Buying a Raft? Start Here

Thinking of purchasing your own rig? Follow our comparison guide to find the right whitewater raft for you. 

The first and most important question you need to ask yourself is:

“What do I want to do with my raft?”

Seems straightforward enough, but most people assume that all whitewater rafts are fairly similar and end up anchoring the price as the delineating factor between brands and models. 

We've found that this couldn't be farther from the truth.

Those on the market for a new raft need to be conscious of three factors besides price:

  1. Boat shape
  2. Boat size
  3. Boat material

18 foot boats grand canyon

 As rafting enthusiasts, we're personal fans of 13-14' roundboats, particularly those from AIRE. We believe they are the most versatile boat size and boatshapes made of the highest quality material available today. 

Boat Shape

Shape is the first choice to make. The shape of your boat determines what it's used for.

Boat Shape Pros Cons CKSO Favorites
Roundboats
  • Most versatility
  • Stable
  • Good at punching through holes
  • Can handle a large paddle crew
  • Can handle a large amount of gear
  • Sluggish when weighed down
Paddle Cats
  • High performance
  • Some versatility
  • Playful
  • Can't hold a ton of gear or paddlers
Catarafts

cataraft  

  • High performance
  • Fast
  • Better tracking
  • Least versatility
  • Least stability
  • Requires oars + oar frame
  • Not beginner friendly
  • AIRE Wave Destroyer


A roundboat is a traditional rounded raft. Roundboats are the most common boat shape because they have high utility and versatility. They can be used as a paddle raft, a gear boat, or a fishing boat.
Their shape tends to make them slow and stable, and they can be a bit sluggish in whitewater if weighed down.

That being said, weight tends to be the determining factor when it comes to how a big hit plays out – the more weight in the boat you have, the more punch you have through waves and holes. Having a lot of gear or a big paddle crew is to your advantage with this boat shape. 

Some of our favorite roundboats include AIRE 130 and the NRS Otter 130.

cataraft

Cat is short for Catamaran, meaning that there are two hulls instead of one. In rafting, this equates to the boat being more metal than rubber, as the boat consists of two straight inflatable tubes that are secured to a central aluminum frame.

Cats are almost exclusively controlled by oars and are typically higher performance and faster than a roundboat, but they lack the versatility that a roundboat offers when it comes to carrying a crew or a large amount of gear.

Cats perform better against features in whitewater than a roundboat. A big wave or hole that could stall, surf, and flip a big roundboat may barely do anything to a Cat. Since there is little volume touching the water’s surface, there is little volume that can be influenced by strong counter-currents.

Cats require you to be a more precise boater with carefully chosen lines. Placing one tube on the wrong side of an eddyline can result in a very abrupt change of direction.

However, in exchange for your precision, you are rewarded with speed, better tracking, and better whitewater performance than a similarly sized roundboat.

paddlecat

If you are in the market for a small yet versatile boat, a Paddlecat is what you want. Paddle cats are are very small Catarafts. Their design is intended to bridge the gap between the performance advantages of a cataraft and the versatility of a paddleboat.

Also known as "shredders," a paddlecat is typically only meant for R2 (two side-by-paddlers)

In their element, paddlecats are a blast. They are about as useful as a sports car to a family of four when it comes to utility, so stay away from these unless you want a playraft only. 

You can throw a frame on some paddlecats to row, but I would recommend against choosing a paddlecat altogether if you plan to row it more than you paddle it.

Some of our favorite paddlecats include AIRE SabertoothSTAR Slice and STAR Slice XL.

blue star slice elk river colorado

Choosing a Size

It's difficult to navigate the wide range of offerings available for rafts, especially when rafts pretty much all look the same from their product photos.

The length and width of your raft is going to come down to personal preference, which is hard to pin down if you've never owned a boat before.

There are some common sizes and styles across all brands, kind of like how there are common types of vehicles across auto manufacturers. Most brands have a Sports Car, a Crossover, and a Truck. Rafts are not so different...

Size

Bottom Line

Great For

Not Great For

9.5'-11'

Small, nimble, quick on their feet
  • Fun runs/play rafting with small groups (3 paddlers max)
  • Technical sections with required manuevering
  • Day trips or small overnight trips
  • Longer trips that require gear storage
 12'-13' Versatile, Best of both worlds
  • Fun runs/play rafting with small groups (5 paddlers max)
  • Day trips or small overnight trips
  • Can take some of gear meant for larger boats like dryboxes and frames
  • Trips that require large coolers and/or dryboxes
14'-16' Less performance, more room
  • Room for gear and passengers
  • Utilitarian
  • Technical whitewater
17' Rare
  • Their size makes them great for supporting really long trips. If you can take it on a river, an 18-footer will carry it
  • They are a behemoth to row, but they chug through just about all but the biggest hits
  • Impractical for most whitewater situations outside of 7+ day multidays

hyside mini max
Boats sized between 9.5 to 11 feet are the Sports Cars of the rafting world. 
Our favorites include:

  • Star Slice Paddlecat
  • AIRE Cub
  • Hyside Mini-Max
  •  

    Boats sized between 12 to 13 feet are the Crossover Cars of the rafting world. Our favorites include:

    Pro tip: While still small to store when rolled, this boat size may necessitate a car/truck trailer for transport

    Boats sized between 14 to 16 feet are the Trucks of the rafting world. Our favorites include:

      You will also need to consider where you plan on using your boat. Do you live on the headwaters of the Arkansas River in Colorado, or in Page, Arizona near the put-in for the Grand Canyon?

      A boat that is king in technical water like that of the Arkansas will get swallowed by the large waves and high-volume flow on the Grand Canyon.

      You should consider getting a size of boat that will perform well where you plan on using the boat 75% of the time. Steer clear of anything under 14 feet for high-volume rivers, and avoid anything over 14 feet on a low-volume river.

      Most people who are in the market for a boat settle on the 14 footer, as it is the most versatile and capable size across a wide variety of situations.

      We encourage you to make your own choice and take the time to consider what boat works best for you.

      13 foot boat grand canyon

      Choosing a Material

      Pretty much all inflatables start with a high denier nylon fabric as the base material, then are treated with an outer coating. Generally there are two coatings:

      1. Synthetic Rubber (Hypalon, Pennel-Orca)
      2. Plastic

      The patent for synthetic rubber is public and therefore this material is now produced under a few different trade names. The two most common are “Hypalon” (Hyside) and “Pennel-Orca” (NRS).

      Synthetic rubber is very expensive – thousands of dollars more expensive than PVC.

      There are certain material properties that can only be achieved with rubber. From abrasion resistance to cleaning and treating, Hypalon is the superior material and will last longer over time. 

      aire rafts orange paddle guide

      However, the vast majority of rafts are coated in Polyvinyl Chloride, or “PVC” to us normal folks. Chemically speaking, PVC is plastic. The same material that can be rigid to make things like pipes can also be treated with "plasticizers" that make the material a liquid coating that can be applied to vinyl to reinforce it. 

      Let's review the key differences between plastic and rubber:

      PVC  

      (AIRE Superpuma)

      • Capable of withstanding high pressure
      • Short repair time
      • Lower cost
    • Less abrasion resistant
    • Heavier
    • Will not roll up as small
    • More susceptible to solar damage
    • Hypalon

      (Hyside Minimax)

      • Highly abrasion resistant
      • Lightweight
      • Rolls up small
      • Long repair time
      • Higher cost
      • Incapable of handling high pressure
      • Slippery when wet


      green hypalon yampa

      Now that we’ve highlighted the pros and cons of these materials, think about the price tag again. I want to caution folks from anchoring to price tag, as there are so many more important things to think about when buying a boat than what it costs, but the material the boat is made out of is the single most defining factor in price.

      Can you financially swing buying a boat that is at least a thousand dollars more than another one of the same price and shape, just because it’s a superior material? How long do you really see yourself having this boat before upgrading?

      If you see yourself replacing the boat in a few years for a different one, go PVC. If you see this purchase as something you will use for the better part of the next 20 years, go Hypalon. 

      There is one exception to this rule: AIRE (and its sub-brand Tributary) makes a fantastic PVC boat that rivals the quality found in Hypalon boats. AIRE boats are designed with a separate urethane bladder system that is serviceable through a zipper that runs around the inside of the boat. If you have an issue, you can patch from the inside of the outer skin, which is a much more effective patch.

      aire teal river boat raft

      You can also replace the internal bladders on AIRE boats if you are noticing leaks. They are the only raft manufacturer that builds boats using a component-based system, and are worth considering if you are buying a boat for long term ownership. They also make boats in a really wide variety of colors, and offer a 10 year warranty that is the best in the industry. 

      If you really feel that a Hypalon boat (or AIRE) is what you are in the market for, remember that CKS Online offers payment plans for a product with this price tag. Check out Affirm financing - the rates are way better than a credit card in my experience.

      Rafting is typically a sport enjoyed by the modest-income subsection of society, and having five or six thousand dollars lying around to drop on a new boat is something most normal people don’t have. Affirm makes it possible for normal folks to afford nice things. In short - don’t go PVC just because it’s what you can afford. 

      Rafting is typically a sport enjoyed by the modest-income subsection of society, and having five or six thousand dollars lying around to drop on a new boat is something most normal people don’t have. Affirm makes it possible for normal folks to afford nice things. In short - don’t go PVC just because it’s what you can afford. 

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