Photo Credits

Rafters in Whitewater

Whitewater fun on Tennessee’s Ocoee River.

© Jack Bivins

Whitewater SUP Risk Management

Program Risk Management for Whitewater SUP

One of the beauties of Stand Up Paddleboarding (SUP) is that paddlers can use their boards on almost any nearby ocean, lake, pond, stream, or river. Each body of water or waterway requires some tweaks to general safety practices, because common SUP practices were developed for an ocean environment. You will make the most dramatic adjustments when paddling SUPs on whitewater rivers. Leading participants on whitewater SUP trips requires an advanced knowledge of both the whitewater environment as well as the use of SUP equipment. Pairing those skills with solid judgment is key to leading participants in this activity for which best practices are still in development.


John Fair SUP


Site Selection

As with any whitewater sport, selecting a site that is appropriate for the clients’ abilities is critical. Find a river section that your clients can safely swim in its entirety, because at any given point it’s likely that at least one of your clients will be off his board. Given the surety of falls, choose a deep section of Class I and II whitewater, and make sure to match the site challenge to your participants’ abilities.

Participant Selection

Taking a group that is new to both SUP and whitewater on a whitewater SUP trip will likely create a dangerous and unpleasant experience. A group like this will not only be challenged by terrain that is new to them, whitewater, but also by the skills required to maneuver a SUP. As with any adventure activity, introduce your clients to one additional challenge at a time. Clients for a whitewater SUP trip will need a solid background in whitewater travel, flatwater SUP, or both. Whatever your selection criteria, creating a pre-trip progression will give you a chance to assess your clients’ competence and instruct specific skills.

Pre-trip Progression

All clients will need to be familiar with basic SUP maneuvering skills before they attempt to run whitewater. Review and allow your clients to demonstrate all the basics, including stance, foot movement, forward stroke, and pivot turns. Some critical skills that you may need to introduce include an aggressive whitewater stance (read low center of gravity) and bracing on both the blade side and the back side.

Discuss and practice different methods for exiting the board.

  • Planned dismount: Get onto your knees, then step off the board in a controlled manner
  • Semi-planned dismount: If you are going to run-aground on a sandbar for instance, spot your landing and make a choice. If you are landing on shallow sand, maybe you can stick the landing on your feet. On the other hand, if you are landing in a jumble of rocks, lay out and let your PFD take the impact.
  • Unplanned dismount: Land laid-out flat to keep yourself near the surface. Spot your landing to avoid rocks if possible.

Swimming: Newcomers to whitewater SUP will inevitably spend quite a bit of time off their boards, so teach and assess whitewater swimming. As with other whitewater sports, teach the downstream swimming position as well as aggressive swimming. The SUP instructor will add in leash management if you use leashes (more on this later), paddle management, retrieving the board, and getting back on. During the swim test, practice hand-paddling prone on the board as well as paddling in a kneeling position.


Personal Protective Equipment

At a minimum, clients must wear a properly fitted helmet, whitewater PFD, and shoes. On hot days and in deep rivers, this may be all that is needed, though consider knee and shin pads to lessen the impact of falls onto the board itself. For shallower rivers, consider elbow, knee, shin, and hip pads.


The use of leashes in whitewater SUP is a debated practice and this basic overview is by no means comprehensive. A leash connects a swimmer to the board, a huge amount of maneuverable flotation. A leash also introduces an entrapment hazard in the event that the board and the swimmer go around opposite sides of an obstacle. Ultimately, as an instructor you must manage the hazards presented by either choice.

A) If you choose to use a leash, it must be 1) reachable, attached at waist level or higher, and 2) releasable under load. There are several commercially available products that meet these criteria, and make sure you test yourself and your clients with the release mechanism. Traditional ankle or calf leashes are serious entrapment hazards; do not use them.

B) If you choose to forgo a leash, consider reducing your client:instructor ratio because you will likely spend a great deal of time and energy returning swimmers to their boards. You will also want to ensure that the river you choose to run has a long pool after each drop to allow time and space for equipment recovery.

Cold Water Immersion Equipment

Either wetsuits or drysuits are appropriate for whitewater SUP. Neoprene footwear, gloves, and hats/hoods are also helpful. Provide ear plugs to prevent the development of surfer’s ear.


SUPs optimized for the ocean do not perform well in whitewater, and in the last several years whitewater-specific SUPs have become increasingly available. Inflatable whitewater boards are durable and can provide a soft landing for the falling paddler, so they are a great option for beginners.


An adjustable paddle will allow new paddlers to try different lengths and find the fit that’s right for them. Whitewater SUP paddles take a beating, so durability is an important factor as well.

Instructor Outfitting

To the above equipment list add a throw rope, whistle, river knife, first aid kit, and emergency communications kit. With practice, a whitewater SUP makes an excellent rescue platform and has some significant advantages over other craft. Until you achieve proficiency with your SUP in rescue scenarios, however, have a safety boat in your flotilla.


SUP and Raft

Zachary Collier, NWRC/Flickr; CC License


Standard Whitewater Safety Briefing

A whitewater SUP safety briefing will be similar to any good whitewater safety briefing. Make sure to include a review of the safety equipment, plan and teach communication, teach/explain swimming, teach hazard recognition and avoidance, etc.

How to Fall

A key addition to the whitewater SUP safety briefing will be a review of how to fall properly to avoid injury and foot entrapment.

How/When to Release Leash

If you are using leashes make sure to review how to release the leash and situations that you might release the leash (entrapment/pinning, preventing entanglement with others, etc.)


Whitewater Progression

A whitewater SUP teaching progression will share almost all curricular elements with a good whitewater canoe or kayak progression. With folks new to SUP, expect to spend the majority of your time at first just practicing good stance and footwork, forward strokes, and bracing. Because beginners often struggle with eddy turns, peel outs, and ferries, plan for an extended amount of time working in moving but flat water. Remember to only introduce one new challenge at a time, then wait for your clients to demonstrate competence in that skill before adding the next challenge. Carefully decide your instructor:client ratio to fit the demands of the terrain and the abilities of your clients.

River Surfing Progression

If you have a surf wave with good eddy service and free of nearby downstream hazards, you can consider an accelerated progression to get beginners surfing in a timely fashion. After a safety briefing and general swim test, you can test your appropriately outfitted clients with a swim of the actual feature you plan to have them surf. If they demonstrate competence swimming the feature, you can teach basic board maneuvering and trimming. An instructor standing in the eddy can feed the board onto the feature and maintain control of the board with a leash attached to the nose. When the client falls, she only need swim to the eddy with her paddle in order to try again. At least one instructor must be available for downstream safety.


Whitewater SUP

Zachary Collier, NWRC/Flickr; CC License


Whitewater SUP is a complex activity to instruct, and appropriate planning and progression will significantly improve students’ experiences while also addressing risk management concerns. If you are interested in formal instruction, the American Canoe Association offers two levels of training for whitewater SUP instructors. No amount of formal instruction can replace the technical skill, teaching ability, and judgment that come from putting these skills into practice, so strap your whitewater SUP on the roof rack and get after it.


John Fair

With 20 years in the outdoor industry, John Fair is a wilderness medicine instructor, university outdoor program administrator, and ambassador for Boardworks SUP. When he’s not on the clock, you can find him SUP surfing river waves or chasing fast paddlers in SUP races.


The opinions of contributing writers may not be the the same as the opinions of OSI.

Posted by

John Fair

on 3/8/15
Field SafetyProgram ManagementResource


This is great.

By johnwan on 09/07/2017 at 04:39 AM

Speak Your Mind

Non-member comments moderated before posting. No spam or unrelated links please.

You are not logged in. You can still comment; however you comment will be reviewed by a moderator before posting. Comments must be PG in nature and links unrelated to the discussion will be removed. Thank you for contributing!

Remember my personal information Notify me of follow-up comments?

Please enter the word you see in the image below:

Articles by Category
Free Resources

10 Steps to Better Risk Management - Free DownloadNew! 10 Steps to Better Risk Management - learn quick safety steps for your program. Download free guide. Go»

OSI Newsletter Icon - Signup for OSI's Free Email NewsletterThe Outdoor Safety Newsletter covers risk management for outdoor activities. Go»

Facebook Outdoor SafetyLike OSI on Facebook for current news & discussion on wilderness risk management. Go»

By OSI's Alex Kosseff AMC Guide to Outdoor Leadership, 2nd Ed AMC Guide to Outdoor Leadership
5 Star Rating
Learn More»

© Outdoor Safety Institute LLC • Terms of Use & Privacy PolicyContact Us