whitewater kayak

The Complete Guide to Whitewater Kayaking

What is whitewater kayaking?

You have come to the right place if you’re looking for a complete guide to whitewater kayaking! What is whitewater kayaking? Simply put, whitewater kayaking is the sport where kayaks are ridden down rivers over waters of varying grades. Canoes and rafts are also used in the same way but are considered different sports because of the differences in boats, seating, and paddles. If you want to learn about rafting, you can read our Complete Guide to Rafting.

Kayaking 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 practised in whitewater. Many people rent kayaks to paddle around lakes, in the ocean, in calm flat rivers, and more. Contrary to popular belief, kayaking and canoeing differ primarily because of the difference in paddles, rather than seating.

Kayaks on beach
Historic Kayaks

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. 

Canoes also have an interesting history. The word canoe comes from the Carib word kenu via the Spanish word canoa. The first canoes were built between 8200 and 7600 BC in the Netherlands.

Common kayaking terms to know

  • Eddies Eddies are 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. 
  • Strainer A 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.
  • Holes – Holes are areas of a river where the water on the surface flows upstream. Usually, below the 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 favourable 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.
whitewater kayaking
Big Drop on 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. Most kayaking activities are best enjoyed on class I-II rivers.

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.

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

whitewater kayaking on river
Kayaking Class IV Whitewater Rapids

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 constricted passages, demanding fast maneuvers under pressure.

Whitewater kayaking
Kayaking Class V

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 extremely difficult, unpredictable and require beyond-expert level skills.

For more detailed information about whitewater river classes, visit Wikipedia’s whitewater kayaking page.

Whitewater Kayaking
Competitive Kayaker

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.

How long are kayaking rides?

Whitewater kayaking trips and tours typically last from 2 hours up to a full day. You will travel roughly 5-6 kilometres, and up to 30 kilometres. Many tours are full-day, however this never the case for rafting or hydrospeed activities. This is because the river classes make the activity much more exhausting much quicker. These rides are usually up to a maximum of 15 kilometres long.

Are all of the activities guided?

Most kayaking and canoeing tours on class I-II rivers are unguided, unlike rafting and hydrospeed. For more challenging class II-III rivers, unless experienced, tours are usually guided. However, these constitute less than 5% of commercial kayaking/canoeing activities. When a river is class II-III and up, rafting is usually more appropriate.

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! You can also go whitewater kayaking in iconic regions and rivers in Canada, the Alps, Croatia, and Bali.

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! Also, be sure to discover all of our kayaking activities on our website, as well as other whitewater activities such as rafting.