When it comes to whitewater kayaking, there’s a lot to learn before hopping in and tackling a class V rapid. If you’re new to the sport, you’ll first need to learn the distinctions between the various types of whitewater kayaks for beginners, and how to find the ideal one to suit your kayaking style.
One of the great things about whitewater kayaks for beginners is that they’re not only good for newbies. Intermediate and advanced kayakers can still have a great time in these boats – so you won’t outgrow them as you gain valuable experience.
Whether you’re looking for a maneuverable playboat, a hard charging creeker, or a nimble river runner, you’ll need to consider a few things before hopping in and hitting the water. I’ll break down some of the best whitewater kayaks for beginners available now, plus how to pick the ideal one for your particular needs and preferences.
Quick Answer: 5 Best Whitewater Kayaks for Beginners
- Best Overall: Dagger Katana 9.7
- Best Creek Boat: Dagger Nomad 8.6
- Best River Runner: Jackson Zen 3.0
- Best Freestyle/Playboat: Jackson Kayak Rock Star 4.0
- Best Inflatable Whitewater Kayak: Aire Outfitter I Inflatable Kayak
Types of Whitewater Kayaks
Before we start delving into the best whitewater kayaks for beginners, let’s take a look at some of the different whitewater kayak styles.
Playboats are compact, highly maneuverable craft designed to surf waves and allow the paddler to perform stunts and aerial acrobatics. Often measuring just 6 to 7 feet long, they’re characterised by their stubby body shape and planning hulls. Their design is rather specific, and not ideally suited for serious whitewater use.
River runners are long, fast boats in the 7.5 to 9-foot range made for hard charging action. They’re shaped to be a cross between playboats and larger creek boats – combining the best qualities of both styles. Their hulls provide strong primary as well as secondary stability, making them stable in a wide variety of conditions, and easy to paddle in the straights.
Their softer chines and longer running length make them ideal craft for beginners as well as more experienced kayakers.
Creek boats are the largest types of whitewater kayak, and are built to power through big, frothy rapids and waterfalls. They’re designed with a large rocker in both the bow and the stern, making them able to handle quick turns in tight spots.
With a large internal volume, these boats have the advantage of resurfacing quickly when they’re submerged in water. This large internal volume also provides plenty of storage space for your gear and camping equipment.
With such a large rocker and size, creek boats can feel a little unwieldy for beginners. Unless you’re looking for a kayak that can handle longer overnight trips, its normally best to go with a smaller river runner or playboat.
Long boats are essentially beefed up river runners. They can get up to 12 feet in length, and have tremendous speed when they get going. While their long, they still possess a decent amount of bow rocker to give them maneuverability when necessary. Like creek boats, they possess a significant amount of internal volume, so they’ll also work well as expedition boats.
Best Overall: Dagger Katana 9.7
The dagger Katana is a rare beast in the world of whitewater kayaks. Its built to handle a variety of conditions, from class III whitewater to flat stable conditions. A balanced rocker provides excellent overall performance, while the hull design is shaped to provide strong primary as well as secondary stability. This makes it great for beginners who want a crossover craft they can use in both flatwater and whitewater situations.
The rounded stern thrives in fast moving water, while an adjustable seat with foot braces provides you with a secure seating position no matter what your size. The hull is more spacious than traditional whitewater kayaks, making it comfortable and less confining.
A removable skeg allows you to use the boat in both rocky and flat water, giving you the option of adding extra stability when necessary. The rotomolded polyethene hull provides a high degree of durability and reliability, and is plenty tough enough to handle rough whitewater environments.
One minor complaint some users have are the built-in seats. They’re not quite as comfortable as aftermarket seats, making long term paddling a little hard on the back. However, this can be fixed rather easily by replacing the seat or adding a rear foam cushion.
- Length: 9’7”
- Weight: 50 lbs.
- Materials: Polyethylene
- Crossover style is perfect for a wide variety of conditions
- Removable skeg for increased stability and tracking
- Spacious hull provides comfortable and adjustable seating position
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Best Creek Boat: Dagger Nomad 8.6
If you’re looking for a well-made creek boat style kayak, you’ll have a hard time topping this legendary craft. It’s an updated version of the extremely well-regarded original Nomad – with several upgrades providing top of the line performance. It features a medium length 8’6” hull, which makes it suitable for most kayakers.
The nomad’s rocker keeps the bow pointed up, and allows you to power through even the roughest whitewater conditions without thinking twice. With a 326-liter internal capacity and a reshaped deck, the craft has enough flotation to remain afloat in nearly any condition. Despite its impressive flotation and bow rocker, it’s still remains fast and nimble in flat water.
Designed for use in rough, rugged whitewater, the boat features tank-like rotomolded seating with a leg lifter to keep you in the perfect position. Adjustable thigh braces and contouring hip pads make bracing and preforming maneuvers in the water much more comfortable.
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- Length: 8’6”
- Weight: 5 lbs
- Volume: 86 gallons
- Increased speed, volume, and rocker over previous Nomad
- Excellent flotation as well as maneuverability
- Tank style rotomolded seating
- Adjustable thigh and hip braces
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Best River Runner: Jackson Zen 3.0
The Jackson Zen 3.0 is the ideal river runner for beginners, with everything from its high internal volume to its high bow to its ease of staying right side up make it an excellent choice for nearly anyone. The craft combines a heavily rocketed bow with an amazingly stable hull that won’t let you down in surf, whitewater, or other squirrely situations – improving the confidence of any beginner.
Available in three different sized hulls, from a small at 8’1” to a medium length measuring 8’5” up to a large at 8’11”. These different sizes allow you to find the ideal sized kayak to match your height and reach, so you’ll never feel cramped by your craft.
Aluminium alloy handles attach directly to the bulkhead, making loading/unloading and portaging a breeze. The generous cockpit size will make any beginner feel comfortable in the water – as they won’t feel like their trapped inside a tight space with no room to move around.
- Length: 8’1”, 8’5”, and 8’11”
- Weight: 44 lbs, 47 lbs, and 50 lbs
- Volume: 76 gal, 89 gal, and 103 gal
- High internal volume provides excellent stability and flotation
- Rocked bow gives you excellent control and turning
- Generous cockpit size is easily accessible and comfortable for any beginner
Best Freestyle/Playboat: Jackson Kayak Rock Star 4.0
Jackson kayak’s most decorated freestyle kayak is about as good as it gets when it comes to whitewater playboats. Its built with high performance in mind, and boasts a number of upgrades to keep you as fast and nimble as possible. Added foot room and comfortable knee pockets ensure you have optimal control to learn the ropes of freestyle kayaking.
Its designed to provide you with a high level of aerial performance, while giving you more ‘pop’ than anything else on the market. The boat also features a low volume bow to increase airtime and help you stay vertical while you perfect your maneuvers.
Ranging between 5’7” and 6’1” depending on the size, it’s small and nimble hull will slice through the water like a hot knife through butter. A built in GoPro mount on the bow allows you to capture all the action up close and personally.
- Length: 5’7”, 5’10”, and 6’1”
- Weight: 27lbs, 29 lbs, and 34 lbs
- Volume: 5 gal, 61.4 gal, and 69.4 gal
- The ultimate freestyle/playboat for whitewater
- Low volume box maximizes airtime and increases “pop”
- Revised seating position allows for forward adjustments
Best Inflatable Whitewater Kayak: Aire Outfitter I Inflatable Kayak
If you’re looking for an inflatable kayak with the muscle to punch its way through big waves and whitewater, then this inflatable yak makes an excellent choice. Made from rugged and durable welded 1100D PVC, the hull is just as much at home in the raging froth as it is on calm, cool flat water. Large tube diameters and a low seating position provide a stable feeling that beginners will love.
Three air chambers with easy-to-use Leafield B7 valves make inflating and deflating a quick and effective process. A self-bailing floor ensures your craft won’t get waterlogged in whitewater conditions, while the included chair sits low in the boat to support your back for prolonged paddling.
A built-in water bottle holder and rear storage pocket provide added functionality, while both front and rear carry handles allow for easy portaging. With a 9’11” overall length and 400-pound weight capacity, the craft is plenty spacious and has room to haul extra gear.
- Length: 9’11”
- Weight: 36 lbs.
- Materials: 1100D PVC Hull with AIREcell (urethane) bladders
- Durable and versatile craft is good for a wide variety of conditions
- Large diameter tubes and a low seating position keep you stable
- Self-bailing floor.
- 10-year no-fault warranty
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How to pick the right whitewater kayak for beginners
With all the different styles, sizes, and design features, picking the right whitewater kayak for beginners can seem like a tricky task. Let’s take a detailed look at what you need to know to help you choose the ideal kayak for your needs.
The right sized kayak for you will depend on a number of factors, including your height, weight, and personal preferences. Most kayak manufacturers have recommended size charts which should give you a good idea of what size to go for. When in doubt, it’s a good idea to size up, as a larger kayak is easier to work with than a one that’s too small. This size kayak will also offer you the versatility to carry extra gear.
The rocker refers to the curvature from the bow to the stern, when viewed form the side. A boat with more rocker will turn quicker and allow you to ride over waves and obstacles more easily. It will also be more maneuverable in whitewater, so boats with more aggressive rocker tend to be suited for more serious whitewater.
Boats with less rocker will track better in flat, straight water, and are ideal for maintaining speeds over long distances. Most whitewater kayaks for beginners will strike a balance offering enough rocker for maneuverability and as well as flat water performance.
There are two main hull shapes primarily used in whitewater kayaks – planning hulls and displacement hulls.
Planing hulls are smooth flat-bottomed hulls that create a stable platform in the water. They provide a high degree of primary stability, but have less secondary stability than their counterparts. They feature beveled edges up to the sidewalls at various angles.
Displacement hulls are rounded hulls without any sharp edges. They provide excellent tracking in the water, but aren’t quite as maneuverable as planning hulls are. While most whitewater kayaks used to feature planing style hulls, displacement hulls are now increasingly popular.
Another important hull design feature is the amount of internal volume inside the hull. The more internal space, the more comfortable you’ll be while paddling, as you won’t feel like your trapped inside your craft. On the other hand, a snugger fit will be more responsive and increase your overall level of control. Most kayaks for beginners err on the side of higher internal volume.
Higher internal volume also increases the kayak’s floatation, so you’ll have more “pop” than with lower volume craft. You’ll also have more space to stash dry bags, camping gear, and other equipment.
A kayak’s weight plays a major role in how it functions in the water as well as how easy it is carry and portage outside the water. Generally speaking, heavier kayaks are more difficult to maneuver and turn with, but they tend to build up momentum in flat water, so they’ll be a bit faster overall.
If you’re going to be portaging your kayak a fair bit, you’ll also want to make sure its light enough to carry by yourself without giving you any trouble.
How you plan to use your kayak plays a major role in which kayak you’ll need. As mentioned previously, there are a number of different whitewater kayak types from compact and maneuverable playboats to big, powerful creekers built for hard charging through serious whitewater.
If you’re just looking to get your feet wet so to speak, then you can’t go wrong with a versatile river runner. These craft are perfect for a wide variety of water conditions, and aren’t too big as to become unwieldy.
There are a number of extra features you’ll want to be on the lookout for when picking out a kayak.
Some kayaks come with built in gopro kayak mounts, so you can capture all the action in stunning HD quality. Many also feature built in carry handles for easier loading/unloading as well as portaging.
Built in seats vary widely in terms of comfort and adjustability. Most are fairly comfortable, but some will need an aftermarket kayak seat to make them comfortable enough for prolonged paddling.
Once you’ve got your boat picked out, you’ll need a good spray skirt to keep water from seeping in.