Whitewater Kayaking


For many kayakers, tackling whitewater is a bucket-list dream but kept out of reach by fear and inexperience. But there is no reason why, with a lot of practice and a good understanding of how to assess the situation, enthusiastic kayakers and kayak fishos can’t step up and brave some whitewater rapids.

So, you are floating down your merry stretch of river, when you see some turbulent water with some intimidating looking obstacles up ahead. The first thing you need to do is stop, get to shore and assess the situation.


When you are assessing the rapids, the first thing you are looking for is potential hazards that could capsize you or keep you pinned down in one place. These include obstacles like downed trees and rocks which have breached the water’s surface, but also waves and holes of water which could snag you.

A wave builds up when an object disrupts the current. These vary in size and colour and can capsize a boat. Holes are created when water flows down a small dip. As the water drops over the dip, a small hydraulic is created when the water on the surface floats back upstream. These can be identified from the shore. You should be able to see the surface water moving back towards the dip. If you do end up tackling the rapids, you should remember these holes as they may require some effort to manoeuvre out of.


The current is easy to spot. It is the fast water flowing downstream. When an obstacle disrupts the current, it creates an eddy. This is the water behind the obstacle which is shielded from the current. This water is sometimes still and not moving, or it may be moving upstream, towards the obstacle that created it.

It is worth looking out for these sections while you are assessing the whole section. If you choose to run the whitewater, you will want to know exactly where these sections of still water are.


Break the whole section of whitewater into smaller moves. Can you comfortably tackle each individual move? If the answer is no to any move in the section, you should not attempt to paddle the rapids.


Once you have identified the obstacles, current line, and any holes, you can decide if you want to run the rapids. If you don’t, but you think they don’t look too turbulent or dangerous, you might want to line them. This involves manoeuvring your kayak over the rapids attached to a line of rope. If they really do look way out of your league, portage your kayak around the obstacle on the shore.


If you think they look safe to run, give it a go. Follow the current, which looks like a V shape from your kayak. If you are going around an obstacle and you can see the eddy behind it, look out for a U shape. If you can see a U shape coming towards you like a smile, you can safely turn into the eddy. If it looks inverted like a frown, this could be a recirculating hydraulic current.

Try and keep your speed up and move faster than the current. If you hold the current line at speed, you will have the most control over the kayak.

Find some small rapids and give it a go. The best way to learn is by doing, scout them out and try to identify the current, the eddy, a hole and the obstacles. Then when you have planned the safest possible route, try and run them.


What else should you look out for in whitewater? Do you have anything you can share?

Oli Ward
Oli Ward

Oli has camped and hiked his way around Australia and most of Europe. He also loves writing about his experiences and sharing his knowledge.