With so many great kayak brands on the market and so many types of boats to choose from, finding the best river kayak for you might be more challenging than expected.
Fortunately, we want to help you spend more time on the water and less time shopping. That’s why we’ve put together our selection of the best river kayaks on the market. We’ve also included a handy guide to help you choose the perfect model for your trip.
Our Top Picks
If you’re in a hurry, here are our top picks. Or continue scrolling to see our full list with in-depth reviews.
- Best Overall: Wilderness Systems Pungo 120
- Best Budget: Pelican Maxim 100X
- Best Sit-on-Top: Wilderness Systems Tarpon 105
- Best Tandem: Ocean Kayak Malibu Two
- Best Inflatable: Advanced Elements AdvancedFrame
Best Overall: Wilderness Systems Pungo 120
Length: 12’2″ | Width: 29″ | Weight: 49 lbs | Capacity: 325 lbs
Topping our list as the best overall river kayak is the Wilderness Systems Pungo 120. This recreational river kayak offers a balance of speed, stability, and maneuverability, as well as an extra comfortable seat and plenty of storage.
At just over 12-feet long and 29 inches wide, the Pungo 120 tracks well but still turns with ease. Exactly what you need to negotiate calm rivers with occasional or light rapids.
One of its key features is its Wilderness Systems Phase 3 AirPro seating system. This seating system is padded, breathable, and adjustable, making it comfortable to paddle longer distances in warmer weather.
Meanwhile, the spacious cockpit makes it easier to get in and out without going for a swim. This roomy cockpit also makes the Pungo 120 a practical choice for larger paddlers. Inside, you also have adjustable foot braces. These adjust on a simple slider, so there’s no need to fiddle with nuts and bolts. The cockpit edges are also fitted with thigh pads for an even comfier ride.
When it comes to storage, the Pungo 120 has a generous stern hatch. The hatch is large enough to carry the essential camping gear, so you can take this river kayak on an overnight trip. You also have bungee riggings on the bow and stern deck for carrying extra gear.
Another thing we like is the Pungo 120’s removable dashboard. This dashboard comes with two built-in cup holders, attachments for a phone holder and battery, and a removable water-tight storage box, giving you easy access to your essential gear.
Best Budget: Pelican Maxim 100X
Length: 10’ | Width: 28″ | Weight: 36 lbs | Capacity: 275 lbs
If you’re looking for the best value river kayak, the Pelican Maxim 100X is an affordable option for beginner to experienced recreational paddlers.
Featuring a shallow V-chine hull, this budget river kayak tracks surprisingly well for a 10-foot kayak. But it’s also easy to maneuver and provides excellent secondary stability, meaning that it’s more stable while moving through rougher waters.
However, it’s worth noting that although the hull offers excellent stability while moving, it’s less stable while stationary. It might also take some practice to get in and out of this kayak without getting wet.
Like the Pungo 120, this lightweight kayak has a padded and adjustable seat with a supportive backrest, making it comfortable for longer excursions. It also features a spacious cockpit that makes it great for beginners, long legs, and practicing wet exits.
Although the molded footrests are not adjustable, there are enough notches for most paddlers to find a comfortable position.
Despite the kayak’s short length, the Pelican Maxim 100X comes with a bow storage hatch and a space on the stern deck for carrying additional gear. It doesn’t offer enough storage for camping trips, but there’s plenty of room for your lunch and other essential kayaking gear. Plus, at 36 lbs, it’s light enough for most paddlers to carry to and from the water.
We also like that the Pelican Maxim 100X is made from highly durable thermoform plastic. You shouldn’t need to worry about bumping the hull on shallow rivers.
Best Sit-on-Top: Wilderness Systems Tarpon 105
Length: 10’6″ | Width: 32″ | Weight: 55 lbs | Capacity: 325 lbs
Best suited to calm lakes or gentle rivers with light rapids, the Wilderness Systems Tarpon 105 is one of the most stable sit-on-top kayaks on the market.
This kayak comes with the Wilderness Systems unique Phase 3 AirPro seating system. This unique system includes 3D foam padding, breathable mesh, and a fully adjustable seat and back support. The seat, combined with the adjustable footrests, makes it extra comfortable for full days on the water.
Additionally, the seat, backrests, and footrests are all quick and easy to adjust. This also makes the Tarpon 105 a practical option if you’re looking for a recreational kayak that all the family can use.
Unfortunately, this sit-on-top kayak doesn’t offer much internal storage. The front hatch is just large enough for a jacket, snacks, or first aid kit. However, there’s plenty of storage space in the rear recess. If you pack your gear in a kayak dry bag, you could potentially use the Tarpon 105 for river touring or overnight trips.
Although it’s not the fastest kayak out there, the Tarpon 105 moves fast enough for most recreational paddlers. It also tracks well, and you have the option of attaching a rudder to improve steering. Plus, the Tarpon 105 offers excellent primary and secondary stability.
Other things we like include the accessory rails on either side of the kayak. These rails allow you to attach fishing rods, cameras, or other accessories. You also have a bottle holder and watertight box within easy reach while paddling.
Overall, it’s one of the best kayaks for beginner paddlers, recreational paddling, or fishing trips.
Best Tandem: Ocean Kayak Malibu Two
Length: 12’ | Width: 34″ | Weight: 57 lbs | Capacity: 425 lbs
Designed for solo or tandem paddling and with a center seat for your child or four-legged friend, the Ocean Kayak Malibu Two is a very versatile tandem river kayak.
The kayak features three molded seat wells with removable high-back padded seats and molded footrests. These seat wells and attachment points allow you to set up the Malibu two for solo or tandem kayaking trips.
There’s plenty of legroom for both bow and stern paddlers, even for tall paddlers. Plus, with a 425 lbs weight capacity, a child or pet can ride in the middle position. Alternatively, you could use the center seat to carry a cooler box or other gear.
The Malibu Two is incredibly stable on the water, even on slightly rougher waters, and while getting in and out. It’s not the fastest moving kayak on the market; however, you should be able to reach a leisurely speed and paddle in a straight line without too much effort.
Weighing in at 57 lbs, it’s also reasonably light for a tandem kayak with such a high weight capacity. Unfortunately, there’s not much storage space, and you’ll have to pack any gear in dry bags and attach them to the deck. That said, you do have the option to add up to three hatches.
Best Inflatable: Advanced Elements AdvancedFrame
Length: 10’5″ | Width: 32″ | Weight: 36 lbs | Capacity: 300 lbs
When you need a more portable kayak, the Advanced Elements AdvancedFrame sit-in kayak is the best inflatable river kayak we’ve come across.
As a hybrid, this solo kayak combines the typical features of an inflatable kayak with the rigidity of a folding kayak. It’s made with three layers of durable waterproof material that minimizes the risk of punctures and keeps the water out. Plus, its seven separate inflation tube design gives you plenty of time to get to land if you do get a puncture.
Admittedly, it takes a bit more time to set up than your classic hardshell kayak, but once on the water, it’s comfortable enough for a full day of river paddling. This model comes with a high-backed adjustable padded seat, and you can choose to attach a spray skirt.
We also like that the low seating position helps to reduce wind resistance so you can travel further with less effort.
Meanwhile, this inflatable kayak holds up well in moderate winds and rougher rivers thanks to its built-in aluminum frame. The reinforced bow and stern, combined with its V-shaped hull and removable skeg, allow the kayak to track well.
At 36 lbs, it’s not much lighter than some of its hardshell competitors. However, it is a lot more portable. With the included duffle bag or a strong backpack, you would be able to transport this kayak inside your car, on a bicycle trailer, or on public transport.
River Kayak Buying Guide
A kayak is no small investment, so you want to make sure that you’re purchasing the best river kayak for you. To help you focus your search, here are some of the critical things to consider while you shop.
How Will You Use Your River Kayak?
Firstly, consider how you want to use your kayak. For example, are you planning multi-day expeditions, fishing trips, or short paddles on your nearby river?
The most important features of a river kayak depend on what types of trips you plan to make with it.
A 10-foot kayak with good stability and a small hatch will meet the needs of most recreational paddlers. However, if you’re planning to make long trips or carry a lot of gear, you’ll want to choose a river kayak with better tracking and plenty of storage.
Types of River Kayak
The second thing to think about is what type of river kayak you would prefer. Making this decision at the beginning will narrow down your options quite a bit.
- Sit-in vs. sit-on-top: If you’re new to kayaking and mostly paddle in warm weather, you might prefer a sit-on-top kayak. These are often more stable. But, sit-on-top kayaks also give you more wiggle room, making them more comfortable for taller paddlers.
However, if you plan to tackle faster-moving rivers or class I-II rapids, a sit-in kayak will keep you drier and allow you to develop your paddle skills.
- Tandem vs. solo: This should be an easy decision to make. Do you usually kayak alone or with someone else? If the answer is both, then you might want to consider the Ocean Kayak Malibu Two. Tandem kayaks with movable seats give you the flexibility of paddling tandem or solo without buying two kayaks.
- Hard-shell vs. inflatable: Another thing to consider is how you’re going to transport your kayak and how often you plan to travel with it. Hardshell river kayaks tend to offer the best performance, but they’re useless if you can’t get them to the water.
If portability is your top priority, inflatable or folding kayaks are the best alternative. Inflatable kayaks are also worth considering if you want a kayak to take on a flight.
Although inflatable kayaks are more susceptible to winds and strong currents and less durable than hardshell kayaks, high-quality models like the Advanced Elements AdvancedFrame handle gentle rivers and light rapids just fine.
That said, if you plan to tackle rockier routes or shallow rivers, a durable hardshell like the Pelican Maxim 100X might be a wiser choice.
River kayaks are typically shorter than touring kayaks because they need to turn more quickly and in tighter spaces. That’s why all the river kayaks in our top five are between 10 and 13 feet from bow to stern.
Think about your nearby rivers. If they have lots of bends or other obstacles, a shorter kayak might be better for you. However, on large rivers, you’ll probably appreciate the improved tracking that a longer kayak can offer.
Similarly, recreational river kayaks usually have wider hulls that are very stable compared with other types of kayaks. The wider the hull, the more stable it will feel on flat water. So, if you’re new to paddling, you might want to look out for river kayaks that are at least 32 inches wide.
Meanwhile, for more experienced paddlers and anyone who wants to reach higher speeds, we recommend the more streamlined Pelican Maxim 100X and the Wilderness Systems Pungo 120.
Once you’ve decided on the basics, you might want to consider additional features that would be useful on your kayaking trips.
Additional river kayak features include:
- Hatches, dry boxes, and storage recesses which you’ll need if you want to carry gear.
- Deck rigging is also helpful for carrying extra gear on multi-day river trips.
- Rudders or skegs as these will help with tracking and steering.
- Rod holders for fishing trips or camera attachment points.
- A comfortable seat with a supportive and fully adjustable backrest.
Last, but certainly not least, the best river kayak for you needs to be within your budget. While searching for the best river kayaks, you’re going to find a wide range of prices. Some of the cheapest kayaks cost under $500, while some of the most expensive could set you back well over $1000.
In this review, we’ve included quality river kayaks with a range of price tags, starting from around $400. One of the key differences between cheaper and more expensive models is durability. Pricier models do tend to last longer. They also tend to come with additional features that improve comfort and performance.
After carefully reviewing the pros and cons of the best river kayaks on the market, our top choice has to be the Wilderness Systems Pungo 120.
Its performance on the water, combined with its practical features, such as ample gear storage and an extremely comfortable seating system, makes it an excellent choice for beginners and experienced kayakers. That’s why we rate it at least a few steps ahead of its competitors.
With that in mind, there’s no one river kayak that’s right for everyone, and you’ll need to consider your individual needs before investing.
Whether portability is your priority, or you’d prefer a tandem or a sit-on-top river kayak, we hope this article helps you find the best river kayak for your next outdoor adventure.