Get Active with Whitewater Kayaking

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Whitewater kayaking is the perfect combination of adrenaline, nature, and camaraderie. The ATV of paddling!

Kayaking - the ATV of Paddling

Whitewater kayaking is the perfect combination of adrenaline, nature and camaraderie. In a way, it’s the all-terrain vehicle of paddling: you can float along on calm waters or take on challenging rapids. It takes you from lakes and ponds to rivers where you’ll face obstacles of varying difficulty.

Where to Start and What to Expect

For whitewater kayaking, you should start out with instruction from someone with experience under their belt. You’ll need their guidance in learning river safety, how to move your boat, and how to get out should you flip - and you will flip. But don’t be intimidated! A wet exit - the term used for getting out of a capsized kayak - is easy to get the hang of after you’ve tried it a couple of times.

Whitewater Kayaker
Whitewater kayaks are very responsive

Once you feel comfortable with a wet exit, it’s time to try getting around. Whitewater boats are very responsive to the paddler’s motions, and learning to move with your boat and steer it with your entire body is part of the fun!

Flatwater practice will give way to river running, where you can gradually move from class I to class II rapids and even further as you gain confidence and skills. You’ll learn to maneuver around rocks and paddle your way down the river. You can even learn to surf on the river by catching waves and letting them hold your boat in place as the rest of the river moves by. These may sound like complicated moves, but they’re attainable to even kayakers with only a few days of experience. The glory of whitewater kayaking is that the same principles apply to features of all levels. So while it’s true that you can find huge waves and surf them once you’ve been paddling for a long time, you can also find small waves to surf when you’re just starting out! 

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Whitewater Gear

The gear you need for whitewater kayaking is similar to what you need for other types of paddling, but there are a few important differences. You’ll want to find a local outfitter to discuss the options that are right for you.

Like most sit-in kayaks, whitewater boats really become an extension of the paddler as they make their way down the river. They’re shorter than other boats for optimal turning and maneuvering, and there are different designs specifically for different kinds of rivers.

You’ll also need a spray skirt - a piece of gear the kayaker wears to cover the kayak’s cockpit - and a personal flotation device (PFD). Whitewater PFDs are designed specifically for the sport. They sit higher on the paddler than others, allowing a comfortable fit with the boat, are designed for efficient arm movement, and provide added flotation for turbulent waters.

Whitewater paddles are shorter than recreational or sea kayaks to allow more vertical strokes. They come in different sizes, so you’ll want to look for a paddle to fit your height and level of experience. Proper head protection is also a must in whitewater. As with other pieces of gear, there are helmets made specifically for whitewater kayaking, and you’ll want to find the right one for you.

Get Going!

Once you’ve got all your gear together, you’re ready to head to the water and have fun!

Janet Burnett Cowie

Janet is the Director of Instruction Programs at Zoar Outdoor. She is an ACA Level 4 Whitewater Kayak Instructor Trainer Educator, Level 4 River Canoe Instructor/Level 3 River Canoe Instructor Trainer and Advanced Swiftwater Rescue Instructor. In 2011 Janet received ACA's Excellence in Instruction Award. She helped to organize the first Whitewater Symposium at Zoar Outdoor in 2003 and again in 2009, and continues to be involved with the Whitewater Symposium movement.

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