So, you’re thinking about taking up kayaking as a hobby? It’s a great pastime and a fantastic way to get onto the water for some excitement in the fresh air. Kayaking is a challenging sport.
It ranges in its demands and intensity on participants. You could enjoy the relaxed nature of a tour across the lake, fighting the rapids or launching the boat through the surf on the ocean’s shoreline.
Sea vs. river kayaking – it’s a long-standing debate which one is the more exciting and worthwhile experience. This post unpacks the differences between the kayaking disciplines to help you decide on the right sport for you.
- Ocean vs River Kayaking – What Are The Differences?
- Ocean vs River Kayaking – The Water and Understanding Conditions
- Ocean vs River Kayaking – The Learning Curve
- Kayaking Isn’t Rocket Science
- Safety Concerns for Ocean vs River Kayaking
- Ocean vs River Kayaking – Wrapping Up
- Ocean vs River Kayaking FAQs
Ocean vs River Kayaking – What Are The Differences?
You’re probably wondering why there’s any difference between the disciplines and why you can just use your kayak for both the river and ocean?
The reality is kayaking on rivers is very different from the ocean, and you need to have the right equipment for each situation.
Ocean vs River Kayaking – The Water and Understanding Conditions
The primary difference between ocean and river kayaking is the water and the weather. These two factors play a huge role in the experience. They are the most crucial elements of the sport that professionals focus on when they hit the water.
Flat Water Kayaking
Flatwater kayaking on wide, calm, gently flowing rivers is fun. It’s a great way to practice your fitness. There are several racing organizations with dedicated competitive crews across the United States.
Flatwater kayaking also offers you the chance to tour some of America’s most historical, beautiful, and significant waterways.
River Rapid Kayaking
River rapid kayaking is an adrenaline-fueled extreme sport varying in intensity. Take a fun team-building trip down a Class II rapid, or ramp off a waterfall drop at the end of a Class IV rapid. This sport offers adrenaline for any athlete at any level of the sport.
You’ll need to learn how to read rapids and what to look for. Like the ocean, rapids are a dynamic environment. You need to understand how the movement of the water impacts how you handle the kayak.
Kayaking out on the ocean requires understanding how the weather influences ocean conditions. It’s common for thunderstorms to pop out of nowhere and change the conditions in a matter of an hour.
So, understanding how to read forecasting software and the water is essential to staying safe when you’re out on the open ocean. Learning to handle the waves and the currents takes years of experience.
Each Give You a Different Experience – Adrenaline Vs. Endurance
Each discipline, flat water, rapids, and the ocean, provides you with a different experience, and you need to decide which one suits you best.
Do you plan on floating down waterways admiring the scenery? Are you keen on the thrill-seeking adventure of navigating the rapids? Or do you dream of venturing out for some fishing at sea?
Choosing the right equipment for your kayaking experience is essential for getting the most out of your time in the water.
Ocean vs River Kayaking – The Learning Curve
Learning the essentials of kayaking doesn’t happen overnight. It takes some time to learn how to maneuver the boat in the water, how to get in and out of the kayak in the water, and what to do when things go wrong.
You can follow a specific learning curve to build your kayaking skills from the ground up. These guidelines are not set in stone. Everyone is different, and some people may just jump right in at the advanced level and do fine.
However, if you’re brand new to the sport, we recommend following this learning process for the safest results.
Flat Water – The Fundamentals
Every newbie kayaker should start with building the fundamentals. The way you do this is by messing around with your kayak and paddle on flat water. Calm, flat water in lakes and dams gives you the ideal venue for building the skills you need to handle the rapids and the ocean.
The water has no current and waves, and you get to practice the skills you need to survive when things turn wild, and there’s water moving all around you. Practice drills like climbing in and out of your boat when you can’t feel the bottom.
Get your paddle strokes efficient, and understand how to alter your paddle stroke and bodyweight in the boat when turning. It doesn’t take long for you to start feeling comfortable in the kayak, and then you can start turning things up a notch.
Flatwater kayaking is a low-risk environment for getting to know your boat and your fitness level. Jumping into a Class II rapid or the ocean could end up being more surprising and more demanding on your body than you might think.
You can build your skill and fitness by starting in flat water until you’re ready to take on more demanding conditions in rapids and the ocean.
You sit at a crossroads after you master the kayak on the flat water. You can choose to go with river rapids or the ocean as your choice of extreme kayaking fun.
If you go with rapids, you have to learn how to navigate the different types of river conditions. Rapids come in classifications ranging from Class I to Class VI rapids. Most of the time, you’ll be in Class II to Class II rapids as a beginner.
Rapids are challenging to navigate, and there are obstacles and submerged hazards you’ll have to deal with as you rage down the river. It’s a good idea to join a club specializing in organizing these tours. Taking on the rapids is a great way to challenge yourself.
However, you’ll have to master certain skills. Learning to turtle roll to bring the boat right-side up after capsizing is vital. Learning to wedge yourself loose when the river pins you is also a critical skill in avoiding and escaping strainers.
River kayaking equipment is typically shorter and wider than touring or ocean-going equipment. The hulls of the boats come in carbon fiber and plastic design for the best impact resistance. River rapid kayaking involves the river doing most of the work for you, and you’re paddling to maintain your direction.
The open ocean usually is nowhere near as aggressive as the challenges of navigating a Class IV rapid. Sure, the waves and wind could get to conditions far worse than this, but you wouldn’t be going out purposefully on these days. Ocean kayaking involves choosing conditions where the swell is small, and the wind is low.
These conditions don’t show up on many of the days of the year. So, when they do arrive, you need to make the most of them. The ocean is a dynamic, shifting environment that is, quite literally, alive. So, understanding these conditions and how to plan your kayaking adventures around the weather is critical to an enjoyable experience out on the water.
The most challenging aspect of ocean kayaking is the beach launch through the surf. Even when the waves are two to three-foot, they can be powerful enough to make getting past the impact zone a real hazard.
Kayaking Isn’t Rocket Science
The reality is that kayaking isn’t that challenging. Sure, it takes you some time to get used to the boat and how it handles in the water.
Your fitness and the physical demands of the sport of kayaking are ongoing concerns. Learning the dynamics of the water conditions also takes a lot of time.
However, it’s not like you’re reinventing the wheel here. You can expect to get the hang of kayaking in the ocean or down rapids reasonably quickly, especially with professional instruction and guidance.
We recommend signing up for a local kayaking club in your area. There are thousands of these organizations spread across America. Most of them have departments within the club dedicated to each discipline.
Joining a club is a great way to meet new people with similar interests to you. Plus, they often arrange trips, giving you the chance to explore the ocean or rivers with a group of people you know.
Safety Concerns for Ocean vs River Kayaking
Any type of kayaking requires essential safety gear. The Personal Floatation Device (PFD) is required in all kayaking disciplines. It’s your last line of defense against drowning and an affordable piece of equipment you can’t do without.
For river rapids, you’re definitely going to need a helmet. The helmet protects your skull against impacts above and under the water. Striking your head on a submerged rock would result in you being knocked unconscious and drowning.
If you’re touring rivers or lakes or out on the ocean, smoke flares alert people onshore or in the water to your distress. Keep flares in a dry bag on board your kayak.
Ocean vs River Kayaking – Wrapping Up
There are several differences between ocean and river kayaking. Kayaking down rapids offers you the chance to take the sport as extreme as you want, from a light burbling river to a raging rapid with a 30-foot waterfall drop.
Ocean kayaking is also a challenging environment to master for any kayaker. Learning to manage the swell, waves, tides, and the weather is a skill that takes years to develop.
Any kayaking discipline requires you to be physically fit to make the most out of the sport. So, make a plan to keep fit during the week between your kayaking adventures.
Ocean vs River Kayaking FAQs
Q: Is ocean kayaking dangerous?
A: Any sport has a level of risk to it. Ocean kayaking has several components that you need to pay attention to, or you could end up in a life-threatening situation. Learning to read the water and pay attention to the weather are the most important skills of any waterman.
Having the latest and greatest equipment will mean nothing if you put yourself in harm’s way where there is little chance of escape. Understanding the behavior of waves and ocean currents is essential to having a fun time out on the water.
Q: What is the right size kayak to use for fishing in the ocean?
A: Fishing kayaks for the ocean or freshwater use prioritize stability over everything else. Most fishing kayaks come with setups designed to make fishing easier. That means you get rod holders and storage bins for your gear.
Some also allow for the fitment of your GPS on an extension arm and paddle clips for hands-free fishing. When you hook up, the additional width on fishing kayaks will enable you to avoid capsizing when the fish pulls you. Look for models ranging from 10 to 14-feet long, with a 30″ to 35″ width.
Q: What is the best choice kayak for rivers and rapids?
A: When you’re floating down clam rivers with no rapids, you can use inflatables, triple-seaters, or most models you want. These kayaks are for drifting, and they are more challenging to maneuver when the current gets strong, and the water turns wild.
A 12-foot kayak with a 28-inch width offers you the best stability on the river. You get longer models for touring and shorter models for handling rapids. Typically, the sorter models are for performance use in up to Class IV rapids, and some handle waterfall drops and other extreme kayaking events.
Q: What kayak model is the best choice for ocean use?
A: Venturing into the oven requires a purpose-built kayak capable of handling sea-going conditions. That means a design built to keep water out of the boat and penetrate waves. It should offer good tracking with foot-pedal-operated rudders and plenty of storage space for your gear.
Typically, sea-faring kayaks are thinner and longer than the freshwater models, ranging up to 16-feet in length, with widths of 20″ to 26.” You can also use freshwater fishing kayaks in the ocean. Still, they are challenging to launch through the waves compared to the slimline ocean-specific models.