Active Sports

Everything You Need to Know to Take Your Paddleboard Down the Rapids

rapids on a river

If you’re looking for a new paddleboard adventure, paddling rapids could be the challenge you’ve been waiting for. Add to your SUP repertoire when you learn how to stay standing no matter how wildly the water rages around you. Here’s how you can make it safely through your first rapid.

Paddle with a Partner

Never take on rapids alone. While it’s always safer to have a partner along when you’re on a paddleboard, it’s even more essential when you’re running rapids. Some rapids are in remote locations, so you need someone else along in case there’s an emergency and one of you needs to go for help. It’s also useful to have a second set of eyes to spot dangers, help choose a line through the rapids and more.

If one of you falls in, it’s essential to have a partner along to help fish the other person and their board out of the water. Make sure only one of you runs the rapid at a time, to raise safety levels even higher.

Choose Your Rapid

If you’ve never been on a river before, start with one that is relatively flat. It may not seem like much, but learning to paddle with a current is different than paddling in a lake. Practice your strokes and navigating around obstacles until you’re completely comfortable on the river.

If you’re already fairly stable and confident on your paddleboard, try a Class II rapid before moving on to anything else. If you’re experienced running rivers and experienced on your board, start with Class III and move up as you feel confident.

Wear a Helmet

Helmets aren’t necessary when you’re SUP’ing calm lakes, but rapids have rocks, logs, and other hidden dangers. Just as kayakers and other river adventurers wear helmets, you should, too. You can get one that is comfortable and fits you so well that you won’t even notice you’re wearing it.

Similarly, you may want knee braces, knee and/or elbow pads, and other protection just in case you fall in and hit something. The helmet is the only one of these that is essential, though.

Scout the Rapid

Inflatable paddleboard next to some rapids
Image by marekuliasz from Getty

Before you take off through a rapid, do the legwork and scout it out. Walk the entire length of the rapid, noting potential dangers. Look for rocks, logs, low branches, places where you might get stuck or sucked under, and more.

You’ll also want to choose the line or route that you want to take to get through it. If you have several options, start with the easiest and move up from there. You can run the rapid more than once, so there’s no reason to dive headlong into the hardest route first.

Stagger and Crouch

Keep your feet wide on your board but stagger them, with one well in front of the other. Pretend that you are standing on the diagonally opposite corners of a square. Once you have your feet in place, bend both knees.

You want to basically be in a crouch. Yes, this is drastically different from the upright position you usually want on a paddleboard. However, this stance gives you both forward-backward and side-to-side balance. It also allows you to take a knee and get back up if the rapid knocks you sideways.

Be Aggressive

It’s easy to hesitate, especially when you’re new to running rapids. After all, there’s a lot more going on in most rapids than you can see from the shore. Many paddlers feel overwhelmed and freeze. However, this is the exact opposite of what you need to do. Running rapids well requires speed and confidence. Even if you aren’t feeling it, paddle to keep your momentum up.

If you do fall, be aggressive about swimming to safety and/or getting back on your board. Don’t just chill out in the water, because that’s when accidents happen. Get yourself and your board to safety and then get back on and try it again.

Don’t Switch Your Paddling Side

Man on a paddleboard by some rapids
Image by marekuliasz from Getty

Whenever possible, keep your paddle on the same side of your board when you’re paddling rapids. Many rapids don’t give you enough time to both switch your paddle and run the rapid successfully.

To do this, you’ll need to practice all sorts of strokes on one side of your board. Pick the side you’re most comfortable paddling on or, better yet, practice until you can navigate successfully while paddling solely on either side of the board. Learn bow strokes, bracing strokes, C-strokes, back paddles, and more to make sure you’re ready for running rapids.

Not sure you want to run rapids on your own? Chances are good that you can find a class in a nearby town to take you out the first time or two. Before long, you’ll be finding rapids and running them on your own. Take your SUP’ing to a new level this summer when you learn to paddle whitewater rapids.


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