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Intro to Whitewater Kayaking 101

Submitted by Jason Smith

I wish I had this intro to whitewater kayaking 101 when I started. My first experience with whitewater was as a young teen. My stepdad took us on a commercial rafting trip on a river in northeastern Pennsylvania. I had such an awesome day enjoying the river. I remember watching the river guides in kayaks. They were so smooth moving from one eddy to another. They would park their kayaks in eddies barely big enough to fit their kayak, and then leave the eddy and surf waves in the current. I was intrigued. I wanted more. I wanted to play in the waves and meander from one eddy to another.

Introduction to Whitewater Kayaking 101

But, I had no idea how to get started in the sport and I was just a young teenager. It wasn’t till about 8 years later when I was a young adult with a job and the means to buy a kayak and the necessary equipment that I began the adventure that has become so much more than a hobby. It’s become a lifestyle, where I’ve met some incredible people, an extended family of sorts. Getting started in whitewater kayaking can be intimidating, so I wanted to share some tips about how to get started.

What do you need to get started in whitewater kayaking?

Introduction to Whitewater Kayaking 101

Desire to Whitewater Kayak:

Desire is the most important aspect of kayaking, but if you’re reading this you probably already have it. What is it about whitewater kayaking that you desire? Adventure, the outdoors, excitement, the “flow” of the water, accomplishment, exploration, a challenge, to “clear your head”, the thrill, adrenaline, competition, camaraderie, freedom? I desire all of those things!

I think that each paddler will prioritize them differently. Some may desire the thrill and adrenaline the most, some may be natural born competitors, while others may have a greater desire for the exploration and the “clear your head” peacefulness that they get from kayaking. The vast range of experiences is what makes kayaking so special. This is why class II and III whitewater is so gratifying for so many kayakers. You don’t have to kayak class IV-V whitewater to get full enjoyment from the sport.

Introduction to Whitewater Kayaking 101


So now you’ve got the desire to kayak, but where do you go, who do you go with, and what else do you need? In my opinion, PEOPLE are gonna be your greatest resource for getting into the sport. I’ve found kayakers to be extremely friendly, helpful and resourceful. You’ve got some options. You could find your closest dealer and give them a visit. If you walk in and say that you want to learn to kayak, they will be able to point you in the right direction. They may have info about local kayak clubs, instructional schools, private instructors, or they may offer a program themselves.

A less formal alternative would be Facebook groups. Search “whitewater” in Facebook groups and join a few local groups. Once in the group, just post that you are new and really want to learn to kayak. I think you will find people to be very helpful. And don’t be afraid to clearly state your intention….”Hi everyone, I really want to learn to kayak. Any advice would be greatly appreciated.” Kayakers will sense your desire, and it will make sense to them. It’s likely they’ve all been there, and will be ambitious to share in your excitement. They can also help you find used equipment, or lend you equipment to help you decide what you want.


The essentials- kayak, paddle, PFD, helmet, skirt, booties. A local dealer will be able to hook you up with the right equipment. Another option is used gear. Kayak Facebook groups are a great place for finding used gear. Here is a great article from Hilde on Choosing a first kayak


Introduction to Whitewater Kayaking 101

Be Safe:

The safest way to be introduced to kayaking is probably through formal instruction or learning with some experienced kayakers. If you choose to explore without formal instruction, it is best to not kayak alone. It’s also advisable to practice flipping over, then, while upside down, pulling the neoprene spray skirt free from the cockpit rim, and confidently exiting the kayak. This is called a wet exit. This experience can be very disorientating, therefore it’s important to practice it with someone standing in the water right next to you.

A body of water:

Once you’re confident with a wet exit, you can begin learning to maneuver the kayak using different types of paddle strokes, starting with the forward stroke. You can practice this in a pool, pond, lake, or a class I-II river, depending on your comfort level, and the people with you.

The Kayak Roll:

Flipping over in whitewater and rolling yourself back to an upright position without the kayak filling up with water is really cool. However, and this is my firm opinion, you do not need to learn to roll your kayak before you start kayaking on a river. There are many rivers that can be kayaked safely without the need for you to have mastered the kayak roll.

In fact, paddling around, having fun, and learning different kayak strokes will help you become familiar with your paddle and develop paddle dexterity. The more familiar you become with the interaction of your hands on the paddle shaft and the paddle blades on the water, the more successful you will be when learning to roll your kayak.

Progress at Your Own Pace:

Once you’ve got the basics, you can progress by watching other paddlers and learning from them, watching instructional kayak videos, seeking formal instruction, experimenting with different paddle strokes, and/or being playful on the river.
Happy paddling!

SYOTR (See You On The River),
Jason Smith and the Smith Family