For the daredevils amongst us, whitewater rafting is one of the most exciting hobbies you can do. Paddling down rushing rivers and dropping down some waterfalls can be a very thrilling experience.
Whitewater rafting can also be a very dangerous sport though, especially if you don’t have the right equipment with you. Fast rivers can be unrelenting, and if you’re in the wrong type of kayak for the water you’re on you may find yourself in a lot of trouble.
There are four categories of whitewater kayaks, each with their own unique designs that make them more suitable for different water types or intended uses.
The one you choose will have a huge impact on your whitewater rafting experience, and choosing the wrong one for what you’ll be doing may make your experience a dangerous one.
Before we dive right into the four kayak categories, we’ll first go over the design features you need to look out for on your kayak, as these can have a huge impact on your kayaking experience.
Chines are the edges of the boat hull that are below the waterline and are usually categorized as “hard” or “soft”.
Hard chines are very useful if you’re more skilled and able to steer more with your hips than with a paddle. This makes them great for making quick sharp turns. They also allow for more control in bigger water, though they can be a liability if they catch on rocks in shallow water.
Soft chines are better for less skilled paddlers as they rely less on hip movements and balance and more on actual paddling. These chines are best suited to rocky water.
There are two types of kayak hull, planing and displacement. Planing hulls have a flat surface from edge to edge and are better suited to quick turns thanks to their better and easier maneuverability.
Displacement hulls have a round curve that dips below the waterline. These hulls hold a line better and are a little faster than planing hulls, though they’re not as easy to turn with.
The rocker is the upward curve at the end of the boat’s hull. Smaller amounts of rocker make the kayaks faster, while bigger amounts make it more maneuverable.
Volume is the amount of water that the kayak can displace if it were completely submerged.
This is one of the main statistics used when deciding what kayak to buy. In general the larger the volume the more the kayak will float, while less volume will make the kayak better suited to performing tricks in the water and air.
Now that we have discussed some basic design features, let’s take a look at the four whitewater rafting kayak categories to help you choose the best one for the experience you’re after.
The Four Kayak Categories
Designed specifically for whitewater rafting racing and going fast in technical terrain, these kayaks can be over 9ft in length. The planed hull makes the kayak skip across the water at high speeds, while the massive length forces paddlers to think ahead as they maneuver this large kayak down fast rivers.
Due to their length, they don’t provide a lot of maneuverability, and so can’t be used if you’re going to be making tight turns. But in a straight race, these kayaks are the fastest you can get.
It takes a lot of strength to use a longboat kayak and so while it can be a great workout for your upper body you may also struggle with handling it if you get tired.
A longboats size makes these kayaks great for longer expeditions as well as races, as they often come with a lot of storage space and so you can spend longer out on the river.
When buying a longboat you’ll want to pay attention to the stern rocker as this will have an impact on what the kayak can be used for.
A more stern rocker will make the kayak slower in pools but it will be able to turn and correct faster, and boof better in rapids. A less stern rocker will make the kayak faster on flat water and will be able to hold the line better, but will also be harder to turn and correct.
The design of this kayak allows them to very quickly go down high-speed rivers. One of the most versatile whitewater kayaks, their shape is closer to a traditional kayak and they’re usually around 7-9 feet in length.
Their low-volume design makes them very fast, and they have very good tracking ability.
While these are great kayaks to begin learning whitewater rafting in, experts also enjoy using them because of their speed and control. Their flat hulls and defined edges improve their surfing ability on the water, making it very easy to turn sharp corners in or use in rougher waters.
If you’re looking for a kayak to do ariel tricks in this may not be the one for you. But this fast and nimble kayak is perfect for long river descents at high speeds.
These large boats are designed for paddling in steep, difficult water. These kayaks are, as their name suggests, perfect for paddling through a creek due to their narrow design and long length of usually 7.5-9 feet.
Creek boats feature a string rocker to help you stay on top of the water and prevent the nose of the boat from diving, though if you do submerge then the high volume allows you to surface quickly and keeps you from backending when punching holes.
When looking at creek boats the main characteristic you should look for is the chine. Boats with softer chines perform better around rocks and are less likely to get trapped in strong currents, but they’re harder to maneuver in bigger more open water.
Harder chines provide better control for more experienced paddlers who are able to shift their weight about while paddling at the same time, making them very good at turning corners quickly.
Creek boats are a great choice for a paddler of any level so long as you choose one with the right design. Cautious paddlers are best off choosing a kayak with more rounded hulls. Paddlers with a higher skill level who are able to use swift movements rather than force may find kayaks with hard chines and flatter hulls better for them.
If you want to perform tricks in the air and water then the playboat is the kayak for you. Specially designed features allow you to pull the boat into the air and perform tricks and spins guaranteed to impress.
These boats are usually 6.5ft or under, making them very easy to maneuver. Their planed hulls allow them to very easily rotate 360 degrees without you losing control, and they are able to keep up their speed easily even as you perform tricks in the water and air.
While you can use playboats in long stretches of water, they’re most suited to technical locations or at a park. The only place that this kayak is not suitable for is in big water.
Other Equipment You’ll Need
Kayaking isn’t all about the boat itself, you’ll need a lot of other gear before can hit the water.
If you’re booking a professional provider you won’t need to bring anything, but if you’re heading out on your own here’s everything you’ll need besides your kayak:
- Life jacket
- 2 paddles – one is a spare
- Signaling whistle
- Bilge pump
- Dry bag – for your personal items you may not want to leave on the shore
- Spray skirt – for cold weather and water
You’ll also need to make sure you’ve dressed appropriately for the day’s action. Many newcomers to the sport make the mistake of dressing for the weather, not the water, leading them to underdress for the often very cold water.
If the water tempreature is below 15 degrees then you should consider wearing a drysuit or wetsuit to protect yourself from the cold, along with pogies, which are like mittens and cover your hands. Synthetic or wool socks should be worn under your booties along will a warm cap to keep your head warm.
If it is above 15 degrees then you should avoid cotton clothing and choose a quick-drying fabric instead, such as nylon. Some swimwear like shorts is suitable, though for your upper body its better to wear a rashguard top or t-shirt. It is best to wear a sun-shielding hat as well as this will protect you from overheating and keep the sun out of your eyes while you’re on the river. Also don’t forget the sunscreen, you don’t want to look like a tomato once at the end of the day.
Extra Information – The Grading System
Before you choose a place for your whitewater kayaking, you need to understand how these locations are graded. These spots are graded 1-6, the higher the number the more skill you’ll need.
This grade can be susceptible to change though as it often depends on the water flow. If there’s been a lot of heavy rain recently then your grade 1 course may feel more like grade 3.
If you’re booking activities through a company, these usually take place on grade 1-2 rivers, which are suitable for beginners and usually include small waves, few obstructions, and are easy to swim out of if necessary.
Some kayaks do better on harder classes of water. River runners for example thrive in grade 4-6 waters as these are faster, have more tight turns, and steep drops. Playboats do well in grade 3-4 waters as they allow for fast movement while also providing space for tricks both in and out of the water.
It’s very important that you do not try out any location that is graded above your skill level. The waters can be very dangerous for people who don’t know what they’re doing and you’ll be putting yourself at a huge risk.
It is much better and safer the build up your skills at grade 1-2 waters before you try to advance then dive straight into a grade 6 river.