Like most extreme sports, whitewater kayaking is equal parts exhilaration and risk. The rush comes from successfully navigating rapids, boulders, waterfalls, and even underground rivers. Any risk can be mitigated by buying the correct kayak for the run you want to make, making sure you know your limits, and being properly prepared.
To help out with this, we’ve put together a buying guide to help you understand what you should be looking for in a whitewater kayak, reviews of the best whitewater kayaks on the market, and a jargon buster so you’ll know your boofing from your boulder gardens.
Best Whitewater Kayaks for 2018
Mamba Creeker 7.6 - Our Choice
Whitewater Kayaking Jargon Buster
Types of Whitewater Kayaks
Before buying a whitewater kayak, it’s important to recognize that not all whitewater kayaks are the same. Different models of kayaks can have vastly different design features depending for what type of whitewater run they are designed. To help you pick the right one for you, here is a list of the most common types of whitewater boats and the runs they are normally used for.
Freestyle Boats: Less than 6.5 feet
Freestyle boats are for doing tricks and are therefore not really suited to paddling downriver. They tend to be very short for a kayak, with a wide, flat hull to enhance surfing and target buoyancy to allow them to perform aerial tricks.
River Running Playboats: 6.5–8 feet
River running playboats are designed to allow the paddler to perform tricks and stunts without sacrificing the length needed to run rivers. This type of kayak is made for people who want to perform playboat tricks without giving up control or speed while paddling downriver and running rapids.
River Runners: 7.5–9 feet
River running boats are designed to follow fast moving river-courses downstream. These “river runs” normally feature high-speed kayaking and the natigation of obstacles, such as holes and drops. They have slightly reduced volume and rocker compared to creek boats and are therefore faster. Some models have harder edges or flatter hulls that are to enhance surfing.
Creek Boats: 7.5–9 feet
Creek boats are large volumed, high rocker boats made for running steep, difficult whitewater. The volume and rocker are both there to keep you from submerging and to make boofing easy. The rocker also allows for greater maneuverability when navigating tight winding watercourses.
Long Boats: 9+ feet
Long boats are designed for fast river runs with gentler whitewater sections. They also have greater volume and more storage area for gear. Their long narrow shape lets them build up speed but cuts down on their maneuverability. The stern rocker is an important measurement when buying a longboat; more stern rocker will make a boat slower in pools, but it will turn faster, and boof better in rapids. Less stern rocker will make the boat faster on the flats and it will track better, but it will also be harder to turn, correct, and boof.
Whitewater Kayak Buying Guide
As a rule there are two primary types of whitewater kayak hulls, a planing hull or a displacement hull.
- Planing Hull: The planing hull has a mostly flat surface below the water, allowing the kayak to skim across the surface of the water, adding to its agility and maneuverability. On flat water, the lack of a displacement stops a planing hull from cutting through the water and slows it down significantly.
- Displacement Hull: A displacement hull design has a runed section that “cuts” into the water. This allows a displacement hull to pick up greater speed on flatter water but cuts down on its maneuverability in whitewater as it lacks the ability to skim across the top of the water.
Chines are the section of the boat’s hull that sit below the waterline and have a drastic effect on how a kayak handles. They tend to come in one of two designs.
- Hard Chines: Hard chined kayaks have rigidly defined contours below the waterline. The benefit of this definition is the they provide better control and agility. But this enhanced agility comes at a cost. Hard chines can get caught on obstacles and cause the boat to overbalance. They also make the kayak more responsive to currents and changes in water flow, which reduces the boat’s stability.
- Soft Chines: A kayak with soft chines has a rounded hull below the waterline. While this increases the kayak’s stability it does so at the cost of maneuverability. Soft chined boats require firmer input when paddling or steering, and are more difficult to edge into tight turns or maneuvers.
The rocker refers to the upward tilt of a kayak at the bow and stern. The more rocker a boat has, the more maneuverable it is. The flatter the rocker is, the more speed a boat will pick up and its tracking will be better.
Kayaks with a higher rocker tend to be able to negotiate rapids and obstacles with greater ease. A higher rocker also allows a kayak to right itself easier after a bad landing when running a drop. Creek boats and river runners often have higher rockers to keep them agile when running tight watercourses or boulder gardens.
Volume is slightly more important to whitewater boats than it is to other kayak types. It contributes to how much gear you can store and the maximum weight the craft can take, but it also has more technical uses. In whitewater kayaks, the amount of volume and its distribution affect the way the kayak handles. As an example, creek boats tend to have their volume massed at the bow, thus allowing them to stay horizontal during drops and “pop” out of holes.
Best Whitewater Kayak Reviews
The Mamba Creeker combines maneuverability with the durability you'll need to throw yourself down the steepest and most twisting watercourses. Its stiffened and reinforced plastic hull can take a few collisions without cracking, and the added rigidity makes the Mamba easier to control. Helping with this control is the Mamba’s new fully adjustable seat, making sure you are both comfortable and fully in control.
The Mamba has a planing hull, which allows it to slide across the water and lets you slide around those tight obstacles. The volume is concentrated into the bow of the boat, keeping the nose up during drops and giving it plenty of “pop” to pull you out of the hole at the bottom of the fall. Storage is handled by a a rigid storage tray that further adds to the hull’s stiffness.
The Mamba Creeker is designed to be a comfortable fit for anyone, be they beginners just learning to boof, or hardened veterans used to charging whitewater. It is agile, responsive, and the added rigidity does wonders for its control.
The Dagger Jitsu is an excellent playboat with all the agility you’ll need to quickly master tricks at your nearest park and play. It’s designed for maximum maneuverability with hard chines and a planing hull allowing it to skip over the water. At a diminutive 6 feet in length, it is responsive to paddler input and easy to control. It’s lightweight too, at only 38 pounds, so carrying it to the river won't be a problem.
The downside of all these excellent playboat features is the Jitsu’s lack of downriver performance. Its short length and planing hull means it won't be picking up any real speed and tracking over long distances in going to be a problem.
The Dagger Jitsu is very good at what it does, being an agile lightweight playboat that you can enjoy performing with down at your local park and play. If you’re looking for a boat that can also run agressive rapids and handle a downriver run, then the Jitsu’s low volume, poor tracking, and short hull mean you should probably be looking somewhere else.
The Riot Magnum is a creek boat designed with extra stability in mind, allowing beginners to experience a whitewater run without throwing them in at the deep end. The displacement hull cuts through the water, keeping the Magnum moving fast while the high rocker keeps it maneuverable.
The Magnum has soft chines which keep the boat more stable, but you will need to be a little firmer with the paddle to get the boat to accept input. At 45 pounds, the Magnum certainly isn't heavy, which will come as a great relief if you have to carry it for any real distance.
The Magnum is a great multi-purpose boat, allowing you to take on a variety of whitewater runs. The displacement hull and its length keep if fast on flat water while the high rocker keeps it agile in tight turns. The multi-chine hull adds great stability, making it the perfect boat for beginners to start whitewater running in.
The Boogie 50 is designed primarily as a surf kayak, letting the paddler capture the power of the waves and navigate around rocky coasts. The Boogie’s planing hull is narrow and has a low rocker, allowing it to quickly accelerate and achieve speeds that you just won’t get with other whitewater kayaks.
To keep the Boogie tracking straight, it features two fins built into the hull and has excellent lateral stability to keep you upright when the wave breaks. The Boogie is fitted with a surfing “power seat” which allows you more leverage and control. Padded thigh braces on the inner hull keep you comfortable as you lean into tight turns.
Like the playboats on this list, the Boogie excels at what it was designed to do, but does not have any multi-purpose functions. If you're looking for a surf kayak that’s fast, responsive, and stable, the Boogie is ideal. If you want it to do anything else then you might be disappointed.
The Dagger Zydeco 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 deal with moderate whitewater while keeping its maneuverability high. Its displacement hull and narrow profile give it reasonable downriver performance, but its short hull 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’ 1” 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.
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 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.
Our Choice - Mamba Creeker 7.6
Out of all the excellent whitewater boats on this list, we chose the Mamba Creeker because of the amount of activities it allows you to do. It’s agile and responsive enough to handle a twisting creek run or boulder garden while retaining enough downriver capability to keep it fast, and tracking straight. If you’re looking for a kayak that will take on different parts of the river without you having to switch boats every five miles, then the Mamba Creeker is the one for you.