How to Learn to Whitewater Kayak

The basic information you need to know as a beginning whitewater kayaker.


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    Learn basic paddling and safety techniques with an instructor. Use a forward stroke for propulsion, sweep stroke for turning, and brace for support.
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    Learn to Eskimo roll with an instructor. While you probably have a friend who would teach you to roll, this is the most important skill you'll learn in your paddling career. DON'T SKIMP. Talk to your boating shop to find an American Canoe Assoc. certified instructor. Not only will they be able to teach you quicker, they will also focus on making sure that you'll be able to roll back up in the big water. or BCU certified in the UK.
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    Begin in a pool. It's foolish to think that you'll be able to just hop on the river and go down. You need to begin with pool sessions that will familiarize you with your boat, learning to "wet exit" and the basic paddle strokes.
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    Get the right gear. Talk to your local boating shop about what kayak is appropriate for your skill level. Think about the type of paddling you'd like to do. Do you simply want to run class II-III whitewater or would you like to learn to pull cartwheels, endos and blunts in a hole with the big dogs? Don't forget about your PFD, helmet and paddle. Search online ( is a great site) to make sure you're getting the best deal. Boating shops are also your best source of information about local instructors and other beginning paddlers.
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    Join a local whitewater boating club or online group to get acquainted with other kayakers and to help organize kayaking trips. Paddling in a group is best for safety on the river and for shuttle vehicles at put-in and take-out locations.
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    Get a river guidebook or website that describes the rivers in your area. Each section of river is rated on the International Scale of River Difficulty. Beginning kayakers are trained on easy Class I and Class II river sections. Then you can gradually move up to river sections with higher classes of whitewater as your paddling skills improve.
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    Find the websites and phone numbers that provide river flow updates for your area. River flows can vary dramatically based on weather and dam releases. River guidebooks should describe the minimum flows needed for boating and how higher flows affect whitewater difficulty on each section of river.
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    Join one or more of the regional or national groups for whitewater boating and river conservation to help preserve the rivers upon which the sport depends.


  • Be aggressive! Don't take gentle paddle strokes when you're actually on the river. Pick your line through a rapid and commit.
  • When learning to roll, remember that the last thing to come out of the water should be your head. This will allow you to remain stable throughout your roll and make your life easier overall!
  • Rafting is good too. A great way to learn how to navigate a certain river is to sign up for a commercial raft trip if possible. These guides do this for a living, day in and day out and know the river like the back of their hands! Ask questions!
  • Don't litter. There's nothing worse than being on a pristine waterway only to have it spoiled by an inconsiderate jerk's trash floating by. Pack it in, and pack it out.
  • Make sure you account for river flows when deciding what runs to do. Rivers can vary a lot in difficulty depending on the water level and it is important to know what you are getting yourself into. There are often web pages with flows from different states or specific rivers. American Whitewater is also a good place to start.
  • Taking a class will often mean that you don't have to worry abut buying gear the first couple of times. You should be able to get package deals on pool, roll and river classes, with gear provided so you can at least get a taste of kayaking before spending big bucks.
  • Buy your boat local and shop for gear on the internet. and are two of my favorites.
  • Don't wait too long to get on the river. While pool sessions are great, it's all about enjoying the outdoors.
  • ProfessorPaddle: is a good example of river gauges and descriptions for whitewater boaters.


  • Overconfidence - Don't get in over your head. The river doesn't care who you are, how much you make or if you're just stupid. Take the time to learn properly from qualified individuals.
  • If in a kayaking competition and you see someone in real danger, you must help him or her, or you risk disqualification for life.

Things You'll Need

  • Kayak - if you're beginning you'll probably want something with a higher volume. You can always upgrade later. Don't forget flotation airbags! Don't be afraid to buy used... you can usually get a great deal on an older boat that might be right for you.
  • Paddle - Talk to your boating professional to find out what you need. Don't be afraid to buy used here either.
  • Neoprene Spray skirt - covers the cockpit to keep the majority of water out of your boat.
  • Helmet - If you'll primarily be boating a very rocky, shallow river or creek make sure it has adequate protection for your dome.
  • PFD (Personal Flotation Device) - Talk to your boating professional to ensure that it meets Coast Guard specifications for your type of sport. Try it on first and make sure that you'll have adequate mobility. Don't skimp here!
  • Paddle-jacket or Dry top - Depending on your climate you'll need some level of protection from the elements. You may also want to invest in insulation layers.
  • Wet suit or Dry suit - Again depending on your climate. If you can afford the dry suit, make sure it properly fits, has a good warranty - then buy it.
  • Good water-shoes or sandals - Make sure they'll hold up to short hikes and rough terrain along the river.
  • Dry bag - Somewhere to stash your lunch, your smokables, etc.

Sources and Citations

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Article Info

Categories: Canoes, Kayaks, and Rowboats