Updated on May 4, 2021

Rivers are arguably the most accessible water type, more so than coastline, and that makes it the perfect medium to hone your kayaking skills! Whether you’re paddling a wide, slow river for a leisurely afternoon, tackling a whitewater river for some thrills, or dropping a line to snag some freshwater fish, we’ve curated a list of the best river kayaks for you so you can stop shopping and start paddling in no time!

The selection of river kayaks we chose includes quality brands with innovative designs. Most of all, they all perform best on rivers.

We’ve waded through all the technical specs, the best applications for these awesome boats, and pared down the list from innumerable choices (you’re welcome). So what are you waiting for? Snag one of these boats and hit the river!

Pro Tip: The number next to the model name are each company’s way of signifying the overall length. For Dagger kayaks, 10.5 means 10 feet 6 inches. For Wilderness Systems, 105 also means 10 ½ feet. It’s a rough system and doesn’t always match exactly, but will give you a pretty good idea of the length within a few inches.

For more of our top kayaking gear recommendations, check out these popular articles: 

Lake Kayaks | Sea Kayaks | Touring Kayaks | Sit In Kayaks | Kayaks Under $500

Kayaks for Kids | Kayaks for Dogs | Sit-On-Top Kayaks | Kayaks for Beginners

Kayaks for Women | Canoes | Tandem Kayaks | Lightweight Kayaks

 

Quick Answer - The Best River Kayaks

  1. Old Town Manitou Sport
  2. Pelican Premium Sprint 120XR
  3. Pelican Sit-on-Top Sentinel 100X Angler
  4. Advanced Elements AdvancedFrame Inflatable
  5. Advanced Elements AdvancedFrame Expedition Elite

 

Comparison Table - Best River Kayak

PictureNameLengthWidthSingle or TandemStyleWeight CapacityPriceRating
Old Town Manitou SportOld Town Manitou Sport10' 11"26.5"SingleSit-In300 lbs.$$$5.0
Pelican Premium Sprint 120XRPelican Premium Sprint 120XR12'28"SingleSit-In325 lbs.$$4.5
Pelican Sit-on-Top Sentinel 100X Angler9' 6"30"SingleSit-On-Top275 lbs.$$4.6
Advanced Elements AdvancedFrame InflatableAdvanced Elements AdvancedFrame Inflatable10' 5"34"SingleInflatable300 lbs.$$4.3
Advanced Elements AdvancedFrame Expedition EliteAdvanced Elements AdvancedFrame Expedition Elite13'32"SingleInflatable450 lbs.$$$4.4
PictureNameLengthWidthSingle or TandemStyleWeight CapacityPriceRating
Want to learn more about a technical term? Check out our Features Explained section below.

Need buying advice? Take a look at these Things to Consider.

Reviews - The Best Kayaks for River Paddling

Old Town Manitou Sport

Specs
  • Length: 10' 11"
  • Single or Tandem: Single
  • Style: Sit-In
  • Weight Capacity: 300 lbs.
  • Width: 26.5"
Features
  • Includes Carlisle Magic Mystic paddle
  • Shallow hull with extended keel
  • Durable polyethylene hull
Old Town Manitou Sport

BEST OVERALL RIVER KAYAK

If you’re looking for something recreational that can pretty much do-it-all, the Manitou Sport is worth considering. This 10 foot 11 inch kayak features a stable 26.5 inch hull that provides for a great combination of tracking and maneuverability. The Old Town Manitou includes plenty of bow and stern deck rigging and enough internal storage space for a long day or overnight trip. The adjustable ACS2 seating system and foot pedals ensure a comfortable ride on the water.

What we like most about this kayak is how spacious the cockpit is, which makes it super easy to get in and out.

Pelican Premium Sprint 120XR

Specs
  • Length: 12'
  • Single or Tandem: Single
  • Style: Sit-In
  • Weight Capacity: 325 lbs.
  • Width: 28"
Features
  • Deep V chine hull
  • Durable RAM-X™ PREMIUM high-molecular-weight polyethylene
  • Comes equipped with a rear bulkhead for additional flotation
Pelican Premium Sprint 120XR

BEST FOR: RIVER TOURING

For recreational touring outings, you’d be hard pressed to find something that tracks more smoothly for the price — without having to sacrifice storage space or comfort.

The 12 foot long Pelican is designed with a deep V chine hull, which creates for extra stability in choppy conditions. It features a rear bulkhead for additional floatation in the event you capsize, plenty of bungee cords for strapping down gear, a bottle cage, drain plug, and adjustable footrests.

What we like most about this kayak is how lightweight it is for its size — on account of its construction from durable, high-molecular weight polyethylene.

Pelican Sit-on-Top Sentinel 100X Angler

Specs
  • Length: 9' 6"
  • Single or Tandem: Single
  • Style: Sit-On-Top
  • Weight Capacity: 275 lbs.
  • Width: 30"
Features
  • Removable storage compartment with vertical rod holders
  • Adjustable footrests
  • 2 Accessory eyelets

BEST FOR: RIVER FISHING

This fishing-specific kayak in the Pelican Sentinel line has everything you need for casting lines on slow moving streams and rivers.

The Sentinel 100X Angler features a stable sit-on-top design and all the storage you’d ever want, including the new EXOPAK removable compartment that includes vertical rod holders. Other fishing-specific accessories the kayak includes are rod tie-downs, flush mount rod holders, and accessory eyelets for attaching additional gear.

What we like most about this kayak is how stable it is, even when you’re really moving around out on the water, mostly because of the Twin Arched Multi Chine Hull design.

Advanced Elements AdvancedFrame Inflatable

Specs
  • Length: 10' 5"
  • Single or Tandem: Single
  • Style: Inflatable
  • Weight Capacity: 300 lbs.
  • Width: 34"
Features
  • Rigid bow with aluminum frame reinforcement
  • Generous on-board storage
  • Durable triple-layer polyester material, double PVC coating
Advanced Elements AdvancedFrame Inflatable

BEST BUDGET OPTION

You’d be hard pressed to find a kayak that performs well out on the water and delivers the same ease of use and portability features for under $500.

This inflatable kayak includes an updated spring valve and Twistlok valves that are compatible with most pumps and make inflation a breeze. The aluminum-reinforced stern and bow provides for tracking that’s on par with most hard-shell alternatives. There is plenty of on-board storage, tie-downs, and bungee deck lacing for securing your favorite gear.

What we like most about the AdvancedFrame Inflatable are all the thoughtful accessories it comes with, including inflatable cockpit coaming that allows for easy sprayskirt attachment, a repair kit, and a heavy-duty duffel bag for easy transportation.

Advanced Elements AdvancedFrame Expedition Elite

Specs
  • Length: 13'
  • Single or Tandem: Single
  • Style: Inflatable
  • Weight Capacity: 450 lbs.
  • Width: 32"
Features
  • Aluminum rib-frame technology in the bow and stern
  • Rear storage access hatch with roll-top closure
  • Adjustable footbraces included
Advanced Elements AdvancedFrame Expedition Elite

BEST INFLATABLE RIVER KAYAK

If you’re searching for an inflatable kayak that offers an ideal combination of speed, stability, and features, consider the Expedition Elite. This inflatable kayak tracks better than most comparable alternatives and is touted to paddle like a hard-shell. Nine different air chambers ensure buoyancy, rigidity, and added peace of mind, especially when you’re out on rough waters. The raised deck features an adjustable seat and footrests that allow you to fine-tune a comfortable position.

What we like most about the Expedition Elite is that it’s extremely durable due to the floor’s drop stitch technology and the integration of high quality materials.

 

 

THINGS TO CONSIDER WHEN BUYING A RIVER KAYAK

STYLE

The 3 best styles of kayaks when tackling rivers are Sit-Ins, Inflatables, and Sit-On-Tops. Each kayak we’ve chosen above falls into one of these 3 categories:

Sit-In

Sit-In style kayaks offer some of the best pros when it comes to river kayaking and are the most common types found on rivers for good reason.

  • Sit-In kayaks offer greater maneuverability on rivers, especially in whitewater, due to their lower center of gravity
  • Thigh braces in the cockpit give more control when directing the boat and paddling in a current
  • Sit-In kayaks can have a spray skirt attached to the cockpit allowing paddlers to stay dry

Inflatable

Ideal for space conscious paddlers, inflatable kayaks are an awesome choice when a roof rack or garage isn’t available.

  • Inflatables are made from highly durable materials and are very forgiving when hitting rocks during whitewater paddling
  • Most Inflatables come with a carrying case, allowing paddlers to hike into a river’s put-in
  • Similar to a Sit-On-Top, Inflatable kayaks are easy to recover after capsizing

Sit-On-Top

An ideal choice for beginners and anglers alike, Sit-On-Tops offer a unique combination of pros when paddling a river.

  • Sit-On-Top kayaks are the easiest types of boat to recover after a spill and make re-entry much easier than other styles
  • When taking on water in rough conditions, Sit-On-Tops drain water passively via their self-bailing scupper holes. This makes the style of boat best for beginners in small whitewater
  • Anglers who paddle slow moving rivers will find greater freedom to move about the boat, grab gear, and reel in their big catch in Sit-On-Top kayaks

 

CHECK THE FLOW

Before paddling any river, whether it’s a calm, slow moving river or a whitewater river packed with rapids, remember this rhyme: “Check the flow before you go.”

You should always, always, always do this to maximize safety and fun! Knowing the flow for the river you’ll be paddling is crucial and could save your life from dangerously high water levels or save you from a 2-hour trip that results in a dry river and a wasted afternoon.

To check the flow, head on over the American Whitewater’s National Whitewater Inventory page, select your state on the map or the list, and you’ll find a list of every river in that state. Click on the river you intend to paddle to find the details.

 

 

FEATURES EXPLAINED

BOW

A kayak’s front end.

STERN

A kayak’s rear end.

BULKHEAD

A sealed storage compartment, usually in the bow or stern of a kayak (or both), that keeps gear secure in a semi-dry environment. Minor leaks may allow some water in, so it’s best to store gear in a dry bag before stowing in the bulkhead.

CAPSIZE

Tipping over and being separated from your vessel.

While storage hatches give you a great place to take more gear with you, we always recommend purchasing dry bags or boxes to store sensitive gear in before placing it in your kayak storage hatches.

HULL

The underside of a boat.

COCKPIT

Where a kayaker sits and controls the boat.

DECK

The top of the boat.

HATCH

Another name for a storage compartment, usually in the bulkheads.

RIGGING

The rope system attached to the deck of a boat that secures gear.

SELF-BAILING SCUPPER HOLES

A passive water drainage system that allows water splashed onto your kayak to trickle back down into the river. These are very helpful in preventing a kayak from flooding.

SKEG

A retractable fin that looks similar to a rudder. It goes up and down (but not side to side). Instead of steering left and right, it helps a kayak paddle in a straight line.

SPRAY SKIRT

A wearable piece of gear that prevents water from splashing into the cockpit and sinking a kayak.

TRACKING

The measure of how straight a vessel goes.

WET EXIT

If one is wearing a spray skirt and has capsized, a paddler may initiate a “wet exit” to separate themselves from the kayak in order to seek safety.

 

READ MORE

For more of our top kayaking gear recommendations, check out these popular articles:

5 Shares
Tweet
Pin5
Share
Email
Flip