The challenge of WW SUP

Paddling whitewater on a SUP has many challenges but the payoffs are big and we’re seeing growth in the whitewater part of the sport for several very easy to recognize reasons. By Dan Gavere

By Dan Gavere
Photos: Toby Bromwich

Paddling whitewater on a SUP has many challenges but the payoffs are big and we’re seeing growth in the whitewater part of the sport for several very easy to recognize reasons.

  • Compared to kayaking, SUP is much less intimidating when it comes to getting on the river, plus the barrier for entry is safer and generally easier to learn. When it comes to capsizing, being on a SUP is so much easier, safer and less disorientating than being upside down in a kayak, especially when paddling rocky rapids where striking your head and face is obviously a concern. On a SUP you flip it over, crawl back on and keep going. In a kayak when you flip over and cannot roll up or miss your roll, it can be a hard slog to get to the river bank and at times takes a rescue from others as well on the side.      
  • Many paddling locations and outfits have embraced SUP with professional instruction making the beginner stages easier and more fun.  
  • There are more and more experienced SUP paddlers looking to expand their SUP adventures each year.
  • There are so many great locations near urban areas, from purpose-built whitewater play parks to natural flowing rivers through towns all over the world, especially in mountain towns. It’s natural for the people who are watching and witnessing the fun paddlers are having to be saying to themselves, “That looks like fun, I can do that.”
River running

The current state of the whitewater SUP niche seems to be the river running aspect and the adventure of paddling down rivers from point A to point B. River running combines SUP paddling with an exploratory nature and a sense of companionship, since there’s a shuttle involved, which means it takes two vehicles leaving one at the take-out and loading up the other to get to the put-in, very similar to kayaking of course. 
Again, similar to kayaking, this naturally makes it more social and SUP paddlers seem to really enjoy that aspect in contrast to ocean surfing, which is generally a more individualistic activity. Social and print media has also helped the sport of whitewater SUP to get to where it is now, as readers take onboard where and what to paddle.  

I personally believe the whole river and whitewater community has embraced it for the most part (some kayakers may still call it beater boarding or fall down paddle boarding) but for me this community of river lovers is bursting with paddlers willing to try new ways of descending the rapids. Besides the board and paddle, the cost for entry is generally cheaper too as those already into river running in kayaks already have most of the gear needed (PFD, helmet, dry or wetsuit, river shoes, etc).

  • Dan Gavere
  • Dan Gavere
  • Dan Gavere
  • Dan Gavere

Lately, I have seen whitewater SUP growing with raft guides looking for something to do after working on the river during the day and with experienced kayakers who have observed it and want to give it a go. Currently, the most popular and logical technology is with inflatable boards (iSUPs), as they are super durable, quite stiff utilizing the drop stitch technology and usually constructed in five or six-inch thicknesses. 

The most popular and common size for a dedicated whitewater board is 9.6” x 36” x 6” as this provides a super stable platform, inspiring confidence and the feeling of true stability. The same basic safety gear is mandatory as is used in kayaking and rafting, which includes a minimum of helmet and whitewater PFD (not an inflatable!) for the obvious reasons. A good pair of river shoes and knee/chin pads are also highly recommended as part of a whitewater SUP kit.  

Play parks

The future of whitewater SUP I believe could include a possible international race circuit or a World Championships. I also think we will see 20-30 foot waterfalls being landed in the next two or three years. Then there’s the whole river surfing angle to think of as well, which is definitely going to help this niche grow in the future with a large part of that growth from the construction of new play parks such as Surf Snowdonia in Wales and The Wave in Bristol and the plethora of great park and play river waves that are currently being constructed all around the globe on every continent. 


This offers people who live good distances from the ocean, the opportunity to surf and connect with the lifestyle of surfing, which is always a positive aspect especially for kids and young adults who are more and more challenged to step away from their electronics and step back into nature. I hope that more school programs will offer this in the future and we see more initiatives offering whitewater SUP programs for kids each summer. 

Looking forward I am excited to postulate about the possibilities and I haven’t ruled out the possibility of an Olympic bid as whitewater SUP X is probably the most exciting aspect of SUP racing to watch, with the advantage that the summer Olympic venues already have the facilities.  

Watch this space

Dan Gavere lives in Hood River Oregon. Sponsors include: ION Products, Croakies, Outside Van, Dragon Alliance, Werner Paddles, Exwayusa, danyak101 on instagram.

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