Sometimes, things just come together. In kayak design, the melding of whitewater capability and plentiful space to rig overnight gear seems like a no-brainer. But it wasn't until the end of the last decade that multiple manufacturers explored this budding niche of "crossover" kayaks—boats in the 9- to 10-foot range built for both touring and moderate whitewater. This new class of boats offers everyman accessibility: retractable skegs for straight tracking, comfortable outfitting and ample dry-hatch storage for extended tours. Add confidence-bolstering, easy-rolling hulls and you have a perfect craft to "cross over" to the river and work up to intermediate whitewater.

We figured that winter stretches of the Southwest, like Arizona's Verde River or the Big Bend in Texas would be ideal venues for our late-January test. But once again, things just came together. El Nino brought the gift of water to the parched desert, and when the skies cleared the C&K staff was barreling east on Interstate 10 with five of the top crossover kayaks in tow. Our destination: Arizona's storm-swollen Salt River. A full moon and a stout flow of over 3,000 cfs on this classic, 52-mile stretch of wilderness whitewater provided the perfect opportunity to load these boats with overnight gear (see p. 90 for how and what to pack), and spend three days pushing them to their logical performance limits: with plenty of big-water Class III, a handful of Class IVs, and 20 miles of flatwater to the takeout.

– Dave Shively