top of page

The 5 Key Elements of Whitewater Kayaking

Updated: Nov 12, 2020

Whitewater Kayaking is the use of a boat and double-sided paddle to traverse the wild rapids that are formed when river water rushes over uneven terrain towards the Ocean. Historically, this was done as a means of travel and exploration, which it still is! The big change over the past 50 years however has been the development of the skilled craft of whitewater paddling as an adventure sport, giving life-long paddlers a rich pursuit with endless possibilities for fun and fulfilment through skilful movement. A kayak isn't the only type of craft you can do this in, but the kayak's comfortable and connected sitting position, and its ability to stay solid and water tight through difficult terrain, make it the favourite among whitewater fanatics.

This article lays out the 5 fundamental elements of white water kayaking. With well developed skills in all 5 of these areas, a paddler can grow into a well rounded and strong white water kayaker, potentially capable of paddling on far-flung expeditions, descending wild steep creeks, nailing jaw dropping tricks and generally having a LOT of fun on the water. Even one area of weakness however leaves a doorway open to misshaps and difficulty out on the water.

River Reading

This one is top of the list as it informs every move that a white water paddler makes. Every piece of the water's movement is decipherable by watching the river and kayakers need to be skilled practitioners of this. An understanding of what the water ahead is doing is critical since it allows the paddler to plan their move down a whitewater section. Using their knowledge of the flow they will plan a controlled descent, avoiding serious hazards and using river features such as waves and eddies to their advantage as they make their way downstream toward their goal point at the bottom. Whilst a paddler is learning they'll find it necessary to stop in an eddy or on the bank to give them time to look ahead and formulate their plan. An expert whitewater paddler may develop the ability to 'read and run' complex whitewater while continuously moving downriver.

Paddler Momentum 

Not to be confused with 'going with the flow', paddler momentum is the ability of the paddler to both pick up speed toward a goal point, and to keep their boat on the course they've set despite moving through multiple and often opposing currents, all of which seeking to take the boat with them. This generally requires good forward paddling technique to ensure that each stroke is powerful enough to make its presence felt in turbulent water. It also requires good river reading and boat control skills as the failure to read the terrain and make the move will undoubtedly result in the paddler's speed being redirected into going with the flow. Whilst in an introductory phase of this skill, a paddler should be able to paddle their boat across moving currents arriving at multiple goal points as long as there are no big features on the river. An expert paddler on the other hand will be adept at driving their boat through complex currents and over steep obstacles without being overpowered by their forces and losing control of the boat's direction of travel.

Paddling hard to keep the momentum going!

Boat Control

Whitewater is not flat. It is some of the most dynamic terrain on earth, and so a paddler has to be just as dynamic in the way they control the boat in order to keep up! The shape of the kayak hull is designed to be used to aid a paddler's control of the boat's path. If the bottom corner of the hull digs into the water(edging), it will bite into that water and influence the steering, much like way leaning affects the steering on a bike. Having good boat control opens up a paddler's ability to control the direction of their momentum by using their balance to hold or adjust the edge of their kayak. For this level of control to be achieved the paddler must be well fitted to the inside of their boat and be well practiced at using their body positioning to create an edged hull shape while remaining well balanced. When they sit inside the boat it becomes an extension of their body, like a half-plastic aquatic Centaur! When a paddler has poor boat control they'll often spin out of control in changing currents and will regularly expose the wrong edge to the flow, creating serious instability and even sometimes flipping the boat. At an entry level, a paddler should be able to hold their boat flat and to briefly edge their boat to support a carving turn. When this skill is well developed they may be able to hold their boat stable and on-line over very rough water. They may also manipulate it to throw big tricks in a Freestyle boat! Freestyle kayaking is incidentally a great way to develop this skill.

With skilful boat control you can attempt all sorts of fun tricks!

Safety and Rescue

It's true to say that more people have accidents in cars every year than on the river. On the other hand, if a paddler takes this pseudo-logic to heart and neglects the safety and rescue side of their skillset they are just asking for trouble. Whitewater kayakers operate in a hazardous environment, and the only thing that makes this a safe thing to do is the boater's skills; both in incident avoidance and in rescue and incident management should things go wrong. The first line of defence in safety and rescue is being strong in the other 4 elements of whitewater paddling, with the addition of good self-rescue skills. On class 2-3 whitewater, where the hazards in the water are usually of low consequence, the minimum self-rescue skill level should be an ability to think clearly in the water and to assertively take control of your swim, usually by getting yourself to the side as soon as possible. As a paddler begins to seek more challenging and hazardous rapids, a solid whitewater roll will become their essential get-out-of-jail-free card.

Beyond this slightly self-centred approach to safety and rescue, whitewater paddlers should also cultivate good team skills that allow them to paddle whitewater safely and efficiently, sharing responsibilities for scouting and setting safety and being prepared to take on the role of rescuer if necessary. Things can go wrong in a lot of different ways in the whitewater environment, and rescue strategies can become technical and complex if the scenario calls for it. It is strongly recommended that all whitewater paddlers take a professionally delivered safety and rescue course pitched at the level of whitewater that they paddle in.


This element is tricky to put your finger on and can be infuriating, as some paddlers will be naturally gifted in this area while others will have a life-long battle to cultivate a useful mental space that allows them the clear, rational and positive thinking that a whitewater kayaker needs in order to perform at the standard they want to on the river. Though individual difference will factor in massively on how hard someone has to work to achieve a strong performance mindset, there are a few great training methods out there that can help paddlers to transform their ability to paddle well under pressure, and their ability to have fun in the whitewater environment. The first and simplest of these is to develop an awareness of one's own skill level, and a good working knowledge of the whitewater environment. By putting these two aspects together, a paddler allows themself the ability to make conscious choices about the types of challenge they take on, thus eliminating fear of the unknown and making them less likely to overreach.

With a solid mindset in place, a whitewater paddler will be able to make rational assessments of hazardous terrain, analysing risk with emotional detachment before committing to their plan. Once they've assessed and planned for any worst case scenario's, they'll be able to completely put these thoughts to the back of their mind in order to focus on the task at hand. They'll also be adept at dealing with a changing situation, making quick reassessments and taking action. This level of performance mindset is hard to achieve and often requires careful and consistent training to give a paddler the confidence they need in their abilities to allow them to stay focussed and to keep doubt at bay.

Confidence in her ability, in her knowledge of the terrain, and in the safety set up gave Becky the positive mindset she needed to paddle this waterfall with style!

The 5 Elements approach to making a well rounded whitewater kayaker.

Any paddler can use this knowledge to develop an understanding of what they need to work on in order to develop as a well rounded kayaker. If you can use it to motivate positive action, knowledge of your weakest areas can be your biggest strength in the long term. Have a look at the Spider graph below, and draw it out for yourself if you like. If there is one particular area of weakness, there is likely to be specific ways you can improve it, such as taking a Whitewater Safety and Rescue Training Course if you lack safety skills, or learning some flat-water freestyle moves to develop your boat control. If you'd like to develop in a few areas at once, going on a whitewater skills progression course or a professionally guided adventure could be the thing for you. There's no substitute for genuine experience, so just heading to a river that you're confident on with a few friends and a mind set on adventure and personal development is often just as good. Either way, it's time to go out and enjoy paddling.

Why not draw it out for yourself to see what you need to work on to become a well rounded paddler?
The whitewater paddler self-analysis tool. Key to becoming a well rounded paddler?

Written by Jamie Greenhalgh, professional whitewater kayaking coach at Paddle365.

Copyright (c) November 2020, Jamie Greenhalgh.

New for 2021! Paddle365 Coaching is now using the 5 Elements Approach to structure the one skills progression course to rule them all: 5 Elements Whitewater Kayaking- A 5 Day Skill Development Course

2,148 views0 comments


bottom of page