Kayak Classifications: Whitewater, Recreational, Day Touring

You can do anything with a kayak that you could in most any other boat, as far as sporting purposes are concerned. Whatever you want to do, there is a kayak that can handle that particular purpose, whether it is diving, harvesting wild rice, hunting beavers, nutria or waterfowl, touring up a long river to the sea, fly fishing for a few trout on a beautiful, but small stream, or attacking rapids so fast that all you can hear is “Dueling Banjos” in your head. Kayaks are classified into different groups according to their estimated suitability for certain activities.

Strangely enough, there is no set classification standards for kayaks. It may be because many of the criteria for specific purposes overlap greatly, and yaks are so versatile that a single kayak can be suitable for many different purposes. Each manufacturer has their own method for classifications, and an almost identical boat can have different classifications from different manufacturers. One may classify their boat as a Recreational boat, while another may classify a clone of the same boat as a Day Touring boat. 7 Factors that are considered for classification are:

  1. Displacement
  2. Length
  3. Rocker
  4. Beam Profile
  5. Types of Stability
  6. Hull Surface Profile
  7. Materials and Construction

Manufacturers may define these factors differently, and may use different methods for determining these attributes. There are no established standards for rating these factors.

Here are the basic classifications used by most manufacturers:


These are short, extremely rugged and stiff so it won’t bend on rocks and crush you in the cockpit. . Also called “Playboats”. They paddle horribly, will hardly ever paddle straight, not fast at all, but extremely maneuverable…and expensive.  They are totally unsuitable as a first kayak.


Somewhat short, usually in the 8-10 foot range, but still long enough to paddle well, and reasonably fast. They are wider than a true touring yak, but this makes them very stable and less likely to roll with a beginner in the cockpit. Most models are OK in anything up to Class III rapids, which aren’t too bad. A beginner should not be tackling anything faster anyway. They have good dry storage, and most have tie-downs on deck for more accessible items. They can come with, or be fitted with fishing rod holders, battery-powered running lights for night paddling, sails, and lots of other accessories. They are OK for coastal paddling as long as you stay in close, avoid heavy seas and rip tides, and anything larger than the boat that has teeth or a bad attitude. Recreational boats are a great choice to get started with.

Day Touring

A bigger version of recreational boats, usually 13- 15 ft long, but a little wider than a true touring kayak.. They have more storage, paddle a little easier and faster, are more stable, and are more comfortable for longer trips. They are still small enough to be able to negotiate smaller rivers with up to Class III rapids, but large enough to throw on a tent, backpack, and explore the islands and inlets. They handle well, are reasonably fast, and a pleasure on the water. Great for fishing and hunting, and can be retor-fitted with a sail, lights, etc… Another good choice for a beginner.


Long, sleek and beautiful, these are the queens of the water. Touring yaks are designed for just two things: speed and distance. They are usually equipped with rudders or skegs to counteract the forces of wind and waves on a long paddle. They have ample dry storage and are much longer than any other type of yak, anywhere from 12 to 24 feet long and are only from 18-32 inches wide. They fly through the water at the slightest paddle stroke, but do not turn very tightly, so They are not very good in smaller rivers. Their narrow beam also makes them more unstable and not suitable for rapids.  The narrow beam also makes them not so good for fishing. If you are just planning on paddling for exercise on large bodies of water, then a Touring yak might be your cup of tea….. But since long distance touring requires great boat handling skills, and more importantly, navigation skills, they may be better suited to more experienced paddlers. You can always upgrade from a beginner boat later, and most paddlers have several yaks, anyway.

None of these classifications are written in stone, and a kayak can be suitable for several classifications. The main one I would worry about is Whitewater. I would strongly suggest never tackling any rapids faster than Class II in any yak not specifically rated for Class IV and above. This can be life-threatening. Other than that, you can go touring in a Recreational boat anytime. It just may not be as comfortable. And I have seen few kayaks you couldn’t fish from.

Happy paddling….

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