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Whitewater Rafting vs. Whitewater Kayaking - Which One Should You Choose?

by Tyler Manner

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Nothing beats that feeling of heading out into the great outdoors. When you have some friends or family with you and add some action-packed activities to the mix, it gets even better!

The outdoors can reveal a different side of your personality – the side that rarely makes itself present at your desk job or in your day-to-day life. While a lot of us think that this positivity is just placebo, science actually says otherwise. It is proven that outdoor activities have numerous benefits, including a healthier body and mind, better social skills, and an overall feeling of wellbeing.

In this article, we are going to look at two popular outdoor whitewater sports – rafting and kayaking. We’ll lay down the basic differences so that you can pick which one you’d like to try.

 

Rafting and kayaking at a glance

whitewater-kayaking

Whitewater rafting is considered an extreme sport with good reason, as it’s not without danger. The lower classes of rapids are easier to handle, and most beginners opt for class 1 and 2 rapids. It becomes more difficult from class 3, and you should never attempt such rapids if you’re doing this for the first time.

The biggest difference between whitewater rafting and kayaking is that the former is only practiced on rapids. Unless you’re really experienced (and even then), we recommend that you always have an experienced guide with you who knows the route you’re taking. If you’d like to go rafting but do not have any experience, get in touch with a professional whitewater rafting outfitter.

When it comes to kayaking, there are different approaches to the activity. A lot of people kayak on serene lakes and seas where there isn’t much turbulence. This is relaxing and anyone with minimal training can do it. But in this article, we’ll be focusing on whitewater kayaking only, an activity that is more susceptible to spills and injuries.

Whitewater kayaking means paddling along river rapids (fast-flowing and turbulent sections of rivers). You need to know what to do if your kayak tips over. The best way to right a capsized kayak is by doing an Eskimo roll, a technique that we’ll explain further down in the article.  

 

What are the main differences between whitewater rafting and whitewater kayaking?

While both essentially imply heading downstream onboard a watercraft, there are some fundamental differences between the two. Let’s have a closer look at them, so that you can decide which one is for you.

 

The experience – rafting vs. kayaking

Rafting

whitewater-rafting

Since inflatable rafts have a larger area, rafting is a slower experience compared to kayaking. It is a group activity, and you need to work in unison to keep it moving smoothly and safely. Every raft has an experienced leader (or a guide) to help coordinate and offer important cues and commands.

Whitewater rafting, compared to kayaking, offers a bit more leeway for errors and, since there is usually a guide as well, offers a more forgiving experience. When it comes to lower classes of rapids, people who are new can pick it up easier than kayaking. Therefore, whitewater rafting on the lower classes of rapids is more suitable for beginners.

 

Kayaking

whitewater-kayaking

Whitewater kayaking is generally a faster and more personal and extreme experience. While there are two-person kayaks available, the traditional one-person kayak is usually used for whitewater kayaking.

River kayaking is quite a rush – powerful rapids, sometimes even waterfall drops, add significantly to the experience. Also, kayaking isn’t recommended for people who haven’t attended at least a starter kayaking session.

 

The hardware – rafting vs. kayaking

Whitewater Rafting

rafting-equipment

The inflatable boats used for rafting are durable and made to withstand the rigors of the whitewater. They are either made out of multilayered synthetic rubber or vinyl fabric, and measure anywhere between 11 to 20 ft in length and up to 8 ft in width.

The raft has several chambers, meaning that even if one is punctured, the other inflated sections can still hold air and keep the group afloat. There are inflatable tubes called thwarts, which run across the bottom of the boat. That is where the paddlers are seated.

In rough water, paddlers in the back jam their feet under the thwarts in front of them to stay on the boat. The paddlers in the front have foot loops that are fixed to the floor of the raft, which they use for the same purpose.

The different parts of a whitewater raft:

  • Stern mount: metal seat or frame for the main oarsman
  • Foot cup: straps of cups where the riders can secure their feet for safety
  • Thwarts: air-filled cross tubes which stabilize the raft
  • Paddles: the oars of the raft, which require the correct technique to get the most out of them
  • Grab rope: a strong rope that is attached to the outside of the raft through D-rings, used for holding onto for balance

 

Whitewater kayaking

whitewater-kayak

Kayaks are completely different when compared to rafts. They are made of a hard plastic shell, with a one-person cockpit. This shell can be made from:

  • Polyethylene plastic – the cheaper and more common option
  • ABS (Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene)  – a bit more expensive and more durable
  • Composite – expensive and lightweight but can be a problem in rocky rapids

The paddler sits inside the kayak usually on a seat with a short backrest, with their legs stretched upfront. They sit much lower and a lot closer to the water than rafters. Unlike the single-sided oar, kayaking requires a double-sided paddle which helps the paddler control the kayak better.

An important accessory to add when kayaking on whitewater is a sprayskirt, which is designed to keep the water out of your kayak. The sprayskirt is usually made of neoprene and fastened to the kayak with the help of an elastic string called a rand. Putting a sprayskirt on your kayak is frustrating when you’re starting out, but it does get easier. Here’s a how-to video that can help you with the process.

The different parts of a whitewater kayak:

  • Deck: the topside
  • Hull: the piece found at the bottom
  • Keel: the bow-to-stern ridge on your hull
  • Bulkhead: prevents the swamping of the cargo space inside
  • Cockpit: where the paddler sits
  • Seat: the seat placed inside the cockpit
  • Deck line: either a bungee, stretchy cord or a non-stretchy one
  • Foot braces: for better grip, and some kayaks allow rudder control with these as well
  • Carry handles: useful for getting a good grip
  • Sprayskirt: prevents water from entering the kayak
  • Thigh braces: pads on your thighs for added protection

 

So, which one should you choose?

Both of these whitewater sports are enjoyable, but they cater to different crowds. Bear in mind that they are not mutually exclusive – people who enjoy whitewater rafting do enjoy whitewater kayaking and vice versa. However, there are a few things you should take note of when deciding which one is more suitable for you.

 

Do you want to go on a group adventure or a solo adventure?

The starkly different build of a raft and a kayak is what decides the capacity it can handle. While rafts are perfect for group adventures, kayaks are more suitable for the solo adventurer. Sure, you can go kayaking in a group as well, but you’ll be alone in the kayak.

Commercial rafting involves an experienced guide who directs and maneuvers the raft through the rapids while the raft passengers paddle in unison to keep the momentum of the raft going. Whether you're with family or a group of friends, whitewater rafting is more of a group effort, combined with a thirst for adventure.

In the same perspective, we can understand how kayaking is more of a solo ride. Kayakers require a lot of knowledge and need to be well-versed with paddling in whitewater in order to take up the sport. The propagation and the direction of the kayak depend solely on the paddler.

 

Where will you paddle?

river-kayak

Whitewater rafting

Rafting is always performed on rapids with varying levels of turbulence. There are different types of rafts that are used for this purpose:

  • Paddle rafts – where the people aboard have single-sided paddles and the guide steers from the rear
  • Oar type rafts – where the guide alone has two oars used to control the entire raft
  • Motorized rafts – a more hands-off experience than the other two

 

Whitewater kayaking

Kayaking is usually done on varying types of water bodies, from lakes and seas to rapids. Needless to say, whitewater kayaking (over rapids) requires a bit more expertise than calmer waters. Also, the type of kayak you should choose depends on the water body you are going to use it on.

 

Which one is safer, whitewater rafting or whitewater kayaking?

Whitewater rafting

river-rafting

Rafting is the safer of the two, as you have other people in your immediate vicinity to help you out in case you mess up. You do need to spend time preparing, though.

Your personal flotation device (PFD) is the most important piece of equipment, so make sure it is tightly fastened and secured. Your guide can help you with this. Also, never ever go rafting without your helmet on!

While you don’t need to know how to swim (your PFD will keep your head above the water), you need to be comfortable in the water. Plus, it’s very important that you disclose this to your guide beforehand.

If you happen to fall overboard, the key is not to panic and flail about when more experienced people are trying to get you back in. Also, the first thing you should try grabbing is the safety line from the raft. 

 

Whitewater kayaking

river-kayaking

Whitewater kayaking is a fast-paced adventure sport. And yes, it is classified as an “extreme sport”, which means safety is a primary concern even in lower tier rapids. Generally, people spend a lot of time whitewater rafting before moving on to kayaking.

Kayaking puts you in a position where you’re some distance away from help if required. Regardless of your experience level, you should never kayak alone on rapids, no matter the class. You need your wits about you when you’re kayaking. While you might not capsize a kayak on your first few outings on calm and flat water, you need to prepare for such situations by performing capsize drills. These will help you learn how to upright your kayak all by yourself.

capsize-kayak

As you can imagine, righting a capsized kayak is an invaluable skill to have when the going gets tough. The easiest way to do this is through with a technique called the Eskimo roll.

The key here is anticipation – just before your kayak is about to roll over, you need to get your paddle parallel to the boat, wrists rolling forward. Once underwater, turn the paddle, reach out with it and grab the water surface while at the same time rocking your hips in the same direction to push yourself upright. Here’s a better explanation of how to do an Eskimo roll in a kayak.

 

In conclusion

Rafting and kayaking are exciting whitewater sports in their own right and cater to different people. If you are a solo adventurer or on vacation with a few experienced buddies, kayaking seems a much better proposition with its included thrills and spills. Kayaking is also a bit more physically demanding than rafting, which is a good thing if you want to get a solid workout.

With a larger group of beginners, whitewater rafting is much more of a fun endeavor. While experienced whitewater paddlers do want to test their skills with kayaking, getting together with a group of friends from all skill levels for a rafting session can be a lot of fun.

Regardless of what you choose, remember to never skimp on your protective gear. Also, listen to your guides – they are experienced people, and it is in their interests to make sure that you have a safe and enjoyable adventure!
 


Ready for a new adventure? Make the most of your outdoor holiday by combining wave surfing with kayaking on a surf & kayak camp!

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