A group of people paddling in whitewater with a canoe

Whitewater Paddling 101

How to take your canoe paddling adventures to moving water.

So you want to head out and tackle some whitewater in your canoe? Before you go running rapids, acting like Burt Reynolds in Deliverance, you need to know the basics of whitewater canoeing, which includes the proper outfitting and safety gear, plus swiftwater paddling technique and rescue basics (there’s much more to it than running rapids in an inflatable or whitewater kayak). Better yet, take a lesson from a certified instructor before dipping a blade of your own. Following are a few paddle-ready pointers to get you safely launched on a downriver adventure.  

Get the Right Gear

Whitewater canoeing is different from flatwater canoeing; there’s a better chance you’ll flip and swim. Don’t head into whitewater with a picnic basket and your family lake canoe. Get one designed for whitewater (i.e., more rocker for maneuverability), and equip it with float bags (plus a deck cover if you’re carrying overnight gear) to displace water from waves over the bow, and to ease retrieving the boat in event of a capsize. 

Other essentials include: a spare paddle; a personal floatation device (PFD); a whitewater paddling helmet; appropriate footwear and clothing according to the temperature of the water, which typically means a wetsuit, insulating layers and splash wear, or a dry suit; plus a painter (bowline) for the boat. Additional safety items include: a throw rope; pin kit (with carabiners, pulleys, and webbing to set up an impromptu mechanical-drag system to free your boat if it gets pinned or stuck); plus a first-aid kit, a bailing device or sponge, and a whistle and one-handed river knife to lash to your PFD. If you’re out on a multi-day trip, make sure your gear is securely tied or strapped in. 

Wear Your PFD

This is the most important component of any whitewater outing, no matter the craft. Always wear a properly fitting, U.S. Coast Guard-approved Type III or V lifejacket at all times while you’re on the water. And make sure it’s snug, with all side and shoulder straps securely fastened, so it doesn’t come off in the drink. 

Practice on Flatwater

Before embarking on a whitewater canoeing trip, get comfortable paddling flatwater and learn the basics of canoe tripping. That means being able to steer a canoe correctly (without always switching paddling sides), learning how to climb back on board, and performing such safety measures as a canoe-over-canoe rescue in flatwater. Once you’re comfortable with canoeing on flatwater, it’s time to experience moving water. 

Take a Course

One of the best ways to learn how to canoe easy rapids is by taking a whitewater paddling course. The American Canoe Association offers a list of outfitters, schools and clubs, many offering courses to help you get started. Also check with your local retailers, outfitters and paddling clubs.

Find Peers

Don’t paddle whitewater alone. To find other paddlers, and even get help securing the right gear, search for canoe clubs in your area (or other groups and associations). Check with your local paddling shop and join in on their practice sessions and outings. Also consider going with a guide or outfitter on a moving-water trip until you develop your own skills and get to know the waterway.

Be Comfortable Swimming Rapids

Canoes are tippy. Make sure you (and your partner) are comfortable swimming any rapid you attempt to run. Until you feel good about swimming down a rapid in the whitewater position (elevated feet first, on your back), you shouldn’t be paddling it. If you can’t swim something, don’t run it.  

A group of people paddling in whitewater with a canoe

Pick the Right River

Don’t head out on a river that you haven’t researched. Know your limits and don’t get in over your ability level. Know the international rapid-rating scale (Class I-VI; I being flatwater and VI technically un-runnable) and what level your river has, as well as any other hazards that may exist. Ask local retailers and outfitters if there are any to be aware of. Know how to recognize—and avoid—such hazards as hydraulics, strainers (trees alongside or laying across the river), rocks, plus low-head dams and weirs. Also, have a river map and know where the rapids are so you can prepare and scout if necessary. Note: Beginners should attempt “pool-drop” rivers first, whose rapids are followed by calm pools offering a place to regroup if something goes wrong. Since the rapids are more distinct, you can also portage around them easily if necessary. 

Solo or Tandem?

As on flatwater, whitewater canoes can be paddled solo or tandem. If you’re going solo, make sure you have the skills and equipment to do so, including self-rescue. Solo paddlers sit in the middle of the boat and need to have a wealth of strokes at their disposal to control the craft. If paddling tandem, place the person with the most experience in the stern for steering and calling commands, with the bow paddler providing power and helping identify obstacles. Note: Pay special attention to your boat’s trim, or how level it sits in the water. If you weigh substantially more than your partner, distribute some weight so the canoe balances out. This will help the canoe track straighter across current, steer more easily, and be more stable.  

Paddle in Time and Opposite

If you’re tandem canoeing, you’ll (generally) benefit from paddling in time, together with your partner and on opposite sides, for stability and to help your canoe track straighter. The bow paddler’s purpose is to provide power and set the pace; he or she can also alert the stern paddler about upcoming obstacles. The stern paddler’s main role is to steer and yell out commands as needed. 

Don’t Be Afraid to Kneel

While it might not be as comfortable, kneel down on the bottom of the boat in front of your seat as soon as you enter a rapid. This will create a lower center of gravity and keep the canoe more stable in turbulent water. It also offers better contact with the canoe, increasing your control and decreasing the chance of falling out. Hint: Bring soft knee pads or a piece of foam to kneel on.    

Don’t Worry About Going Straight

Every stroke you or your partner takes propels you, but can also cause a slight change in direction. A stroke on the right will turn you to the left, and vice versa. Don’t worry; it’s nearly impossible to paddle a canoe perfectly straight. Let it veer back and forth, while countering with correctional (i.e., sweep) and/or stronger strokes. Note: Everything else being equal, stern strokes will turn the canoe better than strokes in the bow. 

Know How To Handle Whitewater

Understand the basics of running whitewater, from catching eddies and scouting to finding the easiest lines, punching through wave trains and avoiding holes. Hints: Lean into eddies so the opposing current doesn’t catch your edge (conversely, lean downstream when peeling out of an eddy with momentum); and keep your boat pointed straight with momentum when paddling through wave trains and unsuspecting holes. Also, keep your eyes out downstream for obstacles such as rocks to avoid, and set your angle relative to the current well ahead of time to miss them.  

Have a Capsize Plan

Know how to self-rescue and react if your canoe capsizes (or anyone else’s in your party). The river will separate paddlers and gear quickly; have a safety plan for the whole group beforehand (including safety boats in the pool below the rapid and someone manning a throw rope on shore if needed). In the event of a capsize or swim, try to get people, your canoe and gear to shore as quickly as possible. Note: On flatwater, you can often re-right the canoe in the water and climb back aboard, but in whitewater you’re better off trying to get to shore. Also, know how to get a canoe unstuck if it gets hung up on rocks.    

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.