Types of Kayaking

What is Kayaking?

Kayaking is freedom in the water. It’s a watersport that involves paddling using a double-bladed oar and a small boat known as a kayak. Depending on where you’re going, you can get different types of kayaks to fit the environment and the obstacles you’ll be facing. For example, a few types of Kayaking include fishing, whitewater, saltwater, recreational, diving, as well as others. We’ll talk more about the different types of Kayaking more in-depth in a moment. For now, let’s just make sure we’re on the same page and level set exactly what Kayaking is. Fortunately, Wikipedia provides a great definition for Kayaking:

“Kayaking is the use of a kayak for moving across water. It is distinguished from canoeing by the sitting position of the paddler and the number of blades on the paddle. A kayak is a low-to-the-water, canoe-like boat in which the paddler sits facing forward, legs in front, using a double-bladed paddle to pull front-to-back on one side and then the other in rotation. Most kayaks have closed decks, although sit-on-top and inflatable kayaks are growing in popularity as well.”

Why go Kayaking?

Very few activities unify all types of outdoor enthusiasts the way Kayaking does. Those who consider themselves as Kayakers are as varied as their boats and the waters they paddle them in. Kayaking offers you the chance to get closer to nature than many other outdoor activities. As with many other outdoor activities, it’s a great source of stress relief. However, there’s a different level of soothing that Kayaking provides which I myself have never been able to find with anything else. Whether you’re a wild man Kayaking off a 30-foot waterfall, finally exploring that fork in your favorite river, or just floating along with a group of your best friends, never miss an opportunity for an adventure in a kayak.

“The rivers flow not past, but through us, thrilling, tingling, vibrating every fiber and cell of the substance of our bodies, making them glide and sing.” – John Muir


“There is nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.” – Kenneth Grahame


“The first river you paddle runs through the rest of your life. It bubbles up in pools and eddies to remind you who you are.” – Lynn Culbreath Noel

What do you need?

Ultimately, what you’re going to need while you’re kayaking will depend on the type of kayaking you’re going to be doing. Some versions of kayaking limit the supplies you’re able to carry. However, other types of kayaking allow you the advantage of bringing plenty of supplies. So, why not? Fortunately, we’ve taken the time to research everything you might need regardless of the type of kayaking you’ll be doing. For more information, follow the link below to check out our comprehensive Kayaking/Canoeing Checklist.

Kayaking/Canoeing Checklist

Table of Contents

This list outlines some types of kayaking that you may or may not have heard of, or perhaps you just know them by a different name? The list is certainly not definitive, just a guide to help kayakers (and future kayakers) understand the full breadth of kayaking scenes that are available to them.

Types of Kayaking

Recreational Kayaking

Recreational KayakingThe thing about traveling in a kayak is that it puts you in direct, intimate contact with nature. Recreational Kayaking is the type of kayaking many of us do when we’re on a local lake or slow river. It is easy for beginners, easy for children, and technically easy for anyone who can get into a kayak and paddle. Recreational Kayaking requires minimal personal or tactile skills to allow a unique interaction with your outdoor surroundings.

Recreational Kayaks are affordable, stable, and easy to maneuver through the water, making them popular for both general use as well as beginners. Best in slow-moving water, these boats are typically 9ft to 12ft long with wide cockpits, which make them easy to get in and out of. Recreational Kayaks are the ones you will normally find at boat rentals and local outfitters. While sometimes not the most comfortable boats, there’s no denying their main purpose, to have fun on the water.

Spending a relaxing day on the water with a warm breeze rolling by and a perspective you could never see on two feet are just some of the simple joys that come with Recreational Kayaking. However, what always draws me to it are the times that I get to spend with friends. Some of my best memories growing up are weekend camping trips in Chattanooga, TN, with a day filled with kayaking, fun, and at least four people flipping their kayak.

Ocean Kayaking

Ocean KayakingOcean Kayaking, sometimes referred to as Sea Kayaking, involves the use of a kayak developed for the sport of paddling on open waters of lakes, bays, and the ocean. Sea kayaks usually range anywhere from 10–18 feet (3.0–5.5 meters) for solo crafts and up to 26 feet (7.9 meters) for tandem crafts. The width of these kayaks can be as little as 21 in (53 cm), but they could be as wide as 36 in (91 cm).

Ocean Kayakers can be found poking through flatwater lakes, fighting the chop in the open water, navigating coastal islands, or just journeying parallel to the shore just behind the surf line, for a leisurely paddle in the ocean. Still, others rig their kayaks with all the necessary fishing gear in search of a trophy fish out beyond the surf. However, we cover Kayak Fishing more in-depth a little further down. Regardless of skill level, thanks to modern-day sit-on-top kayaks, people with very limited kayaking experience can enjoy the fun and rewarding pastime that is Ocean Kayaking.

Whether you’re going Ocean Kayaking for the first time or you’re a seasoned paddler, your goal should always be to set yourself up for success. For example, always check to make sure that all the hatches are shut tight and the drain plug has been screwed in securely. Next, while you are out to sea, everything on the beach will look the same, so be sure to pick out a landmark on the beach that you will be able to find on your way back. Finally, when you decide to paddle back in, be sure to pick a good landing spot without many people in the water. A loose kayak can be a very dangerous projectile to a swimmer without their head on a swivel. However, these are just a few mental notes that you need to keep in mind. As with any sport, you should never stop learning.

“If there is magic on this planet, it is contained in water.” – Loren Eiseley

Touring Kayaking

Touring KayakingThere are many people that get confused as to what the difference is between Recreational Kayaking and Touring Kayaking. The easiest way to describe it is that Touring Kayaking is the next level up to Recreational Kayaking. If you graduate up to this level, you’ve likely invested in your own boat. Not to mention, getting in and out of your kayak feels like second nature, and your ability to control your boat has increased tremendously.

Touring kayaks are often more expensive since, in addition to being constructed of better materials, they also have more features. However, one of the biggest differences between Touring and Recreational Kayaks are their hull designs. Recreational boats are built to be stable and easy to use. Whereas Touring Kayaks are designed to track well in fast currents and increase lift in rough water so they don’t get swamped by a wave. For this reason, occasionally you will hear someone mention Touring Kayaking in the same conversation as Ocean Kayaking or Sea Kayaking.

If you’re investing in your own kayak and absolutely committed to longer trips and know you’ll need more storage, then you’ll save money by going to a Touring Kayak at the outset. However, knowing where and generally how long your trips will be are important for choosing the type of Touring Kayak that fits your needs. They typically get split up into a couple of categories, Day Touring and Sea Touring Kayaks. The Sea Touring Kayaks will be longer and more narrow to be able to break and track through the waves of the ocean more easily. Whereas Day Touring Kayaks are a bit shorter and have more maneuverability.

Kayak Fishing

Kayak FishingThere’s no great mystery with this form of Kayaking, It is exactly what the name implies, fishing from a kayak. For thousands of years, kayaks have been used as a form of transportation to gain access to fishing grounds. Fishing Kayaks were originally developed by indigenous people living in the Arctic regions, who used the boats to hunt on inland lakes, rivers, and the coastal waters of the Arctic Ocean, North Atlantic, Bering Sea, and North Pacific oceans.

In less than a decade, Kayak Fishing has gained popularity all over the world. From saltwater to freshwater, anglers are catching all shapes and sizes of fish safely from a kayak. These kayaks provide portability and easy launch characteristics for reaching less pressured waterways. A Fishing Kayak draws very little water. So, paddling is quiet, and being low to the water helps to sneak-up on fish.

Many of the techniques used in kayak fishing are essentially the same as those used on other fishing boats. The Kayak Fishing community is also a welcoming one, and many experienced paddling anglers would be happy to share their knowledge. However, Kayak Fishing is a lifelong pursuit, and personal experience will have the most lessons to teach. In other words, get out there and fish!

“Swift or smooth, broad as the Hudson or narrow enough to scrape your gunwales, every river is a world of its own, unique in pattern and personality. Each mile on a river will take you further from home than a hundred miles on a road.” – Bob Marshall

Whitewater Kayaking

Whitewater KayakingWhitewater Kayaking uses a kayak to navigate a river with rapids, rough water, or generally any body of whitewater. There are 5 sub-categories of Whitewater Kayaking that are recognized by most. These include River Running, Creek Boating, Whitewater Slalom, Playboating, and Squirt Boating. You can read more about all of these in further detail below in their own sections.

Paddling on rivers, lakes, and oceans is as old as the Stone Age. The modern-day kayak most likely originated about 8,000 years ago along the Siberian coastline by the Yupik, and then transformed from the open canoe via the Aleut and Inuit, into an enclosed kayak. The first boats made were hard to sink because they contained inflated seal bladders, which made them ideal for navigating whitewater.

Whitewater kayaking is an intense sport that requires considerable skill, concentration, and a solid understanding of the dynamics of water. Despite the difficulty of paddling and inherent danger, after just a couple of sessions in the water, it’s easy to get hooked on this adrenaline-fueled sport. So, whether you’ve been borrowing your buddy’s extra boat running Class V whitewater, or you’re just getting ready to learn how to roll a boat, get out there and get your paddle in the water. To get an idea of the form of Whitewater Kayaking that may interest you the most, check out some of the various categories described below.

River Running

River RunningRiver Running typically involves one-day kayaking trips that give advanced beginners a chance to gain experience and provide intermediate kayakers the opportunity to paddle a new river. However, these trips can also include unsupported multi-day trips. Ultimately, River Running is more about combining one’s paddling abilities and navigational skills with the movements and environments of rivers themselves.

As for kayak design, a “pure” River Running boat is usually described to have “driving ability.” This means it has a blend of qualities that enable the paddler to make the most of the differential forces in the river’s currents. In general, River Running kayaks are designed for down-river speed, catching eddies, and the occasional surf on a green wave. In other words, instead of spinning or pivoting the kayak to change its direction, a River Runner will drive the boat in such a way as to make use of the river’s surface features to maintain the boat’s speed and momentum.

Almost anyone can point their kayak straight down a class two, and even class three river, and paddle down successfully. However, for a River Runner, the experience and expression of the river in its continuity is more important rather than, say, a penchant for its punctuated “vertical” features. True River Runners have perfected the art of visualization and drawing a mental path of where they want to go and picturing themselves making the moves to hit that line.

“Rivers know this: there is no hurry. We shall get there someday.” – A. A. Milne

Creek Boating

Creek BoatingCreek Boating, sometimes called Creeking, Steep Creeking, or Treetop Boating depending where you’re from, is a form of Whitewater Kayaking that involves descending very steep low-volume whitewater. It tends to be more dangerous and extreme than other varieties of kayaking such as freestyle or sea-kayaking. As such, the sport of Creek Boating usually requires extra safety equipment gear that is not necessary for regular kayaking.

“Creek Boat” is a generic term that refers to any short boat with lots of rocker and lots of volume in its relatively blunt ends-features, which cause the boat to resurface very quickly and to bounce off any rocks that it encounters. In general, Creek Boats are designed to run tighter, steeper, and more technical whitewater. Thanks to the design and engineering of these boats, they give the paddler improved performance and maneuverability needed to avoid river obstacles.

Creek Boating is as much a game of strategy as it is a sport. Half of your time on creeks is spent scouting, and half of the fun comes from picking lines based on how you predict the river will affect your kayak. Understanding the characteristics, challenges, and hazards of a creek can allow you to effectively make decisions on what kind of whitewater you are ready to tackle when discovering new rivers in new places.

Squirt Boating

Squirt BoatingYet another form of Whitewater Kayaking, Squirt Boating involves a boat designed to be as low in volume as possible while still allowing the paddler to float. Squirt boats are most commonly used for performing tricks on eddy lines, in flat water, or for the “mystery move,” which is where the paddler uses the current to get completely submerged under the water.

Squirt Boats are constructed using a heavy lay-up of fiberglass for two reasons. First, this construction makes the boats durable enough to handle sliding in and out of the river and hitting rocks. Then secondly, it allows for easy customization to fit a specific paddler.

Squirt Boating originally evolved from slalom kayaks. Racers found that if they let the upstream hip drop into the current and slide the stern of the boat under the water, they could decrease the amount of time required to make large degree turns (90+ degrees). After this original “squirt” maneuver was developed, a number of paddlers noticed that squirting was a lot of fun and introduced a new method of playing on the river. Squirts allowed the boats to get vertical even in flat water.

The discipline of Squirt Boating is slowly becoming more and more popular. Despite its obscure status, Squirt Boating is one of kayaking’s most interesting disciplines, with several competitions around the world each year. Squirt Boats have the best of both worlds since certain ones are very good at doing tricks, others are very good at doing Mystery Moves, and some are just as good as doing both. Also, most Squirt Boats are very good at surfing.

“There is nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.” – Kenneth Grahame

Kayak Polo

Kayak PoloKayak Polo, or Canoe Polo as it’s called in other parts of the world, is a fast-paced game of 5 vs 5 in kayaks with the objective of getting a water polo ball into nets. It is played on a rectangular playing pitch that can be in open water or in a swimming pool. Matches are played over two halves of 10 minutes with the aim to score into a goal that is suspended 2 meters above the water at each end of the pitch.

Images from the late 19th century depict Europeans utilizing a makeshift wooden craft, ball, and paddles in casual play, but the competitive form of Kayak Polo as it stands today did not come around until the late 1920s. Germany and France were the first countries to form “kanupolo” clubs, playing a similar version of the game not as a competitive sport but as a means of developing and learning whitewater skills. Although Kayak Polo is one of the younger adaptations of the sport, it is one that is, nonetheless, gaining in popularity and legitimacy.

The game is often described as a combination of water polo, basketball, and kayaking. The tactics and playing of the game are not unlike basketball or water polo but with the added complexity of the boats, which can be used to shield the ball. Thus, Kayak Polo combines boating and ball-handling skills with a contact team game, where tactics and positional play are as important as the speed and fitness of the individual athletes.

Wildwater Kayaking

Wildwater KayakingWildwater Kayaking is a competitive form of kayaking in which kayaks are used to negotiate a stretch of river as quickly as possible. In order to distinguish it from Whitewater Slalom Racing and Whitewater Rodeo, Wildwater Kayaking is also called “Whitewater Racing” or “Downriver Racing”. The objective of the sport is relatively simple in theory. The Kayaker’s goal is to go from the starting point to the endpoint as quickly as he/she can make their paddle and kayak take them. However, in practice, it can prove to be much more of a challenge.

Wildwater Kayaking consists of two forms of racing, classic and sprint. When the sport began only the longer-distance format, classic, was in use until a shorter sprint version was later introduced. Wildwater Kayaking courses can contain anywhere from class two to class four whitewater rapids. Classic courses can vary anywhere from three to six miles in length and take Kayakers 10 to 60 minutes to complete. Whereas the length of sprint courses are 200m to 600m and take as little as 1 minute to complete. Some Kayakers specialize between the two formats, but the majority of competitors compete in both.

By design, Wildwater Kayaks are long and narrow, with a round hull. This allows these boats to move very fast through the water. However,  this also makes them unstable and hard to turn. So, paddlers tilt the boat to one side rather than using wide sweep strokes, utilizing its curved profile to effect the turn.  Depending on the event, Wildwater Kayaks fit into strict size guidelines. Wildwater Solo Kayaks (K-1) are 14 ft 9 in (4.5 m) long and 23.6 in (60 cm) wide. The use of kevlar, carbon fiber, and glass-reinforced plastic construction has substantially reduced the weight of Wildwater Kayaks while improving stiffness.

“I have never seen a river that I could not love. Moving water… has a fascinating vitality. It has power and grace and associations. It has a thousand colors and a thousand shapes, yet it follows laws so definite that the tiniest streamlet is an exact replica of a great river.” – Roderick Haig-Brown

Kayak Slalom

Kayak SlalomKayak Slalom, previously known as Whitewater Slalom, is a competitive sport with the aim to navigate a kayak through a course of hanging downstream or upstream gates on river rapids in the fastest time possible while using a double-bladed paddle in a seated position. At an international level, male (M) and female (W) athletes currently compete in the individual event, Single Kayak (MK1 & WK1). Kayak Slalom is one of the two kayak disciplines at the Summer Olympics and is referred to by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) as Canoe/Kayak Slalom.

In Kayak Slalom, each gate consists of two poles hanging from a wire strung across the river. There are 18-25 numbered gates in a course, of which 6 or 8 must be upstream gates, and they are colored as either green (downstream) or red (upstream), indicating the direction they must be negotiated. Upstream gates are always placed in eddies, where the water is flat or moving slightly upstream; the kayaker enters an eddy from the main current and paddles upstream through the gate. Downstream gates may also be placed in eddies, to increase the difficulty, and down stream gates in the current can be offset to alternating sides of the current, requiring rapid turns in fast-moving water. If the kayaker’s boat, paddle, or body touches either pole of the gate, a time penalty of two seconds is added. However, if the competitor misses a gate completely, deliberately pushes the gate to pass through, goes through the gate in the wrong direction or upside-down, or goes through it in the wrong order, a 50-second penalty is given. Only one penalty can be incurred on each gate, and the highest one will be taken.

There are rules governing almost every aspect of Kayak Slalom equipment used in a major competition, including sponsor advertisement. Some of these rules vary from country to country; each national kayak governing body publishes its own variation of the rules. Needless to say, Kayak Slalom is taken very seriously all around the world.

Extreme Racing

Extreme RacingExtreme Racing, sometimes called Extreme Kayaking, involves paddling a kayak down a section of hard whitewater. The race is similar to a timed version of Creek Boating. The rivers used for this sport are typically class V, containing waterfalls and dangerous rapids. Furthermore, the rules for these competitions are very broad. For example, races may have mass-starts or individual timed runs, having two boat categories is also becoming popular among extreme racers, and many races have different classes including short boat, longboat, and hand paddle.

By comparison, Whitewater Kayaking involves racing specialized kayaks down grade II to grade IV rivers. Traditional Whitewater Kayaking boats would be unsuitable for rivers used in Extreme Racing because they are typically made from lightweight carbon fiber and thus are beyond the ability of the majority of Whitewater Kayakers. Many Whitewater Kayak manufacturers are now introducing specialized Extreme Racing kayaks. These kayaks feature the same durable plastic as many Whitewater Kayaks, while incorporating faster hull shapes.

Extreme Races may be included with Whitewater Kayaking events.  However, many Extreme Races are being held as stand-alone events. For example, the Ulla Extreme Race is part of the Sjoa Kayak Festival in Norway. Furthermore, Extreme Races are held on many rivers worldwide, such as the River Nevis in Scotland, the River Ulla in Norway, Russell Fork River, Little White Salmon River, and North Fork Payette River in the United States, as well the Lea River in Australia, among others.

“You must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your element in each moment.” – Henry David Thoreau

Surf Kayaking

Surf KayakingSurf Kayaking has many similarities to Surfing, but using a boat and paddle designed to catch the waves. Various Surf Kayak designs are used, but all are aimed at better using the waves to propel the craft. The three most common types of Surf Kayaks that you will come across are High-Performance Surf Kayaks (HP Kayaks), International Class Surf Kayaks (IC Kayaks), and Wave Skis (or Waveskis). Depending on the type of Surf Kayaking you plan on doing and possibly where you plan on doing it will determine the type of Surf Kayak that you choose.

While Surf Kayaking has been around nearly as long as there have been kayaks, it becoming recognized as a competitive sport with specialized kayaks started around the mid-70s. The surf shoe was the first Surf Kayak used for surfing ocean waves, but design and materials have evolved significantly since then. Within the last 10-15 years, Surf Kayaking has grown in popularity in both Europe and the United States, to the point that there are annual competitions every year in these parts of the world. The most prominent Surf Kayak competition is the Santa Cruz Surf Kayak Festival. The World Surf Kayak Championships are held in different locations each year around the world.

As one might expect, Surf Kayaking is most popular in areas frequented by Surfers. The sport has seen significant growth in popularity in recent decades, due in part to the rise of Ocean Kayaking, modern materials, and techniques. So, whether you are just looking for something new to try while you are on vacation or thinking about entering your first competition, be bold. Getting a little saltwater sprayed in your face never hurt anyone.

Kayak Diving

Kayak DivingKayak Diving is a form of recreational diving where a diver paddles to a diving site in a kayak carrying all of the necessary gear in or on the boat to the place they plan to dive. This allows divers to traverse greater distances at considerably faster speeds, and reach sites that are too far to swim comfortably. Ocean Kayaks can hold a substantial amount of weight, and they have plenty of room for gear. All of this lends to giving divers more freedom to explore and dive as they are less reliant on dive boat operators and the locations those larger boats can reach.

Typically, the kayak is launched from a beach or jetty as close as possible to the intended scuba diving location. The scuba equipment is usually assembled and ready for diving before it is loaded. The divers can then carefully board the kayak, and paddle to the dive site. Most Kayak Diving is done close to shore in places that would be easy to shore-dive if there were reasonable shore access.

In most places where Kayak Diving is allowed, there is an important legal requirement to fly a “diver down flag” while diving, to indicate that the kayak has not been abandoned and that there are divers underwater. Also by law, it is the Coastguard’s duty to investigate reports of empty boats, and they may order a search of the area by an RNLI lifeboat or Coastguard helicopter if felt to be needed. This is why, under the best circumstances, a capable person should be left on the surface of the dive site, while divers are underwater. This person on the surface is the first line of defense to start a rescue and operate a marine VHF radio to raise the alarm in the event of a Kayak Diving accident whenever there is no easily accessible shore exit.

Kayaks normally used for Kayak Diving come in a range of shapes and styles; single-seaters and tandems. The conditions that you plan to be paddling in and the amount of gear that you need to transport should also be considered when choosing your kayak. For example, long, narrow boats track better, are faster and less effort to paddle, but can be clumsy in surf. However, shorter, wider boats are more stable, maneuverable, and can be easier to manage in the surf, but usually carry less weight. With all that being said, sit-on-top kayaks are usually chosen for diving, and furthermore, many fishing kayaks are available that have the stability and buoyancy to act as Diving Kayaks.

“A river is more than an amenity, it is a treasure” – Oliver Wendell Holmes

Snow Kayaking

Snow KayakingSnow Kayaking, sometimes referred to as Snow Boating, is somewhat of a newcomer in the winter sports landscape that typically involves kayakers descending snow slopes using kayaks originally designed for various forms of Whitewater Kayaking. Snow Kayaking is often done in the backcountry, but occasionally it can be found at resorts and ski areas as well. Snow Kayakers typically choose either Playboats or Creek Boats depending on the style of kayaking to be done. Lastly as one might expect, personal flotation devices (PFDs) are not necessary, but helmets and paddles are normally worn.

As previously mentioned, athletes tend to prefer Creek Boats or Playboats when Snow Kayaking, and choose one over the other depending on the type of slope. To elaborate further on this, most Creek Boats have ample rocker which allows for quick turns and dull ends to prevent vertical pins. Additionally, they have slight edges along the bottom called “chines” to give good carving control on turns. Whereas most Playboats have a planing hull that is very flat and allows the boat to plane on snow when it reaches a certain speed and the chines creating carving control as well as drag for slowing down when necessary. Fun fact, kayakers use wax or Rain-X on the bottom of their boat allowing them to maximize their speed.

As far as Snow Kayaking being a professional sport, it is still very young. The first official race was held in Lienz, Austria by a local group of kayakers in 2002. Since then, the sport has gained popularity around the world, and thus competitions like the one in Austria continue to take place. Races are customarily conducted in a form similar to other winter direct racing sports where four racers compete in each round and the two winners in each round move on to the next round. Many slopes include a series of obstacles such as the Monarch Mountain’s 20-foot banked turns, leading into a 50-foot-long halfpipe, and ending in a pool of icy snowmelt pumped in from a nearby creek.

Unfortunately, Snow Kayaking is considered an extreme sport, so most Ski Resorts do not allow it, and why backcountry is the main training ground, with the exception of a few ski resorts and ski areas. Ultimately, athletes should choose a kayak that they feel most comfortable with, along with a two-bladed paddle to help them control their balance, turns, curves, and swerves. Also, if you ever decide you want to give this sport a go, try to make sure you remember all of the recommended safety equipment.


At this point, we can safely say that kayaks come in a lot of shapes and sizes. Equally as safe to say is that kayaking is done in a lot of places and ways that were never considered the first time a tree was hollowed out launched into a river. So, whether you are looking for something fun to try on vacation, looking for a new hobby, wanting to exercise your competitive spirit, or even have Olympic aspirations, there is a form of kayaking that is right for you. Regardless if you are considering trying kayaking for the first time or you are a seasoned veteran or anywhere in between, find a river, lake, or ocean near you and get a paddle in the water; get in touch with nature; get some exercise; take some time to take a break from everyday life.