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Choosing a Beginner Whitewater Paddling Kayak

Ask any kayaker what they think the best boat for you is and you will likely get a confusing jumble of answers that have little to do with what you really need to know. Today lets look at choosing a beginner whitewater paddling kayak

Simplistically, there are three types of kayaks to choose from for whitewater.

  • Play boat
  • Creek boat
  • River Runners

These classifications are actually confusing if you take them literally. Any boat can be used for any style of paddling but what you want to focus on as a beginner is finding one that is versatile, comfortable, and one that you can both learn in and grow into as you progress.

Before you get too hung up on the “perfect” starter boat you should know that whatever boat you pick will bring you joy. Kayaking is fun, it’s addictive, and as a beginner boater, you are going to adapt to whatever boat you are sitting in.


That said, there are some things that you might want to consider in your choice of first boats.

General Overview Choosing a Beginner Whitewater Paddling Kayak

First, let me describe some of the general characteristics of each type of boat.

A newer “Play” boat will likely be a small boat, short with quite a bit of volume around the cockpit area. They tend to be happiest in a river feature like a hole or wave and are not the most ideal for general river running in terms of stability, speed, and comfort for a new boater.

Choosing a Beginner Whitewater Paddling Kayak

“Creek” boats generally have quite a bit of volume throughout the boat, is longer, and has more speed and stability on the river and can be used in a wide range of situations.

“River-Runner” is kind of a one-size-fits-all boat which is why I would suggest this as your first learning boat. It can look like an extended play boat or a smallish creek boat but is usually not as radically extreme in any given feature as the above two boats. Not too long, not too short, not too skinny, not too fat; kind of the ideal blend of everything good about both Creekers and Play boats.

I recommend you start by asking some kayak schools what boats they use to teach their beginner students. (This is also a plug to take a beginner class which will give you access to different boats to try to see which ones you like best. Win-win!)

Where to Start Choosing a Beginner Whitewater Paddling Kayak

My personal choice as a starter boat that can take you beyond the beginner realm would be the Jackson Kayak Antix or the Zen 3. One leans towards the creek spectrum and the other towards the play, but you can’t go wrong with either one. You also won’t outgrown either one as you progress.

Choosing a Beginner Whitewater Paddling Kayak

If you are older, athletic, and are drawn to a more sporty aspect of boating, go with the Antix. If you are young, athletic, and are drawn to watching videos of Dane hucking himself off insane drops, go with the Zen 3.0. If you are older and not as flexible as you used to be and want a boat that works with you, the Z3 will probably offer you the most in terms of comfort, stability, and easy access to the river.

Either boat will allow you to ample opportunity to progress. Both of these boats come in 3 sizes, making it easy to dial in the perfect fit for your new perfect boat. If Freestyle Kayaking is on your menu, check out the Rockstar!

Why a Jackson Kayak?

Choosing a Beginner Whitewater Paddling Kayak

There are a lot of good boats and manufacturers out there besides Jackson Kayak and this post is not meant to indicate otherwise. Some of the things that I think make JK boats stand out compared to other companies are:

  1. Dry—there are no holes drilled through the hull for potential leaks.
  2. Easy to outfit—simple, comfortable, and user friendly. No tools required.
  3. Good range of sizes to fit most people.
  4. Warranty—Starting in 2020—and this is a big one, IMO—is FIVE years, prorated. Your boat is made to last and it is transferable when you do sell it.
  5. Handmade in USA by people who take pride in what they do and it shows. That one might be the biggest for me these days.

Check out this great Video from way back, detailing what makes Jackson great. 


Kayaking is a great sport for all ages and abilities. Take a lesson, try some boats, and start enjoying a sport that will last you a lifetime.

Happy paddling,