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Whitewater Kayaking

The Basics

Rivers are beautiful and relaxing places to spend your free time. They also offer plenty of excitement, thrills and challenges.

Carrie on the Mongap River

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.

Kayaking is one of the best boats 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.

Whitewater kayaking offers 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, whitewater 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 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. 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 flat water.

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 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 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 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 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 /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 off day.

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.

Extreme Kayaking

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 line.

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 whitewater 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.

Carrie running Zoar Gap


  • 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 line.
  • 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 conditions.
  • Scout any questionable rapids.
  • 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.

See SheGear Stories for information about Lora Cox's adventure to the Futaleufu river and Chris Spelius' Camp Tres Monjas in Chile. Or, check out their web site at
Chile River

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