What Is a Whitewater Kayak?

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  • Written By: N. Kalu
  • Edited By: Allegra J. Lingo
  • Last Modified Date: 15 October 2019
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A whitewater kayak is a specialized type of kayak designed to be used in fast moving rivers. These rivers are known as whitewater because of the white color of air bubbles moving through the water during rapids. Kayaks are one or two person boats, similar to canoes, but are covered on top to prevent water from entering the boat. Compared to other kayaks, whitewater kayaks are shorter and more maneuverable. Whitewater kayak paddlers typically wear a spray skirt, which is a round piece of plastic that seals the gap between the upper deck of the kayak and the paddler's body.

Whitewater kayaking is sometimes considered an extreme sport because of the potential danger paddlers face when going through rapids. Rapids are fast moving sections of rivers with complex currents. More difficult rapids will frequently have rocks or other obstacles that kayakers must avoid to safely travel downstream. In order to offset these risks, many whitewater kayak paddlers wear helmets and other safety gear. Most paddlers also wear specialized kayaking life vests, which allow for a wider range of motion than typical life vests.


Kayaks are similar in size and shape to canoes, but that is the main extent of their similarity as paddle craft. Canoes use a short paddle with a single blade, while kayaks use a long paddle with wide blades for paddling on each end. This requires a canoeist to sit higher in a boat and use a very different paddling style than that employed by a kayak paddler. Compared to canoes, kayaks are generally faster and far more maneuverable. Canoes tend to be more multipurpose and can carry more cargo than kayaks.

Besides the whitewater kayak, there are several other common types of kayaks. Most kayaks are specialized for a specific purpose of a specific type of water. Sea kayaks, for example, are much longer and thinner than kayaks designed for rivers. While this makes them more difficult to balance, the additional length allows them to float on the crests of sea waves, allowing them to handle smoothly on the ocean. Most touring kayaks, which are designed for longer trips, are sea kayaks and take advantage of the additional storage space offered by a longer hull.

Another popular type of specialized kayak is the tandem kayak. A typical kayak has one hole in the decking for a single rider. Tandem kayaks have two holes, allowing for two riders. A tandem kayak must be longer than a similarly purposed one hole kayak, making it less maneuverable. This means that a tandem kayak can not safely be used as a whitewater kayak.


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