Educational Articles

What are the Different Types of Paddlesports?

The paddlesport industry is quickly growing across the nation. Chances are that you know someone that has a SUP board, goes kayak fishing, has been on a rafting trip, or even enjoys some whitewater kayaking. Paddlesports are all highly diverse sports, and chances are that there’s a category that will accommodate your interests. Join us as we walk through the main types of kayaking, rafting, and stand up paddleboarding to help you find the sport that fits just right.


There are three general types of kayaking, each caters to a different type of participant: recreational, touring, and whitewater.

Whitewater Kayaking: This is a great activity for individuals interested in paddling rivers. This type of paddling offers a tremendous variety of recreational experiences ranging from scenic paddles to raging whitewater. Most whitewater kayakers fall near the middle of these two extremes, as they combine their desire for scenery, exercise and adventure.

There are many myths associated with whitewater kayaking including “Kayaking is an extreme sport”. Kayaking, like all adventure sports, has inherent risks. However, with education and instruction, you can learn to be safe and proficient on the water.

Recreational Kayaking: This type of kayaking is ideal for individuals looking for a low impact recreational experience that can be done on ponds, lakes, and even some slow moving rivers. This type of paddlesport also includes kayak fishing because they’re stable and easily customizable for your fishing needs.

Touring/Sea Kayaking: This type of kayaking is a great activity for individuals that live near an ocean or large body of water. Touring boats tend to be longer and faster in order to cover larger distances. They coms in multiple styles specific to the intended type of use. Longer, higher volume kayaks are great for expeditions and multi-day trips, while shorter, low-volume boats are great for day trips and light-overnight use.


Rafting is typically a whitewater activity. A rafting trip can run from a half-day, to a month long trip. Rafts are highly customizable, and can be used for camping and fishing. Rafts are also great for group activities, and are sized for 1 to 8 people. 

Stand Up Paddleboarding

Stand Up Paddleboarding, or SUPing, is a relatively new paddlesport, but also the fastest growing. This highly versatile recreation can take you from surfing ocean waves, to punching through whitewater rapids, to fishing on calm lake waters. There are several types of boards, each designed for a different type of sporting experience, from high impact to low impact.

So you’ve decided to learn more about whitewater kayaking? Great, there are four major types of whitewater kayaking, so you’ll be sure to find a great fit.

Whitewater Kayak Types

Rodeo/Freestyle kayaks, sometimes referred to as play boats or rodeo kayaks, are designed to perform tricks on any type of river feature (including flatwater), and excel on waves and holes. These kayaks are short and have a planning hull, sharp edges, near vertical sidewalls, and centralized volume distribution. Freestyle kayaks are designed for one thing; to allow the user to perform aggressive spins, cartwheels, flips, and other high velocity (often aerial) maneuvers. For many, freestyle kayaking is the most enjoyable type of whitewater kayaking, and often the most convenient.

Free Running kayaks blend the characteristics of freestyle kayaks and river running kayaks, and are designed for kayakers who enjoy freestyle paddling, but want to play the entire river instead of just one feature. These boats have a planning hull, carving edge, and centralized volume characteristics of freestyle kayaks. Yet they still have sufficient length, volume and secondary stability for the speed and predictability needed to navigate an intermediate river. Free runners have more of a beveled sidewall  than freestyle boats, which makes them more forgiving and easier to roll.

River Running kayaks are sometimes referred to as the ‘SUV of kayaks’ because they are designed to navigate many diverse rivers for boaters of all skill levels, and are ideal for beginner paddlers. These boats are stable enough for use in rough whitewater, yet agile enough to play large river features. River running kayaks carve smoothly in and out of eddies, track well, and surf large waves, making them great for paddling high volume rivers. A beveled side wall gives them excellent secondary stability and makes them easy to roll.

Creeking kayaks are designed for use on steep, technical, and challenging whitewater. Different designs excel at running low-volume steep creeks to high-volume pushy rivers. These are the boats that will allow you to navigate the most difficult whitewater in magnificent and remote locations. High-volume in the bow and stern keep you on top of the water, and therefore in control. A rounded deck and stern allows for fast resurfacing, and rounded edges create a stable kayak in rough water (poor for surfing, great for hucking). Safety and rescue features include a padded bulkhead foot system, easily accessible grab loops, and reinforced bow and stern pillars. Creek boats can be packed with gear for self-support overnight river trips.

Cross-over kayaks are a new, and quickly growing, category of kayaks that operate as well on the river as they do on lakes and flat water. The hull shape is designed to be stable and maneuverable. Many of these kayaks have skegs that can be raised or lowered to help with tracking on flatwater. These kayaks are ideal for lakes, rivers, camping trips, kayak fishing, and more.

Select the size: Once you figure out the type of whitewater kayak that you are looking for, you will need to narrow your search to a few specific boats by weight range. Boats are paddler weight specific; meaning that each individual will fit into certain kayaks that are designed for their weight range. By identifying the specific whitewater kayaks in your weight range, you will be able to narrow your search down to a few kayaks.

Demo a Kayak: Once you’ve narrowed down your search to a few kayaks, you might want to ‘demo’ the boats to see which one fits just right. Many kayak shops, including CKS in Buena Vista, CO, offer a great selection of kayaks in our demo fleets. Demoing a kayak will provide you with the most hands-on pre-purchase experience possible. (Another benefit is that you can ask the staff for more information if you have further questions.)

Whitewater Kayaking Gear: The 5 Essentials

These are the must have items that are necessary for all levels of whitewater paddling.

Kayaks: Whether freestyle, creek, river-running, touring, recreational, or inflatable, your boat is the first and most obvious of the five essentials.

Paddle: The equivalent of both the pedals and handlebars on your bicycle, a paddle provides your propulsion and steering.

Sprayskirt: Your skirt needs to be sized correctly for both your waist and your boat. The skirt is worn by the paddler and attaches to the kayak cockpit to keep water out. This allows a paddler to roll a kayak and paddle whitewater even when the boat is submerged. These skirts feature tight fits to keep water out of your cockpit, and a neoprene waist that will secure itself tightly around your waist. These are designed for rolling and rough water conditions. They may not be ideal for leisure use, and on warm days in calm water they could get warm.

Helmet: While no one plans on hitting rocks or underwater objects with their heads, it’s imperative to have a properly fit whitewater helmet. Think of a good helmet as an extremely affordable insurance policy.

PFD (life jacket): You personal flotation device (pfd) is designed to keep you afloat, and aid in self rescue. This is considered a good thing by those that like to breathe.

Drytop: The unofficial “6th essential’. Paddlers in all cold-water states have adopted an unofficial 6th essential to include gear that keeps us dry and warm, and therefore able to paddle in varying weather conditions. A drytop is the most favored piece of equipment to stay dry, and often necessary to be safely protected from hypothermia.

While selecting a kayak for recreational kayaking styles can be pretty similar to whitewater kayaking, there are a few differences. We’ll walk you through the ideal kayak styles for the sport you’re interested in, and help you with some of the basics as well. Deciding on the right kayak will largely depend on your skill, your preferences and plans, your size, and how you’ll store and transport your kayak.

Types Of Calm Water Kayaking

Day Touring Kayaks For General Touring

This general touring kayak category includes boats designed for day touring, light overnight touring, fishing kayaks, and high-end recreational boats. Day touring kayaks at 13 to 15 feet in length are perfect for those seeking a nicely outfitted, full featured boat. With a slightly wider hull, day touring kayaks offer more stability than expedition touring kayaks, yet still provide efficiency and speed. Day touring kayaks with their water-tight storage capabilities are ideal for day trips and an occasional overnighter. The day touring kayaks are easier to handle off the water and are a good option if storage is an issue. These kayaks are ideal for beginners through experts.

Multi-Day & Expedition Touring Kayaks

Multi-day touring and expedition kayaks, at 16 to 18 feet long, are ideal for the person with more advanced paddling skills, or those with the desire to learn. The narrow width of the boats allows for faster hull speeds and is ideal for long days of paddling when it is necessary to cover long distances. These boats track straight and maneuver efficiently through the water, making them perfect for longer trips, island hopping, and bay crossings. They hold enough gear in their watertight compartments for weekend camping trips and weeklong adventures. Most touring kayaks have the option of a rudder to aid in the ease of steering and maneuvering.

Recreational Kayaks

Recreational kayaks are ideal for individuals looking for a low impact recreational experience that can be done on ponds, lakes, slow moving rivers and calm coastal areas. These kayaks are generally very stable, and have a large cockpit opening making them easy to enter and exit. Some recreational kayaks are open, sit on top models which are often the choice for paddlers who wants to fish from their kayak. The shorter length of recreational kayaks makes them easy to maneuver, and somewhat easier to store and transport compared to touring kayaks.

Fishing Kayaks

Kayak fishing is probably the fastest growing sector of kayaking. This spin-off from recreational kayaks offers stable, highly customizable kayaks. These kayaks are also a great choice for areas that are too shallow for big motors, or that don’t allow them at all. These come in two basic styles: sit-on-top or sit-inside/enclosed.

Sit-on-top fishing kayaks feature a molded deck that you sit on top of. These are extremely stable and easy to maneuver. They also offer flat deck areas designed for attaching accessories, and some also have areas for live bait storage.

Sit-inside fishing kayaks are a more traditional kayak design, in which you sit inside it. A touring sprayskirt is often used to prevent water from splashing over the sidewall and into the cockpit area. (These are typically made out of nylon material with an adjustable bungee around the cockpit rim. Many of them will also feature a zip-up waist or suspender straps. These skirts are designed to be lightweight, have a more universal fit than whitewater skirts, and are often more comfortable, since a watertight fit isn’t necessary around the waist. These skirts are not ideal for rolling or rougher water conditions, you’ll want something with a more water-tight seal.)

The advantages of this design are the hull speed and paddling performance, as well as the comfort of staying inside a dry protected shell.

Inflatable Kayaks

Most inflatable kayaks are suited for both flatwater as well as whitewater. Inflatable kayaks are very stable and easy to maneuver. While not well suited for traveling long distances on flatwater, inflatables are a great way to enjoy your local river, lake or coastal area. Many can be packed with enough gear for an overnight trip. Inflatable kayaks are the easiest to store and transport as they can be rolled up and put in the trunk of a car. These are a great choice for beginner to expert level kayakers.

Storage and Transportation Tips

Due to the longer lengths of recreational and touring kayaks, they need special consideration when it comes to storing and transporting them. Luckily, many companies create products with this in mind.

Kayaks are best stored inside, where it’s cool and dry. Using cockpit covers to keep out any small critters and bugs can be very helpful. Some of us, however, don’t have garages or other storage areas to keep a kayak that’s 14 feet or longer. If you have to store a kayak outside, keep it upside down, use a cockpit cover, and try to keep it out of direct sunlight. Padded sawhorses can be a great low cost option for keeping your kayak off the ground, and the padding prevents oil canning.

Transporting these long kayaks can be difficult as well, and the first couple of trips may need some extra planning. Depending on the make of the vehicle you can store kayaks on top during transport, and there are also trailers specially made for kayak transportation, which can be extremely useful if you have more than one kayak you’re taking with you.

Essentials of flat water kayaking safety

We love watersports, and like to be prepared as well. Here’s a short guide to some basics that you should take on any paddlesport trip.

Paddle gear: If your boat is going to on the water, it should be equipped with these basics (and some may be required, always look at the laws for the areas you’ll be kayaking).  Float bags in each compartment can keep your gear from rolling about, and help keep your boat afloat should you roll your kayak. A neoprene sprayskirt will help keep water out, and you may want to have a spare kayak paddle, just in case. Make sure your PFD is in good shape, and that you have your whistle and a boater’s knife as well.

Clothing: While dressing for immersion is always a good idea, comfort should be considered as well. Make sure that you use the appropriate combination of layers. Your outer layer will consist of a paddle jacket/pants, drytop/dry pants, or a drysuit. Thermal layers will usually consist of a top and bottom as well, and having an extra top and bottom in a dry bag can be a great idea for longer trips.

Logistics and navigation gear: Multiday sea trips should have detailed plans, maps, tide information, weather information, nautical charts and waterproof chart bag, a compass, personal id, and a little currency.

Safety gear: Most trips should have bilge pumps, paddle floats, paddle leashes (for rec and flat water use only, not for whitewater!), a tow system, signal mirrors, emergency strobes, and a first aid kit in a waterproof bag or drybox.

Dayhatch/deck bag essentials: There are a few other essentials that can make a day on the water a bit more fun, including sun protection, repair kits, food, a hydration system, and a boater’s sponge.

If you’re unsure of how to use any of your equipment, look to get a little extra training. Being prepared beats being in trouble.

Making sure you have the proper layers will make or break your day on the water. You may get out of your vehicle to discover that you’ll be spending a gorgeous 80 degree day on the water, but don’t let that tempt you to go in with just a PFD and your board shorts. Water temps can be 40 degrees cooler depending on the time of year. If you paddle near headwaters, keep in mind that you’re playing in recently melted snow.

If you’re in fast moving, cold rivers, you’ll want to think layers. A warm base layer, and a solid outer layer can really change your trip. Base layers like polyester fleece, wool, and neoprene are the good choices.

Technical Outerwear

Keeping dry is helpful if you’re in a kayak, and having a tough drysuit or drytop can make your day a lot warmer. There are a few options when it comes to drytops, with 4-season drytops, semi-drytops, and splash jackets.

4-season drytops have latex gaskets on the wrists and neck, and usually have a tunnel system to pair up with your sprayskirt. These jackets will usually keep you about 95% dry. These are ideal when you’re in level 4 and 5 whitewater, and make sure you use layers when you’re in cold water.

3-season/semi-drytops typically have latex wrists, but feature neoprene necks. They also have a tunnel system, to provide a little more dryness. These drytops are usually ideal for cold water/warm weather or all day paddling. This option will keep you about 85 % dry.

Splash jackets usually don’t have gaskets at the wrist or the neck. Instead they feature hook-and-loop adjustable closures to keep some water out. These usually don’t have tunnels systems, instead relying on a pull-tab cord to tighten the extra material at the base. These are best used when you’re encountering splashing water, such as recreational kayaking, or rafting in warm water. They’ll keep excess water off of you, but won’t keep you from getting wet if you end up in the water.

Drypants are separated into similar categories, with dry pants, semi-dry pants, and paddle (splash) pants.

Drypants feature latex ankle gaskets, and neoprene waists. They’re best for cold water/cold weather conditions.

Semi-dry pants use similar material as a dry pant. The ankle gaskets are made from neoprene, and are only about 80% dry. These are best for cold water/warm weather paddling, or all day paddling.

Splash pants have hook-and-loop closures around the ankle, and are made from thinner, more breathable materials. These are, like splash jackets, best for warm weather rafting, recreational kayaking, and warm weather touring, since they only protect from splashing.

Remember to pay attention to the type of gasket on your new top or pants. Neoprene and latex have noticeable differences, and can change your experience on the water.


Neoprene gaskets tend to be the more comfortable choice, as they’re easy to put on, and keep your neck or wrists warm. However, they aren’t as dry as latex, occasionally they roll down, and don’t always stay in place. More water will seep in the longer you are on the water as well, so you might want to keep this in mind.

Latex gaskets have very tight seals, and tend to stay dry even in swims. They can also be changed out if they tear or rot. Many also have a neoprene overlay which protects the gasket from sunlight and as a backup if the latex fails. The downside is that it can be difficult to get used to the feel of latex, it can be uncomfortable for long term wear, and many people have allergies. These are the driest choice, keeping you about 95% dry.

Thermal Layers

After you’ve determined which type of drytop/drysuit you’re buying, give some thought to your layers. Adding neoprene or thermal shorts/pants, with a fleece top,  to that technical outerwear will make your day on the water easier. There are a few types, from rash guards to heavy fleece base layers.

Rashguards are great for light layers, something to keep between you and your outerwear on warm days, or to wear on it’s own if you are on the lake paddling about. It adds a little extra UPF protection (typically around 45+) and, well, protects you from rashes.

Silk weight/light-weight layers are ideal if you need a little more warmth and protection. These fill the gap when rash guards don’t provide enough protection, but wool core layers are too much. These still provide friction-free zones for paddling, UPF 45+ protection, but also provide a heavier weight for cooler days.

Outer core/wool core layers are your go-to if you’re going for cold weather/cold water paddling. These offer breathability, and warmth, and usually feature a soft fleecy material against your skin.

While you’re at it, think about a little extra warmth on you head. Throw a side liner or a hood over your head to keep warmer. Full cut liners can also protect your ears from icy water rushing in (though nothing beats a pair of ear plugs when it comes to this).

Anytime you go on the water, make sure to check weather and water conditions, and take a few extra layers, just incase. There are always unexpected moments, and being prepared means they won’t ruin your day.

Kayaking is a great sport, and it requires a basic foundation of skills in order to be safe and proficient. Start by figuring out what type of kayaking appeals to your goals and interests.

Try an introductory workshop to gain information and basic skills that could take months for you to learn on your own. Be sure to talk with your instructors, they are a knowledgeable resource that can help you identify the proper type of kayaking for your lifestyle.

Next, start buying your kayak and gear. If you have questions, contact a sales person and explain what you want to do. They can show you the options that will work with your kayaking goals.

Join a paddle club. Most communities near a large body of water or a runnable river will have a canoe or kayak club. This also lets you meet other kayakers, learn about local runs and paddling locations.

Take more classes. As you continue to learn, you’ll discover new experiences while you’re paddling. You might look into breakthrough workshops, playboating clinics, and river rescue workshops.

Be smart when your picking your paddling partners. Choose paddlers that are near your ability range, or that are willing to paddle at your level and pace. It’s always better to be safe while kayaking, so if you aren’t ready for a certain run, don’t push yourself. Take more classes or go with someone that’s knowledgeable about that run, and is willing to guide you through it.

Once you’re comfortable with your current style of paddling, don’t be afraid to try something new. Creek boaters will often try playboating, as a form of cross-training. You learn new types of dexterity, edge and boat control, and ways to keep oriented. You’ll also learn more about rolling, and you’ll get a new type of workout.

Kayaking is a great sport that you won’t get bored of, as there are so many variations and styles. The main rule is to play safe, and have fun.