The best part about kayaking on a river is the number of different types of environment you can experience as you traverse along its length. One moment you might be sitting back and relaxing on a placid slow-moving stretch of water, perfect for fishing. The next moment you could be battling through a whitewater run, feeling the rush of exhilaration that only navigating fast water can bring.
While those different environments make for an exciting paddling journey, they can make picking a kayak that works for all of them difficult. To help make things easier, we’ve pulled together a jargon buster, to simplify the technical jargon; a buying guide, that helps you consider what you need in a kayak; and reviews of some of the best river kayaks on the market.
Best River Kayaks for 2019
Martini GTX Solo - Editors Choice
River Kayak Jargon Buster
Drops are exactly what they sound like, sudden changes in water elevation. These can be caused by rocks, a change in river gradient, or even a waterfall.
Holes are created by water running fast over a rock, creating an area of water that can drag a kayak. Holes represent a danger as they can pin a kayak in place and eventually swamp it, but they are also used by playboaters to perform tricks.
Edging, also called carving, is the act of tilting a kayak so that one side of the kayak is out of the water. Carving a kayak into a turn creates more water friction on one side of the kayak, causing it to turn faster.
Tracking is a measurement of how well a kayak stays in a straight line when paddled.
In kayaking, a chine refers to the sharp change in angle in the cross-section of the hull. The term “hard chine” indicates an angle with little rounding, where a “soft chine” would be more rounded, but still involve the meeting of distinct planes.
The initial stability of a kayak is how stable or unstable the kayak first feels when you get into it. The secondary stability is how stable the kayak feels when it is put onto edge.
River Kayak Buying Guide
Before purchasing a river kayak, it's important to have a clear idea of who sort of environment you’ll be using it in. The kind of kayak you’ll need forwhitewater running is very different from a river fishing kayak. If you have a particular river you prefer to kayak along, this should be relatively easy, as you’ll already some idea of the terrain. If you plan on paddling along a number of different rivers, do your research first and prioritize buying a crossover kayak that can handle both flat and whitewater.
Occasionally river courses can get quite narrow and, depending on the terrain the river flows through, can have a number to tight twists and turns. This can make certain models of touring and sea kayak unsuitable for river kayaking, as their 12 to 14 foot length makes them far more likely to be caught up on obstacles. For most river kayaking we recommend a kayak with a length of between 8 and 10 feet.
A kayak’s rocker is the measurement of how much its hull curves from bow to stern. The more rocker a boat has, the more of the hull is lifted out of the water and the more maneuverable it is. The waterline is the opposite of this, it is the measurement of how much of the kayaks hull is in contact with the water. The waterline measurement is normally an indication of how fast the kayak will cut through the water.
When buying a river kayak it is important to consider what type of water you find yourself most often paddling on. If you favor slower flatwater but want to be able to run whitewater if needed, then go for a boat with more waterline for better tracking and speed. If you expect to be encountering more whitewater, choose a boat with more rocker to give your kayak more maneuverability.
Best River Kayak Reviews
The main selling point of the Martini Solo GTX is its portability and modular design. The Martini disassembles into two sections, weighing around 25 pounds each and 56 inches long. This innovative design allows it to be stored and transported in ways other kayaks just cannot be. Given the low weight of the individual sections, it is even person portable over short distances.
The other benefit of the Martini is that, with the addition of an optional center section, it can be transformed into a tandem craft. Connecting the pieces together is remarkably easy using Point 65’s innovative Snap-Tap system. It takes very little time and is designed to allow one person to assemble and disassemble the kayak without the need for help. Check out this video showing how easy the Snap-Tap system is to use.
When it’s out on the water, the Martini is quick and agile, with a high rocker and plenty of cockpit space. There is a reasonable amount of storage in the Martini but it does lack a waterproof locker. It can handle both moderate whitewater and smoother sections which makes the Martini ideal for handling everything a river can throw at you.
The Martini is an ideal kayak for river running. It’s agile enough deal with any tight twists and turns you might encounter and its hard-chined hull lets it pick up speed on flatter sections. Where the Martini really shines is in its ability to be easily transported, assembled, and stored, making it fantastically convenient.
The Dagger Zydeco is a small, portable crossover kayak that can easily handle nearly everything the river can throw at you. At 9 feet 1 inches long and just 36 pounds the Zydeco is one-person portable and can easily be transported and stored without the need for a trolley.
Its multi-chined hull and narrow profile, combined with its short hull, keep the Zydeco agile enough to take on moderate whitewater. It can also be fitted with a spray skirt to keep water out of the cockpit. When out on flat water, it tracks well enough and can pick up a very reasonable speed due to its displacement hull.
The downside of the Zydeco is that its shorter length and comparatively narrow cockpit may feel cramped to larger kayakers. This also results in there not being much in the way of storage in the Zydeco, making it unusable for longer journeys
The best part of the Zydeco is its portability and easy of use. Its low weight and small size makes it easy to transport for one person and it will comfortably fit on, and sometimes in, most vehicles. Coupled with its ability to take on a range of environments, this make the Zydeco ideal for spur of the moment kayaking.
The Journey 10 is a recreational kayak with fishing accessories, offering you great performance and stability with a basic fishing package. When out on the water, the Journey tracks well, with its narrow bow profile allowing it to cut through the water. It’s a stable kayak with a wide beam, meaning you can cast, and even stand up to cast, without worrying too much about an unplanned swim. The boat’s high rocker keeps it agile and the multi-chined hull has great secondary stability, letting you edge it in for quick turns.
Equipped with protective thigh pads and adjustable foot braces, the Journey has a spacious and comfortable seating area. Though it is adjustable, the seat is basic and can be removed if you want to replace it with your favorite design.
The wide beam of the Journey gives it plenty of space for storage, with one small watertight storage compartment for valuable and a P.A.C (Portable Accessory Carrier) that can be towed behind the kayak. Towing the P.A.C also frees up a large rear tankwell for extra storage potential.
The Journey 10 lets you combine fishing with river kayaking without sacrificing on performance. While the fishing package is basic, the Journey makes up for this by being stable, tracking well, and turning easily. If you are lucky with your fishing rod then the Journey also has plenty of space for you to store your catch.
If you live near a river, or similar body of water, and are looking for a kayak that will let you take to the water at a moment’s notice without having to worry about logistics, then the Advanced Elements Sport inflatable kayak is a good choice for you!
At 10 feet 5 inches long, the Sport might be a little cramped for taller paddlers, and you won't be fitting much gear in it, but it makes up for this in sheer portability. Folding down into a package small enough to fit into the back of nearly any car, the Sport only has four inflation chambers rather than six. This makes it easier to to inflate and, with the additional internal aluminum rib-frame, Advanced Elements suggest inflation takes less than 11 minutes.
Recent models of the Sport have been fitted with a higher, more supportive seat to help keep the paddler comfortable, but it lacks thigh padding and foot rests. Despite being listed as "designed to perform in universal water conditions," the Sport is not up to handling whitewater, due in part to its inability to mount a spray skirt.
The main selling points of the Advanced Elements Sport are its low weight, portability, and small pack-down size. If transporting and storing a kayak represents an issue for you, then the Sport will allow you to have kayak on hand that takes up no more space than a large duffel bag. If you’re particularly tall, or don’t leave home without all the latest gear with you, then you may want to look elsewhere.
The Old Town Vapor 10XT is an excellent choice for an all-purpose river kayak, offering great performance, good storage, and a comfortable cockpit arrangement for long journeys. Its narrow hull and hard-chined hull give it a good top speed and excellent tracking, while its width keeps it stable.
A large watertight hatch in the rear gives the Vapor 10XT ample storage space,but there is also bungee storage for those items you aren't afraid to get wet. A paddle holder keeps your paddle out of the way when not in use or is an excellent place to store a spare.
With the ability to mount a spray skirt, the Vapor 10XT can handle up to level 3 whitewater. Its high volume will allow it to bounce out of gentler holes, if entered at the right angle, but for anything more than that you will need a dedicated whitewater kayak. The Vapor 10XT is also the heaviest of the kayaks on this list and at 49 pounds should not be considered one person portable.
The Old Town Vapor 10XT kayak offers solid performance in a compact package. Its shorter hull and high rocker keep it maneuverable, while its hard-chined hull and narrow profile keep it tracking straight. There’s plenty of storage space for gear in the large aft hatch and added bungee cording. The only downside to the Vapor 10XT is its weight, which reduces its portability.
Our Choice - Martini GTX Solo
The term “river kayak” covers a lot of different specifications and the kayaks reviewed on this list run the gamut from crossover to fishing kayak. The Martini GTX is our choice for best river kayak because its modular design allows you to take advantage of the full range of experiences river kayaking has to offer. In single person configuration, its narrow hull, short length, and high maneuverability allow it to run moderate whitewater. Adding an additional centerpiece allows for extra gear storage for longer journeys, or conversion into a tandem if you want to bring a friend. There is even an optional fishing kit allowing the Martini to be fitted with two rod holders.
If you are looking for a modular, lightweight kayak with a huge range of utility, the Martini GTX Solo is the boat for you. It lets you enjoy whatever the river has to offer, whenever you want.