Best Whitewater Kayaks for Beginners: Complete 2020 Buyer’s Guide

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Whitewater kayaking is a fun, challenging, and intense sport, and it’s not one that’s recommended for beginners. This is a sport that requires a deep understanding of the dynamics of water, concentration, and skill with a paddle. The whitewater kayaker must be able to think clearly and quickly and have the ability to control both their fear and stress in very intense water conditions. All experienced whitewater kayakers had to start somewhere. Only through experience, trial and error, and dedication did these beginners learn how to take on whitewater rapids and handle their kayak like a pro. If you’re new to the sport and you want to try your hand at this type of kayaking, fortunately, there are kayaks that are specifically designed with the beginner in mind. The best whitewater kayaks for beginners provide users with an extra level of protection, offers a more durable design, and comes loaded with many features that the newbie will appreciate.

I’ve tested many of the top whitewater kayaks designed specifically for those new to the sport and have narrowed it down to the top six models on the market. Each of these kayaks has something special to offer, whether it’s improved tracking, easy handling, or top of the line durability. I’ve also created a buyer’s guide that will go over the different features to look for, how these features can impact your paddling experience, and how to pick out the perfect kayak. Below, you’ll find a comparison chart that lists each of these models, their best features and specs, and how they rated.

Whitewater Kayaks for Beginners Comparison Chart

ProductTypeStyleMax WeightRating
Driftsun Rover Whitewater Kayak
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TandemLong600 lbs
Intex Challenger K1 Kayak
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SingleRiver Runner220 lbs
Intex Explorer K2 Kayak
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TandemLong400 lbs
Sun DolphinKayak
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SingleRiver Runner250 lbs
Riot Kayaks Whitewater Kayak
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SingleCreek250 lbs
Advanced Elements Kayak
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SingleCreek300 lbs

Driftsun Rover Inflatable Whitewater Kayak


Our Rating: (5/5)

This lightweight and durable inflatable tandem whitewater kayak weighs in at twenty-eight pounds and is made out of heavy-duty PVC tarpaulin and one thousand denier reinforced layered PVC side tubes. The drop-stitch floor features a high-pressure rigid design for improved durability. The tracking fin is perfect for flat water and is removable. This model offers an ample rocker profile that allows you to easily control the kayak in flat and rough water conditions. The kayak is rated appropriate for class lll rapids and comes with a total of eight self-bailing ports that can help you keep water out.

The included two seats made out of EVA padding are highly adjustable come with high back supports for ultimate comfort. This package also includes a travel bag, rear tracking fin, hand pump and two aluminum paddles that are highly adjustable. The kayak weighs in at twenty-eight pounds and has a max weight of six hundred pounds, so you can bring along plenty of gear.

Pros

  • Lightweight design
  • High max weight capacity
  • Durable
  • Comes with free extras

Cons

  • Sluggish in the water

Conclusion

This model offers excellent tracking, but you’ll notice it’s not exactly the fastest kayak out there, but this is to be expected and it’s a common issue you’ll run into with most models of tandem kayaks. The lightweight design and high max user weight are enough to get more users to buy, despite the fact that the kayak can be somewhat sluggish in the water. However, the durable design allows you to easily take on challenging water conditions and fast-moving rivers.

Intex Challenger K1 Kayak


Our Rating: (4.5/5)

This durable single style kayak is made out of durable welded material that comes complete with bright graphics that will make you highly visible on the water. The boat’s cockpit is designed to maximize space and improved comfort. The I-beam floors add stability and feature an inflatable design. The cargo net is designed to secure any extra gear. However, the kayak has a low max user weigh of just two hundred and twenty pounds, which can make it a bad choice for larger kayakers. The low max weight will also have an impact on how much gear you bring along, depending on your weight.

Pros

  • Low price
  • Durable design
  • Cargo net provides extra storage
  • Includes several free extras

Cons

  • Low max weight

Conclusion

This model is nine feet in length and provides the type of tracking, maneuverability, and control that the beginner needs when they’re learning how to navigate whitewater conditions. The low max weight capacity may be a deal-breaker for larger kayakers or those who want to bring along more gear. Overall, this is a great buy for the smaller kayaker and it provides the type of durable design needed to handle challenging whitewater conditions.

Intex Explorer K2 Kayak


Our Rating: (4.5/5)

This tandem whitewater kayak comes with two highly adjustable seats, with higher backrests that provide better than average support that’s designed to prevent discomfort. The max weight comes in at four hundred pounds which is rather low for a tandem, limiting a max weight of two hundred pounds per passenger. This can limit you in terms of how much gear you can bring along. The kayak itself measures in at ten feet in length, which will give you more control when it comes to navigating obstacles in the water, but the shorter length can also have an impact on speed. The included removable skeg improves directional stability, further making this model a great choice for beginners. This model is easy to inflate and deflate and comes with a carry bag, allowing you to easily haul, transport, and store the kayak when you’re done for the day.

Pros

  • Includes two inflatable seats
  • Offers improved control
  • Removable skeg
  • Quick inflation and deflation

Cons

  • Slow
  • Low max weight limit

Conclusion

This model by Intex is very beginner-friendly and features a couple of high-backed inflatable seats that provide excellent back support as you take on challenging whitewater conditions. The shorter length of the tandem will take away from the boat’s speed, however, it improves user control, which is a huge plus for the paddler with no prior whitewater experience. The low max weight limit is disappointing since this can limit how much gear the paddlers can bring along. Overall, this is a durable, reliable, well-built inflatable kayak that’s designed to easily handle whitewater conditions.

SUNDOLPHIN Sun Dolphin Aruba Sit-in Kayak


Our Rating: (4.5/5)

This single style whitewater kayak comes with a heavily padded seat, plenty of storage space in the cockpit, and shock cord deck rigging that will allow you to attach and secure more gear. The foot braces are highly adjustable, designed to improve user comfort. This model is made out of durable high-density polyethylene that’s UV stabilized. The kayak also comes with an adjustable seat, complete with adjustable back support. The included foot braces are also highly adjustable. The built-in carry handles allow you to easily haul the kayak out of the water, transport it, and launch it.

Pros

  • Adjustable foot braces
  • Made out of UV stabilized material
  • Lightweight design
  • Heavily-padded seat

Cons

  • Low max user weight
  • Extra storage space

Conclusion

This model is durable, lightweight, and highly portable. It’s designed with the beginner in mind, so the newbie will feel comfortable steering and maneuvering this model around obstacles in the water. In terms of speed, this model is not the fastest, but the compact lightweight design does allow it to pick up speed rather easily compared to competing models.

Riot Kayaks Magnum 72 Whitewater Kayaker


Our Rating: (4.5/5)

This creek style kayak is built tough and comes with a unity seating system, complete with a floating backrest for ultimate support. The contoured design of the cockpit improves the paddler’s range of motion. This model includes rear and front flotation bags for improved buoyancy that works to minimize capsizing in tougher water conditions. This model measures in at just under eight feet and weighs forty-four pounds. It has a max user weight of two hundred and fifty pounds.

Pros

  • Lightweight design
  • Picks up speed easily
  • Rear and front floatation bags
  • Contoured cockpit

Cons

  • Price

Conclusion

This model is very beginner-friendly, easy to handle, and offers excellent tracking and maneuverability. The lightweight design will allow you to transport it from the water to your awaiting vehicle and can be launched by just one person. The contoured cockpit and floating backrest work to improve user comfort, while the rear and front flotation bags do an excellent job of preventing the kayak from capsizing when you hit particularly rough water conditions. This model will work for kayakers of all skill levels, but it’s a great choice for the beginner since it’s so easy to handle.

Advanced Elements Strait Edge Inflatable Kayak


Our Rating: (4/5)

This single style beginner-friendly kayak comes equipped with built-in aluminum ribs that define the stern and bow, which helps to improve tracking. It also features a self-bailing design that makes it a great choice for whitewater conditions. In calmer waters, you can close the ports. The adjustable padded seats offer upper back support and thick padding. The kayak is made out of tough PVC tarpaulin, which has a high puncture resistance rating. This model measures in at nine feet, eight inches and has a max user weight of three hundred pounds. It handles well in the water and can really pick up some speed with the right paddling technique.

Pros

  • Fast
  • High max user weight
  • Excellent tracking
  • Made out of PVC tarpaulin

Cons

  • Prone to mold growth if not dried correctly

Conclusion

This model is perfect for beginners who are just learning how to handle whitewater conditions and offers a higher than average single style kayak max user weight. The kayak handles well in a variety of water conditions including flat and whitewater. It can easily pick up and maintain great speed, tracks well, and is easy to navigate. This model is a must-have for the beginner in need of a durable, safe kayak that’s fast and designed to last.

Whitewater Kayaks for Beginners Buyer’s Guide

Whitewater kayaking is risky and exhilarating. The real rush of the sport comes from the paddler’s ability to navigate the rapids, successfully, weaving through challenging conditions. Because you’ll find yourself navigating around boulders, sharp rocks, and even waterfalls, the kayak you use needs to be top of the line. This is one piece of gear that you definitely don’t want to skimp on. Below, you’ll find a list of the different styles and types of kayaks available, what features they have to offer, and how they perform in the water.

Types of Whitewater Kayaks

Before you purchase a kayak, keep in mind that not all models of kayaks designed for whitewater conditions are the same. Each model can offer a vastly different design, depending on whitewater conditions and the skill level of the user.

Freestyle

These kayaks are under six and a half feet in length. This type of kayak is perfect for doing tricks, which makes it a poor choice for paddling downriver. These shorter kayaks have a flat, wide hull that’s designed to improve target buoyancy, but you may have difficulty keeping water out of your kayak if you’re a beginner and don’t quite know how to maneuver this faster craft around obstacles.

Playboats

These kayaks are six and a half feet up to eight feet in length and allow the user to perform stunts and tricks without sacrificing length like the freestyle kayak. These boats allow you to perform some great tricks, without giving up speed or control when you’re dealing with running rapids or paddling downriver.

River Runner

The river runner is seven and a half feet up to nine feet in length and is designed to follow fast-moving water. These kayaks excel at navigating around obstacles in the water. They tend to have a slightly reduced rocker and volume when compared to a creek boat. Because of this, these kayaks are faster. Some models will feature a flatter hull or harder edges.

Creek

Emerald waters

These kayaks measure in at seven and a half up to nine feet and have a large volume high rocker. This type of boat is designed for difficult, steep whitewater conditions. The rocker and volume are designed to prevent the kayak from submerging and can make navigating the waters easier. In fact, many paddlers will choose this type of kayak because of its reputation for greater maneuverability when dealing with tight channels.

A long kayak is nine feet or longer and is designed for gentler whitewater conditions or fast-running rivers. These kayaks offer more storage space for gear and a greater volume. Their narrow long shape is what allows them to build up speed quickly, however, the design reduces maneuverability. When you’re shopping for a long kayak, the stern rocker measurement will be important, since more stern rocker will make it slower, however, it will turn much faster, which can make it a great choice for challenging rapids.

Hull Design

When you’re shopping for a whitewater kayak, you’ll find there are two main types of hulls to choose from.

Planing

This style of hull consists mainly of a flat surface under the water, which will allow the kayak to skim across the water’s surface, which adds to the boat’s maneuverability and agility. When you’re traveling over flat water, the kayak’s lack of displacement will prevent this type of hull from slicing through the water, which will significantly slow it down.

Displacement

This type of hull features a design that allows it to easily slice into the water. This can result in improved speed when traveling over flat water, however, the design can have a negative impact on the boat’s maneuverability in rapid water conditions since the kayak does not have the ability to skim across the surface of the water.

Chines

The section of the kayak’s hull that’s below the waterline is referred to as the chines. Chines can have a big impact on how a boat handles. Chines come in a couple of design options.

Hard

Hard chines are the most popular option. These chines have very rigid contours which provide improved agility and control. However, the improved agility is a tradeoff for ease of use. The hard chines can easily get caught on obstacles in the water and can potentially cause the boat to capsize. These chines will also make the boat more responsive to changes in the current, reducing the kayak’s stability.

Soft

These chines feature a rounded hull below the water’s surface. This will improve the boat’s stability but it’s a tradeoff for maneuverability. The soft chine design will require more control when steering or paddling. Additionally, these chines can make maneuvering or taking tight corners, more difficult.

Rocker

The upward tilt of the kayak at the stern and bow is referred to as the rocker. A board with more rocker will offer better maneuverability. The flatter the kayak’s rocker is, the more speed it will be able to pick up. Additionally, more rocker can improve tracking as well. If a model features a higher rocker, the paddler will have an easier time handling obstacles and navigating rapids. These kayaks with a higher rocker will also allow the boat to easily right itself after a tough landing when running a drop. River runners and creek kayaks usually have a higher rocker, which allows them to run tighter watercourses.

Volume

When it comes to whitewater kayaks, the volume is very important. Volume is what contributes to how much supplies and gear that a person can store and the max weight the kayak can handle. The amount of volume in a whitewater kayak can have an impact on the way it handles. Creek boats usually have their volume massed at the bow. This is what allows them to remain in a horizontal position during drops.

How to Choose the Right Style of Whitewater Kayak

kayak

When you’re shopping for a whitewater kayak take into consideration the type of whitewater conditions you enjoy paddling on. There are a variety of river conditions that vary widely, from extremely rocky creeks to gentle, slow-moving rivers. Consider what types of rivers you enjoy paddling on, or the type you usually have access to. If you’re usually limited to slow-moving rivers then you won’t need a kayak that’s highly maneuverable and fast. If you usually travel down small waterways then a river runner or play boat may be a better option for you. If you have access to rivers with large, sharp rocks and several obstacles in fast-moving water conditions, then a creek, long, or river runner will fit the bill. Basically, the type of water conditions you normally find yourself in will be a major factor when you’re trying to choose a kayak that will work for you.

Max Weight Limits

Selecting the right size of kayak will be just as crucial as choosing the right type. All manufacturers will provide a max weight. You must follow this recommendation in order to get the most out of your paddling experience. If you go over the boat’s max weight, you will sit lower in the water. The extra weight will also have an impact on speed and maneuverability. Not only will you need to take your weight into consideration, but all the weight of the gear you bring along as well. If you normally prefer to bring along a lot of gear, then you’ll need to search for a model that offers a higher max weight limit. If you bring the family dog, their weight will also factor in.

Whitewater Kayaking Tips for the Beginner

When you’re new to kayaking, learning how to steer and maneuver these types of small water vessels can be pretty difficult, but when you throw whitewater conditions into the mix, the very idea can be more than intimidating for most beginners. Below, you’ll find some great tips that will help you easily navigate the waters and give you the confidence you need to take on new challenges.

The Right Gear

If you’re wondering what type of clothing you need, then you’re not alone. It’s one of the most common questions beginners have. In reality, when you’re dealing with these types of water conditions, you have to plan on getting wet, unlike your past experiences of paddling around on a calm lake. Some seasoned paddlers recommend wearing a wet suit, while others recommend dressing in layers and bringing along a spare set of clothing in a dry bag, so you can change once your time in the water has come to an end. Of course, you’ll also need to wear a life jacket, which will help protect you in the event the kayak capsizes and you find yourself rushing down the rapids.

Choose clothing that’s made out of synthetic fabrics such as polyester or nylon. These fabrics are quick-drying and water-repelling. Wool is another great option since it tends to dry quickly. Make sure you avoid wearing any type of cotton clothing since it dries slowly and it retains water.

In terms of footwear, wear some water shoes which will come in handy when you’re launching and have to deal with a river bottom that has sharp rocks. These shoes are usually made out of neoprene and provide some protection from chilly water conditions.

Many experienced kayakers also recommend using nose clips, since the nose works as an entry point for bacteria in the water.

Keeping a small dry bag on hand will allow you to hang onto your important personal items such as keys, wallet, phone, and clothing, keeping it dry and ready to go when you’re done for the day.

Be Ready to Face Intense Challenges

Capsizing can be a very scary experience and can definitely happen to the beginner who is having trouble handling waves in their kayak. Considering you’re a newbie, you can expect it to happen often, especially when you’re first learning how to get the hang of steering and maneuvering around challenging obstacles in the water.

Know Your Limits

When you’re out on the water for the first time, it’s important that you remain aware of your skill level, your weaknesses, and strengths, and know your limits. If you’re a strong swimmer, then you can feel free to push yourself and learn how to handle intense rapids. If you’re a weak swimmer, never kayak alone. Only attempt rapids that you feel you can handle until you’ve earned some experience under your belt.

Lessons

Learning from a trained instructor is the best way to learn how to handle the rapids. Some instructors will offer a five hour crash course on how to handle the rapids, while others will offer multiple short lessons. I recommend choosing the short lessons. This will allow you to become more comfortable being in the water,, while giving you the opportunity to ask the instructor more questions and enjoy a more in-depth learning experience.

Final Thoughts

The best whitewater kayaks for beginners are often more durable and are easy to maneuver, offering excellent tracking ability. Of course, the kayak you choose should heavily depend on what types of whitewater conditions you’re interested in exploring or those that you normally paddle around in. I’ve included a variety of styles of kayaks that can suit these different types of whitewater conditions, as well as models that earned a high rating for their ease of use and durability. I’m confident that you’ll find a great kayak in my top six list, one that’s built tough is reliable, and a kayak that won’t let you down, even in the most challenging water conditions.