Let’s get you learning to whitewater kayak in 2023

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Let's get you learning to whitewater kayak in 2023

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 window-shading, to the pure untethered bliss that follows those who stick with it long enough, there await the keys to kingdom rafters can only look upon with envy! Below, we present the “Beginners Guide to Whitewater Kayaks.”



We will look at the factors to consider when starting this unique sport; to take a little guesswork out and set you up for success with the best beginner kayaks. In the end, nothing will do better than actually paddling a boat through the water, but this will give you the information to take the guesswork out of boat selection, so you can focus on your paddling skills and start having fun! That’s what it’s about, right?!

Disclosure: Some of the links in this article may be affiliate links, which can provide compensation to me at no cost to you if you decide to purchase a paid plan. These are products that outdoor river guides our enthusiasts personally use and stand behind.


whitewater kayak

What Should I Consider Before Purchasing a white water Kayak?

Are you brand new to paddling? Or has it been a few years since taking a beginner class? Either way, buying a kayak when you’re not sure where the sport fits into your life is like buying a wedding ring for a date you’ve been out with once. There’s no way to know how they will fit into your life!

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. They’ll help you with 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!

My Friend Paddles Class V, Can’t She/He Teach Me?

If your friend is willing to paddle around a lake or very mellow Class I, teach you the strokes and really take it back to the basics. They are well-adjusted individuals who can shrug off your insults about how bad they’ve been teaching you when things get tricky… Then and only then would I say go for it!

The point is kayaking is like any skill; it takes time and effort to become proficient. During that time, challenges can arise. 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 is the best whitewater kayak for beginners?

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 the one that makes things “easy.” It’s the one that offers support in learning while helping learn the dynamic nature of whitewater and how to gain control, regardless of the watercraft.

My friend told me to buy a Creek Boat. What is that?

First, 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..

Your friend refers to a Creek Kayak, generally associated with low-water kayaking, not a whitewater kayak. For years, these kayaks have been espoused as good for beginners. I’m here to dispel that logic.

Though these boats are relatively forgiving, have lots of 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. They generally have your back when things get weird and offer plenty of storage space for overnight trips.

The hull will have 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 Runner is generally the best whitewater 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 evolving also 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!

The last class of whitewater 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 respond well 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!

What whitewater kayaks specifically should I look for?

River Runners are the absolute best choice for any beginner! They include kayaks like the Liquid Logic Remix and BraapWaka GoatDagger RewindJackson 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. The now-retired Dagger Axiom might be the best kayak ever made for beginners… In my opinion, of course!

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!

I see used whitewater 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 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.

Kayaks can be put through some serious abuse. Bouncing off rocks, seal slides (so fun!), and unmanned descents while filled with water can create some wounds and stories! Cracked kayaks abound and, in the hands of a capable boatman, can be welded or repaired. Though they may never stand up to the abuse of a professional kayaker again, there’s nothing against scoring a welded kayak on the cheap! Just know that a welded boat should not cost more than $400, and it’s best if the welds are in the tip and tail, as a repair under the seat will likely open up again sooner or later. Again, don’t pay too much.

What kayak is the most comfortable?

Many people will find a company or two whose whitewater kayaks feel the most comfortable. Dagger and Wavesport offer the most widely accepted 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, 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.

Where can I learn?

That all depends on where you are in the world! 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:

Anything else I should know about the best beginner whitewater 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 just 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 to sit in for an hour or two and prepare for a new adventure!

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.

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 a river in a whitewater kayak won’t disappoint. I promise!

Paddle on!

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