Whitewater SUP: Everything You Need to Know

Whitewater SUP: Everything You Need to Know

Kimberly Kenyon
14 minute read

Whitewater what? River SUP?

whitewater sup picture

You might still be in a bit of disbelief right now.

Let’s try again.

From the simple current flows to the raging whitewater of the rivers, Stand Up Paddling on moving water is a developing and rewarding sport. I want to be clear with you from the start: you do not have to send yourself down the river alongside the adrenaline seeking whitewater enthusiasts. You can also paddle slow moving rivers and still have fun.

But for those adrenaline seekers, see “Figure A” below!

whitewater sup adventure

Figure A, Credit to @mci_graham


Yes that’s me in the white helmet, staying up right on my feet. I have been whitewater stand up paddling for 8 years now. This is not my everyday paddling.

I started off as a landlocked surfer in BC’s interior trying to find my way back to the water. Someone told me you can surf on the river; my reply of course was “What do I gotta do?”

I found myself falling passionately into river stand up paddling, especially river running, and exploring the unlimited rivers Western Canada has to offer. It’s led me to follow through the Paddle Canada SUP instructor stream and graciously accept the offer to be a part of Badfish so I can share and inspire this amazing sport I love.

We all started out on our local lazy river, and I still enjoy all the scenic chill adventure days! If your dreams are either your local lazy river or sending it down challenging waters, I am stoked to help.

whitewater sup river

This article covers the basics--everything from the gear you need, to the info to get started.


Boards  Designs for the river, and materials

PFD  Personal Flotation Devices  AKA life vests

Paddles Features to be aware of

Leash Why it is different on the river

Safety Gear A list and reasons for these essentials

Clothing Two types of suits and staying warm

Stumbling Blocks Difficulty and special considerations                                                                       



There are two major designs of river stand up paddle boards and three major categories of materials they are built of. The types/designs are the River Runner (not a shoe…. :D) and the River SUP Surfboard.  The materials are plastic, hard (composite) and inflatable.

Whitewater River Runner SUP

whitewater river runner sup

This board is designed for paddling downstream on the river through rapids and navigating the river features.


River runners are wider, thicker, shorter in length and have rocker.


34-36 inches, for stability in the turbulent water.


Thicker rails equals forgiveness from the influence of the current.


Average from 9-10 feet. Long enough for stability but short enough to be maneuverable.


Rocker is how much the board curves upward from nose to tail. A river SUP has a banana-like appearance.


River Runners have added features such as removable fins, extra handles, gear tie downs, and D-rings.


2 to 1 set up, removable, flexible

1 fin box (interchangeable fin), 2 thruster fins (smaller side fins).

Flexible to withstand impact


Seriously, this is an overlooked feature. Handles are helpful with getting back on the board, carrying and acting as a handhold in rescues for swimmers to grab onto. These add extra grab points on the board when making portages.

Gear Tie downs

This is where I secure and fasten my drybag that includes a first aid kit, an extra warm layer, a sealed bottle of drinking water, snacks (who doesn’t love snacks), and spare leash. This is also a good place to keep a throw bag secured and handy.


Attach your leash here.


River SUP Surfboard

river sup surfboard

This Surfboard is larger and is different from an ocean surfboard. It is designed to play/surf on a standing wave in the river. But if you really want to test your balance, paddling one of these down simple waterways can be a new challenge.



The appearance of a mini river runner with reduced width, thickness, length and rocker.


28-23 inches. A narrower board equals less ploughing, faster on the wave.


4-5 inches. Thinner rails are easier to engage while surfing.


Averages 6-8’. Shorter makes it nimble.


More important at the nose, keeps the board from “nosediving.”



Not as many features exist on the River SUP as they are used as more of park and play board.


Some are not removable, but still flexible


Manufacturers vary

Gear tie downs most models do not have this feature


Attachment for your leash



            When stand up paddle boards first hit the rivers the materials were a crossover of both kayaking, which produced plastic river boards, and flat water stand up paddling which brought hard composite boards. Both of these helped set a path that led to a preference for inflatable boards. I have personally paddled all of these materials and they have their pros and cons.


Limited manufactures

plastic whitewater sup

 My first season on a rough and tough plastic board





Heavy, average 50 lbs.


Can scrape over rocks easily, take heavy impacts without damage to the board.

The weight helps to keep you in the river once it’s moving


Hard impacts or scrapes can crack seams. More difficult to maneuver.

In the most extreme situation I’ve seen the impact/scrape peel the fin box open like peeling a banana. Yes, another banana reference!

Composite (hard)



Today’s boards: Medium to High. Past boards, all I can say is talk about a mixed bag of quality.


Medium to light 32 lbs. -17 lbs.


Custom board builds that withstand medium to hard impacts. Extremely easy to maneuver

“No joke here, with this quick story. I was driving my truck down a dirt road at about 50km/h. Something in my gut was telling me to check the boards (were they shifting?). Out of sheer luck when I checked my rear view mirror I watched one of the SUP surfboards (a hard composite) coming sliding off my board rack and land flat on the road behind the truck, disappearing into the dust cloud.

Luckily the board only had two small impact holes where it landed on some rocks and scratch marks down the bottom from sliding to a stop. Good board, but other composites I have seen simply get bumped into a rocky shore in a eddy and end up in “repair” once the foam had a few days to dry out.



Potentially fragile! I can’t stress enough to read reviews--check for how the boards have been tested. The lack of weight can be “thrown/pushed” around by the river features.


Popular--easy storage and transport


High. I am not the gentlest person on gear and my current inflatables are putting up with me. :D


Medium 25-32 lbs.


Rock impacts leave little to no damage, possibly only some cosmetic mark. Easily carried, easily controlled in the river.


They tend to adhere momentarily if you hook a rock.

SAFETY TIP : Never leave an inflated board in the hot sun. The air inside can expand and over pressurize beyond the safety rating of the board.

PFD Personal Floatation Devices for Whitewater SUP

whitewater sup pfd


A big difference between flatwater and river stand up paddling is the higher possibility you will end up swimming in the water. This one is simple. You want to keep afloat on a river. You want to be able to see the hazards around you and ahead and for that you need your head above water. You need a PFD.

PFDs are required by law by Transport Canada.

Transport Canada recommends choosing a PFD based on your needs and your activity.


Recommended PFDs


Type III

Type III is a recreational vest with a minimum of 15.5 lbs buoyancy which I use for flat water and I have seen them used on the local lazy rivers.

Kokatat Hustle PFD

Kokatat Hustle PFD


The Kokatat Hustle PFD is the perfect blend of fit and performance for whitewater, touring, and sup paddlers. The sculpted foam panels wrap around your torso for an incredible fit. Full back and side coverage protect your body from impact...Read More

Type V

Type V is a specific application. The Hustler is my river PFD. Type V is the usual rating of a whitewater paddling vest or a swift water rescue vest.

Kokatat HustleR Rescue PFD

Kokatat HustleR Rescue PFD


The Kokatat HustleR Rescue PFD premium low-profile rescue life vest is designed with features veteran paddlers and guides demand. IMPORTANT: This life vest is only available in UL (US Coast Guard) certification. The HustleR features a quick release chest harness,...Read More


“Why are PFDs so important on the river?”

  • Floatation, so you can put more effort into where you are swimming
  • Protection from impact against rocks
    Acts as an insulating layer
  • A great place to attach your whistle
    Has a handy pocket for snacks and other goodies


SAFETY TIP : Never use an inflatable PFD on the river. They are not rated for the river.



In the river your paddle is exposed to greater forces than on a lake. A robustly built paddle is important in order to avoid paddle equipment failure.

aluminum whitewater sup paddle

 A foam core in an aluminum shaft for floatation.


Whitewater paddles aren’t the cheapest paddle you can find. Always ask yourself first and foremost: will the paddle float? An accidental drop of a paddle could leave an individual without one.


River SUP Paddle Blades

whitewater sup paddle blade

A fibreglass blade. You can usually see the fibres of the material.

Their blades are not made of plastic. Please, if you have a plastic blade, consider upgrading before it takes an impact off a rock and breaks. Fibreglass blades and carbon fibre construction are the way to go--they can potentially chip and wear but are known not to shatter.

River SUP Paddle Shafts

The shaft should be made of a firm but flexible material. This is where aluminum and plastic fail to perform. Aluminum will break under enough pressure, as will plastic. I have witnessed an aluminum shaft clean breaking off in the river. Again, the material to look for is fibreglass or carbon fibre.


River SUP Paddle Handles

Most of the industry uses plastic handles. On the rare occasion you will see a Carbon Fibre Handle show up on a high end whitewater paddle. Be aware though: where the handle meets the shaft can equal another weak point.


River SUP Paddle Fit

Use your current paddle length you are comfortable with. This will make up a complete other blog. 



whitewater sup leashes

You need a quick release mechanism. It is usually a shackle that opens when a spring loaded pin is pulled on.


The theme with leashes on the river is staying attached safely AND being able to get away when necessary. OR no leash at all.

I want to put it to you straight, your regular ankle leash from the lake is actually unsafe on the river.

“Why’s that?!”

The river is a moving body of water. You need the capability to get away or release from your board, if your board becomes a hazard.

To learn more, checkout the detailed article I wrote about SUP Leashes.



Here’s the essentials and a couple other items for those special occasions




The whistle is a sound device to get the attention of others, both necessary and required by Transport Canada. In emergencies, or when needing to communicate above the noise of the river, it must be in reach! Safely secured to your PFD. You want a pea-less whistle.

Fox 40 Whistle Classic

Fox 40 Whistle Classic


This is a very loud, industry leading pealess whistle for use in river enviroinments. NOTE: Colour sent will be random unless specifically requested when ordering.Read More




Impacts: a fall on the river can be dangerous, but also think of the slippery rocks along the shoreline

2021 Sweet Strutter Kayak Helmet

2021 Sweet Strutter Kayak Helmet


The Strutter is a whitewater icon offering impressive low-volume protection for river running and playboating.Sweet Protection's revolutionary Long Fiber Thermoplastic (LFT) shell technology offers the perfect combination of elasticity and rigidity, and the ultra rigid internal carbon fiber frontal shell...Read More




Impact protection for your feet, and grip against slipping.



This rescue device can be an asset and save a life. It is recommended that you learn and understand how to use and take care of this item.

Kokatat Huck 70 Spectra Throw Bag

Kokatat Huck 70 Spectra Throw Bag


Kokatat's New compact and ergonomic bag shape that fits flat against body Features a mesh top for quick drying, foam side panels for floatation, reflective piping, and stiff bag opening for easy stuffing of rope. Designed specifically with sewn belt...Read More


River Knife


Now that you have a leash and a throwbag, it would be an amazing idea to have something to cut them with if in time of need. I also love having my knife for quick easy access to cutting cheeses after paddling.

NRS Neko Knife

NRS Neko Knife


Unique to other NRS knives, the Neko Knife features a sharp point. This compact, low-profile knife delivers the same versatile performance as our popular Co-Pilot knife with a sleeker profile and a simple friction-release sheath. A low-profile, friction-release sheath holds...Read More


Special Travel



Required by Transport Canada if traveling from point A to an unseen point B



Required by Transport Canada if traveling after dark on the water





No, not the formal occasion one! Put that back where you got it from!

I am talking about drysuits and wetsuits.

whitewater sup clothing

Plan to swim! And practice swimming! For those likely times that you will get wet, dress for success and longevity. Emergency preparedness is key in this neck of the woods. I know you’ll be fine but think about how you may need to help out a buddy.


These suits are dependent on their technologically advanced materials, keeping you dry. Although, you do have to wear some sort of insulating layer under this “dry shell” in order to stay warm.

The cost is a disadvantage for some people to purchase one initially. However, it allows you to have an extended paddle season. Even in hot weather the water is often cold enough to be hypothermic.



Wetsuits are made of Neoprene. The thicker “mm” rating of the neoprene the warmer the suit. The better the seams are sealed the warmer the suit. Wetsuits offer some buoyancy and protection from impacts. However, you can feel cooler quicker.

My summer suit is a 2/3mm, 2 mm on the arms and legs and 3mm on the body.



Whitewater SUP is accessible to most paddlers, however you need to have the Flatwater Basic Skills first. Like riding a bike, you don’t just start out on the downhill track, you learn first on your neighbourhood roadways. The ability to paddle confidently on lakes is the first step to moving onto the current.

Whitewater paddling is generally taught through instruction in a course, and it is important to seek out quality instruction to play in the rivers safely. Developing a community of paddlers to practice and enjoy the currents with is meaningful. The number one rule of river paddling, whitewater especially, is never go alone. 

The rivers were our lifeline for years, we have so much connection to the water. With whitewater sup we are returning to this history. We are reconnecting to something deeper.

“Dreams don’t work unless you do”


Kimberley Kenyon


Badfish Team Athlete

AQ Outdoors Whitewater SUP and Splitboard Ambassador 

Advanced and River 1 SUP Instructor Paddle Canada



AQ Outdoors Contact


Edmonton:  (p) 780 463-4892 (e) info@aquabaticsedmonton.com

Calgary:  (p) 403 288-9283  (e)  info@aqoutdoors.com

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