Introduction to kayaks and kayaking

by Scott Sady

Welcome to the inaugural post of The Reno Flow, the blog about all things kayak related in the Reno/Tahoe/Northern California area, fueled by Reno Mountain Sports. We are aiming the content of this space to appeal not just to those who already love kayaking, but to those of you who think you might like to get your toes wet, so to speak. In the spirit of that mission, our first post is going to answer that nagging question: “What are all those funny looking boats for and what do they do?”

There are many different types of kayaks for different uses and different skill levels, but they basically will fit in one of 4 categories.  Playboats are those really small flat boats you see down at the whitewater park flipping and flopping around. Creekboats generally look like giant cigars and are used for running harder, steeper rivers. Touring kayaks, think Eskimos, are really long and used for ocean or lake travel and multi-day excursions. Recreational or sit-on-top kayaks are the most common and are seen all around lake tahoe and mild beaches and rivers.

Now for some detail and some information to help you think about what boat is right for you.


Champion kayaker and most of the time Reno Resident Stephen Wright showing what a playboat is built for

Champion kayaker and most of the time Reno Resident Stephen Wright showing what a playboat is built for.

Playboats are what the whitewater park in downtown Reno was designed for. They are small, about 5-6 feet, have a flat bottom and very sharp edges around the sides for slicing through water and are made to get airborne and spin on a dime. These boats come in two categories, river running playboats, which have a longer tail, and high performance playboats like the one in the picture. The river running playboats such as the Jackson fun series make a great first boat for beginners to learn in. They are remarkably versatile and play well in whitewater parks and other river features such as holes and waves, and are competent river runners up to class IV rapids. You could spend a good 3 years in a river running playboat, (I learned to run rivers and do my first loops in a red 4Fun,) before even thinking about stepping up to a creeker. The more high performance versions such as the Jackson Allstar, shown above, will still run rivers well, they are just built more to catch the water so that you can do tricks. What that means to the average person, is that they flip over real easy. Both of these boats require learning how to roll before taking them out on a river. Learning your roll can take from a few hours to a few weeks depending upon your teacher and your body awareness. It is not hard, you just have to put about 3 totally dissimilar body movements together at the same time and then up you come.


A Jackson Rocker going off Pit Falls in Northern California

A Jackson Rocker going off Pit Falls in Northern California

Creekboats are the do-it-all tool of river running. They are larger, in the neighborhood of 8 feet, and have much more volume. Their cigar like shape helps them punch through sticky holes and their high volume makes them nearly un-sinkable as long as you stay in your boat. These boats are designed to run steeper, harder water and a well designed creek boat makes you feel comfortable even in some scary water, and makes running your regular rivers downright easy.  As with playboats, there are two sub-categories of creekboats. Displacement hulled boats are rounded on the bottom and are a favorite of big-steep creek runners and waterfall junkies. The rounded hull is less affected by cross currents, and provides more of a cushion for big drops. It is also a little harder to keep on a straight line. Planing hulls are like displacement hulls in every sense except that right under the seat, the hull is flat, like a playboat. These boats are great transition boats for people that learned in playboats and are very competent in their own right. Most of Team Jackson’s hard core creeking is done currently with their planing hulled boat, the Hero. That said, Jackson’s newest creekboat, the Villain, is a hybrid between a rounded displacement hull and a planing hull and is getting rave reviews. These boats should be in soon at Reno Mountain Sports if you feel like taking one out for a day to demo on your favorite creek or river.


Multi day kayak touring at Mono Lake.

Multi day kayak touring at Mono Lake.

Want to get away from it all? Maybe spend a few days fishing and camping on the far side of your favorite lake where nobody can reach you except by water? How about seeing the coast from the point of view of a whale, or paddling in Monterey Bay and getting up close and personal with seals and sea-otters? Touring kayaks are for you then. These boats are long 14-17 feet, and have enclosed cockpits for rough water and waves. You do not need to know how to roll these boats, but it is by far the preferred method of getting back in if rough surf flips you over. That said, my wife has been boat-camping with me for years and never learned nor needed to roll her boat. These boats can hold enough gear for several nights out or even weeks if you pack well. They will allow you to see things you never thought of before and are a great source of exercise. Because of their size and shape, they are fast, paddling 3-4 mph for extended periods is not hard, and generally pretty stable. They come with or without a rudder. I would recommend getting a boat with a rudder, then never using it unless the weather turns really nasty, in which case you will be so glad you have it to steer with that you will probably kiss it when you get back to shore. These boats don’t go down whitewater rivers well due to their length, but would handle the Mississippi just fine.


I have no photo for these boats yet, even though they are the most common boats you see. They are basically Touring Kayaks, though maybe a little shorter in the 10-15 foot range, wider and open on top. You just sit right on top. Because these boats are so wide and flat, they rarely tip over, but when they do, they are not easy to flip back up rightside in the middle of the lake. They are comfortable, but slow and sluggish and are great for short distances from shore, or for fishing and floating but not much else.

All of these different styles of boats can be seen at your local sports shop. In Reno, its Reno Mountain Sports, and they can often be taken or rented by the day for you to test out.

A great introductory video to choosing and using a whitewater kayak called Whitewater Kayaking for Rookies can be found on the World Kayak homepage.

Hopefully this takes some of the mystery away from choosing a boat. Next week, we will talk about why kayaking, even whitewater kayaking and playboating, is the perfect, low impact activity for older folks to get into.

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