River kayaking can be a great way to get out and explore places you wouldn’t otherwise be able to access. But not all kayaks are suited to navigating the twists and turns of a river.

This guide will tell you what to look for and give you recommendations for some of the best river kayak available on the market.

best river kayak

The first part of this guide will offer you tips and advice on what to look for in a good river kayak. If you already know what to look for, you can skip ahead to the reviews section or individual picks for different types of paddling.

What to look for

What makes a good river kayak?

Maneuverability

On of the most important qualities of a river kayak is its maneuverability. Rivers tend to wind back and forth and heading down river on a kayak that is hard to maneuver is a recipe for trouble.

Anybody that’s paddled a river before can tell you that obstacles can sometimes be hard to spot. Tree branches and boulders buried just under the water’s surface can sneak up on you and leave you with little time to react. Your kayak needs to be agile enough that you can maneuver around these obstacles.

Kayak Length

Typically, the shorter a kayak is the more maneuverable it is. The sweet spot for river kayaks is in the 8-12 foot range. Once you get into the 14-foot and above range, it can become pretty awkward to manage on a winding river.

Durability

Even the most experienced kayakers fail to spot underwater obstacles. Bumping into rocks and sticks or running into shallow ground can put some wear and tear on your kayak. A good river kayak needs to be able to handle these inevitable bumps and scrapes without getting damaged.

The biggest factor that impacts a kayak’s durability is the material it’s made from.

Two materials that offer good durability are Polyethylene plastic and heavy-duty PVC plastic.

Polyethylene

This is one of the most common materials kayaks are made from, and for good reason. Polyethylene is very tough does a great job standing up to abuse from collisions and abrasions.

Its only real downsides are that if you do actually manage to damage it, it’s a little harder to repair. It’s also on the heavier side, so try to avoid having to carry a polyethylene kayak over long distances.

PVC

PVC plastic is the material used for the vast majority of the inflatable kayaks on the market. While not as puncture resistant as polyethylene, PVC still holds up well in river environments.

Having said that, not all PVC is created equal. You want to make sure the PVC is heavy duty enough to survive the occasional contact with sharp sticks and rocks. If you do spring a leak, PVC is very easy to repair and doesn’t require and special skills or tools.

One major benefit that PVC inflatable kayak have over polyethylene is that they’re exceptionally lightweight and portable.

Stability

Changing currents and underwater obstacles can cause your kayak to be jostled around a bit when running down river. A good river kayak should be stable enough that it you don’t get tipped into the water if conditions get a little rough.

Kayak Width

The width of a kayak plays a major role in how stable it is. Generally speaking, wider kayaks are more stable.

While they’re more stable, just bear in mind that the wider kayaks also tend to be a bit slower.

Does speed matter?

When you’re running down river most of your propulsion is provided by the river itself. So, speed and efficiency isn’t the most important quality for a river kayak.

Having said that, it is nice to have the ability to move quickly when you want to. If you’re interested in kayak that’s a bit more performance-focused and not too concerned about stability, aim for something with a narrower hull.

Reviews

Best River Kayak Reviews

Dagger Zydeco 9.0

Overall Score: (4.5/5)

Dagger Zydeco Recreational Kayak, Size 9.0, Lime

Specifications:

Length: 9′ 1”

Width: 28.5”

Weight: 36.5 lbs

Weight capacity: 220 lbs

Material: Polyethylene

Maneuverability:

Stability:

Features:

Value:

Features: Adjustable seat, track-adjustable footrests, padded knee braces, paddle holder, deck bungees.

Ideal for: Paddlers that want a more performance-focused kayak so they can zip around and explore on their way down river.

 from $449.00

Buy on Amazon

(price updated as of 2019-05-25 at 22:56 – Details)

Review

The Dagger Zydeco 9.0 is a zippy river-runner that sacrifices a bit of stability for improved speed and handling. At just over 9 feet, the Zydeco 9.0 is built for maneuverability and is right at home on a twisty river.

The seat is a step up from the Aruba 10 and offers decent padding and multiple adjustment points for improved comfort. The padded knee braces and adjustable footrests also provide increased comfort and more support while paddling.

While not as portable as an inflatable kayak, the Zydeco 9.0’s compact size and light weight make it easier to handle out of the water; a nice feature if you’re on the smaller size and concerned about having to lug around a heavy kayak.

The Zydeco has multiple deck bungees that provide quick access to gear. And while it lacks any sealed storage hatches, there is room to stash gear behind the seat in the body of the kayak. Just make sure it’s in a dry bag if you don’t want it to get wet.

The Zydeco’s compact size and emphasis on performance make it well suited to paddlers that envision navigating a twisting river and exploring forks and tributaries along the way.

Wilderness Systems Tarpon 100

Overall Score: (4.5/5)

Wilderness Systems 9750105110 Tarpon 100 Kayaks, Midnight, 10'

Specifications:

Length: 10’

Width: 30.5”

Weight: 55 lbs

Weight capacity: 325 lbs

Material: Polyethylene

Maneuverability:

Stability:

Features:

Value:

Features: Fully adjustable seat, multiple storage hatches, rear tank well with adjustable bungee tie downs, adjustable footrests, accessory track

Ideal for: Paddlers that want a comfortable kayak they can swim and fish from.

 from $699.00

Buy on Amazon

(price updated as of 2019-05-25 at 22:56 – Details)

Review

The Tarpon 100 is a versatile sit on top kayak that offers great all around performance, comfort, and stability. The fact that it’s a sit on top kayak and has a stable 30″ hull means it’s easy to slip on and off of, which is great if you want to take a quick dip while heading down river.

One of the Tarpon’s key features is its exceptionally comfortable seat with lots of adjustment points to help you get the right fit for your body. This is especially nice if you’re concerned at all about lower back comfort.

The Tarpon has track-adjustable footrests, which aren’t common for sit on top kayaks and make a nice addition. Combined with it’s high quality seat, they work together to make the Tarpon one of the most comfortable sit on top kayaks available and a solid choice for longer trips.

It also has plenty of storage space with two separate sealed storage hatches and a large rear tank well. There’s probably even enough room for camping gear if you don’t pack too heavy.

And if you’re into fishing, the Tarpon comes standard with an accessory track system so you can customize it with rod holders and other gear.

If you’re looking for something that’s nimble and stable enough to navigate winding rivers and provides all day comfort, the Tarpon 100 is a solid option. Its only real drawback is the price; it’s definitely near the upper end of the spectrum.

Sun Dolphin Aruba 10

Overall Score: (4.4/5)

SUNDOLPHIN Sun Dolphin Aruba Sit-in Kayak (Blue, 10-Feet)

Specifications:

Length: 10’

Width: 30”

Weight: 40 lbs

Weight capacity: 250 lbs

Material: Polyethylene

Maneuverability:

Stability:

Features:

Value:

Features: Adjustable backrest, storage hatch, water bottle holder, padded knee braces, adjustable footrests

Ideal for: Paddlers on a budget that are looking for excellent value for their money.

 from $248.05

Buy on Amazon

(price updated as of 2018-11-13 at 11:27 – Details)

Review

If you want to do some river paddling on a budget, it’s hard to beat the Aruba 10 in terms of value for your money. The build quality isn’t quite as high as some of the other options but it offers some great basic features for its price point. It’ll get you out on the water and having fun without breaking the bank.

Its 10-foot length means it’s right in the sweet spot that gives it good maneuverability for river paddling and is easier to store and transport. 

The Aruba has adjustable footrests and padded knee braces, which are nice features to see on a budget model that will help improve your comfort and paddling efficiency.

It does have a rear storage hatch but it’s not the most secure, so make sure any water-sensitive items are in a dry bag, just in case.

One of the biggest downsides of the Aruba is the seat. The ‘seat’ is really just an adjustable backrest. There is no padded section to sit on, so you’re sitting directly on the molded plastic of the kayak. This isn’t an issue for shorter trips but you might want to consider bringing a cushion for longer trips.

Despite its shortcomings, it’s hard to fault the Aruba 10. At its price point, the Aruba 10 is a bargain and makes for a solid entry-level river kayak.

 

Sea Eagle SE370

Overall Score: (4.4/5)

Sea Eagle SE370 Inflatable Sport Kayak Pro Package

Specifications:

Length: 12’ 6”

Width: 34”

Weight: 32 lbs

Weight capacity: 650 lbs

Material: PVC (38 mil PolyKrylar)

Maneuverability:

Stability:

Features:

Value:

Features: Two removable & adjustable inflatable seats, drain valve, two rear skegs, includes paddles

Ideal for: Paddlers that need an extra portable kayak with extra legroom.

 $324.99

Buy on Amazon

(price updated as of 2019-05-25 at 23:35 – Details)

Review

If you want something that’s ultra portable but still gives you enough space to stretch your legs, the Sea Eagle SE370 could be a good option.

The SE370 is a versatile inflatable kayak that’s made out of a durable 38 mil PolyKrylar PVC, which means it’ll hold up against collisions with rocks and sticks. It’s rated for class III rapids, so that should give you a good idea how tough it is.

It comes with two seats – and two paddles for some nice added value – that can be removed or repositioned, so you can paddle it solo or with a partner. Measuring in at over 12 feet, it’s a little less maneuverable than some of the other options. But its generous 650 weight capacity and the extra legroom means it even has enough space for a third passenger, which could be ideal if you have a small child.

While the SE370 doesn’t have any dedicated storage space, there’s some space at the front and back to stash away essentials. And if you’re paddling solo, there should be plenty of space for bringing along your camping gear.

The SE370 has two removable skegs that improve its tracking in the water but you may want to remove them if you’re going to be in shallower water as you’ll run the risk of knocking them off on a rock.

While it’s a little light on high-end features, the SE370’s larger footprint means it’s an exceptionally stable and reliable option. The ability to convert it for solo and tandem paddling offers a lot of flexibility if you want to mix it up from time to time.

Wrapping Up

It’s a close call but the top pick for best river kayak is the Dagger Zydeco 9.0. Its compact size gives it the agility required to perform well in the twisting environments of most rivers. And while it’s not quite as stable as some of the other picks, it’s still more than capable. It’s durable polyethylene hull will make sure it’ll hold up against collisions with rocks and sticks and provide you with years of reliable and carefree paddling.

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