Zen Review: Zen Sm,Md, Lg vs Karma Md for medium paddler

The sporty Zen Md is easy to drive and ready to flyZen MD vs Zen LG vs Karma MD

For 2015 Jackson sent our 2013 River Runner, the Zen, to the gym and it’s back all pumped up and ready to rumble!  More bow rocker, higher parting line and a bit more peak to the decks mean this Zen is easier to paddle in more places than ever before. I’m lucky enough to have all 3 sizes right now and while the Small is more for others to try, choosing between the Medium and Large each day is a challenge that’s getting easier each rain.

   Anytime there’s a new boat out I answer a ton of ‘’which one for me’’ questions – and in this boat it makes a lot of sense because these boats have a WIDE weight range despite being a fairly small boat …  So here we go!
ME: I weight 170 lbs and have been wearing a drysuit and elbow pads and a full-face for winter paddling.  I carry a rope, hand paddles, and a small dry bag with safety gear (5 lbs).
Conditions: Cane Creek, Crooked Fork, Russel Fork, Suck Creek. Gauley, Ottawa, lots of levels on Caney Fork (class 4 river running) and of course, waterfalling and up to 20,000cfs big water at Rock Island.
The Small Zen:   While I could get it down most rivers (like an old school play boat) it feels very narrow and the stern subs out on landings more than I like.    It was slower to accelerate and a little edgy on landings and boils.  Not especially comfortable.   I would guess the max paddler weight should be 145, but sure – I’ll run the Green in it if it’s the only choice.. but thankfully it’s not.
Backsurf! Zen Md and Clay Wright
The Medium Zen is my go-to boat for sporty river-running, big water surf and easy creeking.  While not as forgiving as the Karma Md in hard water, it’s light and fast and there’s noticeably ‘less boat’’ around me while I paddle.   If I’m hiking in, climbing out, or just want to do ear-dip boofs and hard-carving ’s-turns’ through eddies – maybe even some surfing, the slalom-esque feel of this zippy little boat always feels great.  On a wave it will spin, blunt, grind and carve nicely.   Downsteam while it won’t really stern-squirt it’s fun to splat angled rocks, kick flip waves, or just send the bow skyward off a wave by sinking the stern with a bow-sweep boof.   On drops unless you come down perfectly flat it felt pretty soft, as the bow dips just enough at 50 degrees to cushion the blow before carving back up.
Highlights?  Zippy carving, fast acceleration, glides across stiff holes and boily eddy lines, quick edge to edge whether surfing or just carving up cross-currents.  Makes a perfect advanced paddler /  East Coast boat or for challenging yet playful big water.   Best for beginners up to 160 lbs but pure river running way above my 170.
 Drawbacks?  Coming from a Karma Md the boat sinks deeper if you miss a boof and can get slowed down by the foam when punching back to back waves and holes.   It’s fast while on the surface but takes some skill to keep it there on the most challenging runs.
 Zen LG for when you want to go BIG;  Clay Wright RI at 16,000
The Zen LG adds length, stability, and more volume to this sporty package, rendering slightly less zippy craft but also one I don’t mind adding a camera box, break-down paddle, and pin kit.  You feel the extra width which adds a big dose of initial stability but you also get extra secondary stability as well – making this a much more forgiving boat in hard whitewater.  This boat really stays on top, and even if you sink into the foam it surfaces rapidly – usually still flat and heading downstream.   I notice the length and weight difference in my rock spins and splats… it’s no longer a play-boat but now just blows through waves and holes that required more precision in the Medium.   When the creek is pumping or it’s really cold out, the Large gives me an extra margin for error and lets me take more stuff.   It feels faster in the rapids, looser but less sporty on a wave, and since it sits high on the water it’s always ready to change directions and take off on another line. On bigger drops I was  careful not to land flat.   Thankfully,  this longer and lower rockered design seemed to fall so predictably I never had an issue and actually felt really comfortable on the tougher lines here at Rock Island even when the level dropped out.  Maybe because it’s harder to over-boof?  Maybe the 9’ length makes the drop feel smaller? Not sure but I was just as confident on waterfalls as in the medium.  This would be my ‘’West Coast’’ boat but would also allow a beginner paddler from 170 to 200lbs to progress rapidly.  Likely handle up to 200 lbs on challenging creeks and way higher for river running or more skilled paddlers of course.
Highlights:  Forgiving, floaty, uber-stable platform.  Punches through everything and stays on top.  Really easy to change directions or fight cross-currents even at low speed due to the low draft.  Likely an excellent choice for C-1 or taller paddlers or higher volume steeps.
Drawbacks: Length (takes a bigger eddy to turn around, hits me heels when I head-carry it), weight compared to Medium,  feels less ‘sporty’ than Md.
 Zen has the speed to surf Powerhouse Wave at 16,000cfs
Karma MD:  The ‘old standard’ is still a great choice for many people.   For my 170 lbs this is my ‘’go to creeker’’ as it’s in between Zen sizes and perfect for just about everything.  While not as spinnable on a wave or as fun zipping into ’S-turns’ as the Zen series, it’s still lighter and surfs better than just about any creeker on the market.  It has a narrow feel with judicious secondary stability and the flared edges and round deck help it surface upright even after big drops.   It lands just a touch softer on boofs and the extra rocker to help you land flat when you want to.
Highlights – perfect size for 170lbs (I don’t even consider the Sm or LG) whether low volume steeps or big volume overnights, high sidewalls for stability in the roughest water, great combo of fast and forgiving.  Fast through the chop and in rapids and just an all-around great boat.
Drawbacks – you sit ‘’deeper’’ in this boat so you may prefer an extra seat pad if you have a short torso.  There is more plastic due to the taller deck so it’s less light,  and while it’s a good surfer it’s harder to spin on a wave or low-angled hole than the Zen (but I’ll take this planing hull over no planing hull any day!).  Not quite as easy to keep straight in rough water, but few boats are as easy as the Zen.
 Clay Wright _ 30' Pine Creek Falls Zen _ by Stephen Wrigh
 I hope this helps you choose the right Jackson for your size and needs!  Serious creeker?  Go with the Karma series as that’s what it’s for!   Big water / river runner who likes a sporty paddling good time?   Go with a smaller size Zen for your weight and it paddles like a puffed up old school play boat.  New to whitewater OR seasoned veteran that wants some slalom-style sportiness on the hard creeks?  Go with a Zen size where you’re on the lower end of the weight ranges so you can carry some gear while pushing your limits and still get good surfs along the way.
Hit me up for more any time – my first name @Jacksonkayak.com
Clay Wright

Comments on “Zen Review: Zen Sm,Md, Lg vs Karma Md for medium paddler”

  1. Stefan
    February 20, 2015 at 8:08 am

    Excellent article, which I think will help a lot of people like me wavering on the edge between the two sizes, so thank you Clay.

    Medium or large for me?

    I’m 176 lbs (no gear), with winter gear up to 190lbs, 5′ 11″, inseam 32, shoe 10.5 (US),

    I’ll never reach the dizzy heights of grade IV, and am aiming at grade 3.5 at most.

    I live to surf in small waves (that’s all the local 2+ river has to offer) , and play with front enders, for me its the best part of the experience and probably as far as I’ll will take the play element. Boofing on grade 3 might be fun one day. I have a half decent roll that needs more work. I’d also like to surf in the ocean one day, as I’ll be moving there in a year or two.

    Yesterday after reading the updated weight ranges (thanks for that), I was thinking the large Zen

    After reading this excellent article about this amazing boat, I am thinking the medium Zen. Apologies for all the details, but I am still wavering, and as I have already ordered a Zen, I need to confirm the size without testing.

    1. March 5, 2015 at 7:50 pm

      Hey Again Stefan –

      Zen Md for sportier paddling and surfing – fine at 176lbs just less suited to hard creeks at that weight. For surfing and enders the Md sounds perfect. I feel the medium works well for most river-running and easier water uses as the older specs indicate but for creeking you should size up. Hope this helps! Clay

  2. Danny Hopkins
    February 20, 2015 at 1:14 pm

    Hey, Clay! Great overview; this really helps me with my choice of the new Zen medium; I value your advice.
    Thank you,
    Danny Hopkins

  3. Danny Hopkins
    March 3, 2015 at 9:43 pm

    Clay, just need your expertise about the new Zen medium-I’m 175#,5’10”,34 waist, and size 10 shoe with inseam of 31-32. I would be running only rivers class 2-3 (Nantahala,New,Nolichucky and possibly the Ocoee) and noted in your review that the medium would accommodate a paddler above your 170#. This boat would be my one and only and I want to make the right choice; what’s your advice?

    1. March 5, 2015 at 7:21 pm

      Hey Danny –

      The Zen medium will be sporty and fun – paddled mine yesterday and love it. Stern subs out easier than the Lg in powerful water but it’s still a great boat for me. In the Lg I feel more impervious to cross currents and boils – it’s a more floaty ride and makes the rapids feel a bit easier, though I pay for it with the weight when loading the car or walking up from the take out. At 175 it’s a personal preference on sporty and light or uber-forgiving and heavier.. more than ”which size is best”. Hope this helps! Clay

      1. Danny HopkinsDannyHopkins
        March 5, 2015 at 11:07 pm

        Thank you Clay, that extra carry-out weight will more than likely make up my mind since I have a back issue. I appreciate your prompt response.
        Best wishes,

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