Kayaks have a pretty distinct shape—long, skinny boats with pointy edges and tight seats. But boat design has evolved to accommodate a wider range of uses, among them whitewater boating. The slim design of the traditional kayak simply doesn’t lend itself well to rough waters, and if you want to take to the rapids, you’ll need a more specialized craft.
Whitewater kayaks are much shorter, some almost half the length of a touring kayak. Most range from five to nine feet long, and are about two feet wide. This allows for a flatter hull, which means more balance and better control. In the whitewater, you’ll need it to quickly maneuver around rocks and turn yourself around when you get knocked off course.
The first thing you’ll want to look at is the kayak’s rocker. This refers to the curvature from one end of the boat to the other, or from bow to stern. You can best gauge this by viewing the boat sideways. The larger the curve is, the faster it will turn, and the better you can navigate it through the rapids. The curved ends won’t get caught in the waves, as a traditional kayak’s pointed end will.
Next, you’ll want to look at the hull shape. Whitewater kayaks come with two types of hulls. Planing hulls sit flat in the water and are therefore more stable. They’re great for riding along waves and have a softer edge, which minimizes tipping. Displacement hulls are more rounded, which makes them easier to tilt to one edge but also makes them more prone to the push and pull of the water.
If you like layboating—performing tricks in the water—you’ll want a shorter, flatter, and wider craft. This gives you maximum maneuverability, better speed control, and the ability to force the boat underwater when you need to. These boats will also have higher side walls to keep out incoming water, which can slow you down.
Don’t forget to look at the interiors. Although design differences lie mostly on the outside, the interior defines your comfort and therefore your level of control. In most cases you’ll have to trade off one for the other, as you have to be snugly seated to be able to control the boat. Find a good middle ground—you want to be able to maneuver, but you don’t want to be too locked in to enjoy the experience!