learning to whitewater

How did most of you learn to paddle in whitewater? Just dive in and hope to survive? Take a course? Just go with others and watch them carefully?

All I’ve ever paddled has been flat water and shallow rivers trying to avoid the rocks. Is there anything to worry about with Class I? Class II? I expect Class III is probably beyond a novice’s capacity.

So how do you learn to do it?

Thanks in advance for any advice.


What’s the truth

– Last Updated: Dec-16-05 9:52 AM EST –

... and what people are willing to admit to may be two different things.

Once, I learn though, I promise to be honest and tell you how I did it. Hopefully it will include lessons (plan to take some in the next year).

I don't think anyone would suggest you go messing around class II+ or above in an open boat for a good while without some instruction. It can have big consequences and can be absolutely no fun at all.

learning WW…
Take an RK-1 two day class. BTW, If you have a roll you get much more from this class IMO. You will be able to lean and brace with confidence. However, it’s not necessary and most people in the RK-1 class will not have a roll.

After the class, practice and meet other people with more experience that can help you along. Then later, take more classes. Also, I’m a big believer in instructional Cd’s. I’m always amazed when I watch a CD that I’ve seen a number times that I’ll pick something up I hadn’t noticed or it just didn’t seem that important at that stage of my learning process. An there are some really good Cd’s out there. One that has been out for a number of years but is still very good up to date information is Ken Whiting’s “SOAR”.

I’ve done different sports most of my life but whitewater is the funnest sport that I’ve experienced. Very addictive.

Good luck,


U of Flub & Glub
Not a recommended curriculm.

I know, I attended.

Look back now and wonder at my pure luck in coming out uninjured a number of times. The armor of ignorance & youth.

Take a class from a teacher who has an established program. This can be an outfitter, a club w/ qualified instructors etc. but don’t go it alone.

You will never look at water the same way again, guaranteed! And you will learn a whole new level of respect for the differences of class I, II, III. It’s not just a wee bit harder between each.

Have fun ('cause it’s a blast!), be safe and see you on the water,



I guess you’re referring to kayak classes. Perhaps there are canoe courses as well.


As I thought
this is not a skill to learn by trial and error. Error can be fatal.


Always room for improvement
I thought I was a moderate skill paddler. Then I got a real white water boat and started going to some pool sessions with a club. At the pool I have already improved much from the helpful tips of others.

I am also surprised how much technique and form I have gained from a reading a book or two. Planning on taking a class this spring/summer. Hopefully it will help put everything together and I will be able to accurately boast I am no longer a novice.


A good instructor from a reputable outfitter can make the difference between loving or hating whitewater as whitewater can be quite challenging. Whitewater canoeing is an art in itself and I love running rivers with my canoe buddies as they tend to pick great lines. I still smile every time I see my friend roll his Dagger Ocoee.

As to how I started, I was a touring kayaker initially and my friend (extremely experienced and certified whitewater paddler/instructor) took me down a beginner (class I-II) river. From there I went on a few more trips that summer to get comfortable in class II water and I also took a course at the local outfitter as well. The classes of water are exponential in difficulty. I jumped from class II last season to class III this season and toward the end I took the step up from class III to class III+ which was pretty huge in difference in difficulty. Hopefully I’ll develop enough skills to safely run some more class III+ or class IV stuff next year but I don’t really hold too high expectations as I know those are big jumps.

Didn’t realize you are and OC’er…
Anyway, formal lessons are good. I forgot to mention, they are also fun!



Suggestions (class II or higher)
Never paddle a river alone. The “three at sea” rule applies even more strongly in WW, especially when you are starting out. If you are not familiar with a river go with people who already know it and can give you advice and suggest lines. Eric Jackson has two new videos out on river running. Get the first one for beginning river running. Although oriented to kayaks it is relevant to canoeing as well. I assume you have a single WW canoe with proper flotation, etc.

Roll? Yes.
An OC-1 can be rolled and it is useful and not that hard to learn.

Old School
I started when I was in my early teens by going canoeing with a bunch of guys who had a lot of experience. This was before there were a lot of schools, courses, videos. Since then I’ve just hung with people who are skilled and try to learn from what I observe. My skills are good to about class III and that’s paddling a Disco. Try to get out with folks who are comfortable in different levels of moving water. Have fun with it.


originally I took basic
canoe course. I then paddled a lot of solo and some tandem canoeing in mainly a club environment. A little later a solo white water course to learn some extra’s i didn’t know. Again after much solo canoeing in open and closed canoe I switched to kayaking. Then, took a workshop in Eskimo rolling. Courses are good.

Many sources of learning…

– Last Updated: Dec-16-05 12:50 PM EST –

I started many, many years ago canoeing on flat water rivers, and I was getting pretty bored with it to be truthful. Then in the early 80s, I took a Swiftwater Rescue course because of my job. While attending the course, I had the opportunity to do some whitewater rafting; I was hooked. Decided on open canoe as my choice of boat.

Read books, watched films, took some ACA canoeing classes, and practiced quite a bit. Paddled with others more skilled than myself.
Then I hit a wall so to speak; my skills progression slowed down.

Signed up for an Intermediate Level II course at NOC. Was told I'd probably be a little over my comfort level. I was, but I wanted a challenge. It built up my confidence & I learned new skills. Took a Swiftwater Rescue Instructor class; my confidence & skills increased. Reached a point I could do some class 3 water with some degree of success.

I still read the books, I still watch the films, I still try to paddle with more skilled paddlers, and I still practice. I've recently hit another wall; I know now I'm never going to be a class IV paddler. On class 3 I'm often succesful, but on occasion I get whipped. Not getting any younger; I'm not going to quit whitewater, but I'm probably going to be content in coming years to start running more class 2+, and less of the class 3 water.

My advice: Read books, watch films, paddle with more advanced paddlers, take a class, and practice, practice, practice new skills as they are learned. Also "very" important; don't do whitewater solo, only paddle with paddlers you trust in an emergency, and don't be embarassed to get out of your boat, and say, "I'm walking this one". Listen to your inner voice "very closely". Has worked for me: I'll be 63 in 10 days.

Good luck,

P.S. "There are old paddlers, and there are arrogant paddlers, but there are very few, old, and arrogant whitewater paddlers".

I learned on my own
With both canoes and kayaks.

If you can swim, and not afraid to take a swim you can teach yourself, but not overnight.

If you cannot swim and or have a fear of tipping don’t even think of doing WW

Over a period of years you learn how to read the river, and all the various other things necessary to keep the canoe or kayak where you want it to go and you especially learn your limitations.

Anyone that is comfortable in a canoe can do class I.

Play in class I rivers and then when you get comfortable try I-II.

You should scout any class II rapids that you have never done before, and even if you have done them check them out since a rapid is not the same from one day to the next.

III is my limit and there are many times after scouting one I won’t even attempt it.

One of my favorite rivers is the Nantahala in western NC and if you are interested you can take lessons from the Nantahala Outdoor center

There is nothing more exhilarating than completing a long class III rapid.

If nothin else, you will be a hero in your own eyes.



Jack Makes Two Excellent Points
Knowing your limits and living within them. This doesn’t mean there isn’t room for learning and improvement!

His other point is learning how to read the water(s). This is a skill that, in my case anyhoo, comes over time and by doing! As you learn you’ll make your share of mistakes, my list is longer than my share of successes! :wink: But you do get better at it everytime out!


Pete and Repete

– Last Updated: Dec-16-05 2:40 PM EST –

Hiya Richard,
Lots of good advice already some of which I'll duplicate.

#1 Get out and do it. Work up incrementaly. Pretty much anybody can paddle class I and most will enjoy easy class II with very limited skills and experience. Stay in or SLIGHTLY over your comfort range and don't be too proud to take off if you get in over your head.

#2 Get some safety pointers on things like strainers, foot entrapment and pins and how to avoid them. Best to get those up close in person from someone who knows but there are good texts by folks like Slim Ray, Charlie Walbridge or Bruce Lessels that will give you a decent idea.

#3 Figure out what you want to do.
There are two different reasons for being in whitewater. Tripping or down river racing, which means you are looking for the safest, driest, fastest route through the rapid and Playboating, which means you are trying to wrangle the most fun out of each feature of each rapid.
Many of the skills overlap but I've seen folks very frustrated when they wanted to learn tripping techniques but got into a playboating group or class or visa versa.

#4 Find some good instruction. Sources are Clubs, Outfitters and Pros. I got most of my early instruction from the Boston Chapter AMC. I learned to roll from at Zoar Outdoor. I've had more advanced instruction from Tom Foster. Outfitters tend to be more expensive than clubs but also more consistant since they don't rely on volunteer teachers.
You also may find classes offered by local or traveling Pro's. Some sponsored by clubs, some by outfitters and others by individuals. Tom Foster teaches here in New England. Bob Foote travels and comes highly recomended as well.
Talk to folks who are doing what you want to do. This is a niche market and word of mouth is the best way to find good instruction.

#5 Paddle with a variety of experienced folks. I can't count the number of times when I didn't believe or couldn't understand how something could be done until I saw someone do it. The subtle aspects of river reading are something that I am always learning something new about. Looking for the elusive dry line. LOL!

Bill Masons "Path of the Paddle Whitewater" films are great resources. For playboating they are a bit dated but IMO stll worthwhile. I got mine on VHS but they might have gone to DVD now.
Paul Masons " The Thrill of the Paddle" Is a great OC instructional book.
"Solo Playboating" By Kent Ford and "Drilltime" with Kent Ford, Bob Foote and Wayne Dickert are both great OC1 whitewater playboating instructional videos.

Have fun,

for the good advice. I look forward to a very interesting year.


I learned…
I’m from Ohio. There is an outdoor club there that offers instruction on everything from OC 1&2 to Sea kayaking. The benefit of joining a club like this is quality instruction, people who love to paddle, and there is always something going on.

Peace Jim

Which club is that?
I’m in Columbus. Are you referring to Columbus Outdoor Pursuits?