Can You Use a River Kayak in the Ocean

Can You Use a River Kayak in the Ocean?

In this post, I’ll share a lot of information on every type of kayaks’ suitability in different kind of environments. Such as river kayak in the ocean, sea kayak in the river…etc. I will attempt to address some of these concerns. Hope you enjoy.

Kayaks come in so many shapes and sizes designed to meet specific purposes. Invariably, once you’ve enjoyed your first experience, you begin to wonder if you could (and if it was safe to) paddle your kayak in an environment other than that for which it was intended.  

For a beginner, the most asking question is: Can I use my river(lake) kayak in the ocean. The quick answer to this question is, Yes, to a degree. River kayaks work fine on the ocean for shorter trips in mild weather with no wind. But in the open ocean is a different matter and requires a minimum 14’ sea kayak with two airtight hatches in case you capsize.

If you want to use a river kayak in the ocean, be sure to pack the stern with flotation for buoyancy and wear a helmet for when the surf capsizes you and slams you upside down on the bottom. Remember, always check the weather forecast and conditions before you paddle in the ocean.

Check out this Video!


What’s the difference between sea kayaking and river kayaking?

There are several differences between sea kayaking and river kayaking besides sea kayaks being longer and river kayaks being shorter.

Here are some main differences.



The downstream current on a river provides much of the energy required to move the kayak downstream so that the river kayaker is more concerned with steering and maneuvering.  

Conversely, on the sea, the energy is within the waves, while the water is relatively stationary. There can be strong currents on the sea to be sure, but they’re probably not headed in the direction you want to go.  

Sea kayaking requires the paddler to provide most of the energy to move the kayak, and thus requires greater stamina and endurance. Sea kayaking generally involves longer periods and greater distances, consequently, sea kayakers are usually more fit and in better shape as sea kayaking is more of an endurance sport.


Distance from land 

Rivers can get plenty wide, but most, particularly where there’s whitewater, are relatively narrow.  

In case you need to stop for lunch or to stretch your legs, the shore is relatively close, and it’s easy to stop and get out. If you capsize and need rescuing or are able to self-rescue, you’ll be thankful that riverbank isn’t too far away.

Sea kayaking is much different because the shore is usually much further away and sometimes out of sight completely. Beginners, of course, shouldn’t venture too far out without more experienced paddlers for safety.



River kayaks are shorter, designed to be more maneuverable.  

A little rocker lets them essentially turn on a dime to make it easier to avoid rocks and obstacles.  Sea kayaks are designed to go in straight lines which makes them difficult and slow to turn. Actually, really really slow to turn.

Edging is also somewhat different which can cause some confusion. On a river, you would lift your upstream edge to essentially lean into a turn.  In a sea kayak, you would lift the knee in the direction you want to go to assist the turn. Changing ingrained techniques can be challenging.



Between rapids where you aren’t focused on your next stroke to ensure your basic survival, rivers can offer a wide diversity of sight and sound.  

You can paddle past sunny meadows, majestic mountains, and pristine waterfalls while watching for eagles, osprey, ducks, turtles, and wildlife.

My favorite is gorges lined with hemlock and rhododendron.  The sea, I think, though having a beauty all its own, can be more monotonous and bland. Certainly, the coastline can offer varied vistas of pounding surf, steep cliffs, and beautiful beaches. Sadly, wherever you paddle, your view will likely be marred by signs of human litter.  Please, at least, never contribute to it.



On the sea, it’s more about conservation of energy, slow and sure wins the day.

River, particularly whitewater, kayaking is considered a more extreme adventure sport. You will most likely continue to challenge yourself to bigger rapids to get continue getting that addictive rush of adrenaline from being entirely focused at the moment to maneuver your kayak through rapids and around or over rocks and obstacles, and through “holes”. Everything happens fast and furious on the river.   

Not that you can’t feel adrenaline on the sea during a storm or large waves, but that comes more from a mistake rather than by design.

Check out this article to see more: Sea Kayaking and River Kayaking: 5 Differences


Dangers to use a river kayak in the ocean.

First, let’s consider the dangers inherent to ocean kayaking which the river kayaker doesn’t have to contend with and may not be expecting.  

These dangers can include:

  • Sharks:  Yikes! Generally not an issue, just be aware of the area where you’re paddling.
  • Weather:  Storms can appear quickly with strong winds, lightning,  and higher waves.
  • Currents:  Both tidal and rip.  They can take you far out without your even realizing it.
  • Hypothermia: The greatest danger of fatality due to the length of time to rescue
  • Ships: Big ones, that leave huge wakes and might not see you…  Stay out of their way.


There are additional dangers inherent in using a river kayak in the ocean.  

River kayaks are not designed for speed or distance, so paddling a river kayak in the ocean requires considerably more time and energy to get anyway than does paddling an ocean kayak. This can be a great concern when abruptly changing weather and fast-moving storms require you to head quickly to shore, possibly against tides and currents.

While you can pack your stern with flotation, river kayaks sometimes don’t have watertight compartments which help keep the kayak afloat after capsizing.  Sea kayaks are usually over 14’ in length. Boats from 10’ to 14’ are difficult to paddle against the waves and the current. If your kayak is under 10’, you’re essentially at the mercy of the ocean.

Check out the article to see more: 7 Dangers of Ocean Kayaking.


Can you use a sea kayak on the river?


Sea kayaks (also called touring kayaks) are long and slender and designed for speed and distance. Think crewing. They work fine on flatwater and lightly moving current.  

You can get a good workout by “‘attaining” which is paddling upstream against the current. Rivers have additional features besides currents such as obstacles, holes, and eddies.  

A sea kayaker will need to learn to “read” the river to anticipate transitions in current to pick the right line. Sea kayaks are considerably less maneuverable and difficult to turn, making them impractical for dodging rocks and holes in rougher whitewater.  

Otherwise, they work just fine going in a straight line upstream or downstream. Larger water and flood levels, which may look like ocean paddling, should only be attempted by expert experienced paddlers with lots of safety precautions.

Check out the video! 


Can you use a sea kayak in the whitewater?

No, unless you’re an expert paddler, it’s not advisable.  

Whitewater (Class II to III and above) is characterized by obstacles such as rocks and trees. That long and slender design which makes them so favorable on flatwater makes them more difficult to maneuver quickly in whitewater, where things can happen fast.  

Designed to be light, sea kayaks are generally not constructed to meet the demands of whitewater, and if pinned between rocks, can more easily be snapped in two. While racers and old school river kayaks tend to be longer and sturdy by design, you are usually limited to a river running.  

With limited ability to maneuver quickly, you won’t be catching many eddies, ferrying, or surfing. I know at flood stage, rivers can become big water, not unlike the ocean. But unless you’re an expert experienced paddler with a sufficient number of safety boaters, I would advise extreme caution in boating at higher river levels just because it looks similar to the ocean. Used whitewater kayaks can be purchased fairly cheap and should be considered before risking your more expensive sea kayak.


What about hybrid kayaks?

Hybrid kayaks(or crossover kayaks) attempt to combine the best features of sea and river kayaks into a single multi-purpose boat.

Some sit-on-tops, inflatables, and hybrids are considered good crossover boats. Many paddlers enjoy being able to take the same boat to the river, lake, or ocean. General purpose kayaks are usually a little shorter than sea kayaks to make them more stable and maneuverable.

These boats are generally better suited to coastal waters and lower class rivers, and the average paddler never progresses beyond Class II to III rivers anyway.  But as your skill level increases and you want to push your limits a little in your favored environment, you may wish you had a specific purpose kayak. Most skilled and seasoned paddlers usually have multiple boats in their collection.

Check out the video.



Hope you find this post helpful and interesting. If you have any comments, suggestions, or personal experience you’d like to share, we would welcome your remarks in the comment section below. 

Thanks for reading, Happy kayaking.

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2 years ago

It is a good explanation but there are also ocean kayaks there so why we have to use river kayaks in the ocean?

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