sports that take place in or on whitewater
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Travel topics > Activities > Sports > Water sport > Whitewater sports

Whitewater sports are the art of bobbing about in a boat, large or small, in moving water. You can also do more quiet journeys, with only the occasional rapid, mostly enjoying the landscape and your company. Some of the most remote and beautiful areas of the world can be seen during one of these adventures.

Understand

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Two kayakers in Dochart River, one waiting for the other behind a rock.

Kayaks and canoes used for whitewater tours have one or two paddlers, while whitewater rafts usually seat more people. Traditionally also rowing boats, big or small, have been taken through rapids. There are also river bugs, very small one person crafts.

Rafting is more accessible for the casual traveler, as navigation is handled by a professional and even beginners can come along for a white-knuckled ride. With kayaks and canoes, a professional guide can guide a company and give instructions, but once in a rapid you are on your own. On the other hand, a kayak or canoe is useful also along minor waterways.

Rapids are graded by class to indicate their rough difficulty level. The practical scale ranges from class I (no skill needed) to class V (experts only), with class VI rapids considered hazardous even to pros. Don't place too much faith on the number though: difficulty can vary considerably based on the season and the water level, and rivers of one grade may have harder individual rapids that need to be portaged (boat carried) past.

 
Canoes in a quiet part of a river.

Rafting, canoeing or kayaking is not always fast, big water adventures. Instead of choosing just the whitewater parts of a river, you can float or paddle along the more quiet parts, or paddle in lakes. The less whitewatery journeys are often mostly or partly about wildlife viewing and nature, but there are also e.g. culinary rafting trips and even spiritual and yoga rafting retreats. The rafting travel industry has branched out to all demographics and travel desires.

Especially longer canoe or kayak journeys often combine the elements: the river may partly be a series of lakes and also many river parts may be quiet, but between these there are also rapids or series of rapids – if we are talking about whitewater sports. For quiet canoe and kayak trips, see Canoeing; also advice on sea kayaking and wilderness backpacking may be relevant.

Experts have developed sports and even arts out of going down rapids: one approach is river running, where the paddler tries to mostly use features of the rapid rather than the paddle to steer the craft, another is playboating, where the features are used for doing tricks, such as surfing, spinning and flips.

Approaching rapids

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One should never get into a rapid without preparations. The rapids change a lot depending on water level and the best route may be affected by this. There may even be fallen trees blocking the passage. A tour organizer may have studied the rapids beforehand, but especially on wilderness journeys, expect to take a walk to study the rapids before deciding how difficult it will be and what route to take. A whitewater route description is still very helpful. An experienced person is able to deduce depths and currents from the looks of the water. With a kayak or canoe, you must also be capable of recognizing the different sections while in action. If the rapids are too difficult, you will have to carry your craft past the rapids. In some cases it is also possible to lead it from ashore, guiding it with ropes, or to wade with it down the rapids, perhaps along a route too shallow for canoeing.

Destinations

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If you don't have a canoe, you could use a log … (Ii, Finland, don't do this at home)

Whitewater can be found on every continent of the world. From arctic glacier rivers to tropical jungles, there is a whitewater experience for everyone. The top rivers for whitewater rafting span the globe.

Africa

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South Africa

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The African Paddling Association is a voluntary group that focuses on developing paddling sports of all kinds in South Africa.

Many operators offer training courses, guided expeditions and short outings. Clubs will also be able to guide you to the best water around.

Asia

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Japan

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Malaysia

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  • Sabah — Many tour operators run whitewater rafting tours out of Kota Kinabalu. The Kiulu River near Tamparuli and the Kadamaian River near Kota Belud have Grade 1–2 rapids and are most suitable for beginners. The Padas River near Beaufort is Malaysia's best known whitewater rafting destination, and provides more of a challenge with Grade 3–4 rapids.

Indonesia

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Oceania

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Australia

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  • Queensland — The Tully River in the tropical north of Queensland near Cairns is perhaps Australia's best known river for whitewater rafting.
  • Tasmania — The Franklin River in southwest Tasmania is the island state's best known whitewater rafting destination, but due to its remote location is only accessible in multi-day rafting expeditions lasting 7-11 days, and requires participants to camp in the wilderness, meaning that it is not for the faint of heart. Tours are available from Launceston or Hobart, and typically end in Strahan, with transportation provided by the tour company back to the starting point. A more accessible river is the King River, with single-day trips available from Queenstown.

New Zealand

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New Zealand is world renowned for its whitewater rafting. In the North Island, the Tongariro River that flows into Lake Taupo has some Grade 3 rapids, making it suitable for beginners looking for a moderate thrill. The Kaituna River near Rotorua is known for Tutea Falls, the highest commercially rafted waterfall in New Zealand at 7m. In the South Island, the Shotover River near Queenstown is known for its stunning views, though the relatively short whitewater sections may disappoint hard core thrill seekers.

North America

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Canada

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  • British Columbia — The Kicking Horse River in eastern British Columbia is Canada's most popular river for whitewater rafting. Most tour operators are located in Golden.

Mexico

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Class IV rapids on the Pescados
  • Veracruz has some of the world's most challenging whitewater rivers, with everything from easy Class I waters to death-defying Class VI. The best place for whitewater kayaking is the town of Tlapacoyan, where river guides can be hired and cheap tacos and beer consumed after a tough day on the river. The three rivers near Tlapacoyan are the Alseseca, Filosbobos, and Jalacingo. The rivers feature deep gorges, fast water, dense jungle foliage, and jaw-dropping drops. Two of the most famous whitewater areas are Big Banana Falls with its 130-foot drop and a deep pool that's a popular put-in spot, and Truchas Drop with a 60-foot drop that's still a heck of an aderenaline shot. Jalcomulco can be a good base camp for trips to the Pescados area of the Rio Antigua with its runs of Class III and Class IV. A large number of whitewater adventure guide services operate in town.
  • The Huasteca Potosina region of San Luis Potosi has a number of whitewater hotspots, which shouldn't be surprising given its proximity to Veracruz. The two best areas in the state are near Ciudad Valles Easy river day-trips from Ciudad Valles include the Micos, Rio Tampaon, Santa Maria, and El Salto (de Meco). Runs range in difficulty from easy Class I to challenging Class IV. River guides can be hired in Ciudad Valles.

United States

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The American Canoe Association offers instructional materials and accreditations.

Central America and Caribbean

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Costa Rica

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South America

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Europe

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Aallokkokoski ("wave rapids") of Kitkajoki, Oulanka National Park

There are whitewater options in many parts of Europe, see e.g. Bosnia and Herzegovina#Do.

The land border between Finland and Sweden is one of Europe's longest waterways with no dams: from the tripoint with Norway near Kilpisjärvi to the river mouth in Tornio/Haparanda; 470 m/537 km (1,540 ft/334 mi); except at the very start, there is very little need of portaging. E.g. Ivalojoki provides for kayaking through wilderness with many rapids (82,5 m/70 km). For a one- or two-day adventure, Oulanka National Park has two good whitewater rivers. There are many other rivers suitable for whitewater canoeing/kayaking, worth looking around for at any destination, but most rivers are quite gentle, often with several lake sections. Rafting is arranged only at a few locations, such as at Ruunaa.

Learn

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As with all water sports, whitewater related activities come with some level of inherent risk. Proper preparation and education is key to staying safe and having an enjoyable time.

Stay safe

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  • Be sure you understand the nature of the trip and what level of expertise is expected from you.
  • Use safety gear, such as helmets and life jackets.
  • Secure your equipment.

Respect

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Stay healthy

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Whitewater kayaking
 
Whitewater canoeing
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