How to Kayak River Rapids

How to Kayak River Rapids
Few things are as thrilling as kayaking river rapids. Modern kayaks allow today's kayaker to not only get through rapids, but to also play in them. With knowledge and skill, the kayaker can use the power of the river to his advantage and have a lot of fun. As with all activities, the first step is being able to perform the basics. This article will introduce you to some basic techniques to safely kayak river rapids. Remember to always follow these two rules. First, be safe. Second, have fun.


Difficulty: Moderately Challenging

Getting the Basics

Things You’ll Need:
  • A whitewater kayak and paddle
  • PFD (Personal Flotation Device)
  • Helmet made for whitewater paddling
  • Throw bag with rope
  • Skirt for the kayak
  • A paddling buddy
Step 1
The easiest route through a rapid is to follow the water flow. Most of the water will be flowing in the deepest channel, identifiable by a "V" that will be visible when approaching the rapid. Staying in this "V" will keep the kayak in deep enough water and get you through the rapid.
Step 2
Waves are formed by either pressure from water or from obstacles in the river. Waves that line up will most likely be pressure waves. Solitary waves occurring at random will be rocks or other obstacles.
Step 3
When water passes by an object, a low pressure area that flows upriver called an eddy is formed. To rest in an eddy do a sharp pivot turn as close to the object as you can, getting behind it. This is called eddying out.
Step 4
When the kayak gets turned sideways, lean downriver lifting the upriver side. This is counterintuitive, but if not done the upriver side of the kayak will be pushed under by the force of the river and it will flip over. This is called being window-shaded or window-shading.
Step 5
Always keep an active paddle blade in the water. That is to say, do not rest and let the river carry you along. Small corrective strokes will keep the kayak pointed in the right direction. Keeping the paddle blade in the water will also allow you to brace faster to prevent capsizing.
Step 6
The outer side of bends will tend to collect silt, sand and pebbles, and will be shallower than the inner side. When approaching a curve in the river look for the "V" on the inner bend side.
Step 7
Do not follow other kayakers through a rapid closely. They may get into a bit of trouble and need time to make corrections. Being on top of someone is not just rude, it can be dangerous for them.
Step 8
Get into the habit of looking at the river. Look for eddies, holes or rocks, and pay attention to how and where waves are formed.
Step 9
Try surfing a gentle wave. When passing the wave, turn back upriver allowing the eddy to pull the kayak into the wave. It will be necessary to paddle upriver a bit. Put the bow of the kayak right into the wave. Use the paddle as a rudder.
Step 10
Ferrying is using the river current to carry the kayak side to side across the river. Do this by pointing upriver. Use the paddle as a rudder to adjust the angle of the kayak to the river so it pulls the kayak across. With practice it is possible to cross a river in a perfectly straight line. With more practice, it is possible to cross a river, ending up upstream of where you started.
Step 11
Mostly have fun. Stay with milder rivers as your skills develop. Jumping into big water right off can turn a fun and exciting day into a terrifying experience.

Tips & Warnings

Practice doing an assisted rescue. Have your buddy paddle his kayak to yours when you are upside down so the two kayaks form a "T." Reach up, grab the deck of your buddy's kayak and pull yourself upright.
To swim in fast-moving water, keep feet together, arms crossed over your chest and stay feet first. Never separate you feet. Do not attempt to stand up in swift water. Wait for a section of calm, slow moving water.
If it becomes necessary to use the throw bag, hold the rope in one hand, throw the bag over and past the person while yelling "Rope". The person in the water needs to grab the rope not the bag.
Become familiar with the river before you head out for the first time. Look at maps, talk with other kayakers, read guides and check release schedules if the river is dam controlled.
Select the put-in upriver of the first rapids to allow warm-up time.
The take-out should be in a slow section of river to prevent missing it. Scout the take-out from the river bank before beginning the trip.
Always wear a PFD.
Always wear a helmet if you are using a sit inside kayak. You will flip over in moving water and there are rocks underwater.
Never paddle alone.
Be able to do a wet exit. This is when you get out of the kayak after flipping over. You need to be able to exit the kayak when hanging upside down underwater.
Safety has to be paramount at all times. People do get injured and sometimes die when kayaking rapids. Never minimize the risk especially on milder runs.
Stay clear of trees that have fallen across the river. These are called strainers because they catch things going down river including kayakers who do not stay clear. If you get caught the water will push you toward the bottom and the tree will hold you underwater.

Article Written By Mark Quest

Mark Quest began his writing career in 2009, contributing to various online publications. He attended Asheville Buncombe Technical Community College, focusing on the sciences.

Keep Me Informed

Weekly newsletters, announcements and offers from to your inbox.

Sign me up!

We HATE spam and promise to keep your email addresses safe and secure.