Anatomy Of A Whitewater Kayak

Learn what you need to know about whitewater kayaks

Whitewater kayaking is exhilarating, but it helps to know what you’re talking about before you jump in one. Let our annotated guide show you everything you need to know about your whitewater kayak.

Anatomy of a whitewater kayak
Pictured: At 8'1" and with plenty of volume, Dagger's versatile Mamba appeals to beginners and experienced paddlers alike. ($1,049; dagger.com)

1. Style – The two extremes of whitewater kayaking are creeking (running steep, technical rivers) and playboating (surfing and performing tricks on stationary river features). All other whitewater kayak designs fit into a con- tinuum between these two archetypes. The Dagger Mamba falls near the middle—an all-around river-runner that is stable and forgiving enough for beginners, but with a flat, planing hull for playing on waves. It has ample volume for paddling big water and even overnight trips. Crossover white- water kayaks add touring features like a storage hatch and sometimes a drop-down skeg. All these boats require the use of a sprayskirt to keep water out of the cockpit.

2. Volume – The kayak's internal volume is an indication of buoyancy and thus stability. Playboats are petite for nimble performance, as little as 45 gallons, while potbellied creekboats weigh in closer to 80.

3. Length – For quick spins and turns, diminutive playboats often measure less than six feet. Most river-running boats are seven to nine feet, long enough to offer decent speed for catching waves and paddling flatwater, but still easy to turn. Crossover kayaks can reach 11 feet and are best for tripping and slower water.

4. Rocker – All whitewater kayaks have plenty of rocker for easy turning. Playboats tend to be flatter through the middle with more dramatic rises at the bow and stern for better wave surfing.

5. Hull – The boat's bottom affects stability and performance. Rounded hulls, also called displacement hulls, offer stable and predictable perfor- mance. They are found on some creek and crossover boats. The Mamba has a flat planing hull like a surfboard, which makes catching and carving river waves easier. All modern playboats have planning hulls.

6. Chine – The kayaking word for edges on a boat hull. The sharper the chine the better the boat will carve on a wave or into an eddy, but the more susceptible it will be to errant currents "catching an edge"—a lead- ing cause of unintended capsizes. The Mamba's softer chine is more for- giving for rookies.

7. Grab Handles – Used for carrying the boat and for rescuing swimmers, the multiple handles pictured make it easy to find a place to hold on. Most playboats only have handles at the bow and stern.

8. Outfitting – The seat is where the paddler and boat become one, which is where outfitting comes in. Look for adjustable hip padding, back braces and thigh braces for dialing in a customized fit that's also comfort- able.

9. Construction – Hard plastic to take the inevitable collisions and knocks of river running. Beginner whitewater kayakers should also con- sider sit-on-top inflatable kayaks to orient themselves in rivers before get- ting inside a whitewater boat.