kayaking offers plenty of excitement, thrills and
are beautiful and relaxing places to spend your free time,
but can also be challenging.
There are several options
for enjoying rivers. Whitewater vessels range from rafts,
canoes, and kayaks. And within each of these groups are
a wide range of types and designs. For example you could
consider tubing the simplest form of rafting. Though most
rafters don't want to be associated with tubers. Tubers
are notorious for getting into trouble, getting in over
their heads and having no safety equipment.
Whitewater kayaking is one of the best
ways to build your whitewater skills. The boat is light
and very reactive, so you'll begin to feel the river.
This is important for eventually being able to read the
river. Some people seem to have a natural ability to read
water. It's subtle, but key to avoiding potentially hazards
as well as finding good clean paths or lines.
plenty of excitement and adrenaline. It's different from
most sports in that a major part of the sport is in your
head. You have to keep your fear in check. The only way
to really build your skills is to be on the water, so
you just have to get in there and do it. And what most
beginners forget, kayaking is about being upside
down. It's about playing in the water: you paddle up the
eddyline, drop into a wave, surf, get capsized, roll back
up, get back on the wave, surf, drop your bow down and
spin your boat in a pirouette.
Where to Begin
For many their first whitewater kayaking experience
is in the pool with an instructor. A certified instructor
is key. The first thing you'll want to learn is what it
feels like to be upside down and how to get out of your
boat. Once you are comfortable with this, you're ready
to move on.
After learning to get out
of your boat, there are two separate schools of thought
regarding the next step in whitewater kayaking. Both have pros and cons. One
idea is to get onto the river to learn your boat handling
skills and of course how to "swim". Swimming
refers to capsizing and coming out of your boat versus
rolling the boat back up. You are more vulnerable swimming
than in your boat. Being a good swimmer on whitewater
is much different than just treading water. There is a
correct position that will help to prevent injuries. The
correct swimming position is feet down stream in order
to fend off any rocks. Your head should be up looking
for dangers, and arms working to control your direction.
Remaining calm is important. It's best to hold onto your
paddle, and if you can your boat to swim them to shore.
However, you may need to let them go if it becomes dangerous.
Your boat should always be down stream of you. You should
hold on to either the bow or stern to tow it to shore.
This will reduce the amount of drag and make it easier
to swim. Your instructor will have you practice this on
The beauty of most beginner
river sections is that there are large pools at the bottom
of the rapids, which allows a "swimmer" to regroup.
This is a good place to practice your moves.
The other philosophy in whitewater kaying is
that you should next learn the Eskimo roll, which entails
learning to right yourself while remaining in the boat.
It's incredibly rewarding when you do your first roll,
because it seems so impossible when you're starting. Some
people get it their first lesson, most take 4 or 5 lessons,
and still some take much longer. There are plenty of good
paddlers that didn't have a roll for years. How quickly
you learn seems to be a function of how flexible your
are. However, anyone can learn to roll, you just have
to be determined. There are two different styles, the
sweep and the C to C. What ever style you learn, remember
everyone's style is slightly different.
If your second step is to
learn the roll, you'll spend plenty of time in the pool
and get pretty confident on flat water. You'll be comfortable
with your boat and your balance. This will help you to
learn your river skills quickly. Though when you finally
do get on the water, all that confidence will go right
out the window. Moving water is a whole different story.
One of the cons is that you'll feel like an intermediate,
but you're not. You haven't yet mastered many of the river
skills you'll need.
The only way for you to
improve your kayaking skills is to get on the water. You'll find
as with most sports, the more you go the faster you will
progress. If there is a long period between trips, you'll
have to get your balance and the feel again. There are
plenty of skills to practice, like ferrying across the
river and catching eddies. All of these are important
skills and are worth spending lots of time and energy
on. Any and all paddling will be beneficial.
Almost immediately you'll
learn your mandatory gear; Boat, Paddle, Spray Skirt,
Lifejacket (PFD), and Helmut. You can't paddle without
these. It's a good idea to wear even the PFD and helmet
during your flat water/pool sessions. This will help you
get used to them.
Once committed to the sport,
you'll need to get equipment. Even though you're a beginner,
having your own boat will allow you to get out there.
It's also easier to stick with one boat until your techniques
are solid. There are many good beginner boats that are
available used. The one item you shouldn't skimp on is
your paddle. Beginner paddles are still expensive and
cumbersome. You want a quality paddle that you can use
for a while. Beginner boats will always have a use or
you can sell them. However, you'll be unhappy with your
beginner paddle almost immediately and you won't be able
to sell it. Most of the paddles you use during your instructions
will be high quality. It makes a difference, so spend
the money and get a good one.
There are a couple of great
ways to improve your whitewater skills. The first one is to find
a wave with a nice pool behind it and get in there! It
takes key skills just to get onto a wave. You need to
read the water and find a path so you can paddle up to
it. Paddle hard to get in there. Feel the wave grab the
boat. Maneuver the boat to keep it in position. If you
get flipped, roll back up and start over. You'll be working
on all your skills at one time: reading the water, your
stroke from a power stroke to fine adjustments, bracing,
and rolling. What more do you need.
Another great way to improve
your skills is to paddle with kayakers that have better
skills. You can pick up a lot just by watching. They'll
also be able to give you tips and critique your style.
As an intermediate you run
the biggest risk of getting in over your head. After all,
you want to paddle, and your paddling group will be on
all kinds of rivers. Your skills might be there, but your
head might not be ready, or visa versa. Also don't forget
that rivers always change. Just because you ran it once,
doesn't mean that it will be the same next time. The volume
of water is a big variable and is very inconsistent.
Some people like the thrill
of surprise, but whitewater kayaking is not the place for that thrill.
Before you get onto a new river. Talk to others who have
run it. You'll want to know what class of river it is.
For more information on the river rating system, see www.nationalgeographic.com/features /96/selway/j3/frapids.html.
Is it very technical with lots of rocks and plenty of
holes? What are the hazards on the river? Get as much
information as possible so you are prepared for it. It's
important to know what you're getting into. Catching eddies
above the rapid is mandatory for scouting from the water.
If you aren't 100% sure you can catch eddies, then you
should be scouting the rapid from land. If you scout a
rapid and you don't feel good about running it, then don't.
Many great boaters have echoed this lesson. Don't paddle
to prove something to someone else. Everyone has their
On the other hand, if you're
going to improve, you've got to push yourself. A little
bit of pressure can be a good thing. You need to be uncomfortable
sometimes; else you're not challenging yourself. It can
feel like a fine line. Just remember to listen to yourself.
It is highly recommended
as you improve your skills and push your level of difficulty
that you also improve your safety skills. Take a safety
course. On class III rapids you'll begin to notice boaters
standing ready on the rocks with a throw bag. They are
there to throw you a line if you get into trouble. You
owe it to yourself and your boating buddies to be able
to offer help and rescue them if needed, as you will need
to count on them to offer you help.
The more you kayak the better
your boat handling skills will be, and advanced boating
skills come with extensive experience. Repetition also
helps. Many expert boater will run the same play spot
over and over until they feel they've completely mastered
it, they know all the forces that are acting upon that
spot. Of course next time you run the same spot it will
be different, different water levels, etc.
Advanced boaters don't think
about what paddle strokes they use. This comes second
nature and are usually a combination of the techniques
and stokes you learn as a beginner and intermediate. However
they do spend time scouting and mapping out their perfect
Even as an expert boater,
you can have your good days and your bad. Listen to yourself.
If you don't feel right about running a rapid, then don't.
Run the river for yourself, not to prove something to
someone else. Sooner or later you'll experience the phenomenon
called "they did it so I should do it". It's
got less to do with skill level, as it has to do with
physical and mental state. If you're unfocused, tired,
a little off kilter, not as aggressive as usual, these
are all signs that say "save it for another day".
As you become more involved
in the kayaking community, you'll learn more about the
environmental and political issues that surround the sport.
It requires lots of energy to keep the rivers clean and
open to boaters. Look into participating in organizations
that are working to do this. Your membership dues are
the first steps to supporting these causes. Two excellent
organizations are the American Canoe Association and the
American Whitewater Affiliation. The mission of the American
Whitewater Affiliation is to conserve and restore America's
whitewater resources and to enhance opportunities to enjoy
them safely. For more information on these check out the
Lessons and Associations page.
- Never paddle by yourself.
In many cases you can head to the put-in and find a
group to paddle with. But don't head out without a group.
- If you're not comfortable
with the situation don't do it. You are responsible
for your own safety.
- For all trips be fully
prepared with water, food and all your gear.
- If you need a wetsuit,
a farmer john style without sleeves is the best. A full
suit can be too restricting under the arms and will
make it difficult and uncomfortable to paddle.
- Always keep a few energy
bars on hand while on the water. If you begin to feel
thirsty and tired you're already dehydrated.
- There are no bathrooms
out there, so go before you launch. Of course there
is always the bushes.
- You can pick up good
paddling tips from following a more advanced boater's
- While scouting, watch
several boaters run the rapid. This will help identify
any difficult spots as well as the easy lines.
- A small locking carabiner
is a handy item to secure your car keys to the inside
pocket of your lifejacket. Always secure keys to yourself,
not your boat.
- Use your common sense.
Don't just follow someone else's lead.
- Know the difficulty level
of the river first. If it's a step up in level, be prepared
to walk or portage around the rapids.
- Plan your trip by confirming
paddle buddies, checking release levels and weather
- Scout any questionable
- Always kayak with another
paddler who is able to rescue you if you get into trouble.
- Dress for the weather
and water temperature. Layers work well. Hypothermia
is not uncommon.
- Don't drink and paddle.
Drinking on the river is never done. Yet, a beer and
some munchies at the take out are not uncommon.
- Paddlers often face more
dangers on land than on the water. Be careful getting
your boat to the river at the put-in and back to the
car at the take-out. These are usually narrow rocky
paths that can be treacherous.
- Poison ivy and poison
oak are abundant on the riverbanks. Learn to distinguish
and bring lotion if you're highly allergic.
- Always double check that
your spray skirt release loop is out and free to pull.
- Your boat should have
float bags in the stern and bow.