When it comes to picking the best river kayaks, the rules are a little different than they are for other bodies of water. That’s why we’re here to walk you through the process of choosing out the perfect whitewater cruiser for you.
From fishing to just straight-up paddling for paddling’s sake, there’s a whole lot you can do with a river kayak. Our list touches base on all manner of boats, and it features tried-and-true products that stand out as long-time favorites in the kayaking community.
Keep on reading to find yourself the best river kayak!
Quick Answer: Best River Kayaks
10 Best Kayaks for Conquering Rivers
Through the thick and thin of paddling down a river, these 10 picks are guaranteed to leave you with a positive customer experience:
Weight: 41 lbs | Length: 9′ 6″ | Width: 28.5″ | Max Capacity: 325 lbs
Features: Padded seat w/ adjustable backrest | Molded handles | Rear storage bin | Multi-Chine hull design | Paddle park & center cup holder
Starting off our list of the best river kayaks on a high note, the Perception Flash 9.5 ticks every important box for a whitewater boat.
The kayak is perfect for particularly narrow rivers, as its 9.5-foot build allows for some high-precision turns. On top of that, convenient add-ons like footrests and cupholders are definite winners in our book. This thing is especially handy if you want to go fishing, as it features rod holders and nearly a foot’s worth of storage space in the hatch.
Despite its relatively tiny frame, the boat can support around 320 pounds of weight, and the polyethylene build makes it relatively easy to carry it around even though it’s not an inflatable. None of this is to say the kayak is flimsy, though – provided that you’re paddling in still waters, you don’t have to worry about flipping it over if you tilt to either side.
Weight: 52 lbs | Length: 15′ | Width: 32″ | Max Capacity: 550 lbs
Features: 3 different deck conversions | 2 adjustable padded back supports | Durable double-coated fabric | Skeg tracking fin | Bungee storage
If you’ve been keeping tabs on our other kayak articles, it should come as no surprise that we consider AdvancedElements to be among the kings of river kayaks.
This kayak for two is coated in 3 layers of PVC tarpaulin, ensuring a level of durability that’s seldom found in inflatable boats. The kayak can carry up to 550 pounds, and despite being around 12 feet long, the steering on this specimen is truly top-notch, to the point where a more experienced pair of rowers can definitely use it in a river.
As per the name, this kayak can convert from open to closed-deck, which is definitely a luxury as far as inflatables go. It should be noted that the boat doesn’t come with paddles, but if you’re using something this long in a river, chances are you have some experience under your belt and a pair of paddles in your closet.
Weight: 32 lbs| Length: 12′ | Width: 34″ | Max Capacity: 650 lbs
Features: 2 bottom Skegs | Self-bailing drain valve | L-beam floor construction | Deluxe seats | Storage bag
Although it might not look very impressive at first glance, this is by and large one of the best river kayaks for three you can hope to find.
To start with, the fact that the Sea Eagle 370 Pro can comfortably fit 3 within only 10 feet of space is a huge accomplishment, made all the more impressive by the extremely comfortable and fully adjustable seats. Also, despite its amazing weight capacity, the kayak is extremely light when deflated, weighing just over 30 pounds.
You might not think this is a big deal if you’re a beginner, but the fact that the paddles’ blades are asymmetrical does wonders for your maneuverability, in part because they tend to be much lighter than their symmetrical counterparts.
Another defining feature of this kayak is the double-skeg configuration, giving it the kind of tracking you’d expect from a boat in the four-digit price range. The cherry on top here is that it’s extremely easy to pump – you’ll be ready to go within 10 minutes of taking the kayak out of its packaging!
Weight: 30.6 lbs | Length: 10′ 3″ | Width: 36″ | Max Capacity: 400 lbs
Features: Heavy duty puncture-resistant vinyl | Removable keg | Adjustable seats | 3 air chambers | Inflatable rigid l-beam floor | Boston Valves | Carry bag
If you’re not looking to overspend on a river kayak, this is one of the most budget-friendly picks on the market today.
This 10-foot wonder of hydrodynamics can comfortably seat two people and carry up to 400 pounds of weight without compromising on maneuverability in the slightest. If you’re looking to do something movement-sensitive like fishing, you can remove the skeg for a bit of added stability, and the comfort provided by the cushy backrest is second only to floating on your back in the river!
The combination of a firm I-beam floor and vinyl coating gives this thing a surprising amount of durability. Furthermore, at the risk of shifting the mood a bit by bringing this up, people can spot the kayak from a mile away in case of an emergency, owing to its bright yellow color.
Weight: 27.2 lbs | Length: 9′ | Width: 30″ | Max Capacity: 220 lbs
Features: Closed deck | Cargo net | Removable keg | Adjustable seat | Puncture resistant vinyl | 2 air chambers | Boston Valves
We couldn’t help but include another Intex entry in our list… it’s not our fault they make some of the best river kayaks available today!
You can think of this as the one-person variant of the previous entry, although if you really wanted to, you could order a tandem version of this particular model as well. All the things that make the K2 so great are also on full display here, with some minor differences – this model (the one-seater version, anyway) is only 9 feet long, and you’ll have a cargo net to keep all the essentials safe and dry.
The 220-pound weight capacity is around half of its two-person cousin, but that’s understandable for a one-person kayak. Besides, this is a really light boat, even by inflatable standards, clocking in at just under 30 pounds!
Despite all that, the vinyl construction makes it very unlikely for this thing to get banged up, but much like the Explorer K2, the eye-catching color and repair kit have you covered.
Weight: 35 lbs | Length: 13′ 3″ | Width: 37″ | Max Capacity: 300 lbs
Features: Drop stitched floors | Zip on decks | Quick release fin | Adjustable Velcro seat & footrests | Dry storage compartments | Accessory strap
This is one of the best river kayaks if you plan on paddling through a particularly wide river.
With a length of over 13 feet, it’s a top pick for larger rivers, and truly performs with the best of them. Despite being on the long side, this kayak is relatively light yet sturdy, thanks to the always-amazing mix of polyester and Duratex build. On top of that, you get an extra-cozy Velcro seat and a drop-stitch floor for some top-tier puncture resistance.
What makes this kayak really nifty is the spacious compartment with a zipper for storing all your belongings, and you’ll be able to stash a decent amount as the boat has a maximum weight capacity of 300 pounds.
Weight: 57 lbs | Length: 12′ | Width: 32.5″ | Max Capacity: 375 lbs
Features: Removable & adjustable Pro seat | Quick adjust footrests | large front & rear open storage | Upright rod storage | Integrated accessory rails
Fishing kayaks don’t get much better than the Pescador Pro 12, and you’ll come to share that opinion if you give it a chance.
If you guessed that the twelve in the name stands for 12 feet, you guessed right – much like our previous pick, this is a relatively long kayak as far as river cruisers go. With that said, you’re getting an extremely durable plastic build out of the deal, and you don’t have to worry much about water acrobatics if you’re only using it to fish.
One of the advantages of getting a big boat for river kayaking is the ample storage space, and the Pescador Pro 12 has plenty of it between its front and back compartments. Another thing worth noting is that the mesh seat is extremely comfortable, allowing for an all-day fishing session with zero back pain.
Weight: 41 lbs | Length: 10′ | Width: 27″ | Max Capacity: 325 lbs
Features: Bulkhead-sealed rear compartment | Thighbraces & adjustable footbraces | Flush mount rod holder | Shockcord storage in front
What makes this one of the best river kayaks on our list (and by extension, one of the best period) is that you can use it for virtually anything, be it a weekend of catching fish or a day of water-based recreation.
The boat is made of polyethylene, which is good news for you as it makes it lightweight yet extremely durable. Whether you need to make a risky turn or shift your position to reel in a fish, you can count on this boat to stay stable and keep you dry, and the thigh and foot braces in the cockpit make it comfier than the average kayak.
Considering it’s a hard-shell, this boat is actually fairly light, weighing in at just over 40 pounds. While it’s understandably not as practical as an inflatable kayak in some ways, the fact that it’s only 10 feet long and can easily be picked up and placed on top of your car makes it all the easier to recommend.
Weight: 38 lbs | Length: 11′ | Width: 37.4″ | Max Capacity: 440 lbs
Features: 600D nylon cover | Heavy-duty D-ring tie downs | Rigid l-beam floor | Adjustable bucket seats | Detachable Skegs | Boston Valves
Oftentimes, the best river kayaks stick to the basics yet manage to beat out most of their competition, and that’s definitely the case for this one.
The Solstice can easily handle over 400 pounds, and although it’s a tandem, it’s perhaps best suited for a single kayaker looking to catch a lot of fish. For a shockingly low price, you can get this premier kayak as well as a number of essentials that lots of other boats tend to leave out, like a solid foot pump and a repair kit.
The Boston valves let you prep this inflatable kayak for action in a matter of minutes, and you’ll have a whopping 4 handles to grab onto if you need to readjust your position for whatever reason. The cherry on top is the denier nylon coating, which guarantees a level of longevity that’s seldom found at this price range.
Weight: 44 lbs | Length: 9′ 6″ | Width: 30″| Max Capacity: 275 lbs
Features: EXOPAK removable storage compartment | Adjustable footrests | Molded carrying handles | 2 accessory eyelets | Smartphone holders | Rod holders & tie-downs
This particular kayak is unique in that it comes in two versions – one is your quintessential recreational kayak, and the other is ideal for angling in whitewater.
Whichever one you wind up buying, you’re getting a quality, 9.6-foot boat with a solid amount of storage space (hurray for detachable compartments!) This is also one of the most stable kayaks on our list, and that’s saying something – we’d be really surprised if you managed to flip over the recreational variant, as its foam block construction gives it some truly top-notch floatation.
The kayak is made of the company’s signature Ram-X plastic, a high-density polyethylene that does wonders for the lifespan of a whitewater boat. This thing even features an anti-slip carpet, meaning you can take your dog or any other furry friend out on the river with you!
Key Considerations for Buying a River Kayak
Here are some key considerations to keep in mind when it comes to picking out the perfect river kayak.
Kayaks can be divided into a number of categories along several key parameters, so it’s very important to buy the correct type of boat for the activity you plan on pursuing.
A sit-on-top kayak is one that doesn’t feature a traditional enclosed cockpit – if you’re looking for a fishing boat or are still learning the ropes when it comes to kayaking, this is definitely the type we’d recommend.
These types of boats are a lot more stable than you might think, and they allow for some much-needed mobility when it comes to readjusting your position to reel in a big catch. Also, in the off-chance the kayak flips over, you don’t have to worry about wiggling your way out of the boat.
If you have a bit more experience with kayaking, a sit-in kayak might just be the better pick. Because the cockpit is enclosed, the center of gravity is shifted down compared to sit-on-top kayaks – this makes it less likely for the boat to flip over in the event of a sideways tilt.
The obvious drawback here becomes apparent if the kayak does tip over, as you’d have to maneuver your way out of the cockpit before making your way to the surface.
Nevertheless, if you’re at the level of kayaking where you can allow yourself to do it for recreational purposes, this is the better pick as it also offers significantly better steering.
Hardshell vs Inflatable Kayaks
Another important thing to take into account when buying a river kayak is whether you want a hard-shell or an inflatable.
Although your choice should be at least partially dependent on your level of expertise, we’d recommend inflatables under most circumstances.
Don’t be fooled by the name and the lower weight – modern-day inflatable kayaks can sustain a serious beating if need be, and chances are they’ll just bounce off any obstacle if you’re moving at a reasonable speed.
Although most kayaks can support upwards of 200 pounds, you should pay close attention to the figures for each individual sample if you plan on fishing or carrying a fair amount of cargo.
In general, tandem kayaks can support a lot more weight for obvious reasons, but if you plan on fishing, you should definitely consider a kayak that can carry at least 400 pounds for whatever you wind up reeling in.
This is especially true if you plan on taking your time and camping out by the river for several days. Chances are you’ll pile on more and more into your kayak as the days go by, so if you decide to go out paddling for an indeterminate period of time, you should probably aim for a higher-echelon kayak that can hold around 600 pounds of weight.
A lot of river kayaks will have a storage area for your fishing spoils and personal gear, as is the case for a lot of the picks on our list. As you might imagine, this is a huge selling point for any boat, so you can generally rely on whatever online marketplace you’re using to tell you whether or not a kayak has one.
Storage units can come in the form of a cargo net or an enclosed compartment that’s a couple of feet long and wide. The former tends to be more common among smaller, more lightweight boats, so you may have to fork up a bit of extra cash if this feature is particularly important to you.
Even if there isn’t a dedicated storage unit in your kayak of choice, you can try to make economic use of whatever space you’re not taking up in the cockpit.
You should keep a close eye on the maximum weight capacity of a given boat to help you make an informed decision on just how much you can carry.
Size & Weight
You’ll find that most of the river kayaks on our list fall on the short-to-middle end of the kayak spectrum. The reason for this is fairly straightforward – a lot of rivers don’t leave you with a lot of space in terms of width, so you’ll definitely want kayaks that hover at around 10 feet to make those quick-reaction turns safe and easy.
Granted, we’ve included a number of longer picks here too, but our choices offset their larger size with some above-average durability and maneuverability.
With all that said, fishing or transporting cargo via river necessitates a heftier kayak, so if you’re going for an inflatable, you’ll probably want to consider a boat that’s at least 40 or 50 pounds when deflated.
The weight-to-capacity ratio for kayaks isn’t exactly one-to-one (a lot of it has to do with the build), but you can generally expect heavier kayaks to be more reliable for handling bigger loads.
Then there’s the matter of getting the kayak into and out of the river. Anything in the under-50-pound category should be relatively easy to handle by your lonesome, but if you have a kayaking partner, you can definitely afford to go over that threshold.
Regardless of the body of water, there are a number of add-ons that will usually come with your kayak of choice. While the vast majority of these are removable, they are generally prerequisites for a safe kayaking session, especially in rough weather.
Among its other functions, the skeg is mainly important for ensuring good maneuverability. This is paramount to keeping your river kayak going, especially on a windy day or in a fast-flowing river, as the skeg is what prevents the boat from changing trajectories under these conditions.
Another accouterment to pay attention to is the rudder, which fulfills a somewhat similar function, albeit in a more technically complex manner. Located on the lower back part of the boat, the rudder is basically the steer, and it’s essential for making your kayak turn in your desired direction.
And while it may not seem like much, it’s well worth it to invest in a kayak with a decent seat to keep you comfortable for long days out on the water. If you’re eyeing a kayak but don’t love the seat, you can always purchase one separately to ensure the perfect fit every time.
Frequently Asked Questions about River Kayaks
If you still have some unresolved questions about river kayaks, check out these FAQs!
The short of it is, the smaller your kayak is (while still having a fair bit of storage space), the better. Everything else depends on whether you’re fishing or just casually paddling.
A lot of it has to do with the weather conditions and how deep you plan on going. Provided that there’s no wind and you stick relatively close to the shore, a whitewater kayak can definitely be used in the ocean.
A good rule of thumb is that kayaking with a partner is typically always a safer option than riding solo.
You can definitely go it alone if you have the right type of kayak, but be sure you know the river well and are an advanced paddler with the proper emergency equipment and training.
And always let someone know your adventure plans!
As outlined above, inflatable kayaks are arguably a much safer pick for water rafting under normal conditions, as they’re more likely to bounce than they are to rupture and sink should you collide with something.
And that concludes our list of the 10 best river kayaks you can get in 2023. We made sure to include a little something for everyone here, so we hope you’ve found yourself a kayak that’s perfectly tailored to your needs!
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