So what type of boat should you get? Now that you understand the characteristics, you will need to ask yourself some questions. What type of rivers will you be paddling? Will they be big, brawling rivers, small Class I, II, and III rivers, or creeks? What type of paddling do you intend to do -downriver, creek boating, or playboating? How aggressive a paddler are you? How often will you be paddling - five times a week or five times a year? Choose a boat that is designed for the type of paddling you intend to do.
Downriver boats are fairly long, about 8.5 to 10 feet. They are good for beginners because they track well and are generally stable. They do well on big rivers and on rivers with holes that you would rather punch through than end up in.
Playboats are shorter, around 8.5 to 9.5 feet long. The design is flatter overall and more narrow at the ends. This makes carving (cutting back and forth) easier. Playboats are great because they run rivers well and also are good at maneuvering and playing.
Creek boats are usually about the same length as playboats, about 8 to 9 feet, but have extra volume. The bow and stern are rounded and have lots of volume to keep the boat from pinning between rocks in steep drops. The rocker is more extreme than you'll find in a typical playboat, enabling the creek boat to turn very quickly. This characteristic does, however, make a creek boat more tippy. Beginners usually do well in creek boats because the length makes the boat track well and the rocker makes the boat turn quickly. But it may take a few runs to get used to the tipsiness.
Rodeo boats are a shortened, lower-volume version of the playboat, usually about 7 to 8 feet long. Generally, rodeo boats have a low-volume bow and stem, but partly compensate for this loss of volume by adding some volume around the cockpit. This makes rodeo moves easier by letting the ends slice through the water easily, while still keeping the paddler above water. Rodeo boats are designed to stay in holes and to get vertical. Most rodeo boats now have flat bottoms that give lift to the boat on waves and in holes, allowing the boater to spin in place while on a wave. Rodeo boats are not the best choice for downriver paddling; they tend to dive bow-first when paddling forward, they're relatively slow, and they can be difficult to get out of holes. Squirt boats are more extreme versions of rodeo boats. They're typically made of carbon fiber or fiberglass, and are designed to have the lowest volume possible. They are actually made to stay underwater during play moves. Squirt boats are even less well suited to learning general whitewater skills than rodeo boats are.
If you've decided that you will mostly be paddling downriver and don't want to "play" in the river, or if you don't intend to paddle often, a long boat with a rounded bull offers the best stability and tracking. If you want to learn some of the play moves, such as surfing and "getting enders," but still want a good downriver boat, a playboat makes a good choice. It will surf but is still long enough to handle downriver paddling well. If you just want to learn the rodeo moves and don't want to do much downriver paddling, or if you already have a larger boat for bigger water, a small rodeo boat may be for you. Rodeo boats are not recommended for beginners, however, because they aren't very good at basic downriver moves. You won't get opportunity to learn many of the basic skills of whitewater kayaking.
Each characteristic of a boat sacrifices another. There is no perfect, "do everything" boat. Look at the type of paddling that you plan to do and get an idea of the characteristics of the boat that will best suit your needs. Then talk to other boaters and to kayak dealers to help you decide on the best boat for your needs. Many outfitters will let you demo a boat to help you decide which characteristics work best for you. It's always a good idea to test-drive different boats before you purchase one.
Finally, select a kayak constructed of tough, durable materials. Not too many years ago, most whitewater kayaks were made of fiberglass and resin composites. Today, all of the well-known kayak builders use strong plastics for their whitewater kayaks, except for their racing boats. While plastic boats are not necessarily indestructible, plastic requires little maintenance and generally stands up well to the abuse paddlers give their boats in rapids.
Excerpted from Basic Essentials™ Whitewater Kayaking by Bill and Donna Jackson Kallner with permission from Falcon Publishing.