Whitewater Paddling

by Shannon Ankeny
Whitewater paddling can be done year round, depending on your location.

Whitewater paddling can be done year round, depending on your location.

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Whitewater paddling is the sport of maneuvering a kayak, raft or canoe over moving water or rapids. Some whitewater paddling watercraft includes one solid piece, while others are collapsible or inflated. Manage single passenger boats with a double-bladed paddle. Use single-bladed paddles to direct tandem or multiple passenger boats. There are specific types of kayaks, rafts and canoes designed specifically for whitewater use.


Historically used by tribal peoples of the Arctic regions of the northern hemisphere, kayaks and canoes were made from driftwood and animal skins. Inflated seal bladders stashed inside the tips of the kayaks made them nearly unsinkable. As these boats gained exposure, different cultures adapted the original designs to fit their own needs to include watercraft made from canvas, wood and eventually rubber and plastic.

Whitewater Classifications

According to the American Whitewater organization, there are five different classes of whitewater. Class I rapids have small ripples and waves with few obstructions, and swimming and self-rescue are simple. Class II rapids have medium-sized waves with easily avoided rocks. Class III rapids have large, irregular waves on faster water accompanied by more obstructions requiring advanced navigation skills. Self-rescue is possible, but group assistance might be needed to avoid a long swim. Class IV rapids have large, powerful waves that require expert maneuvering and paddling skills. These rapids have strong currents, whirlpools and narrow sections that make self-rescue difficult. Class V rapids are the most difficult and dangerous with very large waves, longer runs and unpredictable obstructions. Self-rescue is difficult even for expert paddlers. Use this system as a reference only, because river whitewater classes change according to the time of year and weather. Always research the river you plan on paddling before going down it.

Whitewater Kayaks

Whitewater kayaks are shorter than recreational kayaks, around seven feet long. They have wide and open cockpits where the paddler sits which allow for easy access. Some hulls and bottoms of whitewater kayaks are rounded for playboating and slalom kayaking, and they sit lower in the water. Other whitewater kayaks have flatter bottoms and sit higher in the water, which are best for skimming over the surface of the water. You'll find kayaks made from fiberglass, Kevlar or roto-molded plastic, which makes them nearly indestructible

Whitewater Rafts

Rafts used in whitewater paddling are inflated and are 10 to 20 feet long. They can carry up to 12 paddlers opposed to kayaks and canoes that only hold one to two people. Raft paddlers use a single-bladed paddle and work as a team to direct the raft through the water. Whitewater rafting allows people to experience the more difficult rapids because the raft is larger and there are more paddlers

Whitewater Canoes

The passengers of whitewater canoes kneel on the deck instead of sitting on a bench. The tops of canoes are open, but can be enclosed with a spray skirt to keep paddlers dry. Outfitted with a flotation device in the bow and the stern to keep it from sinking if filled with water, these canoes are one to two feet longer than kayaks. Canoes are made from the same materials as kayaks, and paddlers use a single-bladed paddle


There are different techniques and skills necessary for whitewater paddling used for propelling, stopping and self-rescue. The different techniques for propelling and stopping the watercraft are adapted according to the type of watercraft and paddles used. Stopping techniques do not completely stop the watercraft, but slow it down instead to avoid obstructions or to change directions. Self-rescue is an important technique. It involves being able to free yourself from an overturned watercraft and being able to swim.

Safety and Preparedness

The American Whitewater organization recommends using gear tested for durability and safety under easier conditions before using in the more difficult rapids. This includes solid or inflatable watercraft, paddles, oars, grab loops or short ropes for hanging on to if capsized, life jackets and helmets. Never attempt to whitewater paddle unless you know how to swim, and never try to paddle rapids above your ability level.

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