Rivers are one the most accessible water types for most kayakers, which unsurprisingly makes river kayaks a popular purchase. But not all river kayaks are the same, which can be a bit difficult to understand to a newcomer in the kayaking world.
Most river kayaks are designed with a specific type of river in mind, ranging from the wide slow-moving ones to speedy whitewater rivers. The place you’re going to be paddling will be a big influence on the kayak you should buy.
The activity you’ll be doing should also be considered, as many kayaks are designed for a specific purpose, like fishing or sport.
To help you find the right river kayak we’ve made this list of some of the best on the market right now. Covering all water types, activities, and skill levels, we’ve also included a handy buyers guide at the end to make it even easier for you to know what you should look out for.
Read on to being your river kayaking journey!
OUR TOP PICK
One of the most popular recreational river kayaks you can buy, the Bali SS is a good choice for beginners and experts alike. Its short length and lightweight design makes the SS appealing as it’s easy to transport to and from the waters.
The overall design of the kayak means that the SS tracks well and paddles with ease, making it easy to maneuver, steer, and build up speed. This also aids in the stability of the kayak, meaning that beginners won’t need to worry about tipping over.
The high-density polyethylene construction of the hull makes the SS a very durable choice of kayak, which is especially useful in rivers as there can often be hidden dangers just below the surface that could cause damage to less sturdy kayaks.
If you want to use the SS for long-distance paddling or to carry a lot of equipment then you can make use of the plentiful storage space available. It has a small dry storage space within the hull that’s able to carry your valuables like your phone and keys.
To store bigger gear you can use the bungee cord spaces at the front and back of the kayak. If that’s not enough, the SS comes with a portable accessory carrier (PAC), that can be towed behind you while you paddle.
For those wanting to spend a lot of time outside surrounded by nature, the Bali SS is a perfect choice, especially for beginners.
- Adjustable foot braces and protective thigh pads - paddlers of any height can use the SS, while the also provides extra comfort
- Tracks very well - this makes paddling a breeze as it requires very little effort to set off and stay moving
- Low weight capacity - only able to carry 250lbs on the kayak itself, it has a lot of storage but you can’t carry a lot of heavy gear. This can be avoided by packing more of your things in the PAC and towing it along behind you.
For beginners wanting to get into river fishing, this is one of the best options for you. The Sentinel is incredibly lightweight, weighing just under 42lb, but is packed full of features to make your fishing experience easy and fun.
The Sentinel features two flush-mount rod holders, so you can store your fishing rods safely while you paddle out to your favorite spot. There are also two paddle or rod tie-downs, so when you’re not using one of these you can tuck them out of the way.
The Sentinel is also jam-packed with storage space. There’s a molded-in compartment in the center console to hold your items, and two large bungee cord storage areas at the front and rear to hold bigger pieces of gear like cool boxes or other fishing equipment.
On top of all this is the ExoPak, a removable storage compartment in the hull that also features two additional rod holders.
These features aren’t the only highlights of the Sentinel though, this kayak is also one of the most stable fishing kayaks money can buy. This is down to the unique design of the multi-chined hull of the kayak.
While this type of hull is already one of the most stable you can get, Pelican has added additional floatation foam blocks between the deck and the hull. These keep the kayak more rigid and stable which also adds to its durability.
The triple-layer polyethylene hull also adds to this stability and durability, making this a very safe kayak to use.
The Sentinel is a kayak that puts safety first, while also proving excellent features for anglers of any skill level.
- Multi-chined flat bottom hull - this not also makes the Sentinel very stable but also very maneuverable as well
- A lot of storage space - perfect for all your fishing equipment
- Paddle not included - some people are unaware that the paddle has to be bought separately
If you want to try out an inflatable kayak then the Explore K2 is the perfect choice for you. Able to hold 2 people this kayak is a great choice if you want to experience the river with your friend.
Some paddlers get nervous about trying out inflatable kayaks as they worry about their strength and durability. But with the K2 you’re able to put your mind at ease thanks to its many features designed to guarantee your safety.
Made out of heavy-duty puncture-resistant vinyl, the K2 can handle almost anything the river has to offer.
Should the very unlikely happen and you do get a puncture though, the three-chamber construction means that you’ll stay afloat long enough for you to get to shore.
Though inflatable the K2 also provides a very stable ride. This is due to the removable skeg that aids in directional stability, and the rigid I-Beam floor for added balance.
The K2 is also comfortable for paddlers of any size thanks to its large cockpit and inflatable seats with backrest.
With a quick inflation time of under 10 minutes, the K2 is a wonderful river kayak for you and your friend to enjoy.
- Very lightweight and easy to transport - weighing just over 30lbs and with a carry-bag included, transporting this kayak to and from the river is super easy. Also the bag means you can store it neatly away in your home
- Great directional stability - the removable skeg makes turning and maneuvering the Sentinal very easy, while also keeping the kayak stable while you make turns
- Limited storage space - as a lot of room is taken up by the second seat, there’s hardly any storage space on this kayak meaning you may only be able to bring a small bag with you
If you want to try out river sports then the Twister kayak is a great option. Though it looks basic it has several features that allow you to build up and hone your river sporting skills.
The stripped-down deck makes this a lightweight kayak that is very stable yet maneuverable and speedy.
This, combined with the single-layer polyethylene hull means that the Twister also has good tracking and stability, while also being durable enough to use on faster rivers.
The Twister doesn’t feature a seat to save on weight, instead, there is a molded-in contoured cockpit with a high backrest that fits most paddlers of any height and body type. There are also side molded-in grab handles and footwells for added comfort and stability.
The Twister is a very simple kayak designed primarily for beginners who want to learn new skills in sports and recreational kayaking, though more expert paddlers will still appreciate it for its high maneuverability, tracking, and stability.
- Design of the hull makes it very maneuverable and stable - being 11 feet long and 2.5 feet wide, the Twister performs well in the water and is easy to steer and control
- Molded-in seat is surprisingly comfortable - though it has no padding after spending a few hours on the water you shouldn’t be sore or hurting. If you are worried about it being uncomfortable you can buy extra padding to put on the seating area
- Very small storage area - the Twister only features a very small bungee cord storage area at the rear of the kayak. Also there is no dry storage anywhere so you may need to invest in a dry bag for your items
No kayak list is complete without the mention of Perception Kayaks. Known for their stability, durability, and most of all quality, these kayaks are a favorite among paddlers all across America.
The Pescador Pilot is the only one on this list that features a pedal-drive system, allowing you to paddle hands-free, making this an excellent kayak for fishing or if you just want a more relaxing time on the water.
At 12 feet long the Pilot can be a lot of a hassle to transport, but the pedal system is removable to make carrying the kayak much easier.
The Pilot has some features specifically designed for anglers, such as the 4 rod holders, and integrated accessory rails on each side for fish finders. But if you’re not into fishing then the Pilot is still a great recreational kayak.
Like all Perception Kayaks, the Pilot is designed with maximum stability and durability in mind. The hull is constructed from high-density polyethylene that’s impact, UV and abrasion-resistant, so you’re guaranteed to be safe on the water.
The hull is also incredibly stable thanks to its built-in buoyancy, so you won’t have to worry about tipping over while you paddle or fish.
The Pilot is also a very comfortable kayak, allowing you to stay out on the water all day without feeling sore or tired. The lawn chair style seat is made of a breathable mesh fabric to keep you cool, and it’s also fully adjustable.
The Pilot is a great all-rounder river kayak that’s a perfect choice for beginners and experts alike. No matter what recreational hobby you want to do on the water, this is the kayak for you.
- So much storage space - with large front and rear bungee storage you’ll be able to take lots of gear out on the water
- Pedal-drive system - great for hands-free kayaking, you can focus more on fishing or taking photos of the beautiful scenery around you
- No scupper plugs - this may be quite annoying as it means there’s no way to drain water out of the kayak once it’s on dry land, meaning that drying it can a lot of time
Best River Kayaks Buying Guide
Narrowing down which river kayak to buy can be a bit of a challenge, especially as almost every one has something different to offer. Here are some of the most important aspects of a kayak to consider when you’re looking to buy.
Almost all kayaks will advertise their intended use, as well as what waters they function best in so that you can choose the right one for you. These uses mustn’t be ignored otherwise you may not have a good experience on the water.
This should also be one of your top priorities. Whether you’re fishing on a calm river or hurtling through whitewater, you want your kayak to be as stable as possible. Most kayaks will have different features that lessen or improve their stability, so keep an eye out for these.
The width of the kayak will affect its stability as well as its maneuverability. The broader the kayak the more stable it will be, so for fishing getting a wider one is very often the best option.
However wider kayaks also go slower, so if you’re planning on doing watersports then you’ll want to get a narrower one.
Best River Kayaks - FAQ's
Is River Kayaking Dangerous?
No matter what you’re doing, going out on the water always comes with inherent risks. River kayaking can be quite a dangerous activity depending on what you’re doing.
Fishing for example comes with very few risks, but taking part in watersports or whitewater rafting comes with a lot more.
However taking the right steps in terms of safety, like wearing a life jacket, a helmet if you’re doing sports, and buying a bright and easy-to-spot kayak, will make this a much safer pastime.