Whitewater Paddle Boarding – Simple Tips For Beginners

Whitewater Paddle Boarding – Simple Tips For Beginners

Whilst paddle boarding in its most conventional sense (standing up on a board and paddling in flat water) continues to grow exponentially from coast-to-coast, some more extreme versions of the sport remain at the feet of only the brave. Whitewater Paddle Boarding

If you’ve not yet mastered flat or choppy water paddling with a bit of an ocean breeze or current, then running rapids may seem a little bit of a stretch. Having said that, with practice and a solid understanding of river behaviour, safety and technique, its probably not that far out of reach.

It might not well be for the masses and its far more seasonal than flat water paddling, but its the whitewater kayakers in the main that have been turning the tide so to speak as they look for alternate ways to get their fix. Paddle boarding in grade I, II or even III rapids has an entirely different buzz or lack of for a seasoned kayaker whereas on a paddle board it can still be a rush. Those in the kayaking community that do cross over or straddle both disciples can make the most of the water whether its running or not so its definitely yet another way that our sport continues to grow and adapt.

Let’s take a look at some of the more essential elements…

Your Whitewater Paddle Board

Having the right kit for all sports is always key for not only your overall experience, but in this case your safety as well. While safety equipment is essential and we will get to this shortly, having a solid fountain under you, aka your board is a pretty good place to start.

As you will likely be paddling in varied conditions – flat or fast flowing water, moderate currents, or rapids with unknown obstacles – your board and its setup will be dependent on the water that you plan to explore.

Whereas a typical flat water all round SUP is +/- 11 feet long and 32-33 inches wide, whitewater SUPs are typically shorter (less than 10 feet) and wider (33-36 inches). There can be a whole host of variations in length and width but the essential difference with whitewater boards is that they are better designed for manoeuvrability and turning given the challenging paddling conditions. There are trade-offs however as these shorter boards that are designed for rapid and river running are harder to paddle due to their width and do not go as fast or track as well in comparison to an all round board so they require a greater level of paddler skill if you’re to spend more time on your board than off. Like SUPs that are designed for surfing, whitewater boards also tapper up at the front (known as rocker) and the rear as this helps the nose and tail of the board remain above the water line as much as is possible.

Whitewater Paddle Board

There are further variations again is you are looking specifically at surfing river waves. These waves are static or stationary waves that are caused when large masses of water are constricted by a rock which then forms a continuous shorter tight wave. Boards designed for river waves are shorter again and shaped somewhat like a boogie board with squared off noses and tails. This allows the ‘surfer’ to manoeuvre the board in a confined space.

If you are new to river and white water paddling then you will likely not want to go for an overly customised board but one that is a little more all round focused. Aside from incurring yet another expense, you will still be doing quite a bit of flat to moderate current water paddling as well so having a board that performs well in varied conditions makes the most sense. You should therefore aim for a board that is ideally a little shorter than a standard paddle board that has an adjustable fin system and front rocker.

Hard Board or Inflatable – this is almost exclusively the domain of the iSUP. Beyond the fact that they are portable so can be carried in a backpack, they are far better suited to the whitewater conditions. Whereas hard boards will get seriously damaged through the inevitable impact with rocks and underwater debris, inflatables will bounce off these obstacles and come out largely unscathed.

<< Fancy a more relaxed paddle boarding experience, perhaps try SUP Yoga instead >>

Paddle Board Fins

As with all paddle boards, the fins play a vital role in the overall performance and control of the board. A fin set up for recreational flat water paddling on a lake will likely not suit whitewater paddling conditions. Understanding the interaction of the fins and your board is therefore quite important.

Your fins will first be governed by your board so having a board with detachable fins is key. This will enable you to adjust Paddle Board Fins

your setup to cater for the conditions that you plan on paddling in. Depending on your level of experience and understanding of all of the different variations, SUP fin configurations can vary from a single centre fin through to twin-fin, tri-fin, quad-fin or even 5-fins.

The centre fins main focus is on speed and tracking. As you will likely be paddling in shallower water, this fin will typically be a little shorter than what you would use for regular flat water paddling as it may hit rocks or obstacles.

The default fin configuration will likely be a tri-fin set-up with two smaller side fins (side-bites) in addition to the centre fin which provides a nice balance for both tracking and manoeuvering. A quad-fin configuration has two smaller fins either side with the centre fin removed which is a good combination in shallower waters. The 5-fin set-up is yet another extension of the quad-fin configuration (centre fin remains attached) which will again aid lateral or side-to-side movement.

It is also important to keep in mind that you will likely also break or bend fins given the terrain that you are paddling in so having spares will be a nice plus.

Deck Padding

As important as deck padding on your flat water board is, its more important again on whitewater boards. In this case, size does matter so you should be aiming for a deck pad that has the majority of the boards surface covered. The padding should preferable be diamond shaped with deep grooves which better aids grip and rider traction. Both surf and whitewater SUPs normally also have a raised lip at the rear end of the deck pad so you know where your rear foot is in relation to the end of the board. This also better enables the paddler to lean back and dig in for deeper or sharper turns.

<< In the market for a new paddle board SHUBU Solr Inflatable iSUP >>


As with all paddles, the 3 considerations are length, blade and material.

For normal recreational paddling you typically aim for a paddle that is 10-12 inches taller than you are. For river or white Paddle Boarding in Grade II Rapidswater paddling the paddle is shorter as you are typically in a bent stance when paddling so you would be looking at a paddle that is 6-8 inches above your height. Quality adjustable paddles are an obvious choice of course.

Not unlike other paddling conditions, lightweight = good so carbon fibre paddles are always a nice option. Whilst they are light, they are also expensive. They will also be prone to damage given that you will be paddling in rough conditions where in all likelihood your paddle will be hitting rocks and other underwater obstacles. It’s for this reason that a fibreglass blend with a reinforced blade would be the most appropriate choice. Plastic is also an option and while durable and cheap, its also the heaviest out of the three.

Staying with the size matters thinking, larger blades will move more water but they will also require greater energy. Larger and stronger paddlers would therefore typically go for a larger blade and correspondingly, smaller paddlers a smaller blade.

Safety First

As should be the case with all water sports, safety should always be front of mind and one of your very first considerations. Beyond your safety equipment, do you know the waterway where you will be paddling? Have you been there before or are Personal Floatation Vestyou with someone that is familiar with the area, the obstacles, the rapids, the distances that you will be traveling? What are the weather conditions or water levels like? Are there calm areas where you can rest or easy access to the shore? You can not put a price on your safety so please make sure its a priority. You should also not paddle on your own so buddy up or paddle in groups in case you are injured or lost.

Life Jacket / Buoyancy Vest – no discussion here really. It’s a critical item irrespective of your experience or skill level. Accidents do happen and you will in all likelihood end up in the water so always always wear one.

Leash – this one gets a bit of debate when it comes to whitewater SUPing. While its important that you and your board do not become separated if and when you fall in the water, some argue that they can be dangerous as you could become trapped or tangled in your leash. The argument isn’t an unreasonable one but leashes are important so you are best advised to look for a leash that has a quick release mechanism meaning that you will be able to detach yourself if the circumstances merit it.

Protective Wear – first and foremost here is the helmet. Like your buoyancy vest, this one is also a must. Something that is light, secure and comfortable will suit. While the paddle boarding industry is yet to develop its own dedicated protective kit, knee, elbow and shin pads that you would use for mountain biking are also quite good if you’re paddling in rough conditions. Again, appropriately sized and secure enough so they do not obstruct your movement or comfort or while you are swimming.

Attire – climate considered, wetsuits are a great option for their obvious warmth but also for added protection and buoyancy if you are in the water. Neoprene booties and gloves are also useful for both grip and protection against rocks and debris.

Dry Bag – a waterproof or dry bag with your mobile phone, first aid kit, ID and any other small personal effects is also useful. Also ensure that you have water and food if you plan on being out for a period of time.

<< What are the Top 10 Benefits of Paddle Boarding >>

The Technique

So now that we’re all geared up and ready to go, is whitewater paddle boarding the same as our regular flat water paddling or are there any differences? Yes we have surveyed the water conditions and gone over all of our safety and need to know Paddle Boarding Paddler

items but is whitewater SUPing technically different to flat water SUPing?

The short answer is YES, there are some subtle differences in style and technique given the water conditions that you are in. They are somewhat akin to surfing given some of the similarities.

Once you have entered the water in a calm area, adopt a surfing stance with one foot in front of the other with your weight evenly distributed. Placing greater weight on your rear foot helps with manoeuvring and turning whereas your front foot assists speed. When you are in anything other than flat waters you will want to brace yourself by bending or extending your knees which will act a little like shock absorbers. You then dab your paddle in the water to maintain or regain your balance. You will fall off the board but over time with practicing this technique you will find your feet and start to feel more stable on the water.

As falls from your board are inevitable, make sure you remain calm and being aware of your surroundings – waves, rocks, other paddlers or obstacles. If the water is rough or you are in or near a rapid, float on your back facing the rapid – so your feet will be pointing towards the rapid and your buoyancy vest will hold you up with your head out of the water. Once you have rolled through the rapid pull your board back by its leash so you can get back on. Important – don’t let go of your paddle as this will just add another element and challenge as you will have to recover it and getting back on your board.

White water paddling is obviously more challenging than traditional flat water paddling but its certainly another way to spice up your paddling experience. Not for the faint-hearted but definitely worth a go if you’re up for it.

As always we would love to hear your thoughts or get your feedback so please feel free to leave your comments below and we will get back to you.

Until then, stay safe and get wet.

18 thoughts on “Whitewater Paddle Boarding – Simple Tips For Beginners”

  1. Every time when I go on vacation, I always wanted to try paddle boarding but my balance is not that great so I always talk myself out of it. But next month when I visit Florida, I am going to do it. Thanks for all the list and the video, I feel prepared and reassured that I can do this. I am sure I will be wet, a lot lol 

    • I get wet quite a lot as well so all part of the fun. If whitewater is a little tough then try out general flat water paddling first. A lot of fun so I hope you enjoy.

      All the best – Jason.

  2. Oh wow, White water Paddle Boarding, and I thought getting onto a SUP was a sport or exercise to be practiced on “calm” waters or even flat sections of the ocean. So this is very interesting to see that it is now being done on far more tumultuous sections of rivers. It certainly sounds as if it is not for the faint hearted.

    • Not for the faint hearted at all but as long as you play it safe then it can still be rewarding and not too scary. Flat water is still the most common type of paddling but now people are getting into paddle board fishing, yoga, surfing and more. Its becoming quite a versatile sport so worth taking up if you get the chance.

      All the best – Jason.

  3. Hello there! this is an amazing review you have got here. I took some scary swims (in a kayak) and just thought, ‘I don’t know,

     if I stay with this group of guys that I’ve grown in the sport with, am I going to be one of those statistics that dies on the river?

    • I really really hope not Joy although I can’t speak for your group of mates – perhaps they’re a tad wilder than most! It’s great fun though so stay safe and give it a try if you’re up for a bit more adventure.

      All the best – Jason. 

  4. I really enjoyed your article. I’ve never been fortunate enough to be able to do water rafting. I’m not sure of many places in the UK that offer water rafting. But I will certainly look into it.

    • I’m now living in Ireland Russ (moved from Australia – don’t ask) but if you can do it here then I’m sure you’ll find a place in the U.K. Worth giving it a go as its an easy water sport to fall in love with.

      All the best – Jason.

  5. Hello – very in depth tutorial on SUPing. There are so many variables with just finding the right water for your level. Really great suggestions for every step of the way to a fun ride. I have a new found respect for those on white water rivers. Enjoy your summer on the water of your choice.

    • Hi Nancy. There are a bunch of variations for SUPing so if you get the chance to give it a try (flat water, yoga, fishing, surfing, whitewater) I’m sure you will find the right fit for you.

      Stay safe and enjoy – Jason.

  6. Hello- although White water Paddle Boarding isn’t something I’ve experienced up to now, you really have created a new whole interest about this, just by reading through the wonderful material you here have. Aditionally, living in Greece I will most surely indulge myself to this, the next time I’m near one of the most lovely beaches, this country offers.

    • Good to hear Dimitris. Greece has some fantastic beaches and waterways so I’m a tad jealous actually – paddle boarding would be particularly scenic there so you do need to give it a go.

      All the best – Jason.

  7. Jason,
    I’ve never been brave enough to try paddleboarding! Your article was interesting. You mentioned that hardboards get scratched from the rocks, and that they may not be better than inflatables. Do you prefer an inflatable board? If so, what are the best features for an inflatable board that hardboards are lacking? Like I said, your article was interesting! Thank you for your article!

    • Hi Robert. There are different schools of thought between hard and inflatable boards but when it comes to whitewater, inflatable is very much the way to go. Apart from them being better able to deal with impacts from rocks and debris, they have a softer surface and deeper shouldered edges which assist with the spills and falls that will most definitely happen in rougher waters. They also have good bungee systems and ample D-rings for attaching accessories so another neat feature. The actual board shape also better suits the conditions so they are an overall better fit for this style of paddling. I hope you get the opportunity to give it a try sometime. All the best – Jason.

  8. Paddle boarding is something I always wanted to do, but never had enough confidence and would I say the courage to go ahead with it lol. After reading your article I feel more reassured as it can’t be that bad. Thank you very much for this.

    Best wishes

    • Your welcome Habib. As its new to you perhaps take a look at our Tips for Beginners post which will give you a little more insight into the sport. Mind you, I’d stay clear of the whitewater until your well up to speed – try a bit of flat water paddling until you become proficient.

      All the best – Jason.

  9. Hey Jason,

    Really informative and interesting article. I’ve never been whitewater paddle boarding before. I’ve been canoeing years ago but that was when I was a kid. This actually does look like a lot of fun and could be very high energy which is what I’m about.

    If I ever do try this then I will let you know. I will get myself filmed and send you the link so you can judge how I’m doing. If that is OK with you?

    Thank you for sharing and keep up the great work.

    All the best,


    • Hey Tom that would be great. You’ll definitely burn a few calories paddle boarding and more again if your in the whitewater. Do send me through a clip, always great to see the real deal in action.

      Stay safe – Jason.


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