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The 7 Best Whitewater Kayaks for Beginners in 2021: Reviews and First Time Buyer’s Guide

Are you a beginner and thinking about getting a whitewater kayak? Looking for the best one but not sure whats important? If so, then this post is for you! To help you know what to look for when buying a whitewater kayak we’ve put together a first time buyer’s guide so you can better evaluate each kayak. We’ve also put together a list and reviewed what we think are the best whitewater kayaks for beginners in 2021. Let’s get started.

Quick Answer: The Best Beginner Whitewater Kayaks

How to Choose a Beginner Whitewater Kayak: Buying Guide

Whitewater kayaks are part stunt craft and part adventure machines. Some are designed for running the world’s most challenging and dangerous rapids, while others are for lazy trips downriver loaded with camping gear. To get the right one, you’ve got to know the differences and know what you want from your boat.

Types of Whitewater Kayaks

There are actually a few different types of whitewater kayaks to know about which are:

  • Freestyle boats
  • River runners
  • Playboats
  • Creekboats
  • Longboats
  • Inflatables

Each have their own pros and cons so let’s look at each type and discus which would be most suitable for beginners.

Freestyle Boats

Freestyle boats are the stunt kayaks of the river. They’re the shortest kayaks you’ll find, which means they’re also the most maneuverable. By keeping the hull lengths to less than seven feet long, these kayaks will turn on a dime.

But it also means that they are very challenging to steer at all. While they excel at doing stunts and tricks in eddies and holes, getting them to go in a straight line down river takes a lot of effort.

To keep these boats nimble, they have flat bottoms and planning hulls. They’re great at surfing through rapids and turning sharply. But their short stature means there’s little room for gear, and they are extremely unstable. While they’re fun for tricks, they’re not great at taking on the most technical whitewater courses.

River Runners

These boats are between seven and a half and nine feet long, and they’re designed to take you downriver. They blend the ability to take on rapids and whitewater with the docile handling of a flatwater boat.

As a bonus, their extra length allows for more volume, which means more room for your gear on extended trips. They’re easy to control and mild-mannered, making them great vessels for beginners.

Playboats

These boats are a hybrid between the river runners and the freestyle designs. Their lengths are right in the middle, too–they measure anywhere from six and a half to eight feet in length. These boats excel at running rapids but can also be used for river running.

Creek Boats

Creekers are large volume boats that range anywhere from seven and a half to nine feet long. They’ve got a lot of buoyancy for taking on fast-moving and difficult whitewater conditions.

Long Boats

In the whitewater world, long boats are river runners for expedition paddling. The advantage of having a longer waterline is to store more gear, which means overnight camping trips down river can become a thing.

The longer a kayak gets, the less maneuverable it is. Long boats can’t be used for tricks and stunts as freestyle boats can, but they’re great for moderate whitewater and cruising for hours and hours downriver.

By definition, long boats are more than nine feet long.

Inflatables

Two people kayaking down river rapids

Many inflatable kayaks are rated for whitewater paddling. These boat designs are short for maneuverability, plus they’re lightweight and really buoyant. The heavy PVC that these boats are made from gives just enough to take bumps without bursting. Whitewater rafts are made from the same stuff.

The best inflatable whitewater kayaks are self-bailing, with a scupper hole system to let the water drain out. They should also have short and wide designs that allow you to maneuver between rocks and tight spaces.

An inflatable boat’s advantage is that you can easily take it with you where ever you go. The deflated vessel fits in a bag about the size of a large suitcase. They’re perfect for throwing in the trunk of your car–no roof rack required.

Types of Kayaks to Avoid for Whitewater

Whitewater kayaking involves a lot of banging into rocks and quick maneuvering. Besides picking the length and style of boat that best suits your expected conditions, it’s essential to find a boat with the hardiness to meet the challenge.

Composite or ABS plastic kayaks are out. The only boats that are strong enough to take this sort of abuse are either rotomolded polyethylene or inflatable PVC.

It’s also wise to avoid kayaks that are too long. On the ocean, long and thin kayaks have the advantage of higher hull speeds. All the power is taken from your paddle, so you want to get the most mileage out of every stroke. The most valued handling quality is usually the glide or how far you can travel on each stroke.

On the river, the opposite is true. The river provides the power and the movement, and you need a boat that you can turn quickly to directed to go where you need it to go. Whitewater kayaks are nearly always less than nine feet long for this very reason, even less for more technical conditions.

Rapid Classes

River rapids are broken down into a class system.

  • Class A – This is the term for calm, still lake water.
  • Class I – Easy, smooth water with some ripples. Some sandbanks to avoid with gentle curves. The biggest challenges occur around bridges and obstacles.
  • Class II – Moderate with medium-quick moving water. Rapids have regular waves but open passages between rocks that require maneuvering.
  • Class III – Moderately difficult, with lots of high and irregular waves and rocks. Passages are narrower; a visual inspection is required if the rapids are unfamiliar.
  • Class IV – Difficult with long powerful rapids and standing waves, along with eddies that require precise maneuvering.
  • Class V – Extremely difficult with long and violent rapids that connect with no interruption. The river has obstructions and big drops. Experts only!
  • Class VI – Extraordinarily difficult and extremely dangerous, for the world’s top paddlers only, and even then with care and precautions. For all intents are purposes, Class VI rapids are un-navigable.

Whitewater Kayak Design Considerations

Overall Size

Picking the right size of whitewater kayak is a delicate balance that depends on many factors. You need a large enough kayak to support you and the gear you want to carry but also nimble and robust enough to tackle the challenging conditions you’d like to face.

If you’re right on the line between boat sizes, it’s usually a good idea for beginners to go up a size instead of down. Larger boats tend to be more forgiving and will give you the most flexibility when looking for new challenges.

Besides length, you’ll also want to consider the interior volume of the hull. The volume gives you an idea of how much gear you can stuff in the boat. If you’re in the market for a freestyle boat, you might not care too much. But if you’re looking for a river runner or a long boat, this makes a big difference. Extended trekking requires space for food, your tent, and cooking supplies.

The other benefit of a high-volume hull is that if you get topped by waves and whitewater, the boat will have more force popping it to the surface.

Rocker

The rocker is the curve that a boat has lengthwise, between the bow and the stern. Rocker is a way of reducing the waterline, so it makes a boat more maneuverable. If a boat is flat, with little or no rocker, it will have better tracking. Rocker allows a boat to ride over waves and obstacles more easily.

Hull Shapes

The hulls of whitewater kayaks are designed like surf or paddleboards–they either plane or don’t.

A planing hull is flat and is designed to fly over the top of fast-moving water. They’re agile and can turn on a dime. Freestyle boats are going to be planning hulls.

Displacement hulls are the opposite–they are designed to push through the water like the hull of a ship. They sit deeper in the water, and the result is a boat that tracks straight and isn’t disrupted by uneven paddling or the errant current.

Chines

Chines are the kayak’s underwater edges–where the sides meet the bottom, so to speak. On some boats, this is an apparent sharp line called a hard chine. On others, it is a gentle curve that is not really identifiable. That’s called a soft chine.

Hard chines help in tracking, and they provide more control and agility. Unfortunately, they can also get stuck on rocks or obstacles. They can also get caught in eddies and currents, making the boat feel less manageable and more erratic.

Soft chines are forgiving of water conditions and provide a nice easy ride, but since they provide less tracking, they require more work on the part of the paddler. Soft chined boats are often described as being tippier.

Weight

You should always consider the weight of a kayak. Remember, you’re going to be taking it from your car to the water. It needs to be somewhat portable. Heavier kayaks are also more challenging to maneuver out on the water.

Whitewater Kayak Cost

The cost of a whitewater kayak, like many large purchases, depends on many factors. To some extent, whitewater kayaking is a specialized activity. There aren’t too many boat makers, and the ones that build premium boats justifiably charge a premium price.

Values abound, however. If the state-of-the-art plastic boats are out of your reach for the time being, consider some of the best-designed inflatable boats. These boats are excellent for beginners, and they offer an incredible value, especially with their easy transport and storage.

It’s also worth noting that plastic kayaks are durable goods that will last many years. And when it’s time to move on to other adventures, kayaks of all shapes and sizes are usually easy to sell online.

Best Whitewater Kayak for Beginners Reviews

Now that you hopefully have a better idea of what you should be looking for it’s time to look at some beginner whitewater kayak reviews. Here’s a list of 7 that we recommend for newbies.

#1. SeaEagle 300x Beginner Whitewater Kayak

The SeaEagle 300x is a premier model that stands out from the rest! As part of the Explorer series, the 300x is considered one of the best whitewater kayaks for adventure, offering high durability for whitewater and paddling. 

The 300x offers a removable slide skeg, which allows for an improved tracking experience in open water. It’s the top whitewater kayak for all your excursions, including camping, exploring, and fishing trips. The SeaEagle measures 118 inches (300 cm) in length and 39 inches (100 cm) in width, with a load capacity of one person of the equivalent of 395 lbs (179 kg). The SeaEagle rates as a class IV for whitewaters. 

The kayak inflates within five minutes and includes 16 drain valves that work quickly, for wet whitewater kayaking or the valves can be closed to accommodate paddling on flat water. The SeaEagle 300x is designed to take on any surf, open-water, and whitewater adventure.

If you’re looking for something a little bigger then check out the SeaEagle 380x which is a tandem version of the SeaEagle 300x. This model offers everything like the 300x series, with more room and more weight capacity so you can take more gear or some friends. 

#2. AIRE Tributary Tomcat Solo Kayak for Whitewater

The AIRE Tributary Tomcat Solo is one of the top whitewater kayaks for beginners. This durable, inflatable kayak offers exceptional design with an upturned bow and stern, which allows for easy maneuvering to deflect waves. The interior provides adequate comfort with adjustable, inflatable seating and thermal welded seams. The exterior is reinforced with a PVC shell, with two layers of construction and internal bladders.

Measuring 123 inches (312 cm) in length, with a width of 36 inches (91 cm), the AIRE model features multiple cargo loops to tie in the gear and bow/stern D-rings for easy handling in and out of the water. The kayak comes with a repair kit, making minor fixes easy on camping and fishing trips. 

The light-weight design is easy to inflate and move through any waters. The AIRE Tributary Tomcat Solo is ideal for new paddlers and beginners to kayaking. A one-year warranty is available against defects.

Again, if you prefer going whitewater kayaking with friends then you could get the the tandem version of the AIRE Tributary inflatable kayak which offers the same comfort but with additional space and weight capacity.

#3. Driftsun Rover 120/220 Whitewater Kayak for Beginners

Driftsun Rover 220 Inflatable Tandem Kayak Inflatable White-Water Kayak with...
144 Reviews
Driftsun Rover 220 Inflatable Tandem Kayak Inflatable White-Water Kayak with...
  • Durable & Lightweight - Fully inflates to a full sized kayak in less than 10 minutes and weighs a manageable 28 Lbs. 1000D...
  • Stable & Maneuverable - Rigid High Pressure Drop Stitch Floor, Removable Flat Water Tracking Fin, and ample rocker profile deliver...
  • Adventure Ready - Whitewater Rating: Suitable up to class III and IV rapids, 8 Self Bailing Ports, Plentiful Tie Down Points for...

The Driftsun Rover is a lightweight, durable, full-sized kayak made with heavy-duty fabric and reinforcement to prevent punctures and related damage. The kayak measures 12’ 6” (46 cm) in length and 38” in width, with 28 lbs. You’ll find it’s one of the best types of whitewater kayaks for your next outdoor adventure for class III and IV rapids, with numerous tie-down points for gear and eight self-bailing ports.

This fantastic kayak package includes adjustable aluminum paddles, adjustable EVA padded seats, and high back support. It’s the ideal way to enjoy a paddling or kayaking adventure with your kids and pets. The drop stitch floor is sturdy, providing excellent stability and navigation with a removable tracking fin through flat water or whitewaters. 

The Driftsun Rover kayak is ideal for both thrill-seekers and family camping trips, offering the best experience for all levels and experience in kayaking and paddling.

#4. Pyranha Ripper Whitewater Kayak For Newbies

The Pyranha Ripper is one of the top whitewater kayaks for outdoor adventures that focus on the adrenaline rush! Available in both small (8’11” by 23”) and medium (9’ x 24.5”) sizes, this ambitious product offers the best in managing the most out of your downriver excursion. 

The high-quality range of security features, and handles, allows you to maneuver through any run and navigate efficiently in and around rocks. This fantastic kayak features some of the best whitewater tools, including low volume stern, planning haul, a full volume bow, and Stout 2 Outfitting. 

The Pyranha Ripper offers the best kayak experience from Class II and V, with lots of adaptability and focused stability to enhance the quality of your trip, with a small but strong product that delivers a well-controlled, enjoyable run; every time! It’s ideal for the slightly reckless kayaker who loves a bit of risk for fun.

#5. Jackson Kayak AntiX 2.0 Beginner Whitewater Kayak

Are you looking for the high-speed rush that swiftly navigates through waves and holes effortlessly? The Jackson Kayak AntiX 2.0 offers an incredible experience with more legroom and length than the original. It offers all the improved speed, surfing ability, and bow drive you need to enjoy the ride. With an extra eight inches than the old Antix, the revised design enhances the run without compromising your squirt or momentum.

The stylish kayak is highly durable for river running and creeks, offering more space and comfort for taller, bigger paddlers to enjoy the ride. The kayak’s length measures between 7’7” to 8’5” in length with a width range of 25” to 28”. 

The capacity can accommodate a total of between 341 to 421 lbs. This impressive whitewater kayak is available in a range of bright colors and styles to order. It’s an ideal boat for outdoor enthusiasts who lean towards the more adventurous side of kayaking.

#6. Jackson Kayak Rockstar 4.0 Whitewater Kayak for Beginners

Considered one of the most freestyle and playful designs available in the market is the Jackson Kayak Rockstar 4.0 Whitewater Kayak. It’s a boat that takes your whitewater run to the next level in terms of thrill-seeking adventure. The increased size offers a high level of comfort for both paddling and kayaking. The Rockstar model will prepare you for the biggest waves, fastest runs, and rock spins you’ll encounter on the water.

This kayak is considered one of the driest, with no holes drilled into the design. You’ll have the ability to paddle without water in the boat due to the cockpit rim designs and improved features. You’ll have the option of customizing your kayak order from three sizes and a range of vibrant colors. The top features of the Rockstar 4.0 are the expanded width, greater control, and dryness to improve comfort each time you enjoy a run.

#7. Sea Eagle 370 Beginner Whitewater Kayak

The inflatable Sea Eagle 370 is one of the most lightweight kayaks available, weighing only 32 lbs, and condenses efficiently to fit a corner of your car’s trunk for upcoming camping and fishing trips. The kayak expands to provide adequate room for up to three people or 650 lbs, though it’s best suited for two people. 

The interior material is thicker than previous models, offering improved durability and strength in the water. It’s an excellent option for beginner whitewater kayakers. This series of sporty kayaks offer improved valves, material, and a fully inflatable boat in under ten minutes. It’s an ideal investment for all levels of paddlers and kayakers, with a comfortable hull shape. 

The pricing is lower than many standard kayaks, making the Sea Eagle 370 perfect for first-time buyers looking for a quality product. The entire length of the kayak measures 150 inches (381 cm) with a width of 34 inches (86 cm)

Conclusion: Which One Should You Buy?

Considering all the options available, choosing the best kayak should consider the overall value and durability. The SeaEagle 300x Explorer offers the ultimate high-quality performance, with all the equipment and safety features needed for all levels of experience. This model accommodates every adventure from the beginner to the advanced thrill-seeker, providing top-notch quality and custom features unparalleled.