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Jackson Kayak Zen Review

Thanks to Colorado Kayak Supply for the use of their Zen demo!

Whether you’re a beginner picking your first whitewater kayak or a seasoned veteran in search of the perfect big water boat (think Futaleufu, North Fork of the Payette or Stikine), the Zen is a solid new offering from Jackson Kayak for 2012. With 3 sizes ranging from 7′ 10-1/2″ to 8′ 10″, this real-deal river runner will track (paddle in a straight line) well for beginners or punch curlers and hold a line in flood-stage, class V big water.


Surfs Great… The modern planing hull makes for great surfing, including green wave flat spins. Remember those fast, long waves you could park on back in the day and can’t touch now in a modern play boat? Look to the Zen to open up surfing on all kinds of waves you haven’t even tried to catch in years. If you want a big, stable, reliable river runner but like the idea of surfing too, remember that a creek boat (Villain, Nomad, Shiva, etc) can’t touch a boat like the Zen. Try surfing a creek boat and you get these “unstoppable shanks” where there’s almost no way to keep the boat facing upstream.

Made for Bigwater… I had a chance to talk to veteran paddler and big water guide Aren Rane after he paddled the Zen. Aren has been guiding customers down Chile’s world-famous Futaleufu for years, and told me the Zen was made for the ‘Futa’ and that he can’t wait to get one down there. The problem with a creek boat like the Jefe in bigwater is that one minute you can be online, and the next moment a diagonal curler has pushed you 20 or 30 feet offline. For creeking, you want a big bulbous bow and a displacement hull so you can resurface quickly, and roll off boofs without “tripping” on an edge. But take your creek boat in serious bigwater like the Futa and that same boat becomes “hole bait,” getting pushed around by diagonals, getting stuck in holes more easily and not very easy to surf out of holes once you’re in them.

The reason Aren is so fired up about the Zen is that “you can rail into stuff,” setting an edge and driving through a curler or a hole. Plus if you paddle a river like the Futa enough, you’re going to end up in some holes, and you also want a boat that can escape holes effectively. In the Zen you can sink some fast cartwheels or set a hard edge to escape instead of holding on in a side surf like you would in a creek boat.

Jackson’s Signature Outfitting… I’ll let you know when I find better outfitting than Jackson’s, especially when it comes to the creek boats and river runners which feature the Unishock Bulkead system… read more about this ankle-saving invention in my Jackson Kayak Villain review.


Not a Creek Boat… If silky-smooth boofs and soft landings off of waterfalls are your priorities, check out the Villain, Shiva or Stomper. With the Zen’s length, lower rocker and planing hull, straight boofs will be harder and you may “trip” on the chines during angular rock boofs.

Different Handling than Displacement Hull River Runners… My Dad, Phil (PhilU on the forums), recently tried the Zen. He definitely liked it, but he’s been paddling a Dagger Nomad for years now, and the Zen’s handling took some getting used to for him. Where he was used to a creekboat like the Nomad spinning on a dime, the Zen took more space carving in and out of eddies, and the chines felt “edgy” to him compared to his Nomad’s displacement hull.


A strong offering from Jackson in the River Running category. If you could care less about stern squirts or cartwheels but would like to front surf and spin, check out the Zen. And if you’ve got your sites on the bigwater runs or races like the North Fork of the Payette, Pine Creek Race, Futaleufu or Stikine, this could be the boat for you.

Pick Up Your Zen:

2 Responses to “Jackson Kayak Zen Review”

  1. Butler Cox
    October 3, 2012 at 1:05 am #

    Hi Dustin,
    Your Zen review was an important factor in my deciding to demo a Zen 75, then getting one at CKS . Had a lot of fun with it so far…here's what I think of it. Thanks for steering me toward the Zen.

    • dustinheron
      November 28, 2012 at 4:22 pm #

      Butler, that's great to hear! I'd love to hear more about what you think of it- did you post a link to more thoughts? I can't see it. Cheers, Dustin

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