The Beginner’s Guide to Whitewater Kayaking: Taking the Plunge

whitewater kayaking

By Phil Lehman

From Flat Water to Whitewater

Thinking of making the jump from flat water to whitewater kayaking, but not sure where to start? The chasm is not as wide as you think.

With a few foundational skills, and the right equipment, you could be well on your way towards your adrenaline pumping dreams. Don’t fret the churning currents, respect them, and devour this guide to conquering the swift water.


Right off the bat let’s talk equipment. What you’re riding on flat water is not going to give you the same results on whitewater. While a recreational kayak may be fine for class I rivers, eventually you’ll want to move on to some more advanced rapids and heart pounding adventure. Get a whitewater kayak early and start getting the hang of it. Get a feel for how it maneuvers. Every skill you hone, do it with the vessel you plan to use on whitewater. Dial it in and you’ll be that much closer to being ready for the mayhem. Check out Backcountry’s guide to whitewater kayaks, here.

When thinking about a kayak, focus on what your goal is. Do you mainly want to do some river running, or are you interested in doing tricks and playing at whitewater parks? Big drops? Slalom? Whitewater kayaks come in just about as many shapes and sizes as people, so figuring out where your interests lie is key to picking out the right kayak.

Your paddle could use an upgrade too. Whitewater kayaks play different in the water, so you’ll need a paddle that can transfer every stroke into momentum and maneuverability. The Deso kayak Paddle is a great paddle for getting into the sport. It’s indexed, ovalized grips help with your hand placement in addition to keeping you attuned to the orientation of your blade. And the lightweight carbon fiber shaft lessens fatigue.

A few other must haves include: a helmet, PFD, throw rope, spray skirt, footwear, outwear appropriate to climate, and float bags.


Now, let’s get into the nitty gritty, the skills that will move you from flat water to not so flat water.
Days spent paddling the lakes and calm water have most likely given you an understanding for different strokes and how to get around on the water.

One of the most important skills to master before attempting whitewater is the roll. There are several different methods, but the principle is the same: when capsized, use your paddle, or hands, as leverage to hip snap your way back to an upright position. These techniques take practice. Mastering this skill will not only keep you safer on the water but give you the confidence you need to conquer the rushing waves. NRS has some great videos going over different techniques for rolling. Find a few that work best for you and practice, practice, practice. You’ll need a few different methods in your skills book to cover every underwater condition you may find yourself in, including the hand roll in case you’ve lost your paddle. And you better not lose your paddle!


Some flat-water drills that will prep you for whitewater are a good idea. A few exercises to make your different strokes like second nature, and condition you, will go a long way in building competence and confidence. You’ll want to practice forward and reverse sweeps, forward and reverse paddling, draw strokes, and stern and bow draws, along with your rolls. For an easy to follow regiment, check out this 40 min drill routine at Jackson Kayak.

Once you’re ready to move onto the river, start out easy with class I and II rapids. Get comfortable reading the currents and using your techniques in a new environment. Bring someone with you. Don’t go it alone. When you feel good about class II – and you’ll know when you do – then move up to class III. It’s just some common sense really.  


picture courtesy of Woodley Wonderworks

First things last, if you lack any of the skills needed for whitewater kayaking, take a class. Learn correct technique and proper maneuvering from a skilled instructor. Don’t just rely on YouTube videos that can’t see what you’re doing wrong. There is no substitute for face-to-face interaction when it comes to learning physical skills. YouTube has its place, but so do instructor lead courses. Find one, and register.

The rewards of whitewater kayaking are abundant, and costs are relatively cheap compared to other sports. It’s time to feed the wildness in your soul, take the leap, plunge into the turbulent waters. The river has it all; peace and quiet, wildlife, healthy vibes, and heart thumping action.

Hope to see you out there soon.

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