Getting Started in WW Kayaking
The main reason that I live full time on the road, enjoying the overland/van life lifestyle, is to pursue my outdoor adventure passions—the top of which is chasing quality whitewater. New experiences, which are both mentally and physically challenging, are what drive me in life, and my off-road adventuremobile was purpose-built to get me, my kayaks and my friends to remote rivers around the globe.
Without my 4×4 vehicle, I wouldn’t be able to get to many of the unique and interesting river access points, which are the starting points for the many stories of whitewater glory that I tell around the campfire.
When you think about whitewater kayaking, the first images that come to mind are probably guys throwing themselves off big waterfalls or flying through the air while surfing massive river waves. These are the most eye-catching visuals of this diverse and immersive outdoor adventure sport, which is why they are used in advertising, viral videos and magazine covers.
The reality of the sport/lifestyle of whitewater kayaking is much more about enjoying flowing rivers on a much more basic level, with only a small niche within the sport going big and “hucking the gnar.”
Beginners start on class I and II whitewater, while many paddlers get to class III fairly quickly. Most whitewater kayakers fall into the class III/IV zone for their skills and regular outings, while a small percentage chase after class V and VI on a regular basis. It takes lots of training, experience and passion to get proficient enough to consistently safely navigate class V+ whitewater.
Most mainstream media focuses on the difficult life threatening aspects of whitewater kayaking, while missing completely the main reasons most of us participate in this rewarding endeavor. There might not be a more raw and visceral interaction with nature than navigating a kayak through moving water. Most people who identify as whitewater kayakers find it a great way to get outdoors, be a part of an inclusive supportive worldwide community and a truly rewarding physical and mental challenge.
One of the best feelings in the world is surfing a kayak on a river wave. The feeling of the river flowing by as you sit relatively stationary is a surreal experience, which is sure to bring a smile to your face. I can vividly remember the very first time I had that feeling, and have now pursued recreating it for over 18 years. The other feeling that I strive to replicate, which I’m sure many outdoor people can identify with, is that feeling of experiencing a remote wilderness destination for the first time, places you know few, if any, people have ever experienced. Chasing that experience has taken me around the globe, to some of the most remote and spectacular river canyons on earth.
Whitewater kayaking comes in many flavors, and really does offer something for nearly everyone. The main three categories of whitewater kayaking are river running, creeking and playboating. River running is where most people start, and is really an integral part of all whitewater kayaking. It is about navigating a kayak safely down a river, usually in the company of good friends and through the most action packed section of river your skills will allow.
Creeking is usually done on smaller navigable waterways, which many times have much more gradient, or vertical drop. This tends to create harder more demanding rapids, which increases the risks, while also increasing the adrenaline and adventure.
Playboating is all about doing freestyle maneuvers in a whitewater feature, usually a hole or wave, which can be done at a “park and play” location or while traveling down river. Many paddlers find the aspect of the sport that appeals to them the most and run with it, while others love it all and develop their skills across the spectrum of whitewater kayaking categories.
Each category of whitewater kayaking requires a specific style whitewater kayak, purposely designed to excel in that category. Modern river running is generally done in 7 to 11 foot plastic enclosed kayaks, while creeking is done in higher volume kayaks of the same length, generally with more rocker. There is a large amount of crossover between river runner kayaks and creek boats, but creekers are generally designed to be more maneuverable in tight quarters, resurface faster and be more controllable off vertical drops.
Playboats on the other hand are very specific, and are generally under 6’5” long, low volume and have very flat bottoms, with hard carving rails. Playboats are generally less stable, much slower and harder to paddle in a straight line than river runners and creekers, but much more maneuverable, both down river and while surfing river waves and holes. Most beginners will start paddling a river runner or creeker, in order to hone their skills in a more confidence inspiring boat, as they are more stable, easy to paddle straight, comfortable and easy to roll.
Whitewater kayaking does require some specific gear, but doesn’t have to be all that gear intensive. The main things you will need are; a kayak, paddle, personal floatation device (PFD), spray skirt, helmet and river booties.
The kayak keeps you afloat while the paddle is for propulsion and navigation. The spray skirt is worn around the waist and attaches to the cockpit of the kayak, keeping water out of the kayak, both when you’re right-side up and upside down.
The PFD keeps you afloat when you take a swim, while the helmet protects your head from rocks. River booties, or shoes with good drainage and a sticky rubber sole designed to provide traction on wet rocks, allow you to walk around dangerous rapids and generally navigate the shores of the river confidently.
Whitewater kayaking is also full of other unique niche categories, which require specialized gear. Multi-day or exploratory whitewater kayaking requires dry bags and lightweight backpacking style camping gear. Slalom kayak involves navigating hanging gates in a custom composite kayak on a designated course, and is the only whitewater discipline included in the Olympics. Other niches include wildwater racing, creek racing, big wave surfing, boatercross and running big waterfalls. Some whitewater enthusiasts prefer to paddle with one blade while on their knees, either in a specially outfitted open canoe or a decked kayak that has special C-1 outfitting.
The best way to get into whitewater kayaking is to take a class from a professional. For your first class, I’d recommend a half-day experience on the river, or a two-hour experience in the pool. Both are good options, but the key is to have a good experience your first time, focusing on having fun and being safe, over learning tons of skills.
I’ve found that warm water will help with that fun factor, at least until you get more into the sport and buy warmer gear for yourself. Learning some basics and getting extremely comfortable, both right-side up and upside down, in a kayak are the keys to success.
Many people find the claustrophobic nature of being in a decked kayak with a skirt on to be their biggest fear about getting into whitewater kayaking, thinking they might get stuck in the kayak when it flips over. The reality is that spray skirts are designed to come off when you want them to, and gravity will work every time when you’re upside down and want to exit the kayak.
A good instructor will quickly and efficiently get you comfortable while up-side-down in a kayak, helping dispel that fear, and allowing you to progress much faster in all other areas of kayaking. Once comfortable upside down it is also much easier to learn how to roll the kayak right-side up again, which quickly ups the fun factor and lowers the effort required to whitewater kayak.
If you really can’t get over that feeling of being “stuck” in a whitewater kayak, don’t worry, there are still great ways for you to get out and enjoy whitewater rivers. The first option is the inflatable kayak. These are made of heavy-duty raft material and are super stable. The downside is that they aren’t nearly as maneuverable or efficient as hard shell kayaks. Another option is the whitewater sit-on-top (SOT), which is a great compromise between the two. Whitewater SOT kayaks offer great maneuverability and speed, while also being extremely easy to get on and off of.
Once you get hooked on the wild world of whitewater kayaking you’ll quickly realize that the community around this activity is second to none, and extremely inclusive. Local paddling clubs around the globe offer great ways to further your learning, get involved in local river stewardship efforts and a quick way to find paddling partners that will probably become life long friends.
Online resources, like American Whitewater’s National River Database, can provide you with in-depth knowledge of your local rivers, helping you quickly identify new places to explore, which meet your paddling skill level and interests. It is also a great idea to pick up a print guidebook for your local area, as they are a truly indispensable resource of paddling knowledge, and get you the info you need when you find yourself in the wilderness outside of cell phone coverage.
Whitewater rodeos, races, festivals and the like are held throughout the year, around the globe. Some are water dependent, but many are based on scheduled dam releases—guaranteeing you amazing whitewater and lots of paddling partners. Whitewater events are great ways to meet new people, interact with the top manufacturers in the industry and get great deals on gear from your local paddling shops.
Once you get over the scary marketing hype, perceived fear of getting stuck in a kayak and have some basic paddling skills, knowledge and experience under your belt you’ll look at all those waterways around you in a very different light. They are all playgrounds that are waiting to be explored. Grab a kayak, a paddle, a buddy and get on the water!
Difficulty of WW Scale
Moving water that has riffles and small waves, but few obstructions, and offers easy rescue with little risk of injury to swimmer.
Occasional maneuvering might be required, but the rapids have straightforward routes that are easily navigated and offer little risk of injury to a swimmer.
Requires maneuvering around obstacles in fast current, and scouting is recommended for inexperienced paddlers. Swims rarely result in injury, but self-rescue can be a challenge.
Powerful fast paced rapids that have obstacles and river features that will require skill to maneuver around and/or through. Scouting is usually advised in order to find a safe route. Risk of injury to swimmers is moderate to high.
Fast-paced complex rapids, which can be extremely long, and offer extreme hazards. Expert boat control and river reading skills are required, and scouting is highly advised. Swims are dangerous and rescue can be extremely difficult.
Rapids that have never, or are rarely, run and at the extremes of difficulty. Swims are highly consequential and rescue is often times impossible.
Whitewater Kayak Resources
NW – Wet Planet Whitewater
SW – Otter Bar Lodge Kayak School
Rockies – Rocky Mountain Outdoor Center
NE- Zoar Outdoor
Mid-Atlantic – Calleva’s Liquid Adventures
SE – Nantahala Outdoor Center
Canada – Wilderness Tours
This article was originally published in the July/August 2017 issue of TREAD magazine.