Did you master flatwater paddleboarding and look for a new adventure? If whitewater is your next challenge, here are the paddleboarding safety rules you must know before even putting your toe into the river. Seriously, it’s very important. Rivers are exciting, but can also be dangerous. And there is no mercy. So take a comfortable seat, and let’s go through it together!
1. Use no leash without practice
Using the leash when paddleboarding on lakes, oceans, or flat rivers is a basic safety rule. No matter how experienced you are. On whitewater, the situation is more complicated. Being tight to your SUP can actually cause you danger. So what to do?
When you meet experienced paddlers on whitewater, they will most probably have a leash on a quick-release system on their personal floating device (life vest). It seems useful and safe, of course. The problem is, that on the river the leash or the board can get stuck in between rocks, trees, or in a hole. This means, that you get stuck there as well.
Opening the quick-release system underwater in rough circumstances can be pretty hard. The water is smashing you to the left and right, you get cold and tired. So it is important to first practice how to open the quick release system before actually using it. But don’t do that on your own. Join a swiftwater rescue course, where you will practice in a safe environment, covered by rescuers.
Until that time, we encourage you not to use the leash on whitewater at all. Read more about this topic in our article Leash for Whitewater: Should you use it or not?
2. Choose suitable rivers and scout rapids
Whitewater SUP is just like other extreme sports – harder than it looks. 🙂
When heading to the new river, always make a proper risk assessment. We recommend the following two steps.
a) Make an online research about the river
Read relevant blog posts, join local Facebook groups, ask on forums. Find local paddlers or companies that can provide you with the necessary information. The most important to know is the actual water level, river difficulty, and hazards. We also recommend using RiverApp, where you can find helpful information. Once you are done with the online research, you can head to the river.
b) Scout the rapids
When paddling down the river, you always have to know what is coming after the next turn. Scouting the rapids is important not only for paddleboarding safety but also for your better performance on the river.
So drive along the river, and check out all the sketchy spots. When you will be standing next to a certain rapid, set a safety plan with your fellow paddlers who will be standing at the bottom of the rapid. Later, when you fall into the water, you have to make a really quick decision about how to reach the shore the fastest and safest way. Prepare for several river safety scenarios.
Scouting will also help you to choose the easiest or preferred line on the rapid. You can make a plan ahead, so you know which side you will paddle, which angle you should point your board, and where to stop after the rapid.
3. Never paddle alone
Some people like doing sports alone, so they can switch off and clear their minds. Well, not on whitewater.
When paddleboarding down the river, falling is always a part of the game. We never know when we will need help with catching the board floating downstream, setting up safety at the bottom of the rapids, calling an emergency, or helping with first aid. I went through several injuries when I was whitewater kayaking and I would have been in trouble without help in those situations.
Paddling with friends or professionals helps you not only to stay safe but also improve your paddling skills which is one of the goals at the end of the day. Plus, do not forget that sharing is caring! There is no better feeling than sharing your excitement and success with a friend aside.
Don’t have a fellow experienced paddler to go together? Join a guided whitewater SUP tour, for example on the emerald Soča River!
4. Use proper personal equipment
Paddling on fast, rocky, usually cold rivers requires special gear. To stay safe when paddleboarding on whitewater you will need: a helmet, life vest, proper shoes, wetsuit/drysuit, and protectors. Let’s talk about them a bit more to make sure that you have the right ones.
A good whitewater helmet is a must. When buying one, make sure that it has the CE certificate and it covers the back of your head, forehead, and ears. There are some baseball cap–looking helmets on the market, which might be good for a hike but don’t protect you on the river. The helmet is for safety, not for fashion.
When buying a lifevest, make sure that it is the right size for your weight, and that you are able to tight it on yourself properly with at least three points. But also don’t forget about your comfort! It is more important than you might think. Paddling in an uncomfy lifevest can even lead to more falls.
Lifevest should also have an easily accessible pocket that is big enough to pack in your rescue equipment – a knife, prusiks, carabiners, flip-line, and a chocolate bar.
We all know the pain of walking barefoot on rocks, right? When you choose your shoes for river SUP, make sure that they will feel comfy in any terrain. You will always have to walk on the shore and sometimes do safety for your buddies. We recommend choosing a shoe that is light enough to keep the connection with the board, but thick enough to walk easily on rocks.
Wetsuit or drysuit
Always make sure to dress accurately for the temperature of the water. Wetsuits are great for most of the days. Neoprene also gives extra 3-millimeter protection when you fall. I would recommend a drysuit for longer tours, rainy or cold conditions, or if you have a longer walk to the put-in.
If you are new to whitewater SUP, knee and shin protectors are always a good idea. They will save you from painful experiences on shallow creeks and rocky rivers. You may feel like a tough guy with bruises, but in reality, it not only hurts but also has a bad effect on your paddling in the following days. Protect your body so it can serve you for long!
5. Always remember the whitewater safety swimming position
When we fall from the board we want to swim out as soon as possible, right? I feel you. But on whitewater, it is not that simple. You will most probably fall in the rapid and not on the easy part in between. And first, you have to make sure to float through the rapid safely. The most important rule is to never try to stand up!
Why? Where you can see the big waves, that’s where the big rocks under the water are. It is an instinct to try to stand up, but you would risk a foot entrapment which can be fatal. Once you get stuck in between rocks, the rescue is much harder.
So what to do? When you fall, make sure to stay on your back, facing downstream, and keep your feet on the surface at any cost so you avoid foot entrapment! After the rapid, you can switch to an active swimming position and swim towards the shore.
Keep these paddleboarding safety rules in mind and your whitewater experience will be much more fun!
Join us for a Whitewater SUP Course on the emerald Soča River (Slovenia) with an ISA-certified instructor! We will build up your whitewater paddleboarding skills step by step while having fun exploring the waves of the beautiful Soča River!:-)
Grew up in a kayak but later fell in love with a whitewater SUP. Sebi is an ISA certified SUP instructor and owner of the Bovec SUP company in Slovenia. You will mostly find him playing on the waves of the Soča river.