Whitewater SUP – Gear overview

In part one of this series Ian Smith describes the new approach to WW SUP

WW SUP series part two by Ian Smith


When it comes to gear, the whitewater SUP community has shown a divergence in opinions. Board choice, fin configuration and controversial quandaries such as to leash or not to leash are debated on a regional and personal level. So how do people looking to get into the sport know what equipment is appropriate for them? While the answer may be ambiguous, the important part is finding gear that will last, keep you comfortable and safe, and make the most of your experience on the water.

Randy Fisher WW SUP

Board choice
Firstly, you must choose a board that allows you to achieve your paddling goals and express your style on the water. The first consideration is the material and construction of the board. The three most prevalent types are inflatable, rigid, and roto-moulded-plastic.

Inflatable technology has long been proven in the whitewater world and inflatable SUP boards are no exception. High quality inflatable boards offer a very rigid, lightweight, and versatile platform with unsurpassed durability. Slamming into rocks, being trapped under waterfall curtains, and being pinned against boulders are all circumstances inflatable boards can withstand repeatedly. In addition to their durability, inflatables offer incredible performance. Although inflatables can’t offer the precise lines and shapes of rigid boards, they are fast, responsive and manoeuvrable with the added benefit of being low impact when sustaining a fall onto the board. The option of deflating and stowing the board in small spaces is another advantage. These benefits make inflatable SUPs a great choice for paddlers looking to handle almost any whitewater scenario.

Rob Mazzetti WW SUP

Inflatables come in both fixed fin and removable fin boxes. While some prefer the flexibility of fin boxes, fixed fins are a great, no-hassle option that has proved incredibly durable on low gradient slides, waterfalls, and through technical rapids. Interchangeable fins, however, give you more options for adjusting the feel and performance of the board. Another key consideration with inflatables is choosing a quality brand that can handle high pressure. The best boards are reinforced with high quality materials and can handle pressures of 18 psi and higher. This greatly enhances the board’s performance. Although these boards are expensive, you are buying a piece of gear that will last and perform at a high level.

Rigid boards
A second option is a rigid board. Rigid boards are made in the same way as traditional surfboards: a piece of shaped foam wrapped by layers of fibreglass (or similar materials) and epoxy resin. The result is a fast, agile and lightweight SUP that can be shaped precisely and custom tailored to specific paddling needs. Rigid boards also offer a variety of fin configurations. The primary drawback of rigid boards is a lack of durability. The rocky conditions of many whitewater destinations pose issues for this construction type. Some companies offer shells or coatings that are more durable than standard fibreglass layups but are still susceptible to dings and cracks. In spite of this, many devout river surfers forego the drawback of durability, preferring the precision shaping, performance and feel of rigid boards.

Another popular type are roto-moulded plastic SUPs. These boards offer a high level of durability and are typically offered at the most affordable price-point. They are, however, the heaviest, slowest, and least responsive board in the water. Furthermore, their weight makes them difficult to load onto a roof rack or carry over the challenging terrain that is common in whitewater destinations. Some paddlers, however, prefer the added volume and weight, especially for high volume down-river paddling. The added stability, lower cost, and ability to take abuse make roto-moulded boards a popular choice.

Ben Moore WW SUP

To help decide what board construction is best for you; analyze the type of water you plan to paddle most. If you will be focused on freestyle tricks in a deep, high-volume surf wave, an epoxy board might be best.

If you plan to do primarily down-river trips in rocky, low to medium volume rivers, an inflatable board is a better choice.

Equally important to the type and material is the size and shape of a board. The appropriate size depends on your experience level, weight and paddling style. When you are getting started, it is essential that you have a board with plenty of volume and stability. As your skills progress, you can start to use smaller shapes, forgoing stability for manoeuvrability and performance. The best way to determine what board is going to work for your paddling style is to try as many boards as possible. Find others paddling in whitewater similar to your ambitions and see what they are using. Take note of their weight and skill set and adjust the size you need accordingly. Additionally, a trip to a local SUP outfitter can prove invaluable in terms of service and advice. Supporting local businesses is an added benefit that helps further the community of boarders while making sure you find the best gear for your region.

Paddle choice
The next integral gear decision is a paddle. When choosing a paddle for use in whitewater, it is essential that you find a blade with a high degree of durability. You will almost certainly be stabbing unseen rocks, river bottoms and any number of other damaging situations. For this reason, a slight flex in the paddle shaft will help avoid injury. Carbon fibre, which is common for ocean surfing and flat water paddling, isn’t necessarily the most durable or appropriate option in whitewater. Instead, fiberglass blends with reinforced blades are a better choice. While everyone prefers a specific length, a paddle that is around 9-inches taller than your height offers the length needed for stabilizing braces and power without putting too much strain on the shoulders and upper body.

Matt Rusher WW SUP

Safety gear
Next, you must consider padding. This starts with a solid, whitewater specific helmet. The key consideration with your helmet is an excellent fit and comfort. Invest some time in finding one that fits you well and will be comfortable on extended down-river expeditions or epic surf sessions.

In addition to padding your head, other key areas to protect are your knees, shins, and elbows. How much padding you need depends on what you’re paddling. On a deep surf wave you might not need any body pads, while on a steep creek descent you might wish you had on a bubble suit. Kneepads appropriate for downhill-mountain-biking or skateboarding offer a wide range of equipment that will suffice for whitewater SUP. The key is finding padding that doesn’t obstruct your mobility when you are submerged. Find pads with good fastening systems that won’t be cumbersome when you are swimming.

Melanie Seiler WW SUP

Another piece of gear that affects a paddler’s safety are leashes. The perpetual flow and power of rivers and creeks presents a considerable hazard of snagging a leash and pinning the paddler under the surface. For those that prefer wearing a leash, whitewater specific designs have emerged that can break away when snagged, or offer a quick-release mechanism so you can detach yourself if you get into trouble. If you do decide to wear a leash in whitewater, it is mandatory that it is a whitewater specific leash that offers these functions.

Whether you choose to wear a leash at all, however, depends on the style of whitewater you are paddling. If you are surfing river waves in a safe, deep spot without much risk of entanglement, a leash is a viable means of keeping your board within reach. Similarly, running deep, high flow rivers poses serious risk if you lose your board. In these situations it is less likely that you will snag the leash, and the danger of losing contact with the board could outweigh the risk of a snag.

In contrast to these situations are lower volume whitewater where rocks, trees, bankside obstructions, and other hazards present a high risk of snagging a leash. Even with quick-release options, there is no guarantee that you could remove the leash in a critical situation. When paddling slides, waterfalls, and steep, technical rapids, a leash often presents a higher risk than benefit.

Matt Rusher WW SUP

Staying warm
One of the amazing aspects of whitewater SUP that is often understated is its year-round capacity. You can paddle whitewater and surf river waves throughout the year as long as you have the right gear. In warmer locales and in summer months you can get away with only board shorts. If you plan to paddle in the colder climates, you will need a wetsuit or drysuit. Wetsuits are a great, relatively inexpensive option for getting started with cold-water paddling. In all but the coldest locations, a 4/3mm wetsuit, 7mm surf booties, neoprene gloves and hood will suffice. Wetsuits can take a beating and still insulate well with the gashes and holes a river will surely dish out through the season.

A drysuit, which keeps you completely dry, is another option for cold-water paddling. Since you can add or remove insulating layers beneath the suit, drysuits are very adaptive for a wide range of temperatures. They are, however, more expensive and susceptible to rips and tears. The benefit of being toasty warm and dry before and after paddling, however, is hard to ignore.

Rob Mazzetti and Ian Smith

Paddling partners
Perhaps the most overlooked thing that can make whitewater SUP fun is a solid paddling partner. Everything from running shuttle on down-river trips to setting safety on a dangerous section of river is enhanced and made possible with a solid partner or group of paddlers that you are comfortable around. The encouragement and camaraderie that whitewater facilitates is one of the greatest rewards of the pursuit.

Regardless of how perfect your gear setup is, finding enjoyment with friends, exploring beautiful places, and expressing your style on the water are the intangible privileges that whitewater SUP allows. Gather the equipment you need to make this possible but stay focused on the freedom of riding the river on whatever board you find beneath your feet.

In the next article, Ian discusses the tactics used in whitewater SUP and what you need to know.

Whitewater SUP – Gear overview

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1 Comment on Whitewater SUP – Gear overview

  1. You forgot to mention a PFD!! A Personal Flotation Device (PFD) is REQUIRED when paddling in rivers. If you are knocked unconscious while paddling, a PFD will keep you above water until help can reach you.

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