Best Kayak For Rivers – Buyer’s Guide & Top Picks for ALL River Types
Choosing the best kayak for rivers will probably depend on the types of rivers you want to paddle. River kayaks come with a variety of features to suit different types of paddlers, from flatwater to whitewater.
We’ll take a look at the various river kayaks and offer tips on how to choose the best one for your activity.
11 Best River Kayaks Reviewed
1: Sea Eagle 300X Explorer (best overall)
This Sea Eagle 300X is an inflatable kayak that’s designed for ease of use and versatility. It can be a fantastic all-rounder as it can handle both flatwater and up to Class IV whitewater. It can also be used for ocean surfing. This means it can be ideal for beginners as well as experienced paddlers looking to tackle a range of waters.
This is an incredibly stable boat that can even be used for fishing or other activities, with a rigid drop-stitch floor deck that you can stand on. It features a removable rear skeg to help with tracking on open water and as many as 16 open and close drain valves for easy self-bailing in rougher conditions.
Being just short of 10 foot, this excellent river kayak is designed to be easy to maneuver on moving water. It’s also built for durability, with a reinforced hull that’s able to bounce off of rocks as you ride downriver.
This portable kayak features front and rear spray skirts providing covered storage, with bungee rigging for securing extra gear. There are also 18 D-rings for tying down additional items.
The kayak comes with a paddle and a seat included. The style of the seat varies depending on the package you choose. Also included is a hand pump, carry bag, and a repair kit.
2: Jackson Kayak RockStar 4.0 (best for rapids)
This Jackson RockStar 4.0 is a lightweight whitewater kayak designed for freestylers and playboaters with experience. However, it’s probably not the best choice for first-time kayakers and is not designed for flatwater paddling.
It comes in three different sizes: small, medium, and large, to fit different-sized paddlers. This means you can choose the most comfortable fit for your body size, allowing for better boat control.
This can be one of the best river kayaks for whitewater enthusiasts, with a low-volume bow that can help increase your airtime during tricks and a short profile for easy maneuvering. You’ll also find a GoPro mount on the bow so that you can capture yourself in action.
This whitewater kayak is designed to be faster than the previous model thanks to the bow being one inch longer, with an improved rocker to handle a larger variety of waves with better take-offs.
The cockpit is built to allow for increased control with improved knee pockets and an adjustable seat that can move an extra three-quarters of an inch forwards. It’s also crafted to keep you drier than other whitewater boats, with no drilled holes on the outside of the hull.
3: Aquaglide Deschutes 130 (best inflatable)
The Aquaglide Deschutes 130 is a lightweight inflatable kayak that can be an excellent river kayak for touring and multi-day trips. It’s rated for up to Class II rapids, so it’s not designed to handle very rough conditions but can be ideal for most river paddling trails and slow-moving rivers.
This is a spacious kayak that can be ideal for kayak camping and backcountry adventures. It has plenty of room for gear with storage space directly behind the seat, as well as bungee rigging on the rear splash guard. The front splash guard can be used as additional storage for securing dry bags or other gear. You’ll also find D-rings for tying your gear bags down.
Another great feature of this boat is the low-rocker hull design that can help to improve paddling efficiency. The quick-release fin can also help with tracking, which can be useful on moving water.
The padded seat benefits from having a high backrest with breathable mesh for increased comfort in warm weather.
Some other features include the FeatherFrame cross-piece support, which helps to maintain rigidity in the hull, as well as the durable Duratex material and welded construction to help resist punctures. The boat is made with three air chambers for improved buoyancy and added safety and flotation in the event of damage to one of the chambers.
4: Aquaglide Chelan 140 (best inflatable 2-person)
This Aquaglide Chelan 140 can be an ideal two-person river kayak, with enough storage space for camping gear for a multi-day trip. It has a low-profile design that’s crafted for efficient paddling on more flatwater environments, making it ideal for large slow-moving rivers.
A great feature of this inflatable kayak is the drop-stitch floor. This can help to create a more rigid hull for speed and glide. It can also make it feel more like a hard shell kayak to paddle, as well as being durable enough for dogs' paws if you want to bring along your furry friend.
It features two inflatable seats with high backrests for added comfort. The level of inflation on the seats can be adjusted to sit a little higher or lower depending on your preferences. You can also paddle this kayak solo, which can be ideal if you need a high-capacity kayak to haul heavy gear or equally great if you’re a larger paddler.
You’ll find storage areas at the bow and stern, along with bungee rigging for securing equipment. There are also universal accessory mounts and MOLLE plates so you can attach additional accessories, such as a cupholder (sold separately), your camera, or even your phone.
5: Sun Dolphin Journey 10 (best for recreation)
The Sun Dolphin Journey 10 is a sit-on-top recreational kayak that can be ideal for a range of waters, including both lakes and rivers. Its shorter hull means it could be a good choice for smaller rivers, where maneuverability is essential but speed may not be your top priority.
It’s mostly designed for flatwater paddling so it might not be the best kayak if you plan to scout out rapids. This is more for gently flowing rivers. It can be an ideal boat for beginners, as it’s stable and compact for easy car-topping and hauling to and from the water. Additionally, the spacious seating area with open deck is built to be easy to get in and out of.
It has a few features that can be great if you plan to fish while paddling along a river trail, such as rod holders. It also has plenty of storage space for smaller accessories that you want to maintain easy access to while on the water. Another great feature is the Portable Accessory Carrier (PAC) in the stern. This can be removed and towed to free up space in the rear tank well.
Other features include adjustable foot braces and an adjustable padded seat. However, the seat may not be too comfy if you’re on the water for a long time, as it’s crafted more for shorter trips.
6: Lifetime Youth Wave (best for kids)
The Lifetime Youth Wave is specially designed for kids aged from 5 years and comes with a paddle included. It’s a lightweight, compact kayak that can be ideal for kids who are just learning paddling techniques or developing their skills. It’s built to encourage kids to have fun on the water, with a swim-up deck to allow them to easily climb back on or jump off.
This is a stable little kayak, with deep channels in the hull and a reverse-chine design. It also has molded twin fins underneath to help little kayakers paddle in a straight line.
Because of the small size of this kayak, it can be a good performer on small rivers, with most kids finding the short length easier to maneuver than shorter adult kayaks. It’s also made with lightweight materials and minimal additional features to help keep weight down. However, very small kids may still struggle to lift it.
It features blow-molded high-density polyethylene construction for added durability against knocks and bumps. The self-bailing scupper holes help to keep drain water from the cockpit which can be useful when paddling over riffles in rivers.
Another nice feature of this compact kayak is the paddle cradle at the bow, so kids can keep their paddle safe while they’re jumping on and off the boat. But you may want to think about attaching a paddle leash (sold separately) just in case.
There’s a toggle handle at the bow that can be useful if you need to tow the kayak behind yours if your child gets tired paddling. The molded seat has no seat back, so it may not give adequate support for long periods.
7: Azul Kayaks Expedition 10 Deluxe (best budget kayak)
This Azul Expedition 10 Deluxe is a lightweight kayak that can be great for beginners and short river trips on a budget. This is a recreational sit-inside kayak with a spacious cockpit that can feel less restrictive and could offer more freedom of movement than some other sit-inside kayaks. It can also be useful in colder conditions where you want a little extra protection from the elements.
The seat is a padded foam seat with an adjustable padded back band, which can be good for shorter paddling sessions but might not feel comfortable after several hours on the water.
A great feature of this river kayak is the storage space. You’ll find a spacious rear tank well with a cargo net for keeping your gear safe. There’s also bungee rigging at the bow and a storage hatch in front of the cockpit for smaller items that you want to keep within easy reach.
This is a stable budget kayak that comes with a paddle included. It has a compact hull that can make it great on smaller rivers but it’s not designed to handle rough conditions, so it can perform best on slow-moving rivers.
8: Star Paragon XL
The Star Paragon XL is a pretty sizable inflatable kayak that is built for flatwater touring. It can be great for kayak camping trips along river trails. One of the best features of this boat is that it can be packed down for easy storage and transportation, meaning you can store it easily at home and load it into the trunk of your car. However, it’s not the lightest and weighs more than some hard shells.
There is plenty of space to haul all sorts of camping gear for a multi-day trip, with splash covers at both the bow and stern offering some protection for your gear. You’ll also find bungee rigging to secure extra gear.
The deck features high-pressure drop-stitch technology to create a rigid floor to improve the overall performance, making it easier to paddle and quicker. It also has more of a similar feel to a hard shell boat and the removable fin helps with tracking, which can be useful in large moving rivers.
The bow and stern feature rigid inserts in the keel to help cut through the water.
For added comfort during long trips, the padded seat is adjustable and has a high back for better support while paddling. There are also adjustable foot braces that can help with stabilization and maneuvering in choppy waters.
A pump, carry bag, and repair kit are included.
9: Sea Eagle SE330
The Sea Eagle 330 is an inflatable recreational kayak that can be great for one or two people. It has a generous capacity that can be ideal for loading it up with camping gear for a weekend away. If there are two of you, space may be restricted if you have a lot of gear.
This is an incredibly lightweight kayak that’s easy to use and easy to travel with. It can also be set up in under 10 minutes. It can handle versatile conditions, from slow-moving rivers to Class III whitewater. Its compact hull can be suitable for rivers of various sizes, as it can be easy to maneuver around rocks and in small rivers.
It also benefits from a durable construction of PVC material that can handle the various bumps and knocks that come with river kayaking. It’s also saltwater-friendly if you fancy paddling to the ocean.
It has an inflatable I-beam constructed floor and two skegs under the hull, designed to improve paddling efficiency. However, if you’re used to paddling hard shell kayaks, you may find this is a little slower over the water.
This boat also features one-way valves that are designed so that air doesn’t escape after you’ve inflated the chambers. The bow and stern splash covers help to minimize water coming into the cockpit and can be useful for storing some of your gear.
This inflatable also has grab lines at the bow and stern. There are various packages to choose from, with either one or two inflatable seats and one or two paddles included.
10: Pelican Sentinel 100X
This Pelican Sentinel 100X can be great for slow-moving rivers. It’s lightweight and compact, so it can easily fit in the back of many pickup trucks and it can be easy to load it on a roof rack on your car.
This could be a good choice for beginners as it’s affordable and easy to maneuver on small bodies of water. It has excellent stability, with a multi-chine twin arched hull that can be great for handling small riffles in rivers as well as flatwater.
Video: Pelican RAM-X Polyethylene Explained
As well as being compact and easy to maneuver, it’s also durable. It’s made from RAM-X material which is a type of polyethylene that’s incredibly impact resistant, with an ability to regain its shape after damage. This can make it ideal if you’re a beginner on a rocky river.
If you’re looking to load up your kayak for a fun day out, there’s ample storage at the bow for a rain jacket or dry bag. You’ll also find an ExoPak removable compartment in the rear tank well that you can use for storing additional gear. The rear tank well also has bungee cords for securing your equipment.
This budget river kayak features an adjustable seating system with an ErgoLounge seat that benefits from a wide padded seat with a high backrest. It also features scupper holes for easy self-bailing.
11: Oru Kayak Inlet Folding Kayak
The Oru Kayak Inlet is an extremely lightweight folding kayak. This can be the ideal kayak if you live in an apartment or want to be able to take your boat on public transportation, as it packs down to an easily manageable size for traveling (40 x 19 x 10 inches).
It’s crafted from double-layered custom-extruded polypropylene and is designed with an efficient origami fold pattern that makes it easy to set up and repack. It’s rated to handle 20,000 fold cycles and benefits from having a UV treatment that lasts for 10 years. It’s also built to go from folded to ready for the water in under five minutes.
But if you like to paddle every day or head out on long trips, this may not be the best kayak for you.
It’s a sit-inside that’s designed for flatwater adventures, with a compact hull that can make it easy to navigate both small and large rivers. The wide, roomy cockpit means it can be easy to get in and out of compared to other sit-inside kayaks.
The seat is padded with a padded adjustable seatback. There’s some space to store gear at the back of the cockpit, with enough room at the front to bring along your dog.
Different River Types And Choosing The Right Kayak For Each
Class of Rapids
Rapids are rated from Class I up to Class VI+, with Class I being the slowest and calmest.
The ratings can be important when choosing a river to paddle, as you will probably need whitewater skills if you want to attempt any river rated higher than a Class II or III.
● Class I - easy, slow-moving river with light riffles.
● Class II - moderate moving water with waves and small rapids that require maneuvering.
● Class III - moderate to fast-moving water with rocks and hazards that require skills to navigate around. Not suitable for open canoes
● Class IV - difficult, fast-flowing, and powerful water with large rapids and many dangerous hazards. Only for highly experienced, skilled whitewater kayakers
● Class V - incredibly difficult, powerful rapids and violent, uninterrupted whitewater with large drops. Only for expert, professional whitewater kayakers.
● Class VI - extremely dangerous water and exceptionally difficult with constant high risks and threat of death. Only for Olympic abilities and professionals with extreme skill levels.
Slow & Calm Rivers
The best kayaks for slow rivers will generally have flat bottoms and are often similar recreational kayaks that are suited to flatwater lakes and bays.
The best river kayaks will usually have short hulls to let you maneuver around obstacles in the water and paddle easily around bends. They will also usually be easy to paddle for beginners, with good stability on calm water.
If you’re planning a multi-day trip on a calm river, remember to think about the amount of gear you intend to bring to make sure your boat has enough space.
Many river trails across the country will mostly be on calm water with camping opportunities along the way. So your kayak should have enough capacity and room for you and all your camping gear and food for the duration of the trip. Inflatable kayaks can often offer a higher capacity for their size than hard shell equivalents.
Fast & Whitewater Rivers
Choosing a river kayak for whitewater or fast-moving rivers can be a little different from choosing one for slow-moving rivers, as your trip will probably be shorter and you usually won’t require as much space for gear.
Kayaks that are designed to handle rapids and fast-moving water will usually have a much shorter hull, which can allow you to use your body to control the vessel and maneuver around rocks in tight spaces.
Whitewater kayaks are usually sit-inside boats so that you can attach a spray skirt to keep the water out of your cockpit in rough conditions, so you can continue your river run without having to stop to bail out your boat. However, some inflatables can handle rapids without having a closed cockpit.
These types of vessels will also generally have increased rocker to roll over waves more effectively. They will also usually have different styles of hulls, either planing hulls or displacement hulls, which can give more secondary stability in whitewater.
Is Kayaking On A River Safe?
As with all bodies of water, there is always a risk of danger. Slow-moving rivers are generally safe, as long as there hasn’t been inclement weather to raise water levels or increase the hazards.
Whitewater rapids can be more dangerous and shouldn’t be attempted unless you have prior whitewater experience or are with a guided tour company. If you plan to attempt any whitewater river, you should always scout it first and plan your route before you run it.
Remember to dress appropriately for the conditions and to have safety equipment with you, such as a whistle, ropes, and a helmet if you’re tackling rapids. You should always wear your PFD while paddling on any body of water and avoid any type of water that is beyond your skill level.
River Kayaks: Frequently Asked Questions
Are Sit-On-Top Kayaks Good For Rivers?
Yes, they can be ideal for slow-moving to moderate rivers. If there are rapids, you may want to think about a sit-inside whitewater kayak or an inflatable that’s rated for rapids.
Can I Bring My Dog WIth Me?
Yes, as long as your kayak has sufficient room and capacity for you and your dog. However, some local rules on certain waterways may not allow dogs so check first.
What Size Of Kayak Do I Need For Rivers?
A compact one can be best as it can be easier to maneuver than a long one, which is more important on narrow or winding waterways than it is on open water. But you should also consider how much gear you want to bring. If your boat is too short, your storage space is likely to be limited.
What’s The Difference Between A Sea Kayak And A River Kayak?
Sea kayaks tend to be long and narrow to cover open water quickly and handle waves and ocean current. River kayaks are generally shorter to allow you to maneuver more easily around rocks and tight river bends.
Do You Need A License To Kayak On A River?
Generally speaking, no. But this will depend on the river or section of river. Some water trails may require a permit to paddle, such as parts of the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon and the Snake River in Wyoming.
Our Final Verdict
If you’re looking for the best river kayak overall, we’d say the winner is the Sea Eagle 300X. This is a versatile river kayak that can suit all levels of paddlers and has the stability and construction to handle various water types, including both flatwater and Class III rapids.
However, another fantastic option and great runner-up is the Aquaglide Deschutes 130 as it has great capacity, is lightweight, and is very easy to transport to and from the water.
If a hard shell is more your thing, the Sun Dolphin Journey 10 can be a good alternative, with good stability on calm rivers and it can be easy to maneuver for beginners.
But remember, our top kayaks won’t always be suitable for every paddler. So it can be important that you check each product out for yourself to make sure it fits your requirements. The best kayak for one paddler may not be the best one for you.
Remember to think about the type of rivers that you plan to paddle, as this will give you a better idea of the type of kayak that will suit you best.
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