The four distinct categories of whitewater kayaks are playboats, river runners, creek boats and long kayaks. If the names didn’t make it clear, they are quite different in their shapes, features and intended uses.

Here’s a closer look at each category.

1. Creek Boats

As the name implies, this boat design was created to navigate narrower waterways. Ranging from 7.5 to 9 feet long, creek boats use a high-volume displacement hull.

They feature a strong rocker — the curve of the bow from stem to stern — to help the paddler stay on top of the water and prevent the boat’s nose from diving.

The helpful handling characteristics make these boats great for paddling in technical settings. However, taking a creek boat into bigger, faster-moving water can be difficult because these same characteristics can allow it to be pushed around easily by strong currents.

2. River Runners

The next category of kayak are named “river runners” because their design allows them to quickly navigate high-flow waterways.

As compared to a creek boat or playboat, which might have a more dramatic hull design, a river runner’s shape will generally resemble a recreational kayak the most of any in this group.

This style of boat can vary in length from 7 to 9 feet, using a moderate displacement hull. In longer lengths, these are the ideal boats for big water, sacrificing some of the technical maneuverability for running rapids with easy paddling and handling.

Shorter variations of this style allow skilled paddlers to play and perform aerials. The river runner is arguably the most versatile kayak design.

3. Longboats

Developed for racing and going fast in technical terrain, 9-plus-foot longboats predate many of the designs that are currently in use in whitewater kayaking.

They feature planing hulls rather than displacement hulls. This means the bottom of the boat is a flatter shape, rather than the rounded vee shape of a displacement hull.

The planed hull helps these boats skip across the top of the water at high speed, but it can require more effort to turn than a displacement hull because less volume of water pushes against the side of the boat.

Add to that the length of these boats, and you can see why they are typically reserved for strong paddlers who compete or want to maximize their speed down a stretch of river.

Longboats are not used for play because they don’t feature the technical maneuverability needed for aerials or tricks. However, their larger size does allow paddlers additional storage compared to other styles of whitewater kayaks.

4. Playboats

You might not know it, but paddlers have learned to perform tricks in whitewater just like BMX bicyclists or skateboarders on land. To accomplish these tricks, they use a specially designed playboat with features that let them sit in pools and propel the boat up out of the water.

Maneuvers include rotations, lateral and backward movement, and even dunking the boat’s nose into the water on purpose.

Playboats are typically shorter than 6.5 feet, giving them turn-on-a-dime maneuverability. They feature aggressively planed hulls that allow them to rotate and concentrated volume so the paddler can submerse the front or rear part of the boat without losing control.

While an experienced paddler can use a playboat to navigate a long stretch of water, these types of boats are best used for playing in technical locations or at a park. Don’t expect to see too many of them out at your local river, and certainly not in big water.

Choosing Your Style

Take a look at the places you like to paddle and the water that’s near you. Is there an active community of racers or playboat paddlers around? In kayaking, it’s good to be observant about the water you have access to. This and your particular style of paddling will help you select a boat that’s right for you.

Will it be fast and long, or light and nimble? Maybe you’d like to have multiple vessels to better customize your ride to the water you’re on. Let us know what your experience with different styles of boats has taught you in the comments section below.

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