A Guide to Buying the Best Whitewater Kayak

If you can believe it there are actually people out there who believe that kayaking is a boring sport for old people. That is clearly because they have never felt the thrill of tracking down a river. Nor have they ever put themselves at the mercy of unpredictable currents where you only have your kayak and your paddle to defend yourself against the water.

Maybe they were just too scared to experience that and decided to take the easy way out! For those of us who know and love this sport though we know how challenging it can be both mentally and physically. Especially when it comes to any form of whitewater kayaking. As we said you are essentially alone with only your boat and your paddle to help you out there. 

This makes shopping for the right boat all the more important. You can’t just walk into a sporting goods store or Walmart and pick up the first thing you see. Remember your safety depends on the boat that you chose. So first you really have to decide what is the most common use you are going to have for the boat! I know this may seem like basic stuff for all of you seasoned pros, but bear with us we need to get all over newcomers on the same page.

To do that we will be going through a number of boats we feel are the best in specific situations! Of course, we fully expect there to be some controversy over our picks, but rest assured that all of the boats we will talk about can keep you safe out on the water. After all, the main goal while out on the water is too get back on land in one piece!

Product Name

Our Rating

Best Overall Whitewater Kayak

Best Beginner Kayak

Dagger Kayaks Zydeco 9.0

Best Overall Whitewater Kayak

We are probably going to get a lot of heat from many of you avid kayakers out there. But we had to go with the boat that we feel is the most versatile and easy to pick up. We get that this boat might be missing some of the things that pros really need out in the water. How we see it though is this boat is the most versatile and the one most people regardless of skill level can ride in! We are talking about the Dagger Mamba 8.1 Kayak.

We know it may sound like a contradiction from the reviews, but hear us out. Our main issue with this kayak is that they didn’t make it even more versatile. We thought that they could potentially add some rod holders and other fishing add-ons. With the way, the kayak can handle any and all sorts of water we really thought it could be an all around kayak. 

source: amazon.com

Still, it is a boat that you can do creaking in as well as some decent river running. It is one of the safest boats out there, and perfect for beginners. As they can use the same boat to continue to grow in their whitewater experience. Of course, as you get more specific as a whitewater kayaker you will probably move to a boat that fits your specific needs best. As an overall boat though we are sticking by our pick of the Dagger Mamba 8.1 Kayak!

Honorable Mention: Pyranha Machno Kayak

When choosing the top kayak we almost all unanimously went for the Dagger in the end, but it was close between other kayaks. The Dagger brand maybe was what pulled it over the edge. We do however have other boats that we particularly liked and think could fit the same description that the Dagger 8.1 does. That boat would have to be the Pyranha Machno Kayak.

This is a boat that we just loved and raved about how versatile it was. It is a boat that is best suited for river running, but you can actually get a lot of things done with it. We feel it is comfortable enough (when you set it just right) so that you can use it in virtually any situation. It can be a great boat to really get into very very tough rivers. It is probably the fastest boat you will ever get on. 

source: amazon.com

We are not going to lie it can get a little scary at times even. That is why it just didn’t crack the top spot. With that mix between speed and play it just may be a little too much to handle for average riders. All in all, though it’s a great boat!

Best Beginner Kayak

When we think of a beginner kayak for whitewater, we typically think of a bigger, wider boat. Just because it will allow you to feel a bit safer at least in appearance. One of the most common mistakes though is trying to take a wide fishing boat to white waters.

Those boats just don’t have the stability to keep you safe. Like we always say sure you may be able to survive a ride, but there is no need to put yourself at too much of a risk out there. With that in mind, we decided to go with the Dagger Kayaks Zydeco 9.0 as our top beginner boat! The reasons are basically what we just stated it is a very stable boat that will make you feel safe on the water. 

source: Dagger kayaks

Truly you may “outgrow” this boat quite quickly if you are looking for more action. With this boat though you take it to walk you through the whole transition from recreational kayaking to whitewater kayaking. Still, this boat is a very decent boat. As you can navigate smoothly down the river while not losing stability which is key for this type of kayaking. To all of you experts out there that are looking for the top play boats and river runners out there no worries they’re coming!

A Brief Lesson Before We Get Any Further

We’ve thrown out a couple of big words out there and we want to make sure you know exactly what we mean. Whitewater kayaking is not as simple as recreational kayaking. In recreational kayaks, you either want to fish or you don’t. So you have fishing boats or normal recreational boats. They still come in different shapes and sizes but serve basically the same purpose. In whitewater kayaking, you really should think about getting a specific boat for what you want to do in the water. The 3 main types of kayaks are river runners, creeking boats, and play boats. Each one requires a specific type of boat. As the rivers, and what you will be doing in them differ. Let’s go over each category real quick so you don’t end up getting in the wrong boat!

River Runners

River runners are boats that are built to go fast! Like its name suggests the main objective in this type of kayaking is getting downriver quickly. These types of boats are the ones that you can see in most kayaking competitions that are against the clock or timed in any way. These boats tend to be a bit longer and narrower than other boats. As their main purpose is to be aerodynamic. If you are just getting started in whitewater kayaking they may not be your best option. As they are typically harder to control in the water.

Creeking Boats

You’ve heard us allude to this type of boat already. This is probably the boat that most people use while on whitewater. The creeking boat tends to be a little wider than river runners and other whitewater kayaks. Make no mistake about it though they can also be the ones that you end up taking on the toughest adventures. These boats are commonly used to ride down rivers that are not too deep. Usually with a good number of rocks and other potential threats in the way.

They are the best boats for riding down waterfalls as well! The highest waterfall drop ever landed in a kayak was in a creeking boat. Tyler Brandt took a Dagger Nomad creeking boat down a 189-foot waterfall and landed safely. Well, a broken wrist to show for it, but as close to complete safety as you would expect. Still, creeking boats serve as great learning boats for whitewater kayaking. Since they are the widest and make people feel safe in the water. Many well trained experienced kayakers will never even touch other types of boat besides these ones.

Play Boats

These kayaks as their name suggest are not meant actually for complete rides down the river. People that are into playboats tend to use them only on certain parts of the river. Where they can catch waves or currents that allow them to get airborne and do some flips and tricks.

This may be the most advanced form of whitewater kayaking. As it takes a lot of experience to be able to perform. Plus you are guaranteed a decent number of bumps and bruises before you can fully master these boats. They are particularly smaller boats yet some even are a bit more round along the edges.

Best River Runner Kayak

River running is as exciting as it is dangerous! That is why we recommend you at least get around to trying it once in your life! These types of kayaks are kind of the hybrid when it comes to whitewater kayaking. They have the front of a creeking boat and the back of a play boat. This design makes them great for picking up speed with just a couple of paddles.

The guys at Dagger Kayaks really hit the nail on the head with the Dagger Axiom 8.5 Kayak. This boat is not as popular as one would think that is why we chose it! We feel that we need to give it some love. We picked as the best river runner because we feel that it is one of the most maneuverable river runners out there.

source: dagger.com

Again we understand that there may be some disagreement with the pick. As this boat isn’t the typical river runner that is essentially a torpedo. We like it because you can basically do as you please with this boat on the water. You can get some playing done as well as great river running. That is how maneuverable it is! You automatically feel how it is super light in the water which is essential to these types of boats.

At 8.5 you can get it in and out of the water easily, load it up and go. Not only that but it can hold just about any paddler out there. It’s max weight capacity is 210 lbs. For a boat in that size, it is great! If you need a longer version you can also go for the 9 footer. Which is basically the same thing, but better suited for taller riders. Overall the boat is going to allow you to have a lot of fun out on the water. While keeping you safe in tough spots that you may hit out there!

Best Creeking Boat

We’ve been over the fact that creeking boats are the most common whitewater boats out there. Besides they are the boats that will allow you to ride through basically all types of rivers. Chances are most people that you meet hitting white waters will be on a creeking boat. That is because as we said they are the ones that essentially make you feel safe.

They also allow you to take on virtually any obstacle with ease! We gave this boat a quick mention before, as the boat used to break the highest fall record. If it can take on a 189-foot kayak then we are sure it can work wonders for you! That boat is the Dagger Nomad 8.5 kayak! This boat just screams creeking boat. It has the classic design that all of the other creeking boats follow. It has really not changed for years.

You can go out and pick up literally any year’s version of this boat and we can guarantee you are going to have a great boat. With this boat, you can start out by taking a ride on slow rivers and gradually start getting into rougher waters. Like we said it can take a 189-foot drop so you can bet it can take any type of rapid you are thinking of putting it in. To be honest, we decided to not give it the best overall boat because we just felt it fit this category perfectly. 

The only thing that we may say it could “lack” is speed. But that is not its main purpose anyway. It makes up for that though with great stability. It is going to take a monumental effort for you to flip on this boat out there. Besides with the seat upgrade it got a couple versions ago you are going to have a very comfortable ride no matter what you decide to do. If you want a pure creeking boat go out and get the Dagger Nomad and don’t worry about a thing. We were going to give another boat an honorable mention. Then we just realized there was really no need to. Every other boat out there is modeled after this one anyway!

Best Play Boat

When it comes to play boats we feel that it really depends on the person. The boat needs to fit the person and his or her needs just right. It’s a lot like a surf or skateboard in that the there is no one great length to width ratio that fits best. It really depends a lot on your own type of body and style of riding.

For the most part, though people who are avid play boaters have said that what they want to do is paddle the least amount of time possible. Some even venture without a paddle for long periods of time the reason behind that is very simple. If you want to flip, turn, and twist you won’t want to have the danger of a paddle hitting your head and things like that. We went with the Riot Kayaks Astro 58 Whitewater Playboating Kayak as our pick. 

Mainly because we liked its maneuverability without a paddle. It was a boat that we felt could easily be put in the right position with your hips and hands. Especially if riding specific areas where you intend to catch waves or take advantage of a spot in the river. As we said though playboating is a different beast in its own right. As many things can come into play. If you are looking for a light maneuverable boat looking into our pick may be a good idea. After all we had some very capable riders test it out and it checked out pretty well!

Rapids Are Not All Made Equal

If you were once on a guided kayaking trip on a big raft with a lot of people and that fueled your interest in whitewater kayaking you are not alone. A lot of people trace their kayaking roots to an experience on a vacation that made them want to pick up kayaking as a regular hobby. What you want to do is avoid many of those people’s mistakes. Just because you went on one of this trips doesn’t mean you are a highly qualified professional that can tackle any rapid.

Even seasoned pros recommend that you at least give the route you are going to take a look before you head to the water. That way you will know what to expect and can adjust your route accordingly. It’s not just about getting on at the top and out at the bottom whitewater kayaking is not water slide! There are different types of rapids out there and you have to make sure you know what you are getting into.

Rapids are classified by categories depending on how many potentially hazardous elements they contain and how tough they are to navigate. Levels 1 and 2 are very simple rapids that present minimal danger. These are the type of rapids where group expeditions are organized, and you typically see the big rafts. They are great starting points for novice riders because they won’t typically be too hard on you if you make a mistake. Plus you probably won’t see a significant drop in the river's trajectory or a considerable amount of rocks that could complicate things.

Levels 3 and 4 are where the real action takes place. To be able to ride these types of rapids safely you need to be an expert rider. Even then, trying to tackle these types of rapids completely on your own without any form of backup or supervision is never a good idea. Here you are very likely to see tough whitewater passages as well as a considerable amount of rock and currents. You will also have to come down a tall waterfall or drop! We would not recommend anyone with little experience to even try to ride these types of rapids. It is essentially like skiing on black diamond slopes.

Levels 5 and 5+ are quite simply rapids that very few people in the world even attempt. These rapids punish you even if you make the right moves. It goes without saying that we would hardly recommend that any one try these types of runs. You can have plenty of fun on a kayak without putting yourself completely in harm's way. Of course if your are keen on coming face to face with one of these rapids we cannot stop you! Just expect heavy drops a lot of rocks and very, very difficult currents!


Whitewater kayaking can be a whole lot of fun, but it can also be a dangerous experience. It really depends on what type of thrill you are looking for. The good thing is that there are plenty of options out there depending on what you want to do! As we’ve said what we recommend above all else is only riding in places where you feel 100% confident in your ability. There are plenty of ways to increase your ability as well! You can find man-made rapids where they can hook you up with some lessons before you hit the real thing! As far as the individual boats all of the boats that we talked about in the article will be a great option out on the water!

To choose what boat is right for you, you need to ask yourself to simply questions first! What is your actual skill level right now? Be very real in this point, and then find out the next question! What type of kayaking will you be doing the most? If you keep those two things in mind the whole buying process will be much easier! That way you can spend less time at the store and more time planning your next adventure!

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