Whitewater Kayaking Hub

The Ultimate Guide To Whitewater Kayaks

A lot of thought goes into boat design and increasing the performance of whitewater kayaks. Because of this, there are also a lot of confusing terminologies that are thrown around the river bank. This guide will give you an overview of the different aspects of a whitewater kayak and provide you with the information to help inform you in your decision of which kayak to choose. 

Hull Shape

Waka Kayak Hull Design

The Hull of the kayak is the bottom of the boat that is (hopefully) in the water.

There are primary types of whitewater kayak hulls: A Planing hull, where the base of the kayak is predominantly flat from edge to edge and a Displacement hull where the boat is curved below the waterline. 

Generally, planing hulls give the boat better manoeuvrability due to the flat bottom, but increase drag which slows the boat down. This can be beneficial in whitewater due to the ease of turning and can be essential for boats such as playboats that require agility to perform tricks. On flat water this can make the boats harder to track straight for beginner paddlers and can be less forgiving in whitewater, generally having harder edges that can catch you out. 

Displacement hulls offer the boat more speed in the forward direction as they can cut through the water better, this is especially noticeable on longer sections of flat water. Rounded hulls track better in the water, meaning they stay straighter but require more effort to turn as you have to move the boat through the water (displace) rather than spin on the surface. They are often more forgiving and can be easier to roll but can be harder to handle on whitewater, especially in technical rapids where turning quickly is key.


Chines or Rails are the edge sections of the Hull that are just below the waterline. There are two types of chines: Hard and Soft. However, in reality, this is often a range between the two and boat designs can be in somewhere in the middle and/or have parts with hard edges and parts with soft edges. For example, hard rails in the bow allow you to carve into eddy lines and softer chines along the middle for increased stability.

Hard Chines are generally seen in more performance boats and playboats. They allow the paddler to turn faster, better steering using body weight and edging, but are less forgiving and interact with currents more. Boats with hard chines are good for bigger water as the boat doesn’t get pushed around as much, playboats where agility is necessary for freestyle tricks – especially for wave tricks and racing where turning and speed are essential.

Soft chines offer a more forgiving design and although the edges can be used to help steer they tend to have to be turned with a sweep stroke into the desired direction before being paddled there. These can excel in shallow waters where hard chimes can catch but can be difficult in powerful or big water rapids and can feel like the boat slides and gets pushed around. These boats are good for beginners who will benefit from increased stability. 

Often you will see whitewater kayaks combine hard and soft chines along the length of their hull, allowing to find a compromise between performance and stability.


Side profile Waka OG Kayak

Rocker is the term you will hear most about when talking about whitewater kayaks. It is the upward tilt of the kayak at the bow and the stern. The higher the rocker the shorter the waterline of the boat so the slower the boat is and the more manoeuvrable the boat becomes. The smaller the rocker the longer the waterline, the faster it is but the less manoeuvrable.

For whitewater kayaks, the amount of rocker is important as it will affect how well it rides over features as you paddle downstream. More rocker in the bow and the boat will be able to ride and boof over features more easily, transition better from vertical to horizontal when landing a drop making it more forgiving in keeping the boat on the surface at a wide range of landing angles. Creek boats have large amounts of rocker in order to turn better, keep above features and navigate drops safely.

Less Rocker will mean that the boat will have a hard time staying above features tending to ‘pencil’ – where the boat pierces the water and goes under the feature. 

The amount of stern rocker will let the boat release sooner as you come off a drop, making it easier to stay flat as you are in the air. Less rocker in the stern and the boat may not boof as well but will be faster and track better in the water. 



Pyranha Ripper Smoking Gecko

The amount of volume in a boat is a key component of the design. The more volume a whitewater kayak has, the bigger it is. It is a key factor to consider when choosing a boat to add to your quiver. The volume contributes to the intended use of the kayak, the size of the paddler and the way the kayak paddles;, the amount of volume and its distribution affect the way the kayak handles. 

For example, creek boats have a large amount of volume to stay above the water whereas squirt boats have almost no volume in order to get under the water. River play boats have high volume bows to give creaking capabilities but low volume sterns that make the boat a lot more playful allowing it to get vertical.

Types of kayaks 


Freestyle Kayaks:

Black and White Freestyle kayak loop
Paddler: James Ibbotson. Photo: Jack Grace

Freestyle kayaks or playboats are short stubby whitewater kayaks with lower volume, a high concentration of which is in the centre of the boat around the paddler.  Due to their short length, they are very slow, especially in flat water. For what they lack in speed they gain in agility, designed to be thrown around to perform dynamic tricks.  They have limited rocker, as they are not designed to go over holes, favouring a low volume and slicey bow and stern that allow the boat to get vertical and cartwheel more easily. The lack of length allows the boat to get almost fully submerged and the concentration of volume in the middle creates ‘pop’, flinging the boat out of the water for aerial moves. 


Due to their design, playboats are not made for steep creeking, but rather park and play sites where the paddler stays on one feature for the entire session, practising moves and throwing tricks. Freestyle boats can also be a lot of fun on high-volume rivers where downriver freestyle potential opens up and waves can be caught on the fly. The decrease in length also comes with an increase in difficulty, making playboats excellent kayaks to play on easy local runs. The lack of ends becomes very noticeable and is sure to catch the beginner out and is an excellent way to practice edge-to-edge transition and body positioning.


The two main types of freestyle involve Hole boating and wave boating. Hole boating is where the paddler performs tricks in stoppers/holes, often man-made in design, getting aerial and throwing tricks such as loops, phonic monkeys and cartwheels. Wave boating involves throwing tricks on a wave. Here the boat is bounced on the surface of the water in order to get aerial, throwing tricks such as airscrews, blunts and pistol flips.



Waka OG Kayak boofing down the Palguin Chile

Paddler: Matt Stephenson – Photo: Jack Grace

Creek boating is the act of taking your boat from point A to B down a river. It can be performed on steep creeks, huge volume rivers and freefalling waterfalls. Creek boats have a large amount of volume and a large amount of rocker, allowing the boat to be boofed easily and for the bow to be kept above the water. The creek boat is your boat of choice if you are a beginner getting into the sport or you are paddling grade 5. It is a boat that will look after you, instil confidence and offer speed to get out of tricky situations. 

The length of these designs is generally around the 8-9ft mark, offering a lot of speed to keep your momentum up downriver. The volume is generally evenly displaced for stability and to keep your boat on top of the water even in bigger whitewater. Large amounts of rocker keep your bow up over holes and a combination of this and the speed allows ease of boofing, allowing your boat to stay flat off drops and easily clear larger holes that you want to avoid. 

Manoeuvrability and acceleration are key, the paddler needs to be comfortable staying or getting back on line down a rapid. The large volume also means more space for safety gear or overnight equipment, opening up longer sections of rivers that can’t be paddled in one day.

Creek boats are where the limits of kayaking are being pushed, from the biggest whitewater, craziest expeditions and the tallest drops. 



Pyranha FusionII Fire Ant

Crossover or touring kayaks are kayaks that are predominantly designed for long flat sections of paddling but with whitewater capabilities. A cross kayak is not designed for paddling hard grade 5, but rather easier grade 2-3 rivers. A long waterline keeps the boat paddling straight and fast, cutting through the water, but reduces its ability to turn sharply or boof over features. The differing range of lengths and amount of rocker between touring and cross-over designs is to allow the paddler to choose what they want to get out of their boat and is specific to the paddler’s needs.

If someone wanted to predominately paddle flat they should choose a long boat with a long waterline in order to keep the speed up. On the contrary, a paddler who wants to paddle sections of whitewater with long sections of flatwater should choose a boat with more rocker and less length, sacrificing speed for manoeuvrability. 

Crossovers often have hatches to store gear, drop-down skegs to aid in keeping the boat in a straight line and a long, flatter design for speed over keeping the bow dry. They are ideal for people who want a comfortable, confidence-inspiring design for those long days on the water with longer sections of flat that would be tiring in other designs.


Long Boats

12R in the morning mist

Paddler: Del Read – Photo: Tom Clare


Long boats are whitewater kayaks built with speed in mind. Paddlers sacrifice the manoeuvrability of shorter creek boats for the added speed an extra 3+ft offers. The extra length does not mean that they can’t be taken on hard whitewater, longboats offer a more experienced paddler access to a balanced boat that will respond well on pushy whitewater alongside the comfort of having the speed to power through those long sections of lower grade or flat river. 

Long boats are predominantly made with racing in mind, the Green River Race is an obvious example of this where every year the best paddlers descend on the South East USA classic to get the fastest times down its steep and technical racecourse. However, they can also offer an excellent option for multiday rivers, training attainments (paddling upstream), challenging and developing skills and if you’re bold enough big popouts!

If you are looking for a boat that will be fast and fun then a long boat should be added to your quiver!


River running

Pyranha Kayak spinning at HPP Nottingham

Paddler: Jack Grace – Photo: Tom Clare

Currently one of the most popular designs of boats, and one of the more fun styles. River running or river play boats are boats designed to make whitewater more fun. Whether that’s your local class 2/3 or for those pushing the limits of the sport in serious whitewater. 

This style of boat is characterised by the large distribution of volume in the bow and a low volume stern, allowing the paddler to get vertical and throw tricks down the river-downriver freestyle. All whilst maintaining an ability to run whitewater with a long hull that offers speed, a large rocker to keep the bow over features and making boofing easy and enough volume to keep the boat riding on top of the water. This combination provides unmatched manoeuvrability, high-performance creaking designs and downriver freestyle potential.

River running boats have resurfaced in popularity, with a fresh design that combines the modern features of creek boats with the old-school love of slice. The squashed low-volume tail adds an element of play to rivers making any section fun again. They are ideal boats for intermediate paddlers looking to improve their paddling on easier sections of whitewater, making easy sections more challenging.


River play/slicey

Pyranha Ozone Smoking Gecko

Slicey boats are whitewater kayaks designed to play the river. They often have a little more length than playboats but with less volume, especially in the bow and stern, allowing their ends to slice through the water – giving them their name. The goal of a slice boat is to make the most of a river. Similar to River running kayaks they offer an option for intermediate to advanced boaters to have more fun on easier rivers. They are made predominantly to take on your local or lower grade runs to play down the river as much as possible, throwing kickflips on waves, cartwheels in holes and mystery move seams and Eddie lines. 

Due to their short length and low volume they are not suited to harder whitewater or technical creaking, but downriver freestyle and playing in features are ideal. Generally, they are not designed to throw aerial moves, however, newer designs, such as the ozone, provide more volume around the paddler, like a playboat, whilst keeping the slicey bow and sterns. This creates a lot more potential for aerial moves and modern freestyle.





Squirt boating is a type of freestyle kayaking in a super low-volume craft. Often designed specifically to the paddler, these low-volume boats are designed to get underwater. Competitors throw surface tricks, slicing the boat through the water, with their bodies generally partially submerged before spinning the boat into a seam line to pull their boat under the water to achieve downtime. The time underwater, or downtime acts as a multiplier and is only limited by the paddler’s skill and the time they can hold their breath for. 

Squirt boats are not designed with running rivers in mind, and can often be found in large deep eddies of calmer rivers where the consequence is low and dangers few and far between. In order to get underwater, the kayaker often doesn’t wear a BA/PFD and sometimes prefers hand paddles over regular paddles in order to achieve the most time underwater.



Slalom is one of the most well-known and competitive classes of whitewater kayaking. Featuring in the Olympics, Slalom athletes race each other down short sections of whitewater, weaving in and out of gates in order to get the fastest times. The boats are often made from carbon fibre to make them as light as possible. They have low volume and a small amount of rocker with a displacement hull that allows them to stay on track and keep their speed up, generating fast acceleration as they come out of the gates. The tail is very low volume, and slicey allowing them to slice their tail through the water in order to make fast and tight turns. 

Slalom kayaks are not built for hard whitewater creeking with lots of rocks and drops due to the fragile composite materials used in their construction. The lack of rocker makes it harder for them to stay above features, especially for the beginner paddler. However, it is an excellent training tool for anyone looking to get better at whitewater in general and increase their fitness, even if they don’t want to compete in slalom itself.



Having good outfitting is essential to improving your kayaking skills and staying comfortable out on the river. If you are not comfortable then you will not enjoy the experience. Good outfitting can instantly improve your Kayaking, making carving into eddies easier, 

The most common issue with outfitting is not having any outfitting at all! Modern boats have good basic outfitting systems already in place and often come with packs to help you to perfect that outfitting to your own body and paddling style.

Outfitting that is too loose will make it difficult for you to drive power through the water, switch edges and will end up with you rattling around the boat and falling out when you capsize.

Too tight outfitting can give you a good connection with the boat but be uncomfortable and reduce your enjoyment every time you get out on the water. It is key to find a good medium where the outfitting supports your body in a comfortable position, giving connection to the boat so that your boat moves as you do. 


Blue Waka OG Top View

A key piece of outfitting that is often overlooked in whitewater kayaks is the seat position and height. The placement of the seat in the boat will create different weight distributions through the hull. This will directly affect how the boat paddles, the seat, and therefore, weight further forwards will lower the bow and bring the turning point of the kayak towards. A further back seat will cause the turning point of the boat to be behind you and could make the kayak less stable. It is the paddler’s preference on how they want to paddle, and every person will have different body compositions that will affect the distribution of weight through the hull. It is generally accepted that a good seat position brings the weight distribution to the middle of the boat to ensure that your bow or stern isn’t sticking too far out of the water, although, especially for more experienced boaters it is worth testing out how the seat position affects your paddling. 


The height of the seat can also change the paddling experience. For a shorter or taller than average paddler, the depth of the seat in the boat can make a huge difference and if you are shorter you may want to add layers of foam to the seat in order to not feel swamped by the boat. Vice versa for taller paddlers who feel as if they are sitting on top of the boat. The lower you sit in a kayak, generally, the more stability you get as you lower your centre of gravity. However, you also lose connection with the boat and edging can be more difficult, as can getting power in your paddle strokes. Try adding thin sheets of foam to your seat in order to feel the difference it makes and what works best for you. 


Finally, an uncomfortable seat can press on pressure points in the legs and hips, causing dead and achy legs. It is important to minimise this to get the best out of our paddling experience. Foam shims to support the thighs can be added to help with this, as can adjusting the rest of the outfitting in the boat. 




Immersion Research Backrest

The backrest is the padded brace behind the seat that supports you when you sit up in the boat. The ideal body position while in a whitewater kayak is to sit upright, the backrest encourages you and supports you in doing so. The backrest is not a seat back and therefore should not be too tight as it can cause the backrest to snap which can cause difficulty when mid-rapid. The backrest should support your lower back enough to keep you upright and allow you to feel connected to the boat. 

The backrest is another point of contact with the boat that you can use to help manoeuvre the boat. Especially in freestyle where the connecting on your lower back helps you throw aerial moves such as the front and back loop. 

Foot block

Kayak footplate

Foot blocks in kayaks are generally either adjustable pegs or plastic/foam blocks that fill the bow of the boat. For whitewater, you should always paddle with a complete foot block that fully fills the front of the boat. This means you cannot get your foot trapped behind the pedals/foot block which can be very dangerous. 


The foot block can be moved forward and backwards to suit paddlers of different heights. You want to choose this position to ensure a snug fit with your legs pressing lightly into the thigh braces and you can sit comfortably in the boats for extended periods of time. Too loose and you will slide around in the boat, with no connection to your boat your paddling will suffer. Too tight and you can cause numbness in the feet and legs which can become uncomfortable very quickly. Try out the footplate at different positions to see what is the best for you.


It is a good idea when setting up a creek boat to put a layer of high-density foam over the plastic of the foot block in order to soften the plate in case of a heavy impact. With no give you run the risk of damaging or breaking an ankle if you piton – hit the bow of your boat on a rock – too hard. Some paddlers also prefer to paddle with a small shim under the heel for better connection and comfort.


Thigh hooks

Ratchet adjustment in a whitewater kayaks

Thigh hooks are the plastic hooks under the cockpit where you knees and thighs rest. This allows you to have greater connection with the boat and helps to translate hip movement into the boat. To avoid cutting off circulation to the legs it is important not to have this too tight or too sharp an edge. Often the edges can be rough and your knees can rub against the side of the boat. It is more comfortable to add thin layers of foam to the sides and thigh braces in order to mitigate this and can help to reduce the risk of cutting circulation off to the legs.

Some boats have aggressive thigh hooks, these allow for a better connection with the boat and are performance-based. However, these can make it harder to exit the boat and should only be used if you are an experienced boater. You can always trim these down with a hot knife depending on the aggressiveness and make-up of the hooks.

Hip pads

Wavesport outfitting for whitewater kayaks

Hip pads are one of the most important pieces of outfitting in your whitewater kayak and also one of the easiest ways to instantly improve your kayaking. Kayak seats are generally made quite wide to accommodate for a large range in paddler size and the use of hip pads allows the paddler to fill the gap between the seat and gain an important point of connection with the boat. With connections on the hip you can now easily translate hip movement into the boat. This will make a huge difference in your paddling ability as now the boat will react with you, allowing you to roll over waves, edge easier for steering and catching eddies and more importantly allow you to roll the kayak using your hips. This can also help with carving on a wave, surfing out of a hole and throwing freestyle tricks! 

Most whitewater kayak manufacturers will provide fitted hip pads with the boats. If you need more padding, you can add small shims of foam to fill the gap and if you need less you can remove foam or make your own hip pads from high-density foam like this.

It is important not to have too tight hip pads as this can cause uncomfort and can cause difficulty getting in and out of your boat. It’s worth padding out hip pads with lots of small shims rather than one big one so that you can easily adjust the tightness. Especially as you go from winter to summer and the gear you are using changes and therefore your hip width changes.



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