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I held off writing a review of the GnarVana for a few weeks to be sure my first impressions would hold up. I am sure we have all been there—instantly loving a boat that later starts to sour on you.

First, some stats: Female, 5’8”, 137 lbs, 31 inseam, size 10-11 women’s shoes, and probably the most telling—71 years old. Obviously, I am not going to use the boat for what it was designed for, so I thought I would let you know how it is for someone who is less than gnarly like me.

Not being able to try the boat, I agonized over what size I should get. I find myself always in between sizes and generally lean towards going smaller rather than larger, but having been burned so many times on undersizing, I was torn for a while and asked a ton of questions from Team paddlers and one of the boat designers, David Knight. Like others have said, the boats all carry a very wide range of paddler sizes so I don’t feel that you will be too far off if you are in between sizes and go either up or down in sizing.

I loved my Nirvana medium. It had it’s moments when it got away from me but I have never felt like it wouldn’t get me to the end of the run safely and effectively. The main issue I found that sometimes bothered me is that it tended to get deflected or fall off of larger waves and it wasn’t always the easiest boat for me to get back on line so I had high hopes that the GnarVana would be a bit more user friendly and responsive.

Statistic wise (and I am slowly learning to trust what people keep telling me that printed numbers mean NOTHING) I was leaning toward getting a medium, but luckily I followed the advise of everyone I asked and got the small. 

I love how the GnarVana fits vs the Nirvana. The knees have kind of a tapered narrow pocket area that snugs you up solidly and the sidewalls feel so much more fitted and closer than the Nirvana for me. Your paddle doesn’t hit the hull because of the slight taper at the knees too which is really nice in a big boat like this. People in the Zen 3 will find it more compact fitting all around too. I needed knee side blocks in the Nirvana and nothing in the Gnar. I needed two additional hip pads in the Nirvana and only one in the Gnar so the 1/2 inch width difference combined with the 1 inch lower deck height between the boats really made all the difference in terms of comfort and fit for me. The Bees Knee are also a game changer in terms of outfitting. It is an all day comfort kind of boat too which is nice.

I try all of my boats with the seat position that they come in and generally keep it there—this is the neutral or middle position. I kept the seat in the middle for several runs and still felt like I was having issues controlling the nose at times but just figured I had to spend more time learning the boat as that position generally seemed to be good overall.

The second and third runs I moved the seat one forward and almost liked it better for some things but something still didn’t feel quite right so I went back to the Team members and Stephen suggested moving the seat one back, which is something I never do, especially in a smaller boat, but I reluctantly tried it in that position and WOW, what a difference.

GnarVana Review From a Non Gnar Boater Perspective

With the seat one back I felt solid in the boat. Getting in and out of eddies, ferrying, super easy correction strokes, and great tracking and river running. One small drawback is that I sometimes feel the back engage more than I like but overall I am really liking this position.

The GnarVana for me was not an intuitive boat and I now realize that the seat position in this boat is critical for handling performance . There is so much rocker on each end that if you are not centered in the boat, it will not handle like it is made to. When I had the seat in a less than optimal position I also felt like all the control was from the front and I felt like I had to always be on it and was not able to really relax. Once you find the sweet spot for the seat you can relax more and really enjoy what the boat can do for you. One of the really cool things about the boat for me is the ability to lean and engage the side rail and zip around the river and into and out of eddys. Edge transitions are incredibly easy and if you found this hard in the Zen 3 or the Nirvana, you will love how easy it is in the Gnarvana.

It also likes water—the bigger, the better. While I really enjoyed the many lower water runs, when we finally got some rain and a bit more water, the boat really started to shine.

I write this review not as someone who wanted a boat to do Class 5, expeditions, or pushing the limits; something the boat is designed for, and plenty has been written about that type of user. I write it for the paddler who wants a boat that they trust getting them down any type of river—Class 2 on up, any age, any ability. It is a really fun boat—stable and easy to roll and I think a lot of paddlers will fall in love with the boat like I did.

It is hard to get me out of my Antix but right now the GnarVana is definitely the boat I am gravitating to more and more. Don’t be put off by the name. Paddlers of all ages and all abilities will love this boat—give it a try and see what you think!

All Photos credit: HOTSHOTIMAGING in Coloma Calif

Happy Paddling,