Choosing a kayak can be a daunting task. Because you're putting a significant chunk of change on the line, you want to make sure you understand what the different types of kayaks are and what you would use them for.
Previously we'd discussed recreational and touring kayaks. In part two of this series, we move onto whitewater kayaks.
Whitewater kayaks are the smallest of the three major types of kayak, and their own category as well. Whereas touring kayaks are long and meant for traveling long distances on open water, their whitewater counterparts are short (usually ten feet or less) and designed to change direction quickly in fast-moving water.
Think of it this way: while muscle is the main source of forward propulsion in a touring or rec kayak, a river’s current is what moves a whitewater kayak forward most of the time. The lengthwise banana shape of its underside—a design element known as “rocker”—minimizes the boat’s waterline, making it easier to maneuver over steep drops, through standing waves and whatever else the river puts in its way, says Eugene Buchanan, editor-in-chief of Paddling Life.
The flipside—pun intended—is that these boats are easier to capsize than touring or rec kayaks. Luckily, basic river running boats are also easier to right, or “Eskimo roll,” if they get tipped over. Because of this possibility, and because the water is “bigger,” you’ll want a spray skirt with your whitewater boat.
They are typically made from durable plastic that can withstand impact with rocks or the creek bottom.
There are three major types of whitewater kayak:
1. River Runners
The longest and most stable type of whitewater kayak, a river running kayak is a good first whitewater boat. With a slightly flatter bottom than a creek boat (see below), but not as short and low in the water as a play boat, a river runner will get you through moderate rapids and handle relatively well. Pictured is the Zen by Jackson Kayak.
2. Play Boats
It’s in the name: These short, stubby, flat-bottomed boats—like Dagger’s Jitsu, pictured above—are meant for playing and doing tricks in whitewater. Their resemblance to surfboards isn’t accidental, as play boaters will actually surf on standing waves.
3. Creek Boats
What advanced paddlers use to run narrow, shallow, fast-moving creeks with big rapids, creek boats sit higher in the water so as not to hit bottom. They also have more pronounced rocker to better handle the steep drops you encounter while “creeking.” The Pyranha Shiva (pictured) comes highly recommended by Canoe & Kayak.
A relatively new category, crossover kayaks are part whitewater kayak, part touring kayak. These are a good investment if you want to go on a multi-day river trip that may take you through a lake one day and sections of class 2 or 3 rapids the next.
A crossover kayak is “like an enlarged whitewater kayak with a hatch behind the seat for gear,” according to Buchanan. They typically have a retractable skeg in the back, he says, so you can have better tracking capabilities in flat water. “They’re good for a self-support trip down the Grand Canyon, when you’re carrying your own gear and you’re on a river with some waves—you wouldn’t want a sea kayak for that.”