7 Different Types Of Whitewater Kayaks

7 Different Types Of Whitewater Kayaks

Choosing the right kayak for whitewater kayaking can sometimes be challenging. There are many different whitewater kayak styles to choose from, and you must decide between different materials and brands.

This article will explore several types of whitewater kayaks and help you understand which one is right for you. At the end of this article, you will have a pretty good idea of which kayak to buy.

Let’s get into it.

What Is Whitewater Kayaking?

Image Source: Shutterstock

First, let’s explain what whitewater kayaking is and why choosing the right boat is important.

Whitewater kayaking is a sport and recreational activity that involves using a kayak to navigate whitewater. Whitewater is a river, creek, or another stream of water that has a significant amount of rapids.

Rapids occur when the river’s gradient increases such that it creates turbulence and traps air under the water. This creates the frothy look that whitewater has; all this frothiness makes the water appear white.

gradient increases

Image Source: Shutterstock

A river’s gradient is the rate at which its elevation changes throughout the length of the river. If there are steep changes in elevation, it will produce raging rapids that will challenge even the most experienced kayakers.

There are both calm and gentle whitewater rivers, depending on the strength of the current and the level of intensity of the rapids. Fortunately, there is an internationally-accepted scale that ranks different bodies of water depending on their level of difficulty.

This rating scale is called the International Scale of River Difficulty, and it has six categories. It was created by the American Whitewater Association, although it’s used around the world.

American Whitewater Association

Image Source: Shutterstock

The specific kayak you should get for whitewater kayaking will depend not only on the types of rapids (the level of difficulty) you will be kayaking on but also your intended activities. As I will explain throughout this article, different whitewater activities include riverrunning, playboating, and creeking.

First, though, let’s quickly go over the different levels of intensity you will encounter according to the International Scale of River Difficulty.

  • Class I: This is the most manageable level, and it requires little to no skill. Perfect for beginners, it has almost no rough areas along the river.
  • Class II: With some rough patches, tiny drops, slight waves, and small rocks, novice kayakers with good paddling skills will feel at ease.
  • Class III: You might encounter more irregular waves and longer drops of a few feet, but there will be no significant dangers for an experienced paddler.
  • Class IIII: You really need a lot of experience for Class 4 whitewater. You may come across strong waves, large rocks, large holes, steep drops, and other river features that require precise paddling and advanced skill. Beginners should stay away.
  • Class IIIII: Class 5 whitewater kayaking requires not only skill but courage and willingness to take a risk. With steep drops, raging rapids, large rocks, and other dangerous features, failure to make the right move can result in severe injury or death. You must not only be an expert at whitewater kayaking but have an excellent boat. Even experienced kayakers might want to reconsider these rapids until they get more experience.
  • Class IIIIII: These rapids are unexplored and for the adventurous only. To a certain degree, they require more luck than skill and are pretty dangerous. A slight error or an unexpected river condition could quickly kill you, and rescue might not be possible. Almost all kayakers should stay away from Class 6 rapids.

That being said, let’s explore some different boat types.

7 Different Types of Whitewater Kayaks

1. Riverrunners


Image Source: Shutterstock

The riverrunner kayak is designed for riverrunning, a type of kayaking activity in which boaters combine their paddling skills and techniques with the river’s features and movements to propel themselves forward.

It requires a lot of skill and technique, as you must be able to read the river’s features and learn how to make the most of them instead of relying solely on your paddling capabilities.

You can conserve energy and increase momentum by using waves, eddylines, and other features of the river to keep on moving and change direction.

Anticipating what the river will do and how your boat will react is a big part of riverrunning, but it requires a lot of experience. Typically, rivverrunners will use Class 2-4 rivers, depending on their skills and acceptable level of risk.

So, what makes a kayak a riverrunner boat? One major characteristic is that riverrunning boats tend to be longer and narrower.

This long and narrow design adds to the momentum and ensures speed and agility. It allows the kayak to move gracefully along with the water.

A riverrunner kayak would generally be up to 9 feet in length, not more. Typically, it would be up to two feet wide.

Featuring displacement hulls that allow them to slice through the water, these kayaks resemble recreational kayaks the most.

Older riverrunner boats include the Perception Dancer, but newer and improved models are now available. Check out our list of the best kayaks for rivers.

2. Creek Boats

Creek Boats

Image Source: Shutterstock

Creeking is a more advanced form of river running that is typically reserved for rapids of Classes 4 and 5. Sharp gradients (changes in elevation of more than 100 feet per mile) characterize these river bodies, and steep drops and waterfalls are standard.

Creekers may go creeking by themselves for fun or race against other creekers in raging rapids.

Boats designed for creeking often are of the same length as riverrunning kayaks. However, crucial differences are present to ensure the vessel can navigate the more complex waterways.

For one, creeking boats have higher-volume displacement hulls (see our article on different types of hulls), displacing more water and slicing through the rapids. They also have an increased rocker – a more curved bow from one stern to the other.

This increased rocker helps prevent the boat from nose-diving into the water, especially when landing from steep drops. It also increases maneuverability and makes it easy to turn the craft quickly.

At the same time, the more pronounced rocker also makes it easier for the boat to tip over, requiring more advanced skills.

Likewise, another feature of the creek boat is its rounded bow and stern, which helps prevent the kayak from getting pinned between rocks, which is a greater likelihood on the more advanced rapids creeking enthusiasts like to use.

One thing worth noting is that creek boats don’t need to be used for creeking exclusively. In fact, when taken into Class 1 or 2 rapids, creek boats turn into excellent beginner boats.

That’s because, without the added dangers of the more advanced rapids, creek boats still retain their benefits of being easy to maneuver and turn. Without dangerous currents, beginners will find creek boats relatively easy to kayak.

3. Downriver Boats

Downriver Boats

Image Source: Shutterstock

Downriver boats are often longer than riverrunning boats, usually longer than nine feet in length. They typically feature planing hulls, which are flatter and allow them to skip across the water and punch through holes.

Since they are longer, they typically have more storage and other benefits over shorter boats. At the same time, their design requires more vigorous paddling.

Downriver boats are best for rapids of Classes 1-3. They are suitable for going downstream, but they aren’t good kayaks for quick maneuvers, sharp turns, or tricks.

In more vigorous rapids, downriver boats might not fare as well.

4. Playboats (Freestyle/Rodeo Boats)


Image Source: Shutterstock

Another type of whitewater boat is the playboat. It’s also called the freestyle boat because it allows you to play on the waters and freestyle, while some people call it the rodeo boat.

In any case, playboating is a type of whitewater activity in which the focus is not going downstream at all, unlike downriver boats and even riverrunning and creeking boats.

Instead, playboaters typically stay put in one spot, usually a hole or even a wave. They then aim to stay in that hole and do a variety of tricks and maneuvers, often spinning around but also doing other tricks.

Here are some of the moves you might see a playboater do on a wave or in a hole or pour over:

  • Surfing
  • Spinning
  • Loops
  • Cartwheels
  • Donkey flips
  • Aerial moves

whitewater activity

Image Source: Shutterstock

All of these moves are what gave playboating its nickname, “rodeoing.” The flexibility in the actions you can make is what gave it the name “freestyling.”

Playboating competitions exist around the world, and they are sometimes referred to as freestyle or whitewater rodeo competitions.

Vertical moves like cartwheels obviously require a lot of skill – that doesn’t have to be stressed. Likewise, aerial activities require knowing how to use waves to gain speed and bounce.

At the same time, the boat design is critical as well. They are typically flatter, shorter, and lower-volume, allowing the playboater to submerge the boat in the water more efficiently.

The flat bottoms also allow the playboater to ride wide waves. With aggressively planed hulls and a short design of 6-7 feet or less, these boats are perfect for technical moves but quite inadequate for downstream kayaking.

Only an experienced kayaker will be able to use a rodeo boat for downstream kayaking, but even then, it won’t be an easy or even enjoyable task. Rodeo boats should be reserved for tricks.

We talk more about playboats in our article on different types of kayaks.

5. Squirt Boats

Squirt Boats

Image Source: Shutterstock

Squirt boating predated modern playboating and served as its foundation. Squirt boats are typically custom-built for the kayaker, but they are generally flat like playboats and also low-volume.

They often feature foot bumps to make room for the feet while maintaining low volume.

At the same time, they tend to be a bit longer than playboats.

Squirt boaters often do tricks such as submerging the entire boat (and even the kayaker) in water for up to half a minute. Thus, the flat design allows for submersion while still maintaining float.

That particular trick is known as the Mystery Move due to the brief disappearance of the kayaker. However, due to the design of most squirt boats, they will typically be mostly submerged underwater anyways unless they are actively doing tricks like cartwheels or vertical spins.

Remember, squirt boats are custom-built, which is why they use composite materials instead of plastic. Some boats are built specifically for tricks like the Mystery Move, while others are made for cartwheels or other tricks.

You may wonder where the squirt boat got its name from. It’s actually due to one of the original tricks of squirt boating in which the craft squirted forward, like a seed squirting out of a pumpkin or watermelon, with great speed due to the design of the boat.

The squirt move actually requires squirting the boat forward and changing its position from flat on the water to vertical. Not only does it need a unique design, but it also requires specific hydraulic water features.

Other squirt boating tricks include:

  • The screw (pivoting the boat vertically on its axis)
  • The cartwheel
  • The clean wheel (cartwheel without paddle strokes)
  • The underwater Eskimo roll

Squirt boating is genuinely a unique niche, so you won’t find that much information about it online compared to playboating. The levels of precision and skill required to do squirt boat techniques are high, and you can’t just buy a squirt boat at your local kayak shop.

6. Slalom Boats

Slalom Boats

Image Source: Shutterstock

The slalom is a type of whitewater activity that is featured in the Olympics. Both slalom canoeing and slalom kayaking are present in the Olympics.

Slalom kayaking involves an initial drop and then navigating a kayak through a whitewater course of upstream and downstream gates without touching the gate poles (which reduces the amount of time allowed for completion of the course by two seconds per touch).

Slalom boats typically comply with several design requirements as per pro level competition rules. For example, there may be a minimum and maximum length as well as width and weight.

They are typically made of composite materials to ensure they are lightweight and easy to maneuver in the water. However, non-pro slalom boats might be made of plastic instead.

There is a new type of slalom competition that is being introduced into the Olympics as well: extreme slalom. This slalom requires even more skill and introduces elements of bumper cars, allowing competitors to bump into each other and knock each other out of the way.

7. Slicey Boats

The slicey boat is a type of kayak that allows people to go slicey boating, an activity that combines playboating and riverrunning. Because the kayak is designed not only to do tricks but also to navigate the rapids instead of staying in one place like a traditional playboat, the boat must be uniquely designed.

A slicey boat is longer than an average playboat and features wings for the bow and stern. This unique design allows the boat to move faster while riverrunning while also doing vertical tricks, like cartwheels, spins, and squirts.

Slicey boating, also known as simply slice boating, is a particular niche that often confuses onlookers who have never seen it. Designs can vary, but it requires a lot of skill, even more so than simple riverrunning or playboating alone.

Finding a slicey kayak can sometimes be difficult, so it’s essential to know where to get one if you’re interested in this unique activity. Versus Kayaks designed its own slicey boat.

Whitewater Kayak Materials

Whitewater kayaks can be made of several materials. Let’s quickly go over the different types of materials you will find in whitewater kayaks and the pros and cons of each one.

Kayaks themselves come in all sorts of materials, ranging from wood to plastic to see-through materials. However, whitewater kayaks are usually made out of specific material types that facilitate navigating the rapids.

Composite Kayaks

Composite Kayaks

Image Source: Shutterstock

Back in the day, composite materials were most commonly used for whitewater kayaking. Composite kayaks can contain various materials, although fiberglass is the most popular.

Fiberglass materials may be blended with carbon and kevlar to produce a solid but lightweight boat. Resin is used to bond the fibers together and seal the kayak.

However, these days, most whitewater kayaks are not made of fiberglass or composite materials, with the exception being slalom boats, which are required by competition rules to be made of specific materials.

Squirt boats are another notable exception, with many of them being made of lightweight fiberglass. Some playboats and slicey boats may also be made of fiberglass.

Rotomolded Plastic

Rotomolded Plastic

Image Source: Shutterstock

These days, most kayakers have transitioned from fiberglass and composite whitewater kayaks to rotomolded plastic ones.

First introduced in the 1970s, it quickly caught on as a cheap way to produce solid and durable kayaks that can withstand damage, a feature critical in whitewater kayaking where there are rocks and other river features that can damage boats.

Rotomolded plastic kayaks are typically made out of polyethylene, bits of which are poured into a mold that is then rotated in a rotary pot, which is kind of like an oven. The pellets then melt and form the shape of the kayak as per the mold, after which the boat is cooled down.

These boats are typically cheaper and easier to produce than fiberglass composite kayaks. Not only that, but they are less likely to crack or get damaged – in fact, they can even bend instead of breaking upon impact.

Furthermore, they can withstand abrasions, which are common when navigating rocky rapids.

After significant damage, they can even be repaired by welding them again.

On the other hand, they do have some disadvantages, one of them being that they weigh considerably more than fiberglass kayaks. That’s one reason they are less commonly used for squirt boats, slalom boats, and any other activity that requires utmost speed and agility.

Storing a rotomolded kayak is also a little tricky, as they can easily get damaged by exposure to the sun. As such, it’s recommended to keep them inside or at least cover them with a UV-rated cover.

Inflatable Kayaks

Inflatable Kayaks

Image Source: Shutterstock

Inflatable kayaks, usually made of PVC, exist for whitewater as well. In fact, inflatable kayaks are often perfect for rocky and bumpy waters, especially the more modern inflatable kayaks that are made of super-strong materials that can withstand any kind of damage.

Good inflatable kayaks usually have several air chambers, which ensures you remain afloat even in the remote chance of one of the chambers being punctured, which isn’t likely to happen if the material is strong.

The advantage of an inflatable kayak is, of course, that you don’t have to worry about transporting it. A rotomolded kayak and even a fiberglass kayak can be difficult to transport if you have a small car or limited space.

However, you will have to carry a pump to inflate your kayak before use. When not in use, though, you can deflate it and hold it in a small bag.

Different Kayak Styles

Let’s also go over some different kayak styles that exist in whitewater kayaking.

Tandem vs Single Kayaks

Tandem vs Single Kayaks

Image Source: Shutterstock

Whitewater kayaks can be either single kayaks (made for one person) or tandem kayaks (in which two people can sit).

Of course, for certain types of whitewater activities, a single kayak is all that usually makes sense. That’s true in playboating, slalom boating, and squirt boating.

However, for riverrunning and downstream kayaking, there are tandem kayaks available as well. Kayaking the rapids with someone else requires skill and coordination, but it’s possible.

Teamwork is essential, so only go with someone you trust.

Sit-in vs Sit-on-Top Kayaks

Sit-in vs Sit-on-Top Kayaks

Image Source: Shutterstock

Whitewater kayaks tend to be sit-in kayaks, with a cockpit, instead of sit-on-top kayaks. Depending on the activity, the kayaker must be able to use their body weight and legs to perform moves.

Thigh braces, foot braces, and hip pads may also be featured in whitewater kayaks, allowing for the kayaker and their kayak to become one and work together.

In fact, whitewater kayaks tend to have larger cockpits than your average kayak. This allows for an easy exit in the case of capsizing, which is more of a likelihood in higher-class rapids.

Wrapping It Up

Hopefully, you now understand the different types of whitewater kayaks, including riverrunning kayaks, creek boats, slicey boats, slalom kayaks, playboats, and downstream boats.

If you have a friend who might be interested in learning about Whitewater kayaks, make sure to share this article with them!

Enjoyed Different Types Of Whitewater Kayaks? Share it with your friends so they too can follow the Kayakhelp journey.

Share on Pinterest

Different Types Of Whitewater Kayaks

Picture of Peter Salisbury

Peter Salisbury

Pete is the Owner of KayakHelp.com. Born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio, he grew up kayaking, fishing, sailing, and partaking in outdoor adventures around the Great Lakes. When he’s not out on the water, you can find him skiing in the mountains, reading his favorite books, and spending time with his family.

Welcome! I’m so glad you are here :-) I’m Pete. I am the owner of KayakHelp.com. I was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio, I grew up kayaking, fishing, sailing, and partaking in outdoor adventures around the Great Lakes. When I am not out on the water, you can find me skiing in the mountains, reading my favorite books, and spending time with my family.