Best Whitewater Kayak – Top 8 Whitewater ‘Yaks For Running Rapids In 2021

The exhilarating, extreme – and somewhat dangerous – nature of whitewater kayaking won’t be everyone’s cup of tea.

But if you’re the type who enjoys intense, adrenaline-fueled sports, by all means, give it a go – after you choose the best whitewater kayak, that is.

There’s one thing you need to know, though:  

Narrowing down your options won’t be easy. Your choice depends on several different factors – and given that the stakes are pretty high, make sure that you choose right.

I hope this guide will help you do just that!

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In A Rush? The Winner After 43 Hours Of Research

Dagger Rewind Medium

Dagger Rewind Medium

Our Rating: ★★★★★

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Why is it better?

  • An award-winning design from a reputable manufacturer of whitewater kayaks
  • Low-volume stern ensures playfulness, greater maneuverability and dynamic handling
  • Enhanced rocker and ample bow volume allow for rapid resurfacing and help maintain speed
  • Rated for whitewater rapids of various difficulty levels, from class I to class V
  • Contour Ergo outfitting, with adjustable thigh braces and bulkhead foot braces, and back band adjustments ensure comfort at all contact points
  • The weight range of 140 to 220 pounds makes it suitable for paddlers of all sizes

How Do I Choose A Whitewater Kayak?

Man in blue whitewater kayak and Orange drysuit

The best advice about choosing the best whitewater kayak for beginners – although it can apply to whitewater kayakers of all skill levels – I can give you is this:

Opt for a whitewater kayak that suits your current skill level, rather than getting one you’ll “grow into” with time.

If you’re new to the sport, go with a beginner-friendly kayak and grow with it rather than into it; that’s something to keep in mind throughout this guide. 

Hull Design Features & Terminology

When looking at the specs of whitewater kayaks, you’ll notice several terms commonly used to describe the different aspects of the hull’s design.

It’s essential to understand the terminology because these features and characteristics greatly impact how the kayak handles while on the water. 

Hull Shape

The shape of the hull affects both a kayak’s stability and its performance; I hope that much is clear. And when it comes to whitewater kayaks, you generally have two hull types to choose from:

  • Planing Hull – A planing hull is essentially flat, as in, has a flat surface below the water, which allows the kayak to skim over the water’s surface rather than cut through it. That amounts to greater agility and maneuverability, allowing the paddler to perform aerial tricks, but slows the kayak down in flat waters.
  • Displacement Hull – Kayaks with displacement hulls will feature a semi- or fully-curved bottom, which allows them to push their way through the water. They’ll track better in a straight line and “forgive” some minor errors more readily.

Volume

Volume, typically measured in gallons, can’t be overlooked when it comes to whitewater kayaks.

This measurement is used to “size” kayaks and is a pretty good indicator of how much gear you can store in it and whether it will be comfortable for larger paddlers.

However, volume – and more importantly, its distribution – also has some technical implications, as it affects the way the kayak handles. For instance, a high-volume kayak will sit higher in the water and resurface faster than a low-volume one.

Generally speaking, whitewater kayaks tend to stick to the 45 to 95-gallon range volume-wise.

Rocker

Rocker is essentially the curvature of the kayak lengthwise, from bow to stern. The amount of rocker can vary significantly, with some kayaks having more of an upward tilt at the bow or the stern – or equal on both ends.

As a general rule, though, the more pronounced the rocker, the more maneuverable the kayak. It will be easier to turn, ride waves, and navigate through rapids – handling characteristics you want in the best whitewater kayaks.

A pronounced bow rocker will keep the kayak’s bow above water and recover from landings more efficiently. In contrast, a higher stern rocker will ensure better handling in maneuvers like boofs. 

How to Boof a Kayak - 3 Components to the Basic Boof Technique for Whitewater Kayaking

Chines

Chines are the part of the kayak’s hull that sits below the waterline and has a drastic effect on the kayak’s handling.

You’ll find that there are two available designs

  • Harder, or sharper, chines generally add to the kayak’s agility and control but are known to “catch” currents more abruptly, which can make them feel erratic at times.
  • Softer, or soft chines, tend to make the kayaks a bit more forgiving – but the trade-off is that they don’t feel as responsive to swift maneuvers. 

Choosing A Whitewater Kayak Type: River Runner, Creeker, Or Playboat?

Man in blue Creeker whitewater kayak

Understanding the different types of whitewater’ yaks – and more specifically, their performance characteristics – is crucial for making an informed decision.

But knowing the type of rivers that you’ll be kayaking in and the grade of whitewater rapids you plan on tackling is what narrows down your options.

No two rivers are the same – and the environment and water features can change as you kayak on longer stretches of a single river, too.

Some are characterized by extremely narrow waterways, rocky shores, and even waterfalls. But others will feature long stretches of calmer water and class II rapids at most. 

Even the best whitewater kayaks won’t give you the same level of performance on every type of river you encounter; that’s why different types of whitewater kayaks exist in the first place.

Decide what kind of whitewater you’d like to paddle and how you’d like to play in the rapids, and choose a whitewater kayak accordingly.

What Is A River Runner Kayak?

River runners are all about navigating fast-moving downstream river courses and are deemed the most versatile out of the bunch. General whitewater and high-speed kayaking, where there are moves to be made – but none of them are super-technical – are where river runners shine.

Jackson Kayak RiverRunner: Zen Promo

General characteristics of river runner kayaks include:

  • A cross between creek boats and playboats
  • 7.5 to 9 feet long
  • Semi-planing hull
  • A higher volume (compared to playboats)
  • Slightly reduced rocker (compared to creekers)
  • Softer chines 

What Is A Creeker Kayak (aka Creek Boat)?

Consider creekers the Cadillac of the whitewater kayaking world. They’re large and in charge – built for paddling downriver over gnarly rapids, dropping from waterfalls, navigating obstacles, and maneuvering in tight-winding, highly technical creeks riddled with hazards.

Ayasse, Whitewater Kayak, Gerhard Schmid, Creeking

General characteristics of creeker kayaks include:

  • 7.5 to 9 feet long
  • Displacement hull (rounded hull)
  • High volume (usually in the 65 to 90-gallon range)
  • Enhanced rocker (bow and stern)
  • Softer chines (harder chines for improved maneuverability are an option, too) 

What Is A Play boat?

Playboats – commonly referred to as freestyle kayaks or freestyle boats – are the shortest in the whitewater’ yaks fleet, and as the name suggests, are designed for playing on the water. When I say “playing,” I mean activities such as performing tricks, surfing waves, popping in-and-out of holes or drops – all that cool, current- and gravity-defying stuff. 

Freestyle Downriver Kayaking Compilation 2019

General characteristics of playboats include: 

  • Around 6 feet long
  • Planing hull
  • Low volume (mostly centered around the cockpit)
  • Enhanced rocker (bow and stern)
  • Harder chines 

Size & Weight

Choosing the correct kayak size is just as important as selecting the right type of whitewater kayak – and one thing you’ll notice right off the bat is how tiny these ‘yaks can be. I mean, the shortest among them – playboats – can sometimes measure as little as 6 feet in length.

As for the weight, you can expect whitewater kayaks to be relatively light; they are shorter than recreational – let alone touring – kayaks, after all. But since they’re available both as hard-shell and inflatable kayaks, the weight can vary.

Duckies, or inflatable whitewater kayaks, will, as you can probably guess, be lighter than their hard-shell counterparts. They won’t be as maneuverable, but if portability is a priority, you’ll be much better off with a ducky kayak.

A Word On Paddler Weight Recommendations

You want to be sure that whatever whitewater kayak you choose “fits” your body right and can handle your weight without sitting too low or becoming sluggish.

The good news is that whitewater kayaks generally come with paddler weight recommendations for each specific model and size. So, choosing a suitable one is usually as easy as following the chart’s recommendations.

When looking at these manufacturer recommendations, though, be sure to factor in all the gear you’ll be wearing and how much weight it will add to your body.

It’s best to leave around 10 to 15 pounds of wiggle room in that sense.

Features & Outfitting

Once you’ve decided on everything else – mainly the intended use, performance characteristics, and the type of whitewater kayak that suits your style – think about the features and outfitting.

Trust me; the more time you spend in a kayak, the more critical it becomes that it has the right extras – not only comfort-wise but in terms of safety, too.

Here are some extra features to look for in the best whitewater kayak:

  • A cockpit rim allows you to attach a spray skirt; it’s a must-have on whitewater kayaks, as it prevents the cockpit from taking on water
  • Grab loops, strategically placed at the bow and stern to make it easier to carry your ‘yak and to serve as tie-off points for tow lines or rescue rope
  • Foot and thigh braces and hip pads, preferably adjustable ones that add comfort to the primary contact points between you and the kayak and ensure a better “fit” for improved control and easier rolling
  • An adjustable back band, designed to provide additional back support; you generally want it to fit lower, at hip level
  • Foam pillars that are meant to retain the hull’s structural integrity should the kayak get pinned and prevent it from folding in

Best Whitewater Kayak – Reviews & Recommendations For 2021 

1. Driftsun Rover 120

Driftsun Rover 120
  • Best Inflatable Whitewater Kayak
  • Rating: ★★★★
  • Price: ★★★★★
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The idea of being confined in a cockpit sounds unbearable for some, so I’d like to start things off with an inflatable whitewater kayak. Although rated to class IV, the Driftsun Rover 120 is better suited for casual enthusiasts that won’t go beyond class III whitewater – which will suit the majority of hobby whitewater kayakers or those just dipping their toes into extreme sports. 

Rover 120’s tough-as-nails construction, featuring reinforced 1000D PVC, drop-stitch floor, and an aggressive high rocker profile, making it a high-performance inflatable ‘yak suitable for up to class IV whitewater.

And yet, it weighs a mere 22 pounds. It’s the lightest – and, in turn, most portable – whitewater kayak on my list.

You’re also getting an EVA padded seat, a removable tracking fin, and an action camera mount.

I would replace the included two-piece aluminum paddle, though; whitewater kayaking generally calls for single-piece construction. 

Technical Specs

  • 8.5 x 3 feet
  • 22 pounds
  • 300-pound capacity 

Pros

  • Lightweight-but-tough three-chamber construction  
  • Higher weight capacity suitable for heavier paddlers
  • Aggressive rocker profile
  • A removable tracking fin and other accessories included

Cons

  • It can feel a bit sluggish in flat waters
  • The onboard storage is limited to tie-down points
  • The two-piece paddle isn’t suitable for whitewater

If you want a lightweight kayak you can bring along – no matter where your adventurous, thrill-seeking spirit takes you – then the Driftsun Rover 120 should be at the top of your list.

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2. Dagger Mamba 7.6

Dagger Mamba 7.6
  • Best Creeker Kayak
  • Rating: ★★★★★
  • Price: ★★★★
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When it comes to brands, Dagger has a reputation for designing some of the most impressive whitewater boats out there – and that reputation is well deserved. I’ve included a few in my list, starting with the Mamba 7.6. 

This agile, little ‘yak is only 7.6 feet long and made for narrow waterways, high speed, and crisp control – but at the same time, it remains stable and forgiving.

In essence, it’s suitable for beginners and seasoned paddlers alike.

It has a planing hull, 64-gallon volume, and a range of safety – and comfort-oriented features, like grab handles and ConTour outfitting. What’s more, the stern foam wall holder adds to Mamba’s structural integrity.

It’s best suited for smaller paddlers and youth, as it accommodates paddlers within the 120- to 170-pound range. So, it’s not a kayak I’d recommend to larger paddlers.

Technical Specs

  • 7.6 x 2.1 feet
  • 44 pounds
  • 120 – 170 pound weight range
  • 64-gallon volume 

Pros

  • Stable and forgiving, planing hull
  • The stern foam wall holder improves structural integrity
  • Adjustable Contour Ergo outfitting for improved comfort
  • Great size for youth and smaller paddlers 

Cons

  • The handling is reduced in flat water
  • Beginners may find it a bit pricey
  • Limited weight range that won’t fit paddlers over 170 pounds

You can never go wrong with one of Dagger’s whitewater kayaks. Put an ambitious beginner or younger paddler in the Mamba 7.6, and watch the magic happen!

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3. Riot Kayaks Thunder 76

Riot Kayaks Thunder 76
  • Best River Runner Kayak
  • Rating: ★★★★
  • Price: ★★★★★
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Riot Kayaks’ Thunder 76 has proven to be a fantastic all-around river runner – stable, reliable, and forgiving, but at the same time, highly reactive and maneuverable.

This 7.8-foot hard-shell river runner features a semi-planing hull with a long enough water line to ensure excellent down-river performance. Should things go wrong, paddlers can rely on a wider stern and lower cockpit level to make self-rescue rolls easier.

Furthermore, the high-performance Contour fit keeps your torso’s range of motion at an optimal level, making it possible to do advanced maneuvers without giving up convenience.

Thunder’s thoughtful outfitting deserves mention, too. It comes with full-plate footrests, a ratchet backrest system, front, and rear flotation bags, and four grab loops, to name a few.

It’s a bit heavier at 50.9 pounds, but other than that, there’s little room for complaints. 

Technical Specs

  • 7.8 x 2.2 feet
  • 50.9 pounds
  • 170 – 230 pound weight range
  • 76-gallon volume 

Pros

  • Contour fit doesn’t limit your torso’s range of motion
  • Built-in flotation bags keep it floating high
  • An excellent weight range for paddlers of all sizes

Cons

  • It’s on the heavier side, especially for a kayak of its size
  • It can be a bit harder to roll when you’re tired

Safe, stable, versatile, and predictable – in a good way – Baffin P3 is an excellent choice for taller paddlers looking to get out on the open sea.

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4. Dagger Katana 9.7

Intex Challenger K1 Kayak 1-Person Inflatable Kayak
  • Best Whitewater Kayak For Beginners
  • Rating: ★★★★
  • Price: ★★★★
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Dagger’s Katana 9.7 bridges the gap between whitewater kayaks’ technical capabilities with the comfort you’d find in sit-in kayaks designed for flat water.

The balanced rocker profile, the spacious cockpit, and the addition of the drop-down skeg, along with the hull that offers both primary and secondary stability – Katana 9.7 is all about beginner-friendly balance.

Given that it’s nearly 10 feet long, you can’t expect the Katana 9.7 to be as agile as some of the shorter whitewater kayaks out there. Also, it weighs 50 pounds, so it’s not light, either.

However, the added length comes with an advantage:

It’s capable of performing on flat water just as well as it does in class III rapids.

Plus, it’s the only one that has a proper storage hatch! 

Technical Specs

  • 9.6 x 2.1 feet
  • 50 pounds
  • 100 – 210 pound weight range
  • 79-gallon volume 

Pros

  • Spacious cockpit won’t feel confining
  • Contour Ergo outfitting, adjustable thigh braces, and hip pads
  • A rear storage hatch and removable bulkheads
  • Equipped with a drop-down skeg

Cons

  • It’s not the most lightweight or portable whitewater kayak
  • Some may find it a bit pricey
  • Not as agile due to the above-average length

If you’re looking for a crossover kayak that you can use in rapids as well as flat waters, Dagger’s Katana 9.7 should be your whitewater kayak of choice.

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5. Advanced Elements Attack Pro

ADVANCED ELEMENTS Attack Pro
  • Best Ducky Kayak For Beginners
  • Rating: ★★★★
  • Price: ★★★★★
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If you want portability and convenience – and at a budget-friendly price, no less – the Advanced Elements Attack Pro might just be one of the best whitewater kayaks for the job.

It’s an inflatable kayak, meaning it packs small and weighs as little as 25.5 pounds, but is made of heavy-duty PVC and has a three-chamber construction. It combines durability and portability – while also adding convenience and functionality into the mix. That brings me to my next point:

Attack Pro also features adjustable footpegs and thigh straps, a covered stern cargo area, and self-bailing ports.

The 12-inch rocker feels a bit “flat” for a whitewater kayak, and to add to it, the somewhat limited weight capacity, which caps out at 225 pounds, won’t be suitable for larger paddlers. 

Technical Specs

  • 9.7 x 2.9 feet
  • 25.5 pounds
  • 225-pound capacity 

Pros

  • Wide design for increased stability, suitable for beginners
  • Three-chamber construction and drop-stitch floor
  • Features self-bailing ports
  • Adjustable footpegs and thigh straps for security 

Cons

  • The load capacity is on the lower side for an inflatable
  • The 12-inch rocker seems a bit “flat”
  • A pump and paddle aren’t included

The Advanced Elements Attack Pro, with its extra-wide beam and inherent buoyancy, could be a solid choice for whitewater novices that prefer inflatable kayaks over hard-shells.

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6. Riot Kayaks Astro 58

Riot Kayaks Astro 58
  • Best Kayak Ever
  • Rating: ★★★★
  • Price: ★★★★
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Unlike its bigger brother, the Thunder 76, Riot Kayaks’ Astro 58 is better suited for those who are looking to get into freestyle paddling on gentle whitewater.

This low-volume playboat measures only 6.3 feet in length and weighs 37 pounds, meaning it’s almost as easy to transport as inflatable whitewater kayaks.

The high-performance Contour fit for maximized mobility, adjustable foot braces, thigh braces, and the Unity seating system work together to ensure comfort – without affecting the dynamic nature of Astro 58’s handling.

It has the right amount of rocker and beveled chines to give it a bouncy feeling.

However, it doesn’t offer much control in aggressive down-river currents, but given that it’s a freestyle kayak for beginner paddlers, I’m not sure that counts as a downside. 

Technical Specs

  • 6.3 x 2.2 feet
  • 37 pounds
  • 170 – 230 weight range
  • 58-gallon volume 

Pros

  • High-performance Contour fit for torso mobility
  • Suregrip thigh braces and Unity seating system ensure comfort
  • An excellent weight range for paddlers of all sizes
  • Lightweight, compact, and portable

Cons

  • Not meant for challenging whitewater
  • It can be hard to control in aggressive down-river currents
  • Taller paddlers not used to playboats may find it awkward

If you’re hoping to learn some neat tricks this summer, Riot Kayaks’ Astro 58 should be right at the top of your list of freestyle whitewater kayaks to consider.

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7. NRS Star Viper Inflatable Kayak

NRS Star Viper Inflatable Kayak
  • Best Inflatable Whitewater Kayak For Rolling
  • Rating: ★★★★
  • Price: ★★★★
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Yup, that’s another inflatable that gets a spot in my round-up. 

The NRS Star Viper is designed for having fun – performing rolls, eddy turns, and doing all these little tricks that make running rapids that much more impressive.

This 9.5-foot inflatable boasts a high-performance design, 1000D PVC construction, drop-stitch floor, and bow and stern displacement chambers. The kayak’s top-deck profile, coupled with the included thigh straps that lock you in, is what makes it so suitable for rolling.

And while I like that it weighs only 33 pounds, the 200-pound load capacity is less than stellar – it’s not a kayak I’d recommend to bigger paddlers. 

Technical Specs

  • 9.5 x 3 feet
  • 33 pounds
  • 200-pound capacity 

Pros

  • The wider beam adds to the stability
  • Stern displacement chambers make resurfacing easier
  • The top-deck profile is suitable for rolling
  • Thigh straps for locking you in

Cons

  • The weight limit is very low and will not work for bigger paddlers
  • It has a cheap nylon strap that keeps the floor insert in place

You’ll have a blast in the NRS Star Viper; there’s no doubt about it. Its high-performance design ensures that it surfs, turns, and rolls like no other inflatable kayak.

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8. Dagger Rewind Medium

Dagger Rewind Medium
  • Overall Best Whitewater Kayak
  • Rating: ★★★★★
  • Price: ★★★★★
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Cousin to the informus Dagger Nomad, the Dagger Rewind Medium was named “Best Whitewater Boat” by the Paddling Magazine Industry Awards in 2019; that tells you a lot about this 8.5-foot wonder of a whitewater kayak.

If you want dynamic playfulness that lets you add cool tricks to your kayaking arsenal, the low-volume stern and pronounced bow rocker have you covered. And if you’re looking to pair that with river running capabilities, Rewind delivers in that area, too.

The 43-pound weight – which is neither lightweight nor heavy – is probably the only thing about this kayak that I can label as “average.” It accommodates paddlers who weigh between 140 and 220 pounds, which is a pretty solid range.

Contour Ergo outfitting, step-out safety wall, adjustable thigh braces, and bulkhead foot braces leave little room for complaints, too.

Technical Spec

  • 8.7 x 2.1 feet
  • 43 pounds
  • 140 – 220 pound weight range
  • 67-gallon volume 

Pros

  • Contour Ergo outfitting ensures a great connection with your’ yak
  • Adjustable thigh braces and foot braces for comfort
  • Features security grab handles
  • Suitable for paddlers up to 220 pounds

Cons

  • The price could be a deal-breaker for paddlers on a budget
  • Some might find it a bit heavy, especially on longer portages

Dagger’s Rewind Medium is the perfect intermediary between playfulness and performance in almost any condition. I believe it’s going to be one of those instant classics in the whitewater kayaking world – and is the very reason why we are awarding it the best kayak in this review. 

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Best Whitewater Kayaks: Conclusion

Man poses at water edge hilding yellow kayak, dressed in drysuit and waterwater kayak

Out of all the fantastic whitewater kayaks I’ve tested, I’d say that the title of the best whitewater kayak currently available on the market should go to the Dagger Rewind Medium.

It was a tough call to make, and at times it felt like I was comparing apples to oranges.

But given the low-volume stern, and pronounced bow rocker and volume of Dagger’s Rewind, I do believe that it strikes the perfect middle ground:

It offers a blend of playfulness and river running capabilities that are deserving of the title.

That said, you’ll find some fantastic whitewater kayaks in this round-up – so feel free to choose based on your preferences, skills, and, most importantly, paddling environment!

Feature Photo by Eduard Labár on Unsplash