2015 Jackson Zen Review

By Ethan Talley

                Here at Sunrift, we are fortunate to have a handful of paddlers on staff to help identify the best boats and products to help the customer get out on the water no matter the adventure.  Recently, we were fortunate to get the new 2015 Jackson Zen Medium as an addition to our rental fleet. This sent our paddling staff into an excited frenzy of who would be first to try out the new Zen.  Here is one of our staff’s take on the boat.

I will say I was not a fan of the first generation of the Zen. I felt like it did everything well, but nothing great. I could go through the minutia of details that led me to not like the first generation Zen, but space is limited and I’m afraid I would expose how nerdy I am about kayaks. The one thing I felt the old Zen did really well was enders. The deck profile made it ideal for explosive stand-ups and pirouettes. In fact, this past summer, I was able to do a few cartwheels in the Pigeon wave in the smallest size.

Old Zen:

kayak_jackson_zen 2012

New Zen:


                The amazing thing about unwrapping the new Zen was the complete new look the boat has thanks to the redesign of the boat’s volume, deck profiling, and overall rocker. From a purely aesthetic perspective, this boat is a sharp-looking craft. Honestly, I was excited to paddle this boat. I don’t get excited about paddling new boats from Jackson as normally, I just don’t fit well in them. I find myself to be in an awkward place where I am tall, but not very heavy. I come from a paddling education background where I analyze boats from the perspective of a learner and describe the boat in those terms.  I am also extremely rough on boats. Sad to say, I am not a gentle paddler when it comes to plastic boats. This makes boat selection difficult. So, how did the new Zen do under my very thorough test?

My stats: I’m 6’3” tall with a 34” inseam and size 13 feet

First impression: this boat is slick. I mean literally, it’s a slippery boat. I put it on my wife’s car and it quite literally slid right off. Jackson must be waxing their boats before packaging or something. Once we got to the river, I took the boat off the car and sat in it. What kind of adjustments would I have to make to fit in this Medium? I first pushed the bulkhead as far as it could go with the included foam footpads. I then adjusted the seat accordingly so I was sitting fully in the seat. That means I had to move the seat all the way back. Normally in a whitewater boat, trim is extremely important and moving a seat back all the way tends to make boats behave pretty poorly. I trudged on expecting my stern to be grabby and the boat slide out of eddys as if it were on ice. I also threw in a few hip pad shims. Great news! Jackson has redone their hip pad system and adding or removing shims is extremely easy!



As soon as I slid into the water, I recognized the familiar stability of the Zen. The boat was created to be a confidence-inspiring river runner. Good news, the stability is there and the added volume in the stern has created a very capable boat. Through the first sets of ripples and waves, I noticed the tweaked rocker profile. The boat stays dry. One really nice aspect I found was the bow seems to want to ride up and over instead of through waves and features. This was another aspect of the original Zen design that I felt was not good.  The edge to edge transition seems to have been messed with as well, because I don’t ever remember gliding through turns and switching edges feeling so good in a planing hull. It feels similar to displacement hulled boats in that regard. Landing boofs is similar to displacement hulls in the aspect of cushion. The Zen is just as soft as leading creek boats with fully displacement hulls.

Remember how I said the boat was slick on the roof rack? Good news speed freaks! The Zen is properly fast. It has the acceleration of something much longer and sleeker. This boat is a welcome improvement in my opinion to the original design and is much more versatile than the original boat, as well! This boat would be just as comfortable on steep creeks as it would on big water. I know that Jackson coins the Karma as the true creek boat in their lineup, but come on, this boat is just as good (and faster)!  To those who prefer to take the river a little slower, don’t be intimidated by the speed. One can easily control the speed and transfer it into dynamic and snappy eddy catching and peel outs, slick s-turns, and simple one-stroke ferries. The boat doesn’t feel too long or too short. It’s a perfect medium-sized river runner!

So after two great afternoons on the river, I feel like I’ve given a great profile of the boat in a positive way. Since this is a full review, I must include some negatives. The back band is too high. Jackson will tell you that you can fix that with a purchase of their back band lowering kit, but I’m not sure one should have to fix that right off the bat. The volume measured is via Jackson’s website is 73 gallons. This is not, however, similar to other boats close to 73 gallons like the Dagger Mamba 8.1. From a visual perspective, both boats are similar in volume.  Different manufacturers measure their volume differently. What about other negative aspects? I can’t think of many.

There are some things I would like to say about boat sizing. Jackson is really good at making boats for the small and the very large paddler alike. We can see that from the popularity of both the small and large Karma. This new Zen is in a precarious position involving size. It is perfect for a wide range of paddlers and even for me, at the top end of the height limit for the boat; it did not feel too small. I am dearly afraid that the new Large will be too big for most paddlers and require too many add-ons for those in the medium weight range to upsize and paddle as an expedition boat or even a creek boat. What do I mean by add-ons? Things such as adding Sweet Cheeks to raise the paddler up enough to not be swallowed by the boat, lowering the back band via the lowering kit, etc. all tools to help people achieve great connection and comfort in boats. These are all great tools, but if somehow Jackson could keep the back band height and cockpit rim height of the Large at the same height as the Medium, I think the boat would be phenomenal! We will see in time how the Larges and Smalls perform compared to the Medium. This is a great boat! We have the Medium as a demo here at Sunrift. We are anxiously awaiting the arrival of our Small and Large Zen’s!





From the Jackson website:

Product Name Zen Medium
Model Year 2015
Category (WW, Rec, Touring, Fish, Youth) WW
Style (SOT, Sit-In, etc) Sit-in
Length (ft, in) 8′ 6″
Width (in) 26″
Height (in) 14.5″
Volume (Gallons) 73
Weight (Pounds) 43
# Seats 1
Seat Type (WW, Elite, Mold) WW
Footrest Type (Peg, Foam, WW, Mold, etc) Uni-shock
Max Inseam (in) 36
Max Foot (Men’s) 13
Weight Range (lbs) 130-190
Total Gear/Paddler Capacity (lbs) 200
Cockpit Dimensions 34.5″X 20.25″
Material Linear Poly
MSRP Price US $ $1199



Here are the predicted specs of the Small/ Large based off the CAD work- they are subject to change.

Length Width Height Volume CP Length CP Width
Small Zen 97 1/2 24 3/8 13 5/8 68 23 1/2 20 1/4
Large Zen 106 1/2 26 5/8 14 7/8 89 1/2 25 1/2 22 1/4



Here’s a video of the old generation Zen on the Chattooga:


(Courtesy of Jackson Kayak)


Here’s a video of the new Zen on Section IV Chattooga:


(Courtesy of Jackson Kayak/Chris Hipgrave)




Categories: Paddling