What’s your idea of a fun day in the water?
Mine is paddling for hours on end, ideally 10 to 15 miles of scenic, beautiful landscape.
But I’m not a big fan of sea paddling.
I get it, the sea has a beauty of its own, but I feel it’s monotonous and bland.
While the coastline offers vistas of pounding surfing waves and beautiful beaches, your view is mainly marred by signs of human litter.
Instead, I love river paddling because it allows me to experience a different aspect of nature that no other water activity offers.
Between the rapids where you’re not focused on your next stroke to ensure your survival, rivers offer a wide diversity of sight and sound.
My favorite spots are the gorges lined with hemlock and rhododendron.
I also love the sight of the sunny meadows, majestic mountains, and pristine waterfalls while watching the osprey and ducks.
But there’s a big problem with river paddling.
You hardly find a river, even the flat rivers, with a nice stretch of placid calm water without some rapids.
Now, as with most extreme sports such as zip-lining, surfing, skydiving, or rock climbing, your decision to go over a whitewater rapid isn’t about calculated risk.
You need to watch out for several dangers, including the steep low-volume creeks, flooded river torrents, to rocks undercut from upstream. A real water park with a purpose.
But the uncertainty and adrenaline rush that comes with whitewater kayaking is what makes it an alluring water activity.
In fact, for most river rats, getting out of the kayak and hiking around to bypass the rapids and obstacles isn’t an option.
Now, in between taking precautionary measures and mustering the courage to face the violent rapids, you need to right kayak for the job.
Your typical flat water, sea, or touring kayak won’t cut it.
You need the best whitewater kayak.
I know this might sound like overkill for some paddlers, but the worst mistake you can make is using a regular kayak for whitewater.
First, they won’t allow you to pull the rodeo moves in the rapids or even zip across the flats.
But more importantly, it’s easy to get broached and get pinned on a rock on a touring or flat-water kayak even in class I rapids.
See, touring kayaks aren’t up to the task structure like that of the whitewater kayaks. They lack extreme maneuverability, and this greatly increases your chances of getting into trouble.
Remember getting in trouble, in this case, means getting pinned on a rock, being unable to get out of your boat, and drowning. We’re talking about survival in the literal sense.
Sure, whitewater kayaks may not be the fastest water vessels, but they’re quite handy in avoiding a zig-zagging tracking down a rapid stream.
Plus, they keep you safe, and if you don’t want to be risking your life every time you come across a rapid, here are the best whitewater kayaks to consider in your next purchase.
Table of Contents
The Best Whitewater Kayaks For The Money
#1 Dagger Mamba 7.6 - EDITOR'S CHOICE
Dagger first launched the Mamba in 2005 as a river runner designed to inspire confidence in paddlers, whether learning the basics, figuring out how to spin, or already drifting in horizontal lines.
The new Dagger Kayak that we’ll be looking at today, the Dagger Mamba 7.6, was redesigned in 2012 and offers some serious refinements that make it among the best Dagger whitewater kayaks in the market.
I’ve already given this whitewater kayak a try, and all I can say is that it’s super maneuverable and quick around rapids. I took it on the Gauley River, and that Dagger Kayak handles like a pro. I’m in love with this kayak.
The first benefit of the Dagger Mamba 7.6 is it’s the perfect choice for whitewater kayakers looking for the best whitewater kayak that can do it all.
I’m a beginner 5’2,” and for long, I’ve not found the perfect whitewater boat fit for me, and it was discouraging.
But all of that changed with the Mamba.
It offers a snug fit, and the precision adjustable thigh braces and hip are particularly appealing to the short-heighted and less muscular guys like me who haven’t found their choice of whitewater kayak already.
The other improvement I instantly noticed on the Mamba is the bigger size across the Dagger Kayaks range.
The greater size has the added benefit of accommodating more whitewater paddlers across the range. Meanwhile, the extra volume, especially around the knees, allows you to feel comfortable and more aggressive when riding the boat.
For me, at least, the extra volume lets the yak sit high above the waterline, and I had more confidence in its river running capabilities even in the harder whitewater.
Plus, beginners like me will have an easy transition from challenging whitewater into a learning relationship with the boat.
Even if you try to overcome the moves in the Mamba, it still gives good feedback.
There’s also a planing hull style, which the manufacturer claims gives lots of control, speed, and stability. True to this, I’ve taken the Mamba down steep class V creeks and big drops, and I would say this is the whitewater boat choice for me.
When it comes down to the last stroke and holding a line above a big rapid or waterfall, the Mamba offers lots of comfort and confidence, knowing that it’s going to take care of its job.
I’ve not yet run the Mamba on Class 4 or 5 rivers, but my kayaker friends also recommend it for the big runs.
On the Class 3 rivers, you’ll love how it handles the holes. While it’s a bit slower than other Dagger Whitewater Kayaks, it carves out holes that would have other paddlers looking for a rope.
The narrow, sleek bow slices through the water like a knife through butter, so there’s not much resistance, and you don’t get the high-five splashes on your face every now and then.
The other improvement I’m in love with on this boat is the push capabilities towards the more difficult whitewater.
For example, the front safety bar has been repositioned, and a second bar has been added for easier carrying, dragging, and extractions.
Overall, I’m excited with the Mamba 7.6, and the new improvements and tweaks over the best Dagger whitewater Kayaks make it such an appealing boat.
The responsive handling should also make it the go-to ride for the big water crowd. Meanwhile, the improved kayak’s stability and predictability make it a solid choice for developing paddlers.
#2 Jackson Kayaks Karma RG - Most Versatile Whitewater Kayak
I bought the Jackson Whitewater Kayaks Karma for whitewater trips, ocean surfs, and flat water exploration. That already says much about this boat.
It’s one of the most versatile whitewater kayaks in the market, going super-fast in the currents and tracking well in calm water. It even allows much greater maneuverability than most of the non-whitewater yaks of similar strength.
The Jackson Whitewater Kayaks could be correctly referred to as a crossover kayak, but it outpaces similar models within its class and performs better in the more demanding conditions.
But it’s the speed for me. The Jackson Kayak Karma effortlessly bashes through the tricky spots, and at 12″, I tend to catch the bow and stern on river objects like branches and rocks.
While this Jackson Kayak has similar outfitting to other creek whitewater boats on the list, it was easy to fit. I pretty much did nothing apart from pulling a cord here and there. It was nice and snug. The large volume and adjustable seat were also a plus, and it turned out to be important, especially with the longer days on the water.
Loading the Jackson Kayak was also a snap, and with plenty of space, we took more than we needed.
While the bow and stern aren’t watertight, it’s blocked off with a bulkhead and is nice for containing all of your stuff in the rear. The hatch, positioned at the back, is a little smaller to create a weak spot but still big enough to fit the smaller dry bags and rear flotation bags.
On the water, the Jackson Kayak feels ultra-stable and easy to paddle.
It really shined in the whitewater rapids. It holds the line straight and is still fairly easy to maneuver.
The only issue I had with Jackson Kayak is navigating the flat water with many boils and whirlpools. But it’s understandable, with any fully loaded, longer boat.
Another awesome feature is Jackson Kayak Karma’s drop-down skeg. The little fin that folds up or down increases the efficiency and ease of flat.
Personally, I used it, but it was of little help, considering my boat was already loaded. I guess it would work better with an empty boat.
In whitewater, the Jackson Kayak RG is fast and responsive as expected.
#3 Dagger Katana 10.4 - Best Crossover Whitewater Kayak
I love on a river where the flow varies daily due to the dams/flood control. Some days it’s a grinder; others, it’s swift and dangerous.
So, I purchased the Katana 10.4 as an alternative to the expedition touring kayaks I own.
I was a bit skeptical with the Katan since I had never used a crossover before.
But the first day on the water, and this bad boy surprised me.
Breaking in and out, ferry guide, S moves, and surfing were all quite smooth and predictable on this whitewater kayak.
For a 10’4″, I was also pleasantly surprised how nimble it was, and I managed to catch even the smallest eddies. I even managed a few small popouts.
It also tracks really well, but with a bit of wiggle and some plowing. Even with the skeg down, I still managed the tight turns, making the high-speed upstream kayaking effortless and eddying out quite easy.
Thanks to its unmatched stability, getting the boat to the serious wave is also not a huge problem. Plus, its quick reaction makes the boat more unto ride on the turbulent waters.
On the flat, Katana is a pleasure to paddle. The drop skeg can be deployed for improved tracking and giving more direction on the move. It’s also spring-loaded, so should you forget to retract it, it doesn’t get damaged.
The other nice features of this kayak include a rear hatch that covers the seal well without a fight to get it on.
The spacious cockpit is nothing short of amazing, and the stock rigging inside is better than anything else I’ve experienced. It is comfortable, secure, and adjustable in many ways.
With the adjustable foot braces removed, Katana has plenty of space and can hold a lot of gear for a weekender. There’s also a hard-shell pocket between your legs and loads of extra spaces for your kit, fishing rod holder, and safety equipment.
Overall, I’m pleased with this purchase and would highly recommend it. I am also keen to try the Katana in many water environments to come.
#4 Jackson Kayaks 2 Fun - Best Whitewater Kayak for Hard-Charging
The Fun is Jackson Kayak’s first ever whitewater kayak.
Originally designed in 2014, the Fun was built to be a comfortable, easy-rolling river running playboat.
And today, we’ll look at one of the subsequent popular generations, the Jackson Kayaks 2 Fun.
This new model is integrated with more play-friendly features but still throws back to the Fun’s series river play roots.
For example, a new round hull brings back the original comfort and tracking ability that made the Fun a great all-day river running boat.
But where Jackson Kayak excels most is forgiveness.
Now, I expected to get lipped over every time a wave or whirlpool hit me sideways for a play boat style, but I couldn’t believe how forgiving the Jackson Kayak was.
The bow and stern are a bit grabbier, but once I got used to the edges, I got away with pretty much everything the water threw at me.
It’s not what I expected on this Jackson Kayak boat, but it was a huge relief.
And that’s not even the best part.
Slipping onto the water, I immediately noticed how the Jackson Kayak 2 Fun feels stable.
Whether keeping it flat or upward tilt on edge, I loved the predictability and ease of control this whitewater yak offered.
Jackson Kayak also shoots across the waves in a smooth and controlled design- and this was a refreshing change from the high-performance playboats that are super responsive such that they feel like they’re in control of you.
Even at 6’7”, the Jackson Kayak has decent speed for the smaller paddlers, allowing them to zip around the river and catch the waves and features on the fly.
One feature that I can’t really get enough of is the bow rocker that keeps me bobbing up and over most waves, and this is great for when I want to skip over small, grabby holes.
The manufacturer has also taken care of the overall comfort on Jackson Kayak, so I can spend an entire day in the water without feeling fatigued or overwhelmed.
A wide, high-riding backhand stays in place for a comfortable backrest. There’s also enough foot room to have wiggle room for my feet.
Overall, the Jackson Kayak 2 Fun is a great whitewater purchase for paddlers in the market for a big wave aerial machine or a hard-charging creeker.
Also, if you want to paddle all day without your legs going numb, and catch more eddies than your friends, then it sounds like you’re looking for Jackson Kayak 2 Fun.
#5 Riot Kayaks Magnum 80 - Best Multi-purpose Whitewater Kayak
The Riot Magnum 80 is a creek boat designed with stability in mind.
It’s a great pick for beginners who would like to experience whitewater or kayak surfing while offering an element of security.
But that’s not even its selling point!
The Riot Kayaks Magnum is a great multi-purpose boat that lets you take on different whitewater runs while offering the chance to surf. It is the perfect whitewater kayak for paddlers searching for a jack-of-all-trades boat that can handle any conditions you point it towards.
But keep in mind this creek boat doesn’t perform as well as kayaks specifically designed for a particular environment.
Nevertheless, it has some awesome traits and benefits that we love.
For example, it comes with the right length and shape to allow you to punch effortlessly through the water and obstacles without losing too much momentum or ending up going vertical. It’s buoyant and keeps the kayak floating.
The yak’s volume and rocker profile allows it to handle the “pushy” high-volume whitewater, which keeps the kayak on top of the water. It also helps with fast resurfacing after a drop.
The displacement hull and the smooth rocker transition, helps with directional speed while allowing the boat to cut effortlessly through the water. This helps with maintaining speed, while the high rocker keeps it maneuverable.
On the other hand, Magnum’s soft chines enhance the overall stability., but you’ll need to be firmer with the paddle to get the boat to accept input.
Best Whitewater Kayaks Buying Guide
With so many different whitewater yaks, choosing the right one for your needs is challenging.
At the very least, you need to know the differences and know what you want from your kayak.
And this is what this guide is all about.
I’ll share everything you need to know about selecting the best whitewater kayak.
But first, let’s learn the different types of whitewater kayaks.
Type of Whitewater Kayaks
Not all whitewater kayaks are equal; the best whitewater kayaks come in different forms and styles.
Some of the common types of whitewater kayaks that I know of are:
- Freestyle whitewater boats
- River runners
- Creek boats
- Inflatable kayak
Each type has its benefits and cons, so let’s discuss each style and see what option would be most suitable for you.
Freestyle Whitewater Boats
The freestyle boats are also known as stunt kayaks.
These kayaks are also the shortest kayaks you’ll find, so they’re also the most maneuverable options. By keeping the planing hull lengths to less than seven feet long, they turn on a dime.
However, freestyle boats are also challenging to steer, and getting them to track in a line takes a lot of effort.
Plus, their short design means they’re less room for gear and can be extremely unstable.
River Runner Kayak
The river runners are between seven and a half and nine feet long and are designed for paddling downriver.
A river runner’s main benefit is that they blend the ability to take on the rapids and whitewater while remaining docile enough for the flatwater.
And as a bonus, their extra length creates more volume, which translates to more room for your gear on extended trips.
The playboats are a hybrid between river runners and freestyle designs.
Their length is also right in the middle, anywhere from six to a half to eight feet in length.
The playboats excel at running rapids and river running.
The creek boats are large-volume boats, ranging from seven and a half to nine feet long.
The creek boasts of buoyancy and will effortlessly take on the fast-moving and difficult whitewater conditions.
The longboats excel in expedition whitewater kayaking.
They also have a longer waterline, which is necessary for storing more gear, especially on overnight camping trips.
However, long boats are less maneuverable and can’t be used to perform tricks because of their length.
They’re great beginner whitewater kayaks, though.
Types of Kayaks to Avoid for Whitewater
Generally, whitewater kayaking involves a lot of banging into rocks and quick maneuvering.
So, besides picking the length and style of kayaking suiting your expected conditions, you also need a whitewater boat with the hardiness to meet the challenge.
Here, we advise that you stay away from composite or ABS plastic.
The only kayaks strong enough to take on this challenge are rotomolded polyethylene or the inflatable kayak.
Secondly, avoid kayaks that are too long. While the long and slim kayaks are handy in the ocean, their handling is compromised on the river.
Rapid Classes for Whitewater Kayaking
River rapids are broken down into a class system.
1) Class A– It refers to the calm, still lake water
2) Class I– Refers to the easy, smooth water with some ripples.
3) Class II– These rivers have moderate with medium-quick moving water. Here, the rapids have regular waves but open passages between rocks that require maneuvering.
4) Class III-These rivers are moderately difficult and come with a lot of high and irregular waves rocks. The passages are also narrower.
5) Class IV- These rivers are difficult and feature long, powerful standing waves and eddies.
6) Class V– Extremely challenging and violent rapids that connect without interruption
7) Class VI– Extraordinarily challenging and extremely dangerous. Only recommended for the world’s top paddler.
How to Choose the Right Whitewater Kayak
Picking the right whitewater kayak size is a delicate balance depending on a lot of factors.
The best whitewater kayaks should be large enough to hold your gear yet, nimble enough for maneuverability.
You also need to consider the interior volume of the planing hull.
The planing hull gives you an idea of the extra space the kayak can accommodate. More importantly, the high-volume kayaks aren’t easily toppled by the waves and have more force popping them to the surface.
The rocker is the curve of a boat, lengthwise, between the bow and the stern.
It reduces the waterline, making the boat more maneuverable.
Whitewater Boats with flat, with little or no rocker, have better tracking and effortlessly ride over the waves and obstacles.
The hulls of whitewater kays resemble those of surfs or paddle boards-they either plane or don’t.
A planing hull is agile and can turn on a dime.
Most freestyle kayaks have planing hulls.
On the other hand, the displacement hull pushes through the water like the hull of a ship. The displacement hulls sit deeper in the water, making the boat track straight without disruption by the errant current or uneven paddling.
The chines are the kayak’s underwater edges-where the sides meet the bottom.
Chines are either hard, an apparent sharp line, or a gentle curve that isn’t easily identifiable, also known as a soft chine.
Hard chines help with better tracking, offering more control and agility. But on the flip side, they tend to get stuck on rocks and obstacles easily.
On the other hand, the soft chines offer a nice easy ride, but they require more work from the paddler because of the less tracking.
Always remember the weight of your kayak.
You’re going to take it from your car to the water, so it needs to be somewhat portable.
Also, keep in mind that the heavier kayaks are more challenging to maneuver out on the water. A lightweight kayak is perfect.
Wrap Up: Our Choice
Our winner for the best whitewater kayaks is the Dagger Mamba 7.6.
It wasn’t hard picking this whitewater kayak because it ticks the boxes in all the right places for the best whitewater kayak.
First, it has a generous volume and large size, so it’s buoyant, floating well, and keeping you from sinking. The large size also means the boat will hold all your necessities and still leave extra space when heading out for a weekend get-away.
Performance on the water is also incredible, and we love how it tracks in a straight line and maneuvers the rapids and whirlpools like a champ.
Overall, it’s everything I would wish to see in a whitewater kayak, and I highly recommend it.