The best part about kayaking on a river is the number of different types of environment you can experience as you traverse along its length. One moment you might be sitting back and relaxing on a placid slow-moving stretch of water, perfect for fishing. The next moment you could be battling through a whitewater run, feeling the rush of exhilaration that only navigating fast water can bring.
While those different environments make for an exciting paddling journey, they can make picking a kayak that works for all of them difficult. To help make things easier, we’ve pulled together a jargon buster, to simplify the technical jargon; a buying guide, that helps you consider what you need in a kayak; and reviews of some of the best river kayaks on the market.
Best River Fishing Kayaks for 2018
Martini GTX Solo - Editors Choice
River Kayak Jargon Buster
Drops are exactly what they sound like, sudden changes in water elevation. These can be caused by rocks, a change in river gradient, or even a waterfall.
Holes are created by water running fast over a rock, creating an area of water that can drag a kayak. Holes represent a danger as they can pin a kayak in place and eventually swamp it, but they are also used by playboaters to perform tricks.
Edging, also called carving, is the act of tilting a kayak so that one side of the kayak is out of the water. Carving a kayak into a turn creates more water friction on one side of the kayak, causing it to turn faster.
Tracking is a measurement of how well a kayak stays in a straight line when paddled.
In kayaking, a chine refers to the sharp change in angle in the cross-section of the hull. The term “hard chine” indicates an angle with little rounding, where a “soft chine” would be more rounded, but still involve the meeting of distinct planes.
The initial stability of a kayak is how stable or unstable the kayak first feels when you get into it. The secondary stability is how stable the kayak feels when it is put onto edge.
River Kayak Buying Guide
Before purchasing a river kayak, it's important to have a clear idea of who sort of environment you’ll be using it in. The kind of kayak you’ll need forwhitewater running is very different from a river fishing kayak. If you have a particular river you prefer to kayak along, this should be relatively easy, as you’ll already some idea of the terrain. If you plan on paddling along a number of different rivers, do your research first and prioritize buying a crossover kayak that can handle both flat and whitewater.
Occasionally river courses can get quite narrow and, depending on the terrain the river flows through, can have a number to tight twists and turns. This can make certain models of touring and sea kayak unsuitable for river kayaking, as their 12 to 14 foot length makes them far more likely to be caught up on obstacles. For most river kayaking we recommend a kayak with a length of between 8 and 10 feet.
A kayak’s rocker is the measurement of how much its hull curves from bow to stern. The more rocker a boat has, the more of the hull is lifted out of the water and the more maneuverable it is. The waterline is the opposite of this, it is the measurement of how much of the kayaks hull is in contact with the water. The waterline measurement is normally an indication of how fast the kayak will cut through the water.
When buying a river kayak it is important to consider what type of water you find yourself most often paddling on. If you favor slower flatwater but want to be able to run whitewater if needed, then go for a boat with more waterline for better tracking and speed. If you expect to be encountering more whitewater, choose a boat with more rocker to give your kayak more maneuverability.
Best River Kayak Reviews
The Martini Solo combines a remarkably low weight, modular design, and huge range of uses, making it the obvious choice for best river kayak. Modular in design, the Martini splits into two sections, weighing around 25 pounds each and 56 inches long, making it remarkably easy to store and to transport. You won't be needing a trolley or car-rack when you can disassemble your kayak and fit it on your back seat.
Using Point 65’s innovative Snap-Tap system, the Martini snaps apart and reassembles in seconds, making it fantastically easy to assemble once you reach the water. Another advantage of the Martini's modular construction is its ability to transform into a tandem kayak with the simple addition of an extending centerpiece. With the addition of this optional extra, you can go out on the water with a friend without needing to spend out on another kayak. Check out this video showing how to assemble it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7sJTCI2g9-4
On the water, the Martini's sit-in design makes it better suited to running whitewater and it can be fitted with a spray skirt. It’s a maneuverable craft with a high rocker, and its short length keeps it nimble in tight turns. While it won't compete with a touring kayak for top speed or tracking, its narrow frame and hard-chined hull go some way to compensate for this.
The modular nature and light weight of the Martini GTX Solo make it ideal for river kayaking. It’s short enough for navigating tight turns, nimble enough to run moderate whitewater, and its narrow hull keeps it tracking straight on flatwater. It can easily be disassembled, and storage and transportation are far easier than with a standard kayak. For kayakers with a smaller frame, the low weight of the individual pieces of the Martini make moving it to the water’s edge a breeze, freeing you up to go kayaking when the mood takes you, without any complicated logistics.
The Dagger Zydeco is a crossover kayak that bridges the gap between whitewater and recreational kayaks. The shape of its hull and the extra stability of its multiple chines allow the Zydeco to handle moderate whitewater while still keeping its maneuverability high. Its displacement hull and narrow profile give it reasonable downriver performance, but its short length and large width keep it from being particularly fast.
The other benefit of the Zydeco is that it is one person portable. At just 9 feet 1 inch long and 36 pounds, it can easily be loaded onto a car rack, or even into a car, and moved from car to surf without a trolley. The downside of this shorter length is that it may feel cramped for paddler with a larger frame.
There is minimal storage space on the Zydeco but it's not designed with long trips in mind; this small craft is designed to allow you to go kayaking on a whim, without needing to worry about getting enough people and equipment together to be able to move it to the water safely.
The Dagger Zydeco 9.0 is ideal if you want the option to simply pick up your kayak and head out to the water. Its lightweight and small size keep it portable, while its sleek design leaves it able to handle the waves. The large cockpit might let in a little water, but that’s nothing a spray skirt can’t solve.
Designed as a stripped back and simple river fishing kayak, the Journey 10 allows you to take advantage of river fishing sport without sacrificing performance. Its narrow profile allows it to track easily, while its width offers the necessary stability for casting. A high rocker keeps it maneuverable and the multi-chined hull allows it to be edged into tight turns.
To keep you comfortable on longer expeditions, the Journey comes with a large, comfortable seating area with protective thigh pads. To increase comfort and stability, there are also adjustable foot braces. The seat can be removed as well if you want to add your own favored seating arrangement.
In terms of storage, the Journey has one small watertight storage compartment that’s suitable for personal items, such as wallets, mobile phones, and a P.A.C. (Portable Accessory Carrier). A P.A.C. can be removed from the kayak and carried, or even towed behind the boat. The rest of the storage are bungee cord attachments to the hull, so items that are vulnerable to splash damage will need to be dry-bagged.
If your idea of a great river kayak involves the ability to fish without sacrificing performance then the Sun Dolphin Journey 10 is the kayak for you. It has all you need to take advantage of the river’s fishing spots, and its short length and high maneuverability will still let you ride through moderate fast water. While it doesn’t track particularly well, this is a trade off for excellent primary and secondary stability.
Despite being labeled as the "Sport," this foldable kayak is purely recreational. It's not a sports kayak in the way that playboats or surfskis are. That being said, its small size and light weight make it easy to maneuver in the water, with similar tracking and turning performance to a hardshell. It's also easier to inflate than other Advanced Elements inflatable models because it has only four inflation chambers rather than six. While the lack of chambers might make a larger craft sag slightly, the Sport's smaller length and internal aluminum rib-frame prevent this.
The Sport is the lightest of the kayaks on our list; the fact that it is inflatable making it easily portable and allowing it to fit in all but the smallest of cars. At 10 feet 5 inches, the Sport is undoubtedly compact, but might make it too cramped for taller paddlers. Its smaller size also restricts the amount of gear you can bring with you.
The latest version of the Sport comes with a higher, more supportive seat that keeps you comfortable for longer. The Sport is listed as being "designed to perform in universal water conditions," but the lack of a spray deck reduces its usefulness in whitewater conditions.
The Advanced Elements Sport is very portable and, out of all the kayaks on the lists, is probably the easiest to carry around and inflate. Its size and portability, however, are also its main drawbacks. It's not suitable for long trips because of the lack of gear storage space, and the short length will only be truly comfortable for shorter paddlers.
The Old Town Vapor 10XT is an excellent choice for an all-purpose river kayak, offering great performance, good storage, and a comfortable cockpit arrangement for long journeys. Its narrow hull and hard-chined hull give it a good top speed and excellent tracking, while its width keeps it stable.
A large watertight hatch in the rear gives the Vapor 10XT ample storage space,but there is also bungee storage for those items you aren't afraid to get wet. A paddle holder keeps your paddle out of the way when not in use or is an excellent place to store a spare.
With the ability to mount a spray skirt, the Vapor 10XT can handle up to level 3 whitewater. Its high volume will allow it to bounce out of gentler holes, if entered at the right angle, but for anything more than that you will need a dedicated whitewater kayak. The Vapor 10XT is also the heaviest of the kayaks on this list and at 49 pounds should not be considered one person portable.
The Old Town Vapor 10XT kayak offers solid performance in a compact package. Its shorter hull and high rocker keep it maneuverable, while its hard-chined hull and narrow profile keep it tracking straight. There’s plenty of storage space for gear in the large aft hatch and added bungee cording. The only downside to the Vapor 10XT is its weight, which reduces its portability.
Our Choice - Martini GTX Solo
The term “river kayak” covers a lot of different specifications and the kayaks reviewed on this list run the gamut from crossover to fishing kayak. The Martini GTX is our choice for best river kayak because its modular design allows you to take advantage of the full range of experiences river kayaking has to offer. In single person configuration, its narrow hull, short length, and high maneuverability allow it to run moderate whitewater. Adding an additional centerpiece allows for extra gear storage for longer journeys, or conversion into a tandem if you want to bring a friend. There is even an optional fishing kit allowing the Martini to be fitted with two rod holders.
If you are looking for a modular, lightweight kayak with a huge range of utility, the Martini GTX Solo is the boat for you. It lets you enjoy whatever the river has to offer, whenever you want.