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What Is a River Kayak?

Dan Cavallari
By Dan Cavallari
Updated Jan 22, 2024
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A river kayak is a style of kayak designed for use on rivers rather than on open water such as ponds, lakes, or even oceans. A kayak in general is a long, narrow boat meant to be paddled; some kayaks are meant for one person, while others are designed for two. A river kayak is most often designed for only one person, and it is usually much shorter and slightly wider than other types of kayaks. Its shape makes it more maneuverable on narrow passages, and it can help the paddler avoid obstacles common on riverways.

Plastics are usually used to construct a river kayak; polyethylene is common because it is flexible and durable enough to allow the boat to glance off rocks without causing cracks that can lead to leaking. The hull of the boat does not feature a keel, which sea kayaks sometimes include. The river kayak is designed to be maneuverable rather than narrow for speed, since the river's current is likely to drive the boat forward quickly. Sea kayaks need to be long and thin to gain speed on still water. The shape of the river kayak can vary according to its purpose, and the length of the boat can range anywhere from 4 to 10 feet (1.2 to 3 meters).

A playboat is the shortest river kayak model. It is specially designed to be very nimble; many kayakers use such a boat to perform tricks in the water, or to navigate especially tricky or narrow waterways. This type of boat is likely to float lower down in the water, since it is a low-volume craft. Creekboats, by comparison, are longer and higher volume, and they sit higher up on the water. They are intended for use on less treacherous rivers and rivers that do not flow as hard as other rivers.

Recreational boats tend to bridge the gap between these two models. They are of moderate length and volume, and they are basically designed for a recreational paddler who will not be committing to one or the other style of paddling. It is not the best choice for either type of paddling, but it is a good choice for both together, should the paddler be likely to do both styles at some point. These kayaks tend to be slightly less expensive than specially designed creekboats and playboats, though the price difference may be fairly slight.

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