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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: 

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Quick Answer - The Best River Kayaks

  1. Dagger Katana 10.4
  2. STAR Raven I
  3. Perception Hi Life
  4. Aquaglide Chinook XP
  5. Ocean Kayak Prowler Big Game II
  6. Dagger Axis
  7. Old Town Dirigo 120
  8. Wilderness Systems Aspire 105
  9. Pelican Premium Sprint 100XR
  10. Emotion Kayaks Revel 10

 

Comparison Table - Best River Kayak

PictureNameLengthWidthSingle or TandemStyleWeight CapacityPriceRating
Dagger Katana 10.410’ 4”25.25"SingleSit-In300 lbs$$$5.0
STAR Raven I9’ 10”38”SingleInflatable250 lbs$$4.9
Perception Hi Life11’34”SingleSit / Stand On Top250 lbs.$$4.8
Aquaglide Chinook XP12’ 10”36”TandemInflatable550 lbs.$4.7
Ocean Kayak Prowler Big Game II12’ 9”34”SingleSit-On-Top550 - 600 lbs.$$$4.65
Dagger Axis10’ 6”28.5"SingleSit-In300 lbs.$$4.6
Old Town Dirigo 12012’27.75"SingleSit-In300 - 350 lbs.$$4.5
Wilderness Systems Aspire 10510’ 6”29”SingleSit-In400 lbs.$$4.3
Pelican Premium Sprint 100XR10’28"SingleSit-In300 lbs.$$4.2
Emotion Kayaks Revel 1010’ 3”29.5"SingleSit-In275 lbs.$4.1
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

Dagger Katana 10.4

Specs
  • Length: 10’ 4”
  • Single or Tandem: Single
  • Style: Sit-In
  • Weight Capacity: 300 lbs
  • Width: 25.25"
Features
  • 2 Color Options Available
  • Drop Down Skeg Increases Tracking In Flatwater
  • Stern Hatch Semi-Dry Storage Keeps Belongings Secure

BEST FOR: OVERNIGHT WHITEWATER TRIPS

Some whitewater rivers require an entire weekend to conquer meaning you’ll need room to stow some overnight gear in your kayak. The Dagger Katana 10.4 is your ideal boat in this situation, boasting all the design advantages of tackling whitewater while also sporting a rear hatch to haul your gear. 

When your descent levels out and slows to a calm flatwater paddle, the Katana’s drop down skeg (a fin in the rear of the boat) keeps you paddling straight and true. When the conditions get rough again, pull the skeg up and rely on the boat’s supreme whitewater contouring to maximize maneuverability through rapids. 

Who could ask for a better boat to tackle rivers of all shapes and sizes?

STAR Raven I

Specs
  • Length: 9’ 10”
  • Single or Tandem: Single
  • Style: Inflatable
  • Weight Capacity: 250 lbs
  • Width: 38”
Features
  • Includes A Repair Kit
  • 3 Air Chambers Creates Sturdy, Secure Floor And Sidewalls
  • Self-Bailing Scupper Holes Drain Excess Water From Splashes

BEST FOR: INFLATABLE WHITEWATER ADVENTURES

The rise of inflatable kayaks in recent years is increasingly noticeable, with better and more durable materials being introduced at a competitive rate. Inflatables have a few advantages over traditional hard shell kayaks and are especially adept at handling the river.

First, inflatables are a big space saver as well as a money saver. You won’t need to shell out another few hundred bucks for a roof rack and storing it at home is a breeze. Imagine a 9 foot kayak in your apartment’s kitchen. See what I mean? With an inflatable, you can deflate it, fold it up, and stash it in a corner of your apartment or  garage.

In our opinion, the STAR Raven I is a perfect inflatable river kayak. The bottom of this boat, known as the hull, has a special “rocker” design which means that each end of the kayak bottom curves slightly upward. This “rocker hull” design makes maneuvering the inflatable a breeze, especially in quick moving whitewater!

Perception Hi Life

Specs
  • Length: 11’
  • Single or Tandem: Single
  • Style: Sit / Stand On Top
  • Weight Capacity: 250 lbs.
  • Width: 34”
Features
  • Bow Deck Rigging For Quick Access To Gear
  • Mounted Fin Increases Tracking In Flatwater
  • Can Be Paddled As A Kayak Or A Stand Up Paddleboard

BEST FOR: INNOVATIVE PADDLING

Perception definitely gets bonus points for their innovation on the Hi-Life 11.0. Blurring the lines between Sit-On-Top kayak and Stand Up Paddleboard (SUP), the Hi-Life offers maximum versatility on the water. 

As a Sit-On-Top kayak, the Hi-Life sports an adjustable soft seat with a durable back to keep you supported for a full day on the river. When you’re ready to switch to the SUP, just fold the seat down for “stow-and-go” ease. The center fin in the rear of the boat also helps keep you tracking straight in flatwater.

This crossover vessel is best paired with Perception’s 3-Piece Hi-Life Paddle that can convert from a SUP paddle into a kayak paddle on the go, saving you from buying and managing 2 paddles.

Aquaglide Chinook XP

Specs
  • Length: 12’ 10”
  • Single or Tandem: Tandem
  • Style: Inflatable
  • Weight Capacity: 550 lbs.
  • Width: 36”
Features
  • Includes A Repair Kit
  • Mounted Fin Increases Tracking In Flatwater
  • Self-Bailing Scupper Holes Drain Excess Water From Splashes

BEST FOR: “RAFTING” WITH FRIENDS

The durability and high weight capacity of the Chinook Tandem makes this boat more like a whitewater raft than an inflatable kayak. Splash through rapids and leave your worries behind with this kayak. 

Hit a rock? No problem, this boat will just bounce off the rock and keep on going. You and your partner capsized? Getting back in will be a breeze! Have a third wheel that wants to join your rambunctious shenanigans? There’s a third seat in the middle. You can just about do it all in this boat.

The Chinook Tandem is also a great choice for calmer rivers with a friend and for those needing space saving capabilities. It’s an extremely versatile kayak at a great price point that will perform well on most rivers.

Ocean Kayak Prowler Big Game II

Specs
  • Length: 12’ 9”
  • Single or Tandem: Single
  • Style: Sit-On-Top
  • Weight Capacity: 550 - 600 lbs.
  • Width: 34”
Features
  • Rear Deck Bungees For Stowing Gear
  • Slide Rail System For Attachable Mounts
  • Water Resistant Bow Storage Hatch Keeps Gear Secure
  • Self-Bailing Scupper Holes Drain Excess Water From Splashes

BEST FOR: THE AVID ANGLER

Although the company makes boats designed to handle ocean waves, the Prowler Big Game II is a prime choice when fishing in large rivers. This kayak is a beast and should be at the top of every angler’s wish list. 

Boasting a whopping 600 lb weight capacity, you’ll be able to haul all of your gear, an ice chest, and your catch for the day! The Prowler also has an adjustable slide rail system that expands your capabilities on the water – add any number of attachments to hold poles, mount a GPS unit, and install a fishfinder. 

The skid plate mounted on the hull (the underside of the kayak) keeps you protected when paddling rivers where rocks, downed trees, and debris would otherwise damage your boat. If you’re serious about catching big game on the river, the Prowler Big Game II is your best companion.

Dagger Axis

Specs
  • Length: 10’ 6”
  • Single or Tandem: Single
  • Style: Sit-In
  • Weight Capacity: 300 lbs.
  • Width: 28.5"
Features
  • Deck Rigging Allows Quick Access To Gear
  • Drop Down Skeg Increases Tracking In Flatwater
  • Water Resistant Stern Storage Hatch Keeps Gear Secure

BEST FOR: RIVER RUNNING

For those who want to hit a river, punch through rapids, and go with the flow from put-in to take-out, the Dagger Axis 10.5 is a solid choice. 

The Axis is a hybrid of sorts, shorter than your average recreational boat that is more suited for casual lakes and river paddling but also longer than a typical whitewater boat. It’s unique styling allows it to excel in both environments, lending itself to a wide range of applications and able to tackle a variety of rivers. 

When your paddling hits large sections of flatwater, you’ll be at an advantage with the Axis. Its hull (the underside of the kayak) is designed to cut through flatwater and even has a drop-down skeg that increases tracking to keep you traveling in a straight line on the water.

Old Town Dirigo 120

Specs
  • Length: 12’
  • Single or Tandem: Single
  • Style: Sit-In
  • Weight Capacity: 300 - 350 lbs.
  • Width: 27.75"
Features
  • Displacement Hull Increases Tracking In Flatwater
  • Water Resistant Stern Storage Hatch Keeps Gear Secure
  • Adjustable Foot Pegs Allow Paddlers To Dial In The Right Fit

BEST FOR: VERSATILITY

If you’re looking for a boat that can do a little bit of everything, a bona fide “Jack-of-all-Trades”, then look no further than the Old Town Dirigo. At 12 feet in length, this kayak is able to manage well on a variety of medium and large-sized rivers. 

Slow it down and use the Sorrento as an easy going recreational boat or speed things up and do a little touring. Need room to haul gear for some overnight camping? The water resistant stern hatch (rear compartment) will keep dry gear dry while the extra large cockpit is able to stow extra gear.

Wilderness Systems Aspire 105

Specs
  • Length: 10’ 6”
  • Single or Tandem: Single
  • Style: Sit-In
  • Weight Capacity: 400 lbs.
  • Width: 29”
Features
  • Available In 2 Colors
  • Stern Semi-Dry Hatch Keeps Gear Secure
  • Bow And Stern Rigging Offer Easy Access To Gear

BEST FOR: RIVER TOURING

Who says that all touring kayaks have to be 12 feet long and used only on oceans and lakes? Wilderness Systems comes up with gold on this one, providing a narrower bodied kayak to create speed and mating it with a 400 lb weight capacity able to haul all the gear you’ll need for a weekend exploring a river. 

Your touring also doesn’t have to be limited to flatwater either, as the specially molded hull (kayak underside) is designed to handle swift moving water and nimbly navigate you safely in up to Class II whitewater. Talk about an adventurous tour!

Pelican Premium Sprint 100XR

Specs
  • Length: 10’
  • Single or Tandem: Single
  • Style: Sit-In
  • Weight Capacity: 300 lbs.
  • Width: 28"
Features
  • Rear Bulkhead Allows You To Bail Water And Keep Paddling In Case You Capsize
  • Cockpit Table With Bottle Holder Allows You To Enjoy Lunch On The Water
  • Lightweight Design Keeps Weight Down While Maintaining Strength

BEST FOR: HIGH QUALITY AT AN AFFORDABLE PRICE

Beginners looking for a high quality entry level kayak will love the Pelican Premium Sprint. It has a wide bottom that lends itself to extra stability – not just on the water, but also when exiting and entering the boat. 

You can store your gear in the bulkhead located at the back of the boat to keep it relatively safe and dry while you’re on the water. You can also be confident that you’ll be able to bail out water and get back into the boat in case you fall out, or in boat terms, “capsize.” 

What makes this kayak exceptional for the river is its overall design that makes it particularly adept at handling choppy water and fast moving rivers. It’s also compact and lightweight and includes carrying handles at both the front and rear of the boat, so it’ll be really easy to load and unload on your own.

Add to that a super comfortable seat for longer river adventures and front deck rigging to lash down supplies and you have yourself a top quality river kayak!

Emotion Kayaks Revel 10

Specs
  • Length: 10’ 3”
  • Single or Tandem: Single
  • Style: Sit-In
  • Weight Capacity: 275 lbs.
  • Width: 29.5"
Features
  • Deck Rigging For Quick Gear Access
  • Stern Hatch For Dry Storage Keeps Gear Secure
  • Skeg Wheel Allows Paddlers To Roll The Kayak On Back Wheel For Easy Transport

BEST FOR: BUDGET CONSCIOUS RIVER ADVENTURES

Reveling in the beauty of the river needn’t cost a fortune. Fortunately, Emotion Kayaks brings you one step closer with the Revel 10, a quality river kayak that will get you on the water in no time. 

Highly durable and easily adjustable, the Revel 10 can withstand a heavy amount of wear and tear while keeping the paddler comfortable and in control. An adjustable padded seat back and adjustable foot pegs help you customize the outfitting to fit you perfectly. 

The rear skeg (a fin that helps you paddle straight) also has a built in wheel that makes transporting it a breeze. Just pick up the boat with the front handle and roll away!

 

 

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

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