How to Choose a Whitewater Kayak

Freestyle boats have concentrated volume to allow for aerial maneuvers and advanced tricks. Photo of Stephen Wright by Clay Wright.


LelandWith so many choices out there, how can you choose which whitewater kayak is right for you? Leland Davis has this definitive guide.


It’s the most burning question for beginning whitewater boaters, and one that haunts many paddlers throughout their paddling careers.  With so many choices out there, how can you choose which kayak is right for you?

When I started paddling, things were simple.  The words ‘whitewater kayak’ were almost synonymous with ‘Perception Dancer.’  If you wanted to paddle a C-1 (as I did in my early years), you could paddle a Gyromax, and later a Cascade.  Nowadays, there are so many choices of types and models of boats that it can be incredibly confusing—not only to beginner boaters, but also to paddlers who are many years and river miles into their paddling careers.  Here’s my attempt to demystify the categories and design characteristics to hopefully give you a leg up in choosing which boats are right for you.  Remember—all of the following information is a general guide only, and is not a substitute for experimenting to find out what works best for you.

Design Features

Here’s a description of a few different design features and what they do, so that you can look at a boat and have some idea of how it will paddle.

Planing Hull vs. Displacement Hull.  These are the two primary types of kayak hulls, although there are some boats that have characteristics of both on different parts of their hulls.  Planing hulls have a flat surface from edge to edge, while displacement hulls have a round curve that dips farther below the waterline and ‘displaces’ water.  Generally speaking, rounder hulls hold a line better and are more forgiving—often due to the fact that the rounder hull leads to a softer chine.  All else being equal, displacement hulls tend to be a little faster than planing ones in flat water, while planing hulls may have an advantage in whitewater due to easier turning.  Planing hulls tend to turn more quickly and be more maneuverable with less effort because they plane up on top of the water and thus don’t have to be pushed through the water to turn them.

Here you can see the difference between a displacement hull creeker (Nomad, left) and a planing hull creeker (Burn III, right). Also notice the harder chines on the Burn relative the Nomad’s softer chines.
Here you can see the difference between a displacement hull creeker (Nomad, left) and a planing hull creeker (Burn III, right). Also notice the harder chines on the Burn relative the Nomad’s softer chines.

Chines are the edges of the boat’s hull that are below the waterline.  In general, boats with harder chines are more performance oriented, while boats with softer chines are more forgiving.

Hard chines provide the ability to turn on a dime, and to steer the boat with your hip angle to carve where you want to go without as much need for paddle strokes.  However, hard chines also interact with more currents, causing boats to be more squirrely if the paddler is not conscious of their hip angles.  Harder chines allow for more control in bigger water, but can occasionally be a liability when they catch on rocks in shallow water.

Softer chines are more forgiving.  Although soft chined boats can still be steered somewhat by hip angle, they are more prone to needing to be pointed in the desired direction and then paddled to get there.  They excel in rocky water, but it can sometimes be more difficult to get them where you want to go in big or pushy water.

Some boats will combine these features, putting harder chines on one end of the boat and softer chines on another to make some areas of the hull more performance oriented and others more forgiving.

Rocker is the upward curve on the ends of a boat’s hull.  Generally speaking, smaller amounts of rocker make boats faster by lengthening the waterline, while larger amounts make the boat more maneuverable by shortening it.

Rocker in the bow is going to affect how well the boat rides over (more rocker) or punches through (less rocker) features, and also how it transitions from vertical to horizontal when landing.  Boats with more bow rocker tend to be more forgiving in keeping the boat on the surface at a wide range of landing angles, while boats with less rocker tend to pencil in.

In the stern, more rocker will make a boat release sooner when going off drops—leading to better boofs.  Less rocker will make the boat track better and hold speed, but perhaps boof less well.  If the chine on the stern comes inward toward the centerline more quickly than the rocker profile comes up, a boat with low stern rocker might still boof well if it’s put on edge while releasing from the water, effectively increasing the stern rocker.

Volume is the amount of water that the whole kayak would displace if it were submerged with the cockpit closed, or (approximately) the amount of water it would take to completely fill the kayak with no outfitting in it.  In general, larger volume boats will float higher and be more forgiving, while smaller volume boats will allow for more play and a sportier ride.

Volume is one of the main stats that I hear paddlers using to judge which boat to get.  While the total volume is somewhat important in judging how the boat will perform, remember that the volume that matters most for selecting the boat you want is the volume that occurs below the waterline while you’re sitting in the kayak.  In other words, sometimes a smaller volume boat can actually float the same paddler higher than a boat with more volume simply due to where the volume is located.  A planing hull kayak and displacement hull kayak with the same total volume will not float the same.  Boats with similar lengths and volumes but different widths below the waterline will not float the same or be appropriate for the same people.  Hearing from other paddlers about which boats work well for their weights is a far superior way to judge which boat might be appropriate for your weight than using the factory volume numbers which are often pulled from a pre-production CAD design instead of a finished boat (or even made up entirely), and which tell you nothing about how much volume will be below the waterline when you sit in it.

  1.   In general, longer boats go faster than shorter ones but are harder to turn.  Narrower boats go faster than wide ones.  If two boats are the same length and width, the one with the longer waterline—the place where the water contacts the hull—will usually be faster, although this can vary based on hull shape and rocker profile.

Types of whitewater kayaks:

Long Boats.  9+ feet.  Long boats are great for going fast and challenging yourself on the river.  The added length forces paddlers to think ahead and move their vision farther downstream.  These boats are excellent for getting a workout by attaining back upstream, and also perfect for creek racing.  They can be good for longer expeditions on easier whitewater where the added speed and storage capacity outweigh their lower maneuverability.  Pay attention to the stern rocker when choosing the right long boat for you.  More stern rocker will make a boat slower in pools; but it will turn and correct faster, and boof better in rapids.  Less stern rocker will be faster in the flats and will hold a line better, but it will also be harder to turn, correct, and boof.

Examples of long boats:  Green Boat, Stinger, Karma Unlimited, and lots of old designs.

Notice the difference in stern rocker between the flatter Stinger and the rounder Green Boat.
Notice the difference in stern rocker between the flatter Stinger and the rounder Green Boat.

Creek Boats.  7.5 – 9 feet.  Creek boats are large volume, high rocker boats made for running steep, difficult whitewater.  The volume and rocker are both there to keep you on the surface and to make boofing easy.  High volume allows you to surface quickly when you do submerge and keeps you from backendering when punching holes.  The main characteristic to look at when selecting a creeker is the chine.

Softer chines and rounder hulls provide more forgiveness because they don’t get hung in strange currents.  They generally require that the paddler point the boat where they want to go and then paddle to get there.  They perform better in rocks than harder edged boats, but can be more difficult to move around in bigger water.

Harder chines and flatter hulls tend to be less forgiving but provide more control for aggressive paddlers who put in the time to learn to use the chines.  These boats are controlled as much by carving with the hips from one place to another as they are by using the paddle.  They turn very quickly.

In general, round hulled boats are easier to jump in and perform well from day one and are more appropriate for: tentative paddlers who float and react; experts who paddle with a lot of strength and force; or for paddlers in really rocky, shallow areas.  Hard chines and flatter hulls are more appropriate for paddlers who paddle aggressively downstream but use finesse more than force to maneuver their boat, or for paddlers who spend more time in water than they do on rocks.  Hard-chined boats generally take a longer period of time to become familiar with before they begin to perform well.

Examples of creekers:  Nomad, Shiva, Burn, Jefe, Stomper, Karma, Recon

When you get into some gnar, there’s nothing better than the confidence you get from being in a stable creek boat.
When you get into some gnar, there’s nothing better than the confidence you get from being in a stable creek boat.

River Runners.  7.5 – 9 feetLike creek boats, river runners are for paddling downstream without much play.  They will probably have slightly reduced volume and rocker relative to creek boats, providing more speed.  Some will have harder edges and/or flatter hulls that might begin to enhance surfing.  These boats are generally made for higher flow rivers or easy to moderate difficulty rivers, although they can be used on difficult whitewater by skilled, aggressive paddlers.  Many expert paddlers prefer river runners to creek boats for paddling big water due to the added speed and control.  These can also be great boats to learn in.

Current examples of river runners:  Remix, Burn, Diesel, Mamba, Zen

Playful River Runner.  7+ feetPlayful river runners are boats that generally fill the same niche as river runners while also allowing paddlers more play.  The play is added through either shortening the length, and/or flattening the hull to improve surfing, and/or lowering the volume in the stern to allow for some downriver play moves like stern squirts and splats.  This category encompasses a wide range of boat shapes that all do different things well, but they all have either the volume or the length to still be primarily downriver boats that do some play moves.

Examples of playful river runners:  Axiom, Fun Runner, Nano, Hero, RPM

River Running Playboats.  6.5 – 8 feetRiver running playboats are designed to allow full access to downriver freestyle moves without sacrificing the length needed to comfortably run rivers.  Some of these boats are short and voluminous for doing aerial moves in holes, while others are longer and slicier for 3 dimensional work like squirts, splats, cartwheels, and splatwheels.  The main characteristic that separates these from playful river runners is that both ends can be engaged for play.  Although most boats in this category still provide adequate river running ability, many paddlers back off from difficult whitewater once boat length gets below 7 feet.  This category is for people who want to playboat hard without giving up enjoyment while paddling downriver and running rapids.

Examples of river running playboats:  Loki, Freeride, Fuse, Fun

The characteristic that separates river running playboats from playful river runners is the ability to get the bow under water.

Freestyle Boats.  Less than 6.5 feet.  Freestyle boats are for doing tricks on play features, with the ability to paddle downriver being a much lower consideration.  They are very short with flat hulls for fast planing while surfing waves, and concentrated volume for aerial moves in holes.  Many paddlers use these boats only for park-and-play, although they can be paddled downriver by competent boaters who are willing to sacrifice river running performance in order to enjoy the play spots more.  These are most appropriate for folks who have access to great play spots or play parks and want to learn advanced freestyle tricks.

Examples of freestyle boats:  Rock Star, Jed, Jitsu, Mobius, Star

Freestyle boats have concentrated volume to allow for aerial maneuvers and advanced tricks. Photo of Stephen Wright by Clay Wright.
Freestyle boats have concentrated volume to allow for aerial maneuvers and advanced tricks.
Photo of Stephen Wright by Clay Wright.

Any discussion of which of these boats you should get needs to include an assessment of your goals.  Paddling goals are something that beginners rarely think about beyond, “I want to learn to kayak;” but many experienced paddlers never give much conscious thought to them either.  If your aim is to cruise down the local class II stream and enjoy the scenery, your choice of boat might be different from that of someone whose objective is to run gnar, get a maximum workout, or learn freestyle tricks.  Here’s a list of possible paddling objectives and what types of boats might go along with them.  Note that you probably paddle for more than one of these reasons, or even for all of them—which means you’re going to need more than one kayak.

Experience the setting and scenery.  Any of these boats will get you outside; but if you want to move downriver, a freestyle boat is probably not for you.  A round hulled creeker or river runner will allow you the fastest progression to where you can access the most places; but remember that you won’t develop as many skills along the way or have as much opportunity to explore other facets of kayaking as you will in sportier boats.  If you plan on paddling mostly flats or easy whitewater and want to see the largest possible amount of river miles, a longboat could be a good choice.

Seek remote adventure.  If you’re looking to get deep into the wilderness, select a boat with enough volume that it can float you and your gear—a creeker, a river runner, or a long boat.  If the whitewater will be super challenging, a creek boat is preferable.  If you’re planning to cover long miles on easier whitewater, lean toward the long boat.  If you want to do a little surfing along the way, a river runner is probably the best choice.

Exercise or physical challenge.  There are a number of ways to go about getting this—but the harder you paddle, the more of a workout you get.  This can mean getting in a long boat and doing attainments, getting in a playboat and doing downriver moves, or going big on a single feature in a freestyle boat.  Your least amount of exercise will come in a big stable creeker—until you have to portage it.

Attaining back up river in a long boat is a great way to get a workout.
Attaining back up river in a long boat is a great way to get a workout.

Experience the thrill of going down rapids.  You can feel this excitement in any boat, but if you want the thrill without working a long time to get the skill, a creek boat is for you.  If you find that the thrill is going away in your creek boat after a while, it’s probably time to switch over to a playful river runner or a river running playboat to spice things back up.

Technical challenge of navigating rapids or performing tricks.  If you’re looking to challenge yourself by learning technical skills, you’re going to want a performance boat.  This means hard chines on your creeker, creeking in a river runner, or getting a river running playboat or freestyle boat to work the moves in.  You can still challenge yourself in a big round creeker, but you will eventually have to run some serious gnar in order to do it.

Be a part of the whitewater community.  Paddling is great because you can enjoy awesome camaraderie in any boat whether in an eddy, at the lunch spot, or in line for a play hole.  If being with the river crowd is your only paddling goal, pick an easy boat like a forgiving creek boat and float along.  Or you could just hang around at the take-out, stay warm and dry, and poach beers.

What Size Should I Get?

Now you have it narrowed down to which category of boat suits your goals, and which kayak in that category has the features that suit your paddling style.  But there are three or four sizes of that boat available.  How can you know which one to choose?  The best thing to do is to ask other people who paddle that model what size they’re using, what they weigh, and what kind of ride they’re getting.

Creekers and River Runners:  Generally speaking, a boat will be more forgiving downriver when you’re in the lower end of the weight range.  Boats with harder edges will experience increased performance the higher you go in the weight range (but lower forgiveness), up until a critical point where you overweight the boat.  Round hulled creekers generally perform better if you’re in the lower end of the weight range.  Don’t forget your gear!  In a creeking or river running environment, you might (should!) have quite a few pounds of gear along—a throw rope, breakdown paddle, first aid kit, water bottle, lunch, and maybe a camera.  Make sure you allow for the weight of the gear that you plan to carry when choosing the size of your kayak.

Playful River Runners and River Running Playboats:  In these you might want to be higher in the weight range in order to get the ends under more easily, but they will be more forgiving downriver if you’re in the lower end of the range.  It’s your call on which is more important to you.

Freestyle boats:  Here you might want to be lower in the weight range in order to get more air, or higher in the weight range if you’re trying to get the ends under.

Remember, all of these are generalities—your observations may be different.  My final recommendation is that you try all different shapes, types, and sizes of kayaks as often as possible to find out what you like and what works for you.  But remember, many boats take more than a few minutes to get used to or to learn how to paddle.  Another option is to look at the lists above, choose one of the goals that you’d like to achieve, then choose which boat is best for that goal and step out of your comfort zone by trying something new.  Perhaps not having the right boat for the job is the only obstacle between you and a whole new level of paddling fun.