So You Want To Start Running Rivers on a Stand Up Paddleboard?

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You want to start running rivers on a board?

ken hoeve flat water white water split photoWith all of the recent attention toward running rapids on a stand up board,  2014 is certain to see an explosion in paddlers giving the river a go. What was once seen as a fringe discipline of SUP, whitewater paddling on stand up paddleboards is quickly becoming a sought after adventure. And although flat water and ocean paddling are similar to river running, there are several differences that should be known to get SUPers prepared for the river.

While thinking about this article on a recent trip to California, I went back and forth on where to begin this series for StandUp Journal. It came down to two.”How to choose the proper stretch of river?” or  “What gear do I need to ensure I have a more successful river trip?”  I picked the later. And with that you know what our next edition will cover. Being dressed correctly along with the right board, paddle and leash set up is crucial to having a more successful trip on the rio.

Let’s get dressed. I’ll help. Heres the first thing you notice when getting into the river (falling off your board), its generally cold and rocky. One characteristic that really sets the river apart from oceans and lakes is it’s continuos flow.  

You fall in and you keep moving in the quick, cold and sometimes shallow stream. Hypothermia is an ever present concern in river sup and dressing appropriately will not only aid in reducing this risk but will help protect you from any obstructions you may come in contact with.  

You’ll find there are two different kinds of gear most commonly worn on the river; wetsuits or drysuits. Wetsuits work well and most paddlers are already comfortable in them. Fairly inexpensive, give the user an additional layer of skin when they scrape rocks, keep you warm(ish) and even offer some floatation. They work but I’m a firm believer in the next option.

The dry suit. I call it my safety suit. Key word to notice, dry. Paddling in the dead of Winter, surrounded by ice and snow I have found being dry is important to keep it fun but more importantly for safety. Rubber gaskets line the neck, wrists and sometimes ankles to ensure your body and warm base layers stay dry when you swim.

ken hoeveBecause you’re going to swim. A lot. Although, a drysuit keeps you dry, alone they don’t keep you warm. Wearing fleece layers underneath is a must. Some dry suits come with built in nylon socks. This is preferred and usually more efficient at keeping your feet warm allowing you to wear socks underneath. Other accessories include gloves and a neoprene beanie under your helmet. When I layer properly I am often roasting in conditions that make many shiver.  

A brightly colored drysuit is encouraged giving your paddling partners an easier visual in the event you get swept away. Most dry suits come with relief zippers so when the cold water or a difficult rapid makes nature call, you can quickly take care of business. 

Regardless of wetsuit or drysuit pads are nice. Rocks make rapids. Fall off in the middle of a rapid, even an easy one and land on a rock, it is going to hurt. River running is a lot like big wave shallow reef surfing without the wave chasing you. But this break has exposed reef heads you have to navigate around.

And remember, the river never stops flowing. There are no lulls between sets. The ocean is aggressive but the river is relentless. So be prepared. Not all runs will be as menacing as others. With a little research you can find a run that suits your paddling abilities.

For casual cruising and warm temperatures I go boardshorts, thin neoprene top, a pfd and helmet as well as a good solid river shoe. But when its time to fire it up with the boys I dress for a battle.  My whitewater career began 22 years ago and I have survived a lot because I wore the correct equipment. Its important to be prepared rather than just getting a board and jumping in. Here’s a quick run down of the gear I dress myself in before a paddle on the river.

Sup Gear List Head to Toe:


  1. A properly fitting helmet designed for whitewater. Not a bike or hockey helmet (I have seen it). For mine I prefer carbon fiber with no vents as it keeps you warmer. For warmer weather paddlers a vented plastic helmet works too. I also like it with a brim to block the sun as well as create an air pocket in the event I get pinned. Helmets can range from $45 for plastic to $200 for a composite. And keep an eye on kayak and raft shop swaps. Great place to find used ones for less. Mine is a WRSI Ttrident.
  2. Drysuit

  3. We have already covered it but look into them. If you get a used one remember the gaskets can be replaced. And the suit can also be patched. Get the relief zipper if possible. For myself its a Kokatat Icon model. I have used their products for 20 years and know with no doubt they are superior. Tough, dry, and last for years. Use 303 Protectant on your gaskets to get them on easier and to keep them lasting longer.
  4. Footwear

  5. If I was to have only two choices for river gear #1 would be a pfd (life jacket) and #2 is proper shoes. With those two things I know I will float and when I get my ass to shore I can walk. Part of river running is walking on the bank. Scouting, portaging, chasing run away boards and hitching shuttles are all part of it. Get a river shoe that covers your ankles, has good support and traction on rocks and feels good when you are standing on your board. There are several styles depending on the conditions. But for the majority of runs I like my Sperry SON-R Pong.  They drain water, are light and have good traction when walking on slippery rocks. 
  6. Pads

  7. Yep, river SUP can be a contact sport. Thankfully lots of manufactures make all types of padding. Now, I don’t wear all this stuff all the time but if I know I’m going to get hammered in shallow water I wear forearm/elbow pads, hip pads, knee pads and shin protection. Personally I use GForm. They are beyond light, very flexible, take big hits and don’t absorb water. If you are on a budget, go to Goodwill. Especially in mountain towns. Our local thrift shop always a variety of second hand pads.
  8. PFD/Life Jacket

  9. Get at the minimum a coast guard approved type III. Whitewater is aerated. Its less buoyant. You want a jacket that fits snuggly as it will float with or without you. And since you are getting one, pick one with a safety harness and quick release. The reason is you are going to attach your leash to that quick release. NOT YOUR ANKLE!! Again, don’t EVER put a leash around your ankle in the river.

    The reason is that if you get tangled or entrapped by that leash you want to be able to free yourself of it immediately. Reaching down to your ankles in moving water is nearly impossible, it doesn’t matter how strong of a swimming you are.   You want to pop that quick release right on your chest. If you don’t have one with a quick release BadFish SUP makes an aftermarket one that works well called the Re-leash.

    Order one. My PFD is a type V Kokatat Maximus Prime. Has a quick release built in, keeps me high in the water, has a pocket for the basics and even has reflective material for extra low light visibility.

  10. Stand Up Paddleboard

  11. The wider and thicker the better. Flotation is your friend and with all the variable currents, waves, holes and rocks you should have one adjective in mind when choosing: Stability. The material is your decision. There have been great strides in the inflatable market from brands like Starboard and Badfish. You can use composites and lightweight boards but they get hammered and probably won’t last you more than a couple of seasons.

    That said, Badfish makes a composite board with an extra layer of durable skin which increases cost and weight but also adds to the life of the board. My personal ride is the Jackson Kayak SUPerCharger, a rotomolded board that is specifically created for river running.  We are on rivers where things take a beating and the most proven craft for running this stuff is a plastic kayak.

    Rigid, nearly indestructible, shedding decks, rubber fins, several grab handles, areas to lash gear and insanely stable. They weigh a few pounds more but are the least expensive option. Board designs are evolving every year so be sure to do your research, demo, and make sure you’re picking a board designed to cater to your needs and abilities.

  12. Paddle

  13. I keep talking about rocks. You are going to hit them at some point, not just with your board and body but your paddle too. Don’t bring your $400 ultra lightweight carbon/kevlar/kryptonite reinforced custom made stick to the river. Get something durable and inexpensive for starters. And put your name and phone number on it right away! Makes it easier for that fisherman that finds it to get it back to you. Your paddle is used nearly as much to push off exposed rocks as it is to propel you down stream. Werner paddles Stinger is a solid design for river running. Its fiberglass and tough as nails. You will wear the blade down before you snap it.
  14. Leash

  15. I saved the most controversial subject for last. Personally I hate them, but they are fairly necessary. While we sometimes run local class III stretches of the Colorado without a leash, its a good idea to use one as keeping a paddle, board and yourself together in moving water can be difficult. When I do use one I have a short straight leash. NOT a coiled one. When I fall in I have found its better to have that board on a short leash so I can get to it quicker and there is less line in the water to tangle on anything. And again, NEVER PUT IT AROUND YOUR ANKLE. Use that quick release on your fancy new PFD or Re-leash.

Remember that list of the two things I said I always want? A PFD and shoes. This one is right in there. Never, ever paddle alone.  Go with someone that has experience and better yet, take lessons from certified river outfitters. In our area we have shops like Alpinequest Sports and Colorado Kayak Supply that can introduce you in the right way. And look for paddle classes and clinics when guys like Dan Gavere or Charlie McAurther come to town. There is no way I can tell you everything there is to know, because as much as you learn from others you learn more through your own personal experiences.

The key is to start on the easiest water possible. Class 1, barely moving water. What I call “floatin’ down the road” type conditions. Deep, slow, warm water works well when getting started. We will get into that more on the next installment. For now make sure you have proper attire, board and paddle so that your first experience is pleasant.  

SUP river running is growing quickly and for good reason. Its fun! And there are so many great stretches of water to do it on. When we return, we’ll find the right one for you. From never evers to experienced rivermen and women that want to try something new. Spring is coming, lets get after it!

Written by Ken Hoeve

Check out part 2: Essential Sup River Tips Plus How To Chose the Right Class Rapid
river run with Brit

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