If you’ve been shopping recently for a new whitewater kayak, you no-doubt have noticed that there are a variety of options in today’s marketplace. Playboats, slalom boats, hybrids, steep-creekers, displacement hulls, planing hulls. It’s enough to make your head (not to mention your wallet) spin. But a good place to start is by sitting down and deciding what type of paddling you’ll be doing–both now and into the future–and then deciding on a particular category of whitewater kayak.
Modern whitewater kayaks come in three major categories. They are:
Traditional displacement hulled boats — these are the old-school whitewater kayaks you’re probably familiar with if you’ve been around the sport awhile. These boats are generally longer–from 8 to 12 feet or more–and they have hulls that are narrow and rounded (displacement design) similar to touring kayaks.
These boats are fast through the water, sit lower in the water than their playboat cousins, and are well suited for slalom kayaking. The rounded hull is great for surfing and carving in turns. If you plan to spend much of your time on lakes or flat stretches of river, this type of boat would probably be your best choice.
Planing-hulled boats — this is the new generation of rodeo/playboats. Rather than being round like a traditional hull, these planing-hulled boats are short (usually less than 7 feet long), flat in shape, and they sit high in the water. Think of a surfboard–or a top. This design allows these boats to “plane” on top of the water (hence the name), which in turn allows them to turn and spin on a dime.
These boats are wide and very stable on the water, which makes them great for novice paddlers. They also don’t roll as easily as displacement-hulled boats. They’re not as fast on flat water as traditional kayaks, but you plan on doing a lot of surfing,
aerial bluts, enders, cartwheels, and other stunts, this is probably the boat for you.
Hybrid designs – This new generation of whitewater kayaks combine elements of the traditional, displacement-hulled boats and the planing-hulled designs. These kayaks tend to be longer, like traditional boats, but their hulls have many of the design features of the newer rodeo/playboats.
These hybrid kayaks are faster than their planing-hulled counterparts, but they still have some of the maneuverability and playfulness of rodeo boats. This is a great choice for beginners, along with more experienced paddlers who are making the transition from old-school boats to the newer playboat designs.
One major improvement common to all of the modern designs is the size of the cockpit. Unlike the boats of ten or twenty years ago, the new generation of kayaks all have large, roomy cockpits that are more comfortable and much easier to get in and out of. And new paddlers–who are usually fearful of being trapped in their boat during a roll–find these more open cockpits more than a little reassuring.
As with any major purchase, it’s a good idea to try before you buy. If you have an outfitter in your area that rents boats, that can be a great way to spend an afternoon on the water and become familiar with the different hull designs. And ask around. Paddlers are a talkative lot, and are usually more than willing to share their thoughts on what works and what doesn’t.