There are dozens of kayaks designed for everything from ocean touring to fishing, to quiet lake paddling. Many of them can do double-duty, excelling as a river kayak and a recreational (lake kayak).
But what makes the best river kayak?
We’re talking calm rivers, not white water kayaking here. White water kayaks are a different design. While experienced kayakers may take a recreational river kayak down a white water river with no problems, it’s not something the beginner or recreational kayaker should try. The simple ripples of a Class I river may be fine for a beginner, but this article is specifically addressing recreational river kayaks – for small rivers with no rapids, or no rapids above the Class I ripples of water flowing over shallow rocks.
River kayaks are designed to take you where you can truly enjoy nature that’s out of reach of a trail. You can use a river kayak to reach a scenic beachside campground, explore a nature preserve or a quiet swamp, or enjoy the breathtaking views of woods, waterfalls and wildlife that can’t be seen from shore. If you want to get in shape outside of a gym, you can get in a morning workout paddling around the lake or just play in the water with the kids.
You can bring your furry companion – be it a dog or cat – and consider your boat your transportation into an adventure. You don’t have to be an athlete, in great physical shape, or young to enjoy river kayaking. In fact, more and more baby boomers and seniors are discovering the joy of river kayaks and paddling.
Fishing from a kayak, especially with a youngster, is a great way to enjoy your boat. Or you can go birdwatching or wildlife spotting. There are a lot of deer, elk, wild turkeys, big birds, and even bear you can spot from a boat. There’s nothing quite like watching the sunset or the moon rise from a quiet cove on a lake or river. As a sport or an exercise, there aren’t many things that can match all the fun you can have from a river kayak. The sport brings families and people of all ages together. The 10-year old and the 70-year old are equals on the water in a river kayak.
If you have a dog, river kayaking is one of the few places you can take them where they’ll have as good a time as you. Just as there are many ways to enjoy river kayaks, there are many choices of boats to choose from.
How do you know which kayak is best for you? When you’re trying to decide on a river kayak, ask yourself a few key questions to help narrow your choices:
- Budget – how much do you want to spend on a boat? Remember, you’ll need to add things like a life jacket, paddle, and most likely an added seat cushion and a kayak dolly.
- What kind of river kayaking do you want to do? Small? Large?
- What kind of river trips will you be taking? Day? Overnight? Longer?
- What will you be doing in addition to paddling? Fishing? Bird watching? Hunting?
- How much experience do you have?
- Will you be paddling with others?
- What are your physical limitations?
- Will you be bringing your dog or small children?
- Do you prefer a single or tandem kayak?
- Do you prefer the protection of a sit-in kayak or the openness of a sit-on-top kayak?
- Kayak weight
- Shape and size
- Color – do you want something bright and colorful, or quiet and subdued?
- What are your deal breaker features? What must a kayak have or not have that will cause you to walk away from it?
There are other questions you can ask of course. The questions aren’t as important as knowing:
(1) How you plan to use the kayak most.
(2) What features you want.
(3) If the boat fulfills at least 75 to 80% of what you want it to do.
One of the hardest decisions for many new paddlers to make is whether to buy a sit-in or a sit-on river kayak.
There are pros and cons to both sit-on and sit-in kayaks. The “best” kayak for you depends on you! Sit-on-top kayaks are the most user-friendly. They’re very stable and are extremely easy to get in and out of. Most users like the fact they don’t feel claustrophobic or confined on them. You’re literally just sitting on top of a kayak. They have small holes called “scupper holes,” which means they’re self-bailing. Those holes allow the water to drain right through them.
Another great thing about sit-on-tops is that you can slip on and off them as you please. That’s a great feature if you plan to swim or get in and out of the water often for any reason. All these features make the sit-on-top kayak a great choice for nervous paddlers. Sit-on-top kayaks are great for warm environments like beaches, shallow lakes and rivers, and for paddling with kids who love to swim.
What are the cons of sit-on-top river kayaks?
Well, you’re guaranteed to get wet while paddling. That’s just how they’re designed. Those scupper holes can be sealed off, but when they’re not, water can often come inside the kayak as well. Because some of the scupper holes are located in the seat, you’re most likely to spend your time sitting in water. Sit-inside kayaks allow you to stay dry.
The pros of sit-inside kayaks mostly revolve around staying dry. Sit-in kayaks shelter your lower body from the wind, which makes them much warmer and popular in areas where the water is really too cold for swimming. They’re better for early and late season paddling when you want to be on the water, but not in it. Sit-inside kayaks are great for paddlers who consider the kayak more than a vehicle for travel or exploring than a recreational toy for playing around with.
You don’t have the same freedom to move in and out of the water with a sit-in kayak. And if you do flip for whatever reason, recovery can be a complicated and difficult process because your kayak will likely be filled with water. With the right kayak on calm water, this is less likely to happen if you’re careful, or if you use an outrigger or stabilizer.
Like sit-on-tops, recreational sit-inside kayaks are very stable, fun, and easy-to-use. Unlike white water kayaks, river kayaks have large cockpits. That means there’s less of an issue with feeling confined or claustrophobic in them. You can opt to use a “spray skirt” to keep water out of the cockpit.
Popular River Kayak Features
Different river kayaks have different features. Some you’ll love; some you won’t need, want or use. That’s why it’s important to think about what you’ll be doing or using your kayak for before you buy it. Some of the most popular features for river kayaks:
- Water bottle holder – these can be molded in, or added on later.
- Dashboard or console (These may be added to kayaks without them).
- Handles on the sides as well as front (bow) and rear (stern).
- Rod or accessory mounts.
- Adjustable seats.
- Storage – either a hatch or compartment or recessed area for adding a crate or cooler.
- Padded thigh rests – these can be added on after.
- Padded seats – seat cushions and even entire seats can be added on after.
- Adjustable footrests versus footwells (footrests are more comfortable).
- Side handles (for getting back in your kayak if you tip over).
- Anchor or accessory trolleys for attaching a variety of accessories.
Water Bottle Holder
It might not seem like a big deal until you’re on the water and trying to keep your balance while reaching for your water bottle, or finding your bottle keeps rolling out of the holder and down around your feet. This isn’t a deal breaker, but when looking at boats see where the bottle holder is and how securely it will hold a bottle. You can add a holder if you don’t like the one your boat has.
River Kayak Dashboards or Consoles
Dashboards or consoles on kayaks are like mini-desks. They vary in type, size, and type of compartments. They’re highly valued by fishermen, photographers, and birdwatchers because they provide a small flat surface at the front of the cockpit. This flat surface is used to hold fishing lures and hooks or small items while the angler is changing out their fishing gear.
Photographers may set their camera bag or lenses there while swapping out lenses. Bird watchers like to use the dashboard to hold their binoculars, or pen and pad while they’re recording their notes. A lot of paddlers just like having a surface to place their lunch, drinks, snacks, cell phone (in a waterproof bag of course), or other items without worrying about them. You can buy a dashboard and install it yourself, usually just by inserting it into the cockpit. Some dashboards come with compartments for holding items, including drinks. Others are just flat surfaces.
Here’s a popular kayak console that comes with cup holders, rod mount, and a hatch:
Handles on the Sides as Well as Front (bow) and Rear (stern)
Whether you’re going paddling with friends who can help you carry your boat to the water or you’re using a kayak trolley, the more handles the better. If you ever find yourself out of your kayak and struggling to get back in, handles on each side of the boat help you get back in your boat because they provide something secure to grab onto when you’re pulling yourself back in.
Rod or Accessory Mounts
Fishing rod mounts are a must have for the angler, but don’t blow off or ignore rod mounts for installing other items like a bimini sunshade, sails, or other accessories. These mounts are also used by people to put their Go-Pro or other cameras on to record their paddling adventure.
If you plan to spend any time in your kayak – as in two or more hours – you’re going to want a comfortable place to park your bottom. When your bottom’s not happy, you’re not happy. Most kayaks come with an adjustable back seat, but minimal or no bottom seating. If you don’t want to shell out more money for more comfort, make sure the seat that comes with your boat is comfy.
Few paddlers go out on the water without some sort of extra gear or food and water. Having a light weight windbreaker, snacks, extra water, your car keys, wallet, cell phone, or lunch is important. You can store smaller items in your life vest, but it’s hard to beat a hatch, compartment or recessed area for adding a crate or cooler. Storage is also good for holding a sponge, water scoop or bilge pump as well.
Padded Thigh Rests
One of the great things about recreational or river kayaks over other kayaks is that they’re larger, roomier, and more comfortable. This is due partly to the fact your thighs, or knees if you sit cross-legged, are protected from the hard shell of the kayak. Look for padded thigh rests, or see if they can be added to the boat after purchase. They really do make a great difference.
Adjustable Footrests versus Footwells
Given the option for adjustable footrests over molded-in footwells, choose the footrests every time. Not only are they adjustable, but they’re more comfortable.
Anchor or Accessory Trolley
An anchor or accessory trolley is a metal track that runs down the top side of your kayak. It allows you to add accessories like anchors, rod mounts, camera mounts, or other things that can move along the track from front to back by sliding in the track. These tracks can be added to your kayak after purchase, but some boats come with them preinstalled. It’s a great feature to have if you ever plan on using an anchor, fishing, or mounting a camera to record your adventure.
Additional Items You’ll Need for your River Kayak
There are features, which are nice things to add or have on your kayak, and then there are things you’ll need to have to ensure your personal safety while paddling. Don’t mistake accessory for “need to have” items. While the kayak itself may be the largest expense you’ll have, you’ll also need to add a few other items to ensure your comfort and safety.
You may or may not already have a life vest; perhaps it’s something you’ve worn on a larger boat. Chances are it’s a great life vest, but may not work in a kayak. Kayak vests tend to be shorter, so they don’t bunch or ride up on the seat back of the kayak. They also have much longer armholes so your arms don’t chafe against the vest as you paddle. They tend to be larger in the chest area and usually have pockets for carrying smaller items a paddler may want or need if they’re kayaking in remote areas. Things like a small flashlight, knife, matches, or lighters and fire starters, a whistle, snacks, keys, change, cell phone or wallet are some of the things many kayakers carry in their life vest.
Many states have strict rules regarding wearing life vests, and you can be fined for not having or wearing one. All life vests must be Coast Guard approved. Approved life vests come in five different types. But look for one that is Type II or Type III approved – these are the best for river kayaking.
Paddle and Paddle Leash
Many recreational boats often come with a paddle, but you’ll want to buy a second paddle, or “spare,” to carry with you in case you lose the first paddle. Most paddlers use the provided paddle (if there is one) for their backup paddle because it will tend to be heavier, cheaper, and less well-made. It will most likely not be the optimum length for you either. Just as the spare tire on your car isn’t as robust or heavy duty as your regular tires, your spare paddle doesn’t need to be premium either. It’s just there in case of an emergency when your primary paddle breaks, floats away or is unusable for some reason.
Related: Bio-luminescent Kayaking
Buying a paddle leash for your primary paddle is a good way to ensure your better paddle doesn’t get lost. There are a variety of leashes for your paddle; most paddlers prefer a coiled leash that doesn’t interfere with their paddling. There are arguments for and against a paddle leash. Some say it’s unnecessary, or that it promotes laziness in the paddler. Anyone who has secured their paddle to a bracket or paddle holder on their boat and then watched it come loose and float away, will disagree with that argument.
It’s optional. Only you can decide if a paddle leash is an accessory you want or will use. However, a backup or spare paddle is a must have for every kayaker, whether a river kayaker, ocean, or white water paddler.
Sponge or Bilge Pump
Water gets into kayaks. That’s just the nature of the sport. If you have a sit-on kayak the scupper holes are designed to naturally drain the water out. If you have a sit-in kayak, you’re going to need a big sponge, or better – a pump. These hand pumps will remove any water that gets into your kayak – usually from when you flip it, then get back in. Unless you drag your boat to shore to dump the water out, you’ll need a scoop, sponge or pump to remove it. Most kayak pumps are small and can be secured along the inside of the boat, in a storage compartment, or mounted underneath the deck of the boat.
Dry Bag or Waterproof Container
Most recreational kayaks come with a storage compartment for holding various items you’ll use on your trip. Almost none of these compartments are waterproof. They may keep out some, or even most water, but none of them are truly waterproof. Count on whatever you put in them getting wet unless you first put that item in a “dry bag” or waterproof container.
Many paddlers have been devastated to find the cell phone they thought would be safe in a storage compartment waterlogged after a day on the water. If you bring your cell phone, other electronics, or sensitive items like medication, first put them in a waterproof bag designed for that kind of item. Most of these bags and containers can be purchased for under $25 and are worth their weight in gold.
Kayak dollies can totally change the way you experience kayaking, especially if you have to move your kayak more than a few feet from your car to the water. A kayak dolly, also called a kayak cart, is a small frame on wheels that you strap your boat to and then wheel the cart and kayak to the shoreline. Many kayak dollies can be folded and strapped to your kayak and taken with you. This is particularly helpful if you plan to camp, or need to portage (carry) your kayak around a waterfall, rapids, or a shallow area of water.
Cartop Kayak Carrier
Plenty of people simply load their kayak into the back of their pickup truck or SUV. But it makes more sense to load it on top of your vehicle for transportation. This means you’ll need a kayak carrier or rooftop rack if you don’t have one. You’ll need some strong rope, or straps to secure your boat.
Outrigger or Stabilizers
Many river kayakers use their kayaks for fishing, bird watching, hunting or photography. That means they prefer more stability for moving around, standing or casting or shooting. Some people – seniors, kids, and those unaccustomed to the rocking feeling of a kayak – just don’t want any sense of “tippiness” in their kayak. They will add outriggers or stabilizers for security and comfort.
Related: Best Kayak Outriggers
Outriggers come in a variety of configurations and types. The further out the outrigger is from the boat, the more stable it is. However, most outriggers attach behind the seat or cockpit of the kayak, increasing the stability only as long as that’s where the paddler’s weight is.
Anchors and Stake Out Poles
If you plan to fish, or simply want to anchor your kayak mid-river or in a cove without going to shore, you’ll need an anchor or stake out pole to hold your boat in place. The most common anchor used in the river kayak sit-in fishing community is either a 1.5 lb or 3.0 lb folding anchor attached to a line (some kayakers use an anchor attached to a retractable dog leash made for large dogs to save space in their boat).
Sit-in river kayaks can also use a stake out pole attached to an anchor trolley, or front/rear of their kayak. A stake out pole is a long, study stick that is simply plunged into the riverbed beneath the kayak. Sit-on kayakers just shove the stick through a scupper hole, but sit-in kayakers can tie their kayak to a pole at the side of their boat
Today’s Best River Kayaks
Product Dimensions: 10-foot long. Overall 120 x 30 x 13 inches
Weight: 39 pounds
Weight Capacity: 250
Colors: Pink, Tangerine (Orange), Citrus (kind of a neon Green), Lime (darker Green), Ocean (Blue), and Red
Sun Dolphins are one of the most popular and affordable beginner kayaks on the market. They’re also popular recreational and rental kayaks because of their durability, light weight, and ease of use. They’re very stable, don’t have that “tippy” feeling, and have a large open cockpit with an adjustable padded seat and high back support for comfort. These are perfect kayaks for paddlers looking to paddle with their small to medium-sized dogs or small child because of the large cockpit.
There’s small, but convenient gear storage with shock cord deck rigging for securing items like light jackets, water bottles, a small dry bag, or other day-use type items. The foot braces are adjustable for a wide range of leg lengths. This kayak is made of rugged UV-stabilized Fortiflex High-Density Polyethylene. The kayak comes with easy-on-the-hands carrying handles and a water bottle holder.
The Sun Dolphin Aruba 10′ Sit In Kayak is a great kayak for any water enthusiast. When ordering please verify your physical address (no P.O. boxes) and telephone number are accurate. The carriers will contact the phone number on the order to set up a delivery appointment. If this information is inaccurate, there is a possibility that your order will be delayed or canceled with a possible fee incurred at the seller’s discretion. For over 30 years KL OUTDOOR has been designing, manufacturing and marketing products to help you keep living your own adventure.
Product Dimensions: 12-foot long. 144 x 29.6 x 14 inches
Weight: 47 pounds
Weight Capacity: 250
Colors: Blue, Lime, Red
Sun Dolphin kayaks are known for their light weight, durability, tractability, and ease of use. The Aruba SS 12-foot Sit in Kayak is no different. There are two foam pads, one on either side of the cockpit, to protect your thighs against scraping on the edge of the cockpit. But the comfort doesn’t end there. A covered console and two hatches – one at each end of the kayak – offer storage for your paddling or personal items.
This kayak tracks and paddles with ease while offering maximum stability and doing away with that tippy-flippy feeling. A P.A.C. (Portable Accessory Carrier) can be used as extra storage. If you fish, there are two flush mount fishing rod holders. At only 47 pounds it’s easy for one person to carry, but also fits easily aboard most kayak dollies as well.
It’s made of rugged UV-stabilized Fortiflex High-Density Polyethylene to ensure it lasts season after season. There is no skeg, but a well-defined keel ensures it tracks well. The cockpit is large enough to hold two small dogs, or a medium-sized dog or small child. The bottom is flat, and very stable – a perfect kayak for the beginning paddler, seniors, and children.
The Sun Dolphin Aruba SS 12-foot Sit In Kayak, is a great kayak for any water enthusiast. When ordering please verify your physical address (no P.O. boxes) and telephone number are accurate. The carriers will contact the phone number on the order to set up a delivery appointment. If this information is inaccurate, there is a possibility that your order will be delayed or canceled with a possible fee incurred at the seller’s discretion. For over 30 years KL OUTDOOR has been designing, manufacturing and marketing products to help you keep living your own adventure.
Product Dimensions: 8-foot long. 96 X 28 X 16
Weight: 47 pounds
Weight Capacity: 260
Colors: Ocean (Blue), Red, Tangerine (Orange)
At only 8-feet long, this is the perfect “first kayak” for your child or young teen, or for the average adult. It’s great for smaller rivers and lakes, and it’s easy to paddle. The adjustable padded seat back makes it comfortable for longer trips. Its lightweight design makes it easy even for a youngster to carry.
The storage compartment provides enough room for a lunch and day trip supplies like water and snacks. The recessed drink holder ensures the paddler doesn’t have to dig into the storage compartment to stay refreshed. The kayak has a built-in spray deflector/collar and a convenient paddle holder.
You’ll need to buy a foam pad to sit on as it doesn’t come with a padded seat, but the back support is adjustable.
Product Dimensions: 10-foot-6-inches. 126 X 29.5 X 15.75
Weight: 46 pounds
Weight Capacity: 260
Colors: Moss Camo (Variations of Green and Black, but not a camo pattern), Seaspray (Variation of Blues and Black), Red Tiger (Red and Black)
Built to explore quiet, slow-moving waters, the Sound’s tri-keel hull creates ultimate stability and smooth steering to track straight and stay on course with minimal effort. If you love to fish, you’ll love this boat. This popular kayak is highly UV and abrasion-resistant. It’s also very impact resistant. It’s built with varied thickness throughout, adding strength when needed, but without adding additional weight.
This kayak is easily repaired, recyclable, and produced with less waste in manufacturing. Value-packed and feature-rich, the Sound includes a dashboard with mounting points for accessories, two molded-in rod holders, and a spacious rear storage zone with bungee cord security. This kayak has a Zone seat, Zone Knee/Thigh Pads and a Keepers Foot Brace System. The handles are molded thru so you never have to worry about a corded handle breaking, rotting, or getting lost. Other features:
- Supportive, ergonomic seat with adjustable backrest for optimal support & comfort
- Unique tri-keel hull for easy loading/launching and ultimate stability
- Quick-adjust footrests accommodate paddlers of all sizes
- Leg padding along cockpit edge for comfort and support
- The gear tray in front of the seat is perfect for keeping small items in place, or storing fishing lures, or snacks or food while you’re having lunch.
- Convenient drink holder keeps your favorite beverage from spilling
- Large rear open storage for easy access to cooler, fishing crate and gear
- Easy to accessorize with 2 recesses designed for solo mounts (sold separately)
Product Dimensions: 10-foot-6-inches. 126 X 29.5 X 15.75
Weight: 46 pounds
Weight Capacity: 260
Colors: Olive, Sand
Anglers and hunters will appreciate the muted olive or sand color of this sit-in kayak. It’s great for rivers and lakes and small swampy areas where bird watchers, hunters, and fishermen love to hang out. The large comfortable seating area with adjustable padded seat and adjustable foot braces make it comfortable and roomy – easy for moving around in and getting comfortable.
It’s roomy enough for one average-sized adult and a small dog or child. It includes one swivel and two flush mount rod holders and a small gear tray on the dashboard for organizing fishing gear, swapping out camera lenses, or setting your drink and lunch. It’s lightweight and easy to carry plus load and unload on most cars.
A rear storage compartment is large enough to carry day trip items like a lightweight jacket, a lunch, or small daypack. The kayak comes with protective thigh pads, adjustable foot braces, shock cord deck rigging, retractable carrying handles and a paddle holder – all at an affordable price. This model is made from Rugged UV-stabilized Fortiflex High-Density Polyethylene.