Whitewater kayaking is something that can be enjoyable for people of nearly all ages. I’ve had my 7 year old out in my boat on some class II waters this summer and it got me to thinking about introducing people to the world of whitewater and the best way in going about it.
There is one main thing I will say about learning to become a good kayaker. YOU’VE GOT TO WANT IT! If you don’t want it there’s really no reason in ever really getting out there. Most people are easily frightened by the confines of a whitewater kayak and never progress beyond the first terrifying day on the water or their first bad experience in the pool.
Here I will share a few pointers to help the learning process to be a little more easy.
- be with someone highly experienced
- be in a controlled environment
- have the proper attire on
- be properly outfitted in your kayak
- have the proper safety protocols in place
- be prepared to be a little uncomfortable
Whether you are in a controlled environment doesn’t really matter if you aren’t with someone who has quite a bit of experience under their belts. One bad time in a swimming pool or lake and your day could be done. Being with someone who fully understands these consequences is critical in making sure your first time in a kayak isn’t a bad one.
The best place to start out in a kayak is in a shallow pool. Preferably one where you can see the bottom and someone is able to stand next to and teach you the “wet exit” technique. The very first thing someone needs to be comfortable doing in their kayak is getting out in case they flip over. This can be very intimidating and can cause panic and even drowning if they aren’t properly instructed and supervised during their first attempt.
The thing about whitewater kayaking is that you’re enclosed in the boat with a what’s called a sprayskirt. The sprayskirt seals the cockpit so water doesn’t get in when you are going down river and through rapids. So being sealed inside of the kayak can be very intimidating even months into your kayaking career. This is why I suggest a supervised “wet exit” so make sure the person in the kayak KNOWS they can easily escape.
I’ve seen inexperienced people think they aren’t going to flip in the pool or in the lake and therefore they don’t practice the technique. Next thing you know they get off balance and over they go. A good friend of mine nearly drowned in a lake when this happened to him. After he flipped over he freaked out and tried to swim out of the kayak without pulling the skirt. The skirt has a grab loop that you pull when you need to get out and that’s what releases it from the cockpit rim of the kayak. As my friend was trying to swim out he was still being held in the kayak by the sprayskirt that was still engaged on the cockpit rim.
So if you’re not with someone who is highly experienced they may not be as cautious even in a controlled environment. So on to the controlled environment. Yes a pool would be a nice place to start. You don’t just throw someone out in a kayak in moving water unless you want them and you to have a really bad day. It may be the only two times they ever go kayaking. The first time and the last time!
A lake or creek isn’t as desirable simply for the murky factor and the idea of being able to touch the bottom and stand next to someone as they capsize their craft. So a controlled environment is paramount to make the first timer more comfortable and of course safer.
The proper attire is one that is often overlooked. This of course some along once you are actually getting out on the creek or moving water. Appropriate clothing can make or break one’s time on the river so be sure they have what they need to be comfortable in the great outdoors.
A warm under layer is crucial. Something not made of cotton but rather polyester that wicks water away from the skin and still insulates when wet. A cotton top can absolutely ruin someone’s day and endanger them in becoming hypothermic. A splash layer on top of the poly layer can also help insulate and keep things on the drier side. A good dry top is ideal and you shouldn’t really be getting out in the water without one. Even when the air feels warm, the water can be quite a bit colder. I always prepare my attire for a swim because my old saying is “I’d rather be hot than not”.
You can always take layers off but once you are out into the wilderness you only have what you have. Getting deep into a river canyon or gorge without enough warm gear and your day could end in the most undesirable fashion.
Being properly outfitted in a kayak is probably one of the most overlooked aspects beginners have. When you aren’t properly fitted in your kayak you will be far less in control and way more apt to swims and hazards. Many beginners go out and get all the greatest gear without acknowledging that being properly fitted inside of their boat is their best chance for having a dry hair day.
A properly outfitted kayak needs at least the following elements.
- Hip pads that are snug but not so tight they cut of circulation to the legs
- Foot blocks that help keep give the user another point of contact with the kayak
- A tight back band that sits low on the lower back and keeps your posture in a forward aggressive position