Top 5 Adventure Camping Kayaks

Updated: Aug 7, 2019

For all sizes of paddlers there is a wide range of choices.

Photo by Daniel Jensen

Deciding to buy a new kayak is always easy. Deciding just which one out of dozens of choices, is not always straightforward. It depends on the paddling conditions, size and weight of the paddlers, number and length of portages and budget and personal likes and dislikes.

My girlfriend and I are planning a three week paddle camping expedition on the New River running some 400 miles from the headwaters streams in North Carolina on the Tennessee border, through Southwest Virginia to the New River Gorge south of Fayetteville, West Virginia and ending at the confluence with the Gauley River where the two rivers form the Kanawha River before joining the Ohio.

The New River will present all sorts of paddling conditions from rushing whitewater rapids filled with rocks and granite ledges to miles-long placid lakes backed up by one of the 7 dams we will have to portage.

We will need kayaks that are seaworthy up to Class III (we will tackle the Lower New River Gorge Class IV rapids in a whitewater raft). The length of the trip we will face rocks and boulders, sharp granite ledges, gravel beaches and concrete dam abutments. The kayaks have to be almost indestructible, yet light enough to portage.

The New River begins as a small mountain stream with moderate to fast current and languid pools. When the North Fork and South Fork join near the Virginia state line the river begins to increase in size and intensity as it crosses Virginia and West Virginia until it reaches the Class IV rapids of the Lower New River Gorge.

Beyond the New River Gorge the New joins with the Gauley to form the Kanawha River which itself joins the Ohio River and then the Mississippi River to eventually empty into the Gulf of Mexico south of New Orleans, Louisiana.

It is an interesting concept that a paddler could start on the Eastern Continental Divide deep in the Great Smokey Mountains of North Carolina and in three months and with good planning and determined perseverance paddle over 2,000 miles to the Atlantic Ocean. It would indeed be a terrific source to sea adventure.

Isabel and I are only dealing with the mountain river part of this odyssey, so our kayak selection is narrowing as we explore options. We have ruled out recreational kayaks which often do not have comfortable seating and good design and enough safety features.

Likewise, we have ruled out composite materials in favor of thermoformed or polyethylene plastic that will stand up to the rough and tumble environment of banging into boulders and dragging over sharp granite ledges and gravel beaches. We have ruled out sea kayaks because of their length, weight and sometimes lack of maneuverability.

With hundreds of miles of slow water and lakes to cross we eliminated whitewater style kayaks with their heavy rocker hulls and stubby bows that are great for maneuverability but terrible for straight ahead long distance paddling.

We are carrying all of our camping gear, safety equipment, clothes and food with us, so we need at least 100 to 150 liters of dry storage in each kayak. We want to paddle about 8 hours per day and average at least 25 miles per day so we need kayaks capable of cruising at 3 to 4 miles per hour without stressing the paddler. That means we need kayaks that are stable, maneuverable and easy to portage, with hardy construction to withstand day after day of pounding, scraping and grinding our way downriver.

We decided the ideal kayaks for us are in the 12 to 14 foot range, with bulkheads fore and aft and watertight compartments. Comfortable seating, stable yet easy to edge and turn, hull design for straight ahead fast paddling without needing a skeg or rudder that adds weight and bulk.

Since we won’t be exposed to long, windswept stretches we won’t need the rudder or the skeg to help either with steering or forward paddling.

These kayak choices are considering the type of water we will be paddling, and the skills we have, our height and weight, and how much gear we are packing.

I am 5´9¨ and weigh 180 and am an experienced intermediate level paddler capable up to Class III, and skilled at portage when the river conditions are over my level of comfort.

My partner is 5´7¨ and weighs 110. She is a novice paddler, but adventurous and a good swimmer and a quick learner. By the end of the first week in the upstream portion of the trip she will be river-ready up to Class II and able to portage everything else.

Each of us will carry a 50-liter dry bag in our stern compartments and a 35-liter dry bag in our bow compartments. We will have cockpit covers so we can carry out paddling gear secure in the cockpit during portage and when using the portage cart.

Our gear will weight about 60 pounds per kayak. The kayaks we are considering range in weight from 40 to 60 pounds.

Our plan is to team up to carry each loaded kayak around the portages, or use the portage cart. Where possible we can install the portage cart while the kayak is still in the water, roll it across the portage, and roll it back into the water on the downstream end of the portage.

Obviously, we each need a different size kayak. Fortunately kayak manufactures know that couples come in sizes, so they have very conveniently designed and built kayaks to fit us.

We have narrowed our choices to 10 kayaks, 5 in her size and 5 in mine. These are transitional touring kayaks with sea kayak features in a smaller package that is lightweight and easy to handle and superbly suited for weekend trips. For go-light paddlers like us they are well suited for short-range expeditions in areas where we can re-supply with food as we pass through towns along the way.

They are stable, and with hulls designed for fast tracking and easy maneuverability and can handle rough conditions. Fully outfitted with comfortable, padded seats and thigh pads, watertight bulkheads and leak proof hatch covers, deck rigging and outfitting suited for short range expedition paddling.

Beginning with the Delta Kayak Company located in Maple Ridge, British Colombia.

Delta Kayaks are made from thermoformed plastic that is lightweight, super tough and awesomely attractive. In their Light Touring category they offer the Delta 12.10 for paddlers my size and larger, and the Delta 12s for smaller paddlers. Light weight, speed and maneuverability and the oversize hatch covers make these little trippers ideal for our river camping adventure.

Delta Kayaks 12.10 for paddlers 150 to 250 pounds

12´10¨ long

25¨ wide

13.5¨ deep

Weighs 41 pounds

Cockpit opening 17¨x 32¨

Cockpit Volume 56.7 gal

Day hatch 1.8 gal

Bow dry compartment 12.1 gal

Stern dry compartment 30.3 gal

Total volume 101 gals

Max capacity 300 pounds

Price $1480

Delta Kayaks 12s for paddlers 100 to 150 pounds

12´ long

24¨ wide

12¨ deep

Weight 38 pounds

Cockpit opening 16.5¨ x 31.5¨

Cockpit volume 39 gal

Day hatch 1.8 gal

Bow dry compartment 12.5 gal

Stern dry compartment 26 gal

Volume total 80 gals

Maximum capacity 260 lbs.

Price $1440

Next in consideration is the Eddyline Kayak Company in Burlington, Washington. They make thermoformed kayaks that are incredibly well designed and outfitted and well suited to the New River paddle camping expedition we are planning.

Eddyline Equinox for medium to large paddlers

Length 14´

Beam 25¨

Weight 45 lbs

Cockpit size 35¨ x 18.5¨

Volume 93 gals

Maximum capacity 360 lbs

Price: $1800

Eddyline Skylark for small to medium size paddlers

Length 12´

Beam 26¨

Weight 41 lbs

Cockpit size 35¨ x 18.5¨

Volume 80 gallons

Maximum capacity 295 lbs

Price $1400

The well-known Wilderness Systems Company in Greenville, South Carolina, keeps designing and building excellent kayaks using Gen 2 polyethylene which is robust and seaworthy but about 20% heavier than thermoformed plastic. The Tsunami models have earned a reputation for stability, ease of paddling and maneuverability.

Wilderness Systems Tsunami 145 for medium to large paddlers

Length 14´ 6¨

Width 25.5¨

Deck height 15¨

Weight 56 lbs (Add 3 pounds for rudder)

Cockpit 35.75¨ x 20¨

Max Capacity 350 lbs

Price $1529

Wilderness Systems Tsunami 140 for small to medium paddlers

Length 14´

Width 25.5¨

Weight 53 lbs (Add 3 lbs for rudder)

Deck height 14¨

Cockpit 35.75¨ x 20¨

Max capacity 325 pounds

Price $1529

The Jackson Kayak Company in Sparta, Tennessee has deep roots in the whitewater kayak industry with very innovative designs and excellent quality. Their Sweet Cheeks seat system is an industry leader for day long comfort. They initially offered the Journey light touring kayak in 13.5 feet and 14 feet but have recently discontinued the smaller model. It comes rudder ready, but we will not be using rudders on our trip.

Jackson Journey 14 for paddlers 90 to 310 lbs.

Length 14´

Height 16¨

Width 25¨

Weight 61 lbs

Rear hatch oval 16.25

Day hatch

Front hatch

Rudder ready (rudder sold separately, add 3 pounds)

Sweet cheeks 100 seat, whitewater hybrid with contour

Total capacity 325 lbs

Price $1,199

Dagger Kayak Company also in Greenville, South Carolina is another world leader in whitewater kayak design and construction. Their Stratos model has been described as a stretched whitewater boat, but it is indeed a very capable entry in the light touring class for wilderness kayak camping.

Dagger Stratos 14.5L for larger paddlers

Length 14 ft. 6 in.

Width 24.5 inches

Weight 57 pounds with built in skeg

Cockpit 36.25 x 19

Weight Capacity 315 lbs

Price $1349

Dagger Stratos 14.5S for small to medium paddlers

Length 14 feet 6 inches

Width 23 inches

Weight 54.5 lbs with built in skeg

Cockpit 36 x 18 inches

Capacity 275 pounds

Price $1349

Over the next few months we will be test paddling these choices and I´ll write an updated review as we learn more about each model. If you enjoyed this article please feel free to share it with friends and paddle groups.

I hope you send us trip reports and photos of your paddle camping adventures. We´d love to hear from you and include your adventures in our group.

Take care and happy paddling.

Andy Lee is the author of Five Hundred Miles to the Sea; Adventure Canoe and Kayak Camping Book 1, and the administrator of Facebook group Adventure Canoe and Kayak Camping

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