What’s the Difference Between a Sea Kayak and a River Kayak?

Whether you’re new to kayaking or are already an experienced paddler in either fresh or saltwater, you may be wondering if there’s any difference between sea and river kayaks.

Kayaks all look pretty much the same, so are these two kayaks different in any way? Can you use a sea kayak in a river and vice versa?

These are common questions, and good ones at that. Sea kayaks and regular kayaks look very similar. However, they do have subtle differences that make them suited to their environments.

In this article, we’ll be looking at what defines a sea kayak, what defines a river kayak, and whether or not you can use these vessels in either environment. By the end of this read, you’ll know exactly why these kayaks are designed the way they are and whether or not you need to buy a different type of kayak if you want to start exploring new waters… 

What Defines a Kayak?

Before we look at the differences between a sea kayak and river kayak let’s first take a look at what defines a “kayak”. 

A kayak is a small self-propelled vessel that’s often controlled using a dual-bladed paddle. Most kayaks have a pointed bow and stern (the front and rear of the kayak) and accommodate one to two people.

There are several different types of kayaks but they all serve more or less the same purpose — to provide a means to navigate waterways in a silent and unobtrusive manner. 

You’ll find kayaks designed for recreational paddling, whitewater, fishing, touring, river navigation, and saltwater. They’re all based around similar designs but their subtle differences make them more suited to their intended environments.

Although there are several different types of kayaks that are manufactured with different forms of the hobby in mind, you can filter them into two main categories: open-top & sit-in kayaks.

With an open-top kayak, you are seated on top of the vessel with your legs exposed to the elements. They sit higher in the water and the bulk of your weight will be above the surface.

Sit-in kayaks have a covered hull and a cockpit that you sit in with your legs extended inside the kayak’s shell. You sit lower in the water and the majority of your weight is below water level.

So now you know what defines a kayak and what the two main differences in vessels are, let’s take a look at how sea kayaks and river kayaks differ:

What is a Sea Kayak?

To state the obvious, a sea kayak is designed for navigation in saltwater. This doesn’t mean that they’re made for navigating the open ocean off-shore, but rather the coastlines around the country you’re paddling in.

Sea kayaking requires a higher fitness level because you’re battling against currents and wind in open water. This means you’ll be paddling a lot more. To make the harsh paddling conditions a bit more bearable, sea kayaks are designed so they’re long and narrow with a pointed bow and stern.

The design of the sea kayak makes paddling more efficient in open water. They are considerably longer than the typical kayak you’d use in a river — coming in at 12 to 14 feet.

What is a River Kayak?

There’s not necessarily a single kayak design that’s made for navigating rivers. So, technically, there’s no such thing as a “river kayak”. However, there are a few kayaks that are designed for navigation in freshwater that are suitable for use on rivers.

Recreational kayaks are suitable for freshwater environments that are non-extreme. These vessels can be used to navigate stillwaters and slow-flowing rivers. They can cope with moderate rapid stretches of water but are not designed to be used in whitewater or fast-flowing rivers. 

Whitewater kayaks are designed for navigating stretches of river that are faster-flowing. They are designed to be able to handle fast-moving whitewater. Whitewater kayaks are shorter in length and have a more rounded bow and stern. This makes navigating rough waters more stable and safer. 

Can You Use a Sea Kayak in a River?

No, you can’t use a sea kayak in a river. 

Sea/ocean kayaks are far narrower and much longer than kayaks designed for freshwater. If you use a sea kayak in a river you’ll find it relatively unstable and extremely hard to control. 

Sea kayaks are designed in a way that makes them easy to paddle with little effort. This is okay in the open ocean but you’ll struggle with it in a flowing river, no matter how wide it may be. 

You need a lot of space to manoeuvre a sea kayak and even in the sea it takes a lot of effort to turn the kayak o180 degrees. Because of this reason, they really aren't suited to river kayaking. If you use a sea kayak in the river you’ll be putting yourself and other water goers at risk.

So, can you use a river kayak in the sea?

Can You Use a River Kayak in the Sea?

This is where things differ. Technically, you can use a freshwater kayak in the sea. However, the conditions must be calm. Freshwater kayaks are usually stable enough to deal with coastal conditions but due to their wider hull and shorter length, you’ll be putting in a lot more effort to get from A to B.

It’s important that you never use a kayak intended for freshwater in the ocean if the conditions are rough. If it’s calm, you’ll be fine navigating the coastlines but always go out in pairs or groups and never go out without a buoyancy aid. 

Which Type of Kayak is Best For You?

You may be wondering whether a freshwater kayak or a saltwater kayak is best for you. 

You first need to figure out what kind of environments you're m going to be using the kayak in. If you're strictly going to paddle along the coastline, then a sea kayak is a no-brainer. You'll have a far better experience with a vessel created for saltwater if you plan on paddling around our coastlines. Although you won't be able to use this type of kayak on a river, you will be able to use it in large bodies of freshwater.

If you're more interested in kayaking inland on freshwater lakes and rivers, you'll be better off with a recreational freshwater kayak of some kind. Even if you'd like to take to the sea every now and then, you'll be able to use a recreational kayak provided the conditions are calm. 

Unfortunately, there's no one kayak that will perform brilliantly in both salt and freshwater environments. You need to weigh up what you enjoy more, what environment is more accessible to you, and how easy it is to go out paddling regularly in that environment. 

The bottom line is, if you want to paddle more in the ocean, opt for a sea kayak. You'll be restricted to the ocean and large bodies of water, but you'll get the best performance. If you want to kayak in freshwater environments mainly, a recreational kayak will suit you best. You'll be able to use this type of kayak occasionally in the sea too. 

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