Learning to whitewater kayak in 2023

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Learning to Whitewater Kayak is a rewarding and challenging endeavor and not something to be attempted alone. Amidst the humbling lessons of flipping, ferrying, and paddling pursuits from, to the pure untethered bliss that follows those who stick with it long enough, there await the keys to a kingdom rafters can only look upon with envy!

Below, we present the factors to consider when starting this amazing sport; to take a little guesswork out and set you up for success with the best beginner whitewater kayaks. Ultimately, nothing will do better than paddling a boat through the water. However, this will give you the information to take the guesswork out of boat selection.

whitewater kayak

Let us help you choose a kayak so you can focus on your paddling skills and start having fun! That’s what beginner kayak reviews say it’s about, right?! Consider this your beginner kayak-buying guide!

How do I learn to Whitewater Kayak?

kayak, river, child

Are you brand new to paddling? Or has it been a few years since taking a beginner’s kayak class? Either way, buying a kayak when you’re unsure where the sport fits into your life is like buying a wedding ring for a date you’ve been out with once!

As an ACA-certified kayak instructor, I ALWAYS encourage beginners to the world of whitewater kayaking to take a lesson or five with an instructor who can also provide gear. A reputable company can offer all sorts of boats to try and get you outfitted.

In reality, along with learning the skills and intricacies of the sport, they’ll be able to set you up with different styles of kayaks, and different brands, and talk with you about the benefits of each design. Coupled with that knowledge, you will be one step closer to finding a match made in whitewater heaven!

Accessories you will need with your Whitewater Kayak.

Having the right whitewater gear can make or break a trip. For me, it starts with having the right clothing for the trip. You will get wet, but you don’t want to be cold. This means you might need a dry suit if conditions call for it, or you can simply get away with a quick-drying t-shirt.

whitewater, kayaking, kayak

This is not an exhaustive list, but it will get you going. I placed links to my top choices below.

Places to learn

There are some amazing kayak schools. There are even summer camps if you’re not lucky enough to live close by or want to experience an intense week or two of learning to jumpstart your progression! Here are some recommendations:

Wear a life jacket, learn to embrace the failures, and enjoy the process of learning a very counterintuitive skill. The feeling of control and power cruising through whitewater in a kayak won’t disappoint. I promise!

What is the Best Whitewater Kayak for Beginners?

colorful, kayaks, for sale

Here’s why kayaking isn’t on national television, and every kid on the block doesn’t do it; it will be a challenge. Not everyone on this planet isn’t scared of water or at least humbled by it.

Flipping over and learning to wet exit (swim) will initially feel strange, even confining. Kayaking in whitewater demands respect and proper training. Though certain kayaks will offer benefits over others, like how a creek boat will offer a more stable ride than a play boat, making a decision based on ease, misses the point.

A good kayak for beginners isn’t a recreational kayak or one that makes things “easy.” It’s a kayak weight that offers support in learning while helping learn the dynamic nature of whitewater and how to gain control, regardless of the watercraft.

My top choice for a beginner whitewater kayak.

River Runners are the absolute best choice for any beginner! My favorite is the Dagger Phantom.

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Types of Whitewater kayaks

First off, let’s dive into the names of these hunks of plastic (yes, most are recyclable!). Each has trade-offs in terms of performance, comfort, and behavior. These can translate to beneficial or hindering habits later on.

You can classify all kayaks into three types of recreational kayakers: Creek Boats, River Runners, and Play Boats.

Creek boat

A creek boat is a Creek Kayak, generally associated with low-water kayaking. For years, these kayaks have been espoused as good for beginners. These boats are relatively forgiving, have many rockers to get up and over rocks, and turn easily.

They typically have around 70-95 gallons of volume, with the bow (front) and stern (rear) having an even volume distribution. In lay terms, they have the most volume of any whitewater kayak, generally have your back when things get weird, and offer plenty of storage space for overnight trips.

The hull has soft edges or almost no edge at all, and creek boats commonly have displacement hulls which means they slide through the water well, but with some downsides. Creekboats sit high in the water and can be stable enough that beginner kayakers cannot feel the water and how the boat reacts.

Follow it through, and beginners in a creek boat will need bigger rapids to gain skills. Not always a setup for success, but instead, danger!

River Runners

A River Runner is generally the best kayak for beginners and will be most people’s first kayak. These have 50-75 gallons of volume and come in between 7-9 feet. River runners are also evolving to include the Half Slice category. River Runners will often have a planing hull with edges that allow the boat to grab the water instead of sliding across it when on edge.

Half Slices go a step farther and pinch down in the stern, leaving most of the volume in the bow. These offer the best balance for difficulty and support when learning. Half Slice kayaks will penalize paddlers who use improper technique and body position and reward those who practice good form and posture.

Coupled with good feedback from an instructor or trusted friend, these kayaks offer near-instant feedback and can shorten the learning curve dramatically. Plus, as you improve, half slices become fun and playful. Check out Tailies if you’re curious!

Play Boats

The last class of kayak is the Play Boat. These bad boys are short, usually around 6 feet or even shorter. They pack 45-65 gallons into that small package and are great for doing tricks and getting a great education about being upside down in a river!

With a few exceptions, including the Jackson Fun series, which is now retired, play boats are the second-best kayaks for beginners behind the river runners. They give good responses and are the easiest to turn, owing to their short length. On the other hand, those attributes can contribute to bad habits that can hinder your kayaking later.

As someone who learned in a play boat 15 years ago, I know how water works, but I’m still learning to turn longer kayaks effectively and efficiently!

action, active, boat

Whitewater Kayak FAQs

My Friend Paddles Class V, Can They Teach Me?

Your friend would first be willing to paddle around a lake or on a mellow Class I rapid with you. Next, teach the strokes and take it back to the basics. They must be well-adjusted individuals who can shrug off your insults about how bad they’ve been teaching you when things get difficult. Then and only then would I say go for it!

The point is that kayaking is like any skill; becoming proficient takes time and effort, and challenges can arise during that time. Hiring an instructor can keep friendships from becoming strained. Think how excited you’ll be to paddle together on your new favorite class III when you’ve got the basics down!

Getting pointers from an experienced friend is great; anything more will take some honesty on both sides. Buy in financially and hire someone experienced with meeting people in your kayaking infancy, and you’ll show up to learn differently, as it’s an investment in yourself. You might be surprised how much it pays off!

What Whitewater Kayak specifically should I look for?

River Runners are the absolute best choice for any beginner! They include kayaks like the Liquid Logic Remix and Braap, Waka Goat, Dagger Rewind, Jackson Antix, and the Pyranha Ripper.

Every company has a good downriver kayak these days, so there are plenty of choices, and I stand by any of these. Bigger folks can look to the Dagger Nomad or Mamba. They also offer the most storage space for lightweight kayak. The now-retired Dagger Axiom might be the best kayak ever made for beginners… In my opinion, of course!

What about inflatable kayaks?

A note on inflatable kayaks: They’re great! Nothing offers the forgiveness of a “ducky” with the possibility of learning strokes and techniques for whitewater kayaking! I’d encourage any brand-new paddlers to consider doing a day or two in an inflatable kayak. The concepts can pay off in spades! The best inflatable kayak, in my opinion, is the NRS Lynx.

I see used kayaks all over craigslist and Facebook. What should I look for?

Plastic lasts for 10,000 years or something, so these things aren’t going anywhere! I mentioned the Dagger Axiom, and right alongside it can be the Dagger RPM and RPM Max. The Wavesport EZ series also floats towards the top. Prijon kayaks have some of the best build quality in the industry, dating back for decades.

Generally, most whitewater kayaks with edges, a planing hull (read: flattish), and around 7.5-8.5 feet long can be a good choice. Newer designs often have more comfortable outfitting (think padded seat and foam padding) and body positions, but some deals are out there. Avoid any specialty kayaks with “slalom” or “squirt boat” in the description (unless it’s a half slice, then squirt on!)

What about damage if it’s a used Whitewater Kayak?

Some common issues on a used kayak are thin spots, oil canning, and torn outfitting. Thin spots occur when the user drags the boat or slides into the water while in it. It usually shows up right under the seat. Push against the plastic on the bottom of the hull to test it.

Oil canning refers to a phenomenon where the hull actually starts to ripple or warp under the seat, as felt by running your hand along the bottom or visual inspection. Outfitting will degrade over time and sun bleach. It shows how hard the kayak has been used, or how it was stored. These are mostly cosmetic details and not necessarily deal breakers but should be considered when considering the price.

What kayak is the most comfortable?

Many people will find a company or two whose whitewater sit-on kayaks they feel the most comfortable with. Dagger and Wavesport offer the most widely accepted sit-in kayak outfitting currently for comfort, with Jackson close behind. Pyranha offers a high and narrow knee position that suits certain people really well.

Kayaks can be modified to fit many people, but the hull’s volume does not change. The first step is purchasing the correct size kayak for the paddler’s body weight. People over 200 lbs. may require a creek kayak to ensure a proper fit with close to 100 gallons of volume, while smaller people might need a kids kayak. It’s all about finding the correct one, and don’t take it personally if the boat isn’t comfortable!

Squishing into something that doesn’t fit won’t make you want to go kayak. Proper legroom, foot room ample cargo space, and hip space should be top priorities! Most kayaks will have an adjustable seat and bulkhead (what your feet push against). Again, this is where trying kayaks out with an instructor or shop can help immensely! They can also point you toward foam or modifications you can make to add comfort or control (maybe both) to your ride.

Are there other types of recreational kayaks?

Yes! There are inflatable kayaks, sea kayak, tandem kayaks, and touring kayaks. They all have their uses, but aren’t covered in this article!

Anything else I should know about the best beginner kayak?

I recommend that my students not worry too much about the boat when starting. We’d all love to hit the jackpot and buy the kayak we’ll have for the rest of our lives, but it’s not always in the cards. Maybe you learn the basics and find out you love being able to pull up to the local whitewater play park and surf your heart out. In that case, a playboat will suit you best, and it may take demoing and borrowing to find the right one for your style. The same goes for those who discover they like the feeling above a big gnarly water section ending in a waterfall! Find a comfortable boat, sit on top kayaks for an hour or two, and prepare for a new adventure!

Any good shops you would recommend?

Though I can’t speak for every shop or kayaker, I have found people to be welcoming. If you have questions, call a shop like Colorado Kayak Supply. They are great at steering people toward the right boat and offering guidance.

Final Thoughts

Well, I hope to see you out on the water soon! Whether you choose a hardshell or one of the inflatable kayaks, get out there and enjoy the rivers! Grab your kayak paddle and PFD, find a sweet section of rapids and continue to hew your craft!

Paddle on!

Also read : Five of the best PFDs for Women Kayakers in 2023

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