Boat Choice

At this point, people have self-support kayaked the Grand Canyon in craft ranging from an 18′ fiberglass sea kayak to a creekboat to a wildwater race boat, but not all boats are equally well-suited and your standard recreationalist on a 7-10 day trip will want to make a boat choice that strikes a balance between flatwater speed, comfort, and ease of packing. Over the last five years or so, a number of manufacturers have jumped into the “crossover” game, making whitewater-capable boats that are designed for longer, flatter trips. These boats, traditional long boats, and shorter plastic sea kayaks are the most suitable options for a standard Grand Canyon self-support, and this article will discuss some of the pros and cons of each boat choice and what factors to consider in deciding what will be best for you.

Your Skill Level

The whitewater on the Grand Canyon is all runnable with loaded 18′ rafts, which means a loaded kayak will have no problem making the moves required…but I can say from experience that paddling a 15′ sea kayak loaded to the brim is a hell of a lot harder and more stressful than a Stinger, and even a Stinger is a hell of a lot harder than a creekboat or cross-over boat like the Liquidlogic Remix XP, Jackson Traverse, or Pyranha Fusion. If the whitewater of the Grand Canyon is at the upper limits of your skill, you’re going to want a boat that you’re comfortable maneuvering and rolling, not a loaded barge that feels more like a raft than a kayak. Exactly what boat is best for you will depend on your paddling style and preferences, but in general, the cross-over boats are more stable and easier to manage in the big volume rapids (and eddy lines) of the Canyon than long boats or sea kayaks.

Paddling a Perception Corona sea kayak around at the Havasu Creek confluence.
Paddling a Perception Corona sea kayak around at the Havasu Creek confluence.

Length of Trip

The speed differences between each class of boat may not seem that significant paddling them side-by-side, but over the course of 225 miles — most of which are flat — they add up. That said, the weight load of the boat matters too — a sea kayak loaded so heavily that the waterline is at the deck won’t be much faster than a light crossover boat. If your trip is on the shorter side, you’re probably going to want to err on the longer side. Unless you’re going for a speed record, though, don’t think you have to paddle a sea kayak — longboats like the Liquidlogic Stinger XP, Jackson Karma Unlimited, and Dagger Greenboat are all sufficient for a fast trip.

One thing to note here is that your group will only be as fast as the slowest person in it. So if one person has a crossover boat and everyone else has longboats — you’re going to go the pace of the crossover boat. Communicate with your group in advance about what boat everyone’s bringing and try to coordinate so that nobody ends up struggling to keep up or frustrated by the slowness of other members of the group.

A lot of different boat lengths on this trip. The folks in the shorter crossover boats were definitely feeling it.
A lot of different boat lengths on this trip. The folks in the shorter crossover boats were definitely feeling it.

To Sea Kayak or Not To Sea Kayak

Sea kayaks come in all shapes and sizes and some are more suited to whitewater than others. In general, you want something on the short end of the spectrum with a lot of rocker. I’m not an expert on sea kayaking, but I think these are typically the kinds of boats designed for “rock gardening” and ocean play. I’ve paddled the Grand a few times in a Perception Corona (14’8″) and I can say this boat was not ideal. Full displacement hull, fairly narrow and low volume, and almost no rocker meant that in whitewater, especially loaded with ten days of gear, it performed quite poorly. That said, with the foot-pedal rudder and long waterline, it was quite fast in the flatwater, and the front and rear hatches made for easy packing.

The P&H Hammer is one sea kayak that appears really well suited for whitewater, but its high rocker takes away from the flat-water hull speed that most sea kayaks have, and none of the multiple hatch covers in the rear are large enough to make loading and unloading easy. I’ve been on trips with a couple of these and overall, paddlers have been impressed.

My suggestion? If you’re very comfortable on big water class IV and have access to a plastic sea kayak under 15’…go for it! It’s an experience crashing through the V-wave in Lava in a loaded 15′ boat with your rudder down, and it’s a whole ‘nother experience leading your group into the gut of the hole at Crystal only to have your entire 15’ of kayak cartwheel back upstream.

The P&H Hammer is a nice compromise of a sea kayak -- short, high rocker, planing hull.
The P&H Hammer is a nice compromise of a sea kayak — short, high rocker, planing hull.

Space

Unless you’re a really heavy packer, most of these boats will have more than enough space (creekboats are tricky, but crossovers and larger are no problem). That said, with different hatch sizes, cockpit openings, and bulkheads, the shape and size of what you can pack can differ a lot. If you can, try packing the boat in advance, as you may need to adjust your packing and drybag strategy to match your boat. For example — a Greenboat with the stern pillar taken out can have just about anything stuffed in there. You could probably sleep in it. By contrast, the hatch is the only way to access the rear volume of the Stinger XP, so you can’t put anything in that won’t fit through the opening, and you also have to deal with the tapered stern which means a lot of standard drybags can’t fit into much of the available space.

Surfing

Shorter boats are easier to control on waves, but longer boats can surf a lot of the relatively shallow glassy waves that the Grand Canyon is littered with. You’ll find some fun surfing for both crossover boats and longboats, and personally I find the bigger difference is weight to volume — if you overload your boat (whether it’s a crossover or a longboat), it’ll be very hard to control in a surf, or even turn around in time to catch the wave.

Our Favorite

Having paddled a sea kayak, a Dagger Greenboat, and a Stinger XP on the Grand Canyon, our personal favorite is the Stinger. The hatch, the hull-speed, the manageable length, and the retractable skeg make this a killer boat for the Grand Canyon. That said, the best boat is the one you’re comfortable in and the one you can get.

Seth Swallen makes his sea kayak look good at the Havasu / Colorado confluence.
Seth Swallen makes his sea kayak look good at the Havasu / Colorado confluence.

How Can I Get a Boat For My Trip?

It’s possible to find a boat for your trip in Flagstaff so you don’t need to deal with transporting one to Arizona.¬†Moenkopi¬†rents Stingers and Remix XP9s for the very reasonable rate of $15/day. Ceiba rents Liquidlogic XP10s, Jackson Traverse 10s, and Jackson Karma RGs, though the rate is much higher ($42 for the first day, $22 each day after). You could also try posting in the Flagstaff Boaters Facebook group to try to find a private rental; there are definitely a lot of viable self-support boats floating town.

What Boat Did You Take?

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What kind of boat did you bring on your Grand Canyon self-support?

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The Options

This is a non-exhaustive categorized list of potential self-support boats for the Canyon.

Liquidlogic Stinger XP 12’5″ Longboat crossover
Jackson Karma RG 11’10” Longboat crossover
Dagger Greenboat 11’9″ Longboat
Liquidlogic Remix XP9 9’2″ Crossover
Liquidlogic Remix XP10 10’3″ Crossover
Jackson Traverse 9 9’8″ Crossover
Jackson Traverse 10 10’4″ Crossover
Pyranha Fusion L 10’2″ Crossover
Dagger Katana 10.4 10’4″ Crossover
Dagger Katana 9.7 9’7″ Crossover
P&H Hammer 13’4″ Sea Kayak

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