kayak
The most stable whitewater kayaks for beginning paddlers tend to be river runners and creek boats. These kayaks have high volume and generally softer rails to provide increased secondary stability.
Most expensive whitewater kayak
The most expensive whitewater kayaks will be composite kayaks such as carbon freestyle kayaks or slalom kayaks used for racing. These expensive whitewater kayaks will cost around $2,000 USD.
Whitewater kayak reviews
Read our expert reviews of a range of whitewater kayaks, which go over on-the-water performance, brand background, as well as specifications, comfort and comparable models.
- Whitewater Kayak Review: Zet Chili
- Whitewater Kayak Review: Jackson Antix 2.0
- Inflatable Kayak Review: Sevylor Colorado
- Whitewater Kayak Review: Dagger Rewind
- Inflatable Kayak Review: Sea Eagle 370
- Boat Review: WaveSport ACE Kayak
- Boat Review: Dagger Crazy 88 Kayak
- Boat Review: Dagger Super Ego Kayak
- Boat Review: Pyranha Varun Kayak
- Boat Review: LiquidLogic CR125 and CR250 Kayaks