It’s fair to say that if you’re looking for an active pastime with real variation, river kayaking might just be the one for you. Whether it’s a casual paddle down an idyllic stream, a thrilling ride across whitewater rapids, or even a lovely day’s fishing, there is so much potential in a river kayaking adventure.

Although you won’t need a sports kayak or any type of customised to take on the river bends, it can be difficult to choose the perfect one for you.

To make it simple, we’ve split the types of kayaking most commonly found on rivers:

  • Leisure River Kayaking
  • Whitewater Kayaking
  • Fishing Kayak

In this buying guide we look through the different aspects you’ll need to take into consideration when buying a river kayak, and also some of our own that may work well for your leisurely pursuits

Types of kayaks available

When looking for the perfect river kayak, a big part of it is finding the right features for the style of kayaking you’re interested in. However, it’s also about finding the right features for you to feel comfortable out on the water. It’s no use talking about the need for a lightweight streamlined kayak for river touring when in reality you’d feel much more comfortable riding solo in a tandem. By gaining an understanding of the features that various kayaks have, you can come to a better conclusion of what will work for you out on the water.

Kayak features to look out for

Length, weight, and portability

As river kayaking often does not allow you much room for maneuverability, many of the best river kayaks are on the shorter end of the scale. This will also mean that they do tend to be on the slighter lighter side and when looking for the ideal kayak, the weight will likely play a big part.

While they can weigh anywhere between 9kg to 45kg, it’s about finding the right sizing for your activity. The weight will of course also have an impact on how easy they are to transport to and from the water. Both at the start and end of the day, you don’t want to be tiring yourself out with a needlessly heavy kayak, or potentially damaging a new kayak because it’s heavier in reality than you bargained for.

If you’re travelling solo, or are concerned about a heavy kayak, going for one around 23kgs and under will be a smart move.

Storage space

An important aspect to consider when buying a river kayak is the storage capacity. If it isn’t for whitewater rapids, there’s a strong chance you’ll be using it for a leisurely day trip, exploring everything the river has to offer, or fishing, which should involve a fair amount of time spent out on the water. To ensure an enjoyable day out, both of these pastimes will require either supplies or gear, and therefore more storage space than other, quicker kayaking activities.

A kayak’s storage space usually comes either as an enclosed compartment or in the form of a cargo net. These cargo nets are usually for smaller, more lightweight boats (that do tend to be pricier), while the enclosed compartments are usually around 2 feet, both in length and width.

There’s also the option to use any free space inside your kayak for storage. This however will depend on how much weight the kayak can support. As kayaks, in general, can usually handle up to 90kg, it’s important to pay attention to the weights of each item you bring aboard, especially if you’re planning to take a lot with you.

For obvious reasons, tandems that can support a lot more weight (up to 180kg) than other kayaks, and are a good option if you are considering using your kayaks for fishing, or spending a prolonged period kayaking and then setting up a riverside camp each night. This is because there is a likelihood you will pick more extra weight (such as fish) as time goes on, so having a kayak that can hold up to 260kgs will certainly work in your favour.

Seats and multiple person kayaks

The look and feel of a kayak can be heavily influenced by its two distinctive seating styles. These are the more traditional sit-in kayaks, and the Sit-on-Top Kayaks, which have a slightly more relaxed approach. What works for you may depend on how much kayaking you’ve already done.

1. Sit-In Kayaks

An enclosed cockpit, which means the centre of gravity is far lower than its counterpart Kayak. This makes it far less likely to flip over because of a sideways tilt. However, if you do flip over, you’ll have to wriggle yourself free to stop getting totally stuck underwater. It's a style of kayaking that lends itself to far better steering, which is pretty crucial for navigating rivers. So if you feel confident and experienced, a sit-in kayak will be perfect for you

2. Sit-on-top kayaks

A slightly more modern take of kayak seating. Far more suited to either those that are learning the ropes with kayaking or looking to do some fishing, these have a surprising amount of stability. By their very nature, Sit-On-Top Kayaks allow a great deal of mobility, allowing you to easily re-adjust your position when the situation requires it. They are also easier to deal with if the kayak overturns, as you do not have to worry about wriggling out.

3. Three seater kayaks

Available in both Sit-In and Sit-On-Top formats, these give you the option of going out in one big kayak and works well for families or first-timers. Also, if you feel confident enough to be able to steer a bigger kayak by yourself, it’s a great option for a longer river tour or fishing, as you have space for all your gear, supplies and can sit back and take a break.

Inflatable vs rigid kayaks

Again, this may come down to how experienced you are, but in most circumstances, we’d recommend going down the inflatable route for river kayaking. Despite their name, inflatable kayaks are incredibly durable, not only being able to withstand any bumps or bruises the river offers but can also bounce off any oncoming obstacles when moving at any sort of speed.

Different types of river kayaks

Recreational kayaks

Perfect for a short trip along the river or just splashing around in flat water for a while. Although they are stable, great for turning, and easy to get in and out of, their lack of versatility and storage means if you’re looking to take on rapids or get involved in long days touring, you might be better off looking elsewhere.

Sit-In day touring kayaks

With smoother performance going round the river bends, better control in tougher whitewater conditions, and a good amount of cargo space, this is perfect for a day-long water adventure. Touring kayaks are also much easier to transport and handle, meaning they are also ideal if you’re looking for a longer stay along the riverside.

Inflatable kayaks

As previously mentioned, an inflatable kayak is one of the best options for river kayaking, especially when taking on choppier waters. Wide, sturdy, versatile, excellent at negotiating river obstacles, and great for packing up and transporting. Available in both recreational and touring formats, if you’re looking to be on the river for both a long time and a good time, it’s best to go inflatable.

Check out our range of inflatable kayaks right here.

Tandem kayaks

Feel like you’d like a partner on your river tour, or would just like extra room for storage? More stable than other single-seater kayaks, tandems give you the option to both share the river experience with others or bring more supplies and gear along with you for other activities, such as fishing. As they are of course larger, so you should only really purchase one if you do feel confident about being able to paddle and transport it alone, but if you can it could end up being a very shrewd buy.

Kayaking equipment - what else do you need for kayaking?

Choosing your paddle

Alongside picking the correct kayak, it’s also important to know the right type of paddle you will need. There’s every chance you will hit tricky situations or even get stuck when travelling down the river, and your paddle may just become your best friend at that moment.

When it comes to the paddle, there are four aspects you need to think about.

Length of the kayak

To put it simply, you can work out how long your paddle needs to be by the width of your boat, along with your height. The wider the boat and the taller you are, the longer the paddle you will need.

What the kayak's made from

The more lightweight and high-tech your paddle, the more expensive it will be, so it’s only worth really investing in a top of the range paddle if you’re regularly kayaking, or when you do, it’s in potentially choppy conditions. The best materials for river kayaking are carbon glass or fibreglass for the blade and Carbon or fiberglass for the shaft.

Blade choice

When looking for a paddle for a long day’s river touring, you should be looking for a lighter narrower blade, as this will provide a lot more comfort. However if you are looking for a blade that can steer at a much faster pace, go for a dihedral blade.

Shaft choice

If it’s whitewater rafting you’re into, you may want to opt for a bent shaft, which allows for much better power paddling and minimises discomfort and fatigue in your joints.

For further paddle specifications, check out our article on how to choose your kayak paddle. While you’re looking, why not check out our range of kayak paddles?

Additional kayak gear

No matter which Kayak you choose for your river adventure, it’s highly likely it will come with a selection of safety add-ons. While most of these are removable, they are pretty essential, especially if the weather gets tricky.

Let’s have a closer look at some of these additions.

The skeg

The dropdown fin gives your kayak the best maneuverability possible and prevents side wind from knocking you off course. Among other functions, this will be vital to river kayaking, especially on difficult routes or windy days.

The rudder

Another fin flips down from the back of the boat. Similar to the skeg, the rudder will help control the maneuverability of a kayak, although it does not have a fixed position and can be controlled by foot pedals, meaning you can be reactive to the conditions.

Tracking fin

Again, another tracking accessory, but one that cannot be retracted whilst out paddling. It’s usually found on inflatable kayaks and can be removed if you value quick turns over sturdy tracking

And finally… a seat

This might not be essential and you may be happy with the one supplied. However it is regularly the case with river kayaking that you’re out for the day, so it might be worth purchasing a seat that guarantees you have the perfect day out.