whitewater kayak

The Complete Guide to Whitewater Kayaking!

What is whitewater kayaking?

Simply put, whitewater kayaking is the sport where kayaks are ridden down rivers over water of varying grades. Canoes and rafts are also used in the same way, but are slightly different sports because of the differences in boats, seating, and paddles.

Kayak vs. canoe 

Canoe – a type of recreational boat which you kneel or sit facing forward in an open or closed-decked. You use a single-bladed paddle in order to propel yourself.

Kayak – another type of recreational boat that is different from a canoe  based on rider position and paddle type. In a kayak, the paddler faces forward, legs in front, and uses a double-bladed paddle. Most kayaks also have closed decks.

Kayaking doesn’t have to be necessarily practiced in whitewater. Many people rent kayaks to paddle around lakes, in the ocean, in calm flat rivers, and more.

Eskimo with kayak

History of kayaks

Kayaks were first invented thousands of years ago by the Inuit – Eskimos who lived in the northern Arctic regions. They used pieces of driftwood and whale skeleton to construct the frame of the kayak, and animal skin to create the body. 

The main purpose for creating kayaks, which translates to a hunter’s boat, was for hunting and fishing. Kayaks allowed hunters to approach and hunt sea animals on the shoreline much more efficiently than without.

By the middle of the 1800s, German and French men began using kayaks for sport. In 1931, Adolf Anderle was the first person to kayak down the Salzachöfen Gorge, which is where some believe whitewater Kayaking was born. 

Common kayaking terms to know

EddiesEddies are a sections of a river that actually move upstream. They are considered great places for kayakers to stop and take a break, or to scout out the upcoming sections of the rapids. 

StrainerA strainer is an obstruction in a river where only limited amounts of water can pass through. Like a pasta strainer, there are holes in the river where some water can pass through, but are not big enough for any person or boat.

Eskimo, or Kayak roll – A kayak, strong, or Eskimo roll is a roll maneuver done to right a capsized kayak. It can be done by using body movement, or a paddle. This is achieved by lifting the torso up towards the surface of the water and pushing the hips to the right of the kayak. You might also be applying some force to the paddle to move the torso up.

This roll is an essential skill for kayakers who want to attempt Class IV or greater rapids. The roll makes it possible to stay in the kayak or canoe, which will allow for better maneuvering and less risk, as opposed to exiting and swimming. 

Holes – Holes are areas of a river where the water on the surface flows upstream. Usually below surface, the water will flow downstream. This creates a hydrolic cycle effect. Some holes are safe, fun, and are even used by freestyle kayakers for maneuvers and tricks.

Playspot – place where there are favorable stationary features on rivers, in particular, standing waves, holes and stoppers, and eddies.

Rapids – fast flowing section of a river.

Artificial whitewater courses – special sites usually for competition or commercial use. Here, water is diverted or pumped over a concrete watercourse to simulate whitewater rivers – rivers with one or more stretches of whitewater rapids.

extreme whitewater kayak

Grading/ classes

Locations for whitewater kayaking are rated in terms of classes, or grades, from 1-6. But there are variations within each grade, for instance, there can be a difficult grade two, or an easy grade three.

Further, grades can change with the level of water flow. So if there are heavy rains, there will therefore be more water flow, and the grade could increase. Certain sections of a river can also have different grades- this means some sections will be reserved for experts, and others will be suitable for beginners. 

Class I: Easy

Class one water can include small waves, with very few obstructions which are easy to avoid. It also means that there is little risk, and one could easily swim to the banks of the river if self-rescue was necessary.

Class II: Novice

Class two refers to rapid waters with wide, easy to locate channels. There may be an occasional need for maneuvering around obstacles such as rocks and ‘medium-sized’ waves. Rapids in this class can also be categorized as class II+.

Class III: Intermediate

Class three  kayaking spots include rapids that are less predictable and have irregular wave patterns. These waves may be difficult to avoid, and are not recommended for open canoes because they may easily fill with water and capsize. 

Those who take on class III rapids should be comfortable making complex maneuvers. This includes controlling the boat through narrow passages, near ledges and in fast waters.

Strong currents and large waves may be present but are usually avoidable. Complex maneuvers in fast currents and good boat control in tight passages or around ledges is usually required.

Large waves or strainers may be present but are easily avoided. Strong eddies and powerful current effects can be found, particularly on large-volume rivers, and can qualify as Class III- or Class III+.

One such location where you can find class III rapids is this whitewater kayaking excursion on the Sarine River, Chateau dóex, Switzerland.

kayak on river

Class IV: Advanced

Class four rapids are intense, powerful and require precise handling of the kayak. Often, class 4 rapids have large, unavoidable waves, dips and/or constricted passages, demanding fast maneuvers under pressure. Eddies (sections of the river where water moves upstream) are often used in order to initiate maneuvers in class 4 rapids.

This grade of rapids can involve making dangerous moves to avoid rocks or other hazards, and injury risk is high. Self-rescue would be unlikely, and it is recommended that kayakers know how to perform Eskimo rolls. These rapids can be at the lower or upper end and designated as Class IV- or Class IV+.

Whitewater river kayak

Class V: Expert

Class five waters involve long rides, with many obstructions and violent rapids. Most have steep drops, large, unavoidable waves, holes or steep, congested chutes with complex, demanding routes. Kayakers must possess a high level of fitness. There are very few, if any eddies, scouting can be difficult, and rescue is often difficult, even for experts. Proper equipment, extensive experience, and rescue skills are essential.

Class VI: Extreme

Rapids that are classified as grade six are extreme. These are best left the daredevils! Riding these waters is extreme difficult, unpredictable and require beyond-expert level skills.

If mistakes are made on an grade 6 rapid, they can be fatal and  rescue can at times be impossible.

Those that do attempt class 6 rapids only proceed after extensive research and planning of the route. They select times when water levels are ideal, and take all possible precautions. Interestingly, once a class 6 route has been conquered, it can be changed to a either an upper or lower level grade 5.

Man in kayak

Who can go whitewater kayaking?

Who can go depends largely on what grade of rapid you plan to embark on. For calm waters or grade of 1, for instance, this kayaking excursion in Lake Como asks only that participants be between the ages of 5 and 70, and be able to swim.

Other locations with stronger waters and higher grades, usually require participants to be at least 16 years old and possess an intermediate fitness level. Be sure to check the activity provider description for information about who your desired activity is appropriate for.

What gear or equipment will I need?

When you book an activity through a professional tour provider, the majority of equipment will be provided. For example, activity providers will supply you with the following:

  • Kayak
  • Paddle (1 per paddler), plus spare
  • Personal flotation device (1 per paddler)
  • Bilge pump
  • Spray skirt (for cold weather/water)
  • Dry bag for personal items
  • Headlamp/light with extra batteries (if applicable)
  • Signalling whistle

Some providers will also offer rashguards and neoprene footwear and a wetsuit if necessary.

You will want to dress according to the water temperature, as opposed to the air. In warm weather and water temperatures greater than 15°C, you will want to consider the following in your clothing choice.

  • Avoid cotton clothing- opt for quick-drying fabric instead, like nylon or polyester.
  • Bring Swimwear, shorts or convertible pants
  • Rashguard top or moisture-wicking T-shirt or long-sleeve shirt
  • Neoprene footwear
  • Sun-shielding hat
  • Bandana or buff
  • Paddling gloves (optional)
  • Fleece jacket or vest (weather dependent)
  • Spray jacket or rain jacket and pants (weather dependent) 

Additional clothing for cold weather/water below 15°C

  • Drysuit or top (very cold water) or wetsuit or top (cold water)
  • Long underwear (not needed with a wetsuit)
  • Synthetic or wool socks (to wear under booties)
  • Pogies (coverage for hands)
  • Wool/synthetic cap

 Additional recommended personal items

  • Sunglasses with glasses retainer attached
  • Sunscreen (SPF 30+ and water-resistant)
  • Snacks like energy food or lunch
  • Cell Phone in a protective case

Amazing locations to go whitewater kayaking

There are many places to go kayaking all over the world! Some prefer to go kayaking in places like the Sazava River, near Prague Czech Republic, where river waters flow through forests and waters are calm and tranquil. Others prefer a more adrenaline-filled adventure in places like France. This  kayaking excursion in the Verdon Gorge has sections of class 4 rapids.

There are plenty more locations available, from Singapore, to New Zealand, to Spain and all the way up to Norway and Iceland! Check out these 3 amazing, highlighted spots to consider for your next kayaking adventure.

Kayak in Bali

Ubud, Bali, Indonesia

This whitewater rapid kayak excursion in Ubud, Bali is a super fun course in a beautiful, tropical location! This activity takes you down the longest river in Bali, the Ayung River. Kayak down 68 km of exhilarating class II and III whitewater rapids, past lush jungle, wildlife, waterfalls, and Indonesian wall carvings.

This river is challenging and fun, and involves navigating boulders, bumps and medium drops. Participants here must be at least 16 years old. Two people are allowed per kayak.

The instructors provide all equipment, transportation, and a buffet lunch! You will only need to bring your swimwear, clothing, shoes and your GoPro!

river kayak in Italy

Sesia River, Alagna Valsesia, Italy

The Sesia River originates over 2500 metres above at the Monte Rosa glacier. In 2002 it hosted the World Championship of Kayaking. 

Kayaking down the Sesia River in Italy is the stuff of kayakers dreams! This kayaking excursion offers options to take a regular half day course, all the way up to 4-7 day long guided kayak tours. This activity provider will teach you technique, safety and skill! It’s fun, refreshing and safe- and is guided by trained, experienced and friendly kayaking instructors.

The activities all include 3 hours of morning or afternoon lessons before heading out onto the river. All kayaking equipment is included. 

Depending on your current skill level, you will learn different things. Beginners, for instance, will be given an introduction to kayaking and learn about Eskimo technique

Intermediate kayakers will be taught how to improve paddling, and learn safety and Eskimo techniques.

Advanced kayakers will work on improving technique, style, and about advanced river safety. You will become much more prepared to handle rapids up to a level of class IV 4+.

kayak in Quebec

Quebec, Canada

While this Ice canoe experience followed by a spa visit in Quebec, Canada is not exactly kayaking, it is epic, and close enough to make the list anyway!

This unique adventure will take you and your group down the St. Lawrence River in Quebec City, and directly into the warm spa after the adventure; it is the perfect combination of adrenaline and relaxation.

These waters are calm, flat and considered class I. After suiting up in your equipment, guides will teach you basic techniques as well as safety instructions.

Around halfway through the activity, you will take a break for hot chocolate and a few photos. After approximately two hours, you will return to the mainland, and later proceed to the Strøm Spa Nordique, located in Old Quebec. Nothing beats traditional Finnish saunas and eucalyptus steam baths after a workout! 

Want more ideas of where you can go kayaking? Check out this list of the Top 8 Best Rivers to go Kayaking in Europe, and the Top 5 Spots to Go Kayaking in Spain for more inspiration!