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Backpacker Magazine – May 2011

The Manual: Learn How To Paddle Whitewater

Learn how to ride rapids, and you'll open up a new way to explore the outdoors.

by: Michael Lanza

Master the low brace whitewater kayaking move. (Supercorn)
Master the low brace whitewater kayaking move. (Supercorn)

Learn how to ride rapids, and you’ll open up a new way to explore the outdoors. And it’s easier than you might think. Master these fundamentals and practice them with experienced friends, a paddling club, or a certified instructor, and you’ll be ready to kick off summer with a wilderness float.

>> Pick your vessel. Canoes easily handle up to class II and provide ample cargo space. Hard-shell kayaks are fast, nimble, and suited for every class, but controlling them takes practice. Though less maneuverable, inflatable kayaks are very stable, making them a good choice for novices (up to class III) and for skilled paddlers (class IV). Rafts are the most stable and spacious but slow to turn.
>> Wear a PFD (personal flotation device) and helmet. Clip a knife to the PFD in case you get entangled in a rope. Also bring a whistle and a throw bag (a rescue line in a stuffsack).
>> Pack essentials like sunblock, food, water, drybags/boxes for destructibles (phone, radio, first-aid kit). Clothing choices depend on your hot-bloodedness, but in general, for water temps less than 68°F, wear a full wetsuit.

Choose a river suitable for the group’s least-skilled paddler:
>> Class I (beginner)
Small waves and few obstructions.
>> Class II (novice) Straightforward rapids with wide, clear channels and occasional obstacles.
>> Class III (intermediate) Moderate, irregular waves that can swamp a canoe; may require complex maneuvers in fast or tight passages.
>> Class IV (advanced) Intense, powerful, but predictable rapids and hazards, like submerged trees and rocks, that mandate precise boat handling and a battle-tested Eskimo roll for kayakers.
>> Class V (expert) Extremely long, obstructed, steep, or very violent rapids. Rescue is often difficult even for experts.
>> Class VI (extreme and exploratory rapids) Extremely dangerous, unpredictable, and often considered not navigable.

Next, get a river map showing your entire route, mileages, and key features like rapids, portages, obstacles, and the put-in and take-out points. (Buy them from river-management agencies or boating and outdoor-gear stores.) Before you go, research current water levels, which vary with the season or dam releases, and the recommended safe river levels, both available at

3. MASTER THE LOW BRACE (See illustration above)
For whitewater, add this stroke to your paddling arsenal. It’s key to staying stable in a rapid, so you don’t get flipped or spun. Employed briefly between strokes, the low brace uses your paddle’s blade as a sort of outrigger. Here are the steps:
1. Sit upright and arch your back. Hold the paddle across your boat and close to your navel, with your elbows lifted directly over your hands (picture a scarecrow’s arms). Rest the backside of a blade (say, the left one) flat on the water. Right elbow might rotate down a bit.
2. Tilt the boat a few degrees to the side (the left) by slightly shifting your weight while pressing the opposite (right) knee against the hull. For extra support, sweep the blade back and forth, flat on the water surface, but don’t lean on it—control tilt with your hips.

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Jul 01, 2011

Suss - figure out. In this context it means "scout", or look at to determine where the hazards are and what your line will be prior to entering the rapid.

Recirculating hydraulic - A strong water current that is folding back over on itself. Because the water is flowing back into the same position (because of some kind of a void, behind a large rock for example) it can take you and/your boat back into the same position. These are extremely difficult to escape and can kill people.

I agree with Lucky. Get experience from experienced folks, don't just read about it.

Jul 01, 2011

If you're really interested in running rapids, take a course. It's actually very easy to have a major accident. Proper training will teach you how to handle yourself in the river. Also, there are great swiftwater rescue classes out there that teach invaluable skills!

Jul 01, 2011

Can someone give a bit more instruction for us newbies? Need definition of few words: suss? recirculating hydraulic?


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