Every new whitewater kayaker faces an important decision: to take a class, or to figure it out on your own. As a 30+ year paddler and whitewater kayak instructor in his 5th year of teaching, Wet Planet Kayak School Manager Paul Butler will dive into his perspective for new paddlers facing this decision.

If you’re considering getting into whitewater kayaking, you might be wondering whether or not to spend the time and money to obtain professional instruction. Is it worth it? Can’t I just wing it on my own? Isn’t that money better spent buying some used gear?

Certainly these are all fair questions. One can choose to skip seeking out organized instruction; I myself chose to go that route 30 years ago. However,  if I could go back and make that decision again, I would make a different one.

Pacific Northwest Kayaking Class. Wet Planet Whitewater Washington Idaho Oregon

Instructor coaching students through a peel-out.

Whitewater kayaking, in my opinion, is the single greatest activity on the planet for so many reasons. It can be nearly anything you want it to be, from peacefully floating down scenic class 2, to pushing your limits on class 5, and everything in between. There is no better feeling than the boat’s graceful buoyancy as you push off the bank. All of a sudden you are coexisting with the river on her terms and you are in control of your own destiny. You are likely surrounded by good friends and unlimited natural beauty. You’ll see places you can only get a glimpse of from the water. There is no time to think about worldly concerns and problems off the river.

“It’s a moving meditation of the highest order that can provide as much challenge, satisfaction, and joy as we are capable of.”

Man is learning to kayak during an intro course. Wet Planet Whitewater

Finding that joy on the river.

Kayaking is a sport that you can continue to participate in well into your later years. The rub to unlocking all this awesomeness is that there are some high barriers to entry and a relatively steep learning curve in whitewater kayaking. Here’s why taking a lesson is the best way to navigate these new waters:

Professional instruction expedites the steep learning curve.

What do I do if I flip over? How can I best prevent being upside down? When and how should I learn how to roll? What can I do to reduce the chances of an injury? What is the proper stroke technique? How do I use my edges to move around the river?

In kayaking, there are fundamental skills that will set you up for success and carry through your whitewater paddling career. Our lead kayaking instructors at Wet Planet are all certified ACA Kayak Instructors, which means they have been trained on some of the best methods and techniques of how to teach kayaking. Having someone explain the foundational skills in an efficient, easy-to-digest format can save you the headache of developing bad habits and spending hours struggling with the basics. By taking a class, you can build a strong foundation of skills, which will ultimately lead to you having more fun on the water. Despite the challenges of getting started and navigating the learning curve, I have seen many motivated folks come through instruction, obtain all their own gear, learn how to roll and become competent class 3 paddlers all within the span of a single summer! Without the initial instruction, this progression commonly takes much longer.

Two people learning to Kayak. Wet Planet Whitewater

Learning the basic strokes in a beginner kayaking class.

You don’t know what you don’t know.

Making Risk Management Decisions

What are the common river features/hazards and what is my strategy to deal with them? Why is it important to be able to ferry, catch and peel out of eddy’s? How do I scout a rapid and make good decisions about which rapids to run? How do I deterring the appropriate sections of river to paddle at my ability level?

You need a certain level of experience and knowledge to make safe decisions on where to paddle, what water levels are appropriate, and what safety gear and training is needed. Professional instructors are here to provide you with the tools and skillset for good decision making to manage risk – and that risk management knowledge will make the difference between enjoying a fun day on the water and getting in over your head.

Two guides kayak scouting during training. Wet Planet Whitewater

Learning the art of scouting during a kayaking lesson

Navigating the Gear

What type of boat is appropriate to learn in? How should I fit in the boat and adjust outfitting? What other gear do I need? How do I make sure I stay warm and comfortable? How do I go about finding used gear and paddling partners?

Equipment is expensive and making good decisions on what gear is appropriate can be challenging. Some gear is appropriate to buy used, but other gear should be purchased new. There are tons of different brands of kayaks, helmets, PFD’s, and it can be overwhelming to navigate purchasing all of the gear for a new sport. When you take a class, you have the benefit of trying out a few different models of kayaks to see which brands and models you prefer when it comes to outfitting, kayak size, and more. We’ll also help you get looped into the used market, provide you with resources and get you connected with the kayaking community. We’ve all heard the saying “buy nice or buy it twice;” we want to help you make good gear decisions that will carry you through your progression, so that you don’t end up having to buy new gear every summer!

Whitewater kayaking gear and people cheering. Wet Planet Whitewater

Learning abut all the necessary gear for whitewater kayaking.

You might decide kayaking isn’t your thing.

Over the course of our lives, we’ve all tried something that we ended up not being as stoked on as we originally thought. Maybe you tried climbing, but remembered that you’re scared of heights, or maybe you tried skiing and just weren’t that into being cold. As much as I want everyone to love kayaking as much as I do, that’s not always the outcome. You may not even know if this is something you will enjoy and want to invest in for the long term. A 2- or 3-day Beginner Kayaking Class is an ideal way to dip your toe in the water and see if whitewater kayaking is something you enjoy.

Woman is Having Fun Whitewater Kayaking. Wet Planet Whitewater

Chances are, you’ll have a blast and want to keep up with the sport!

Needless to say, there is a lot to learn as a beginner kayaker, and there is no better place in the PNW to kick start your whitewater kayaking adventures than at Wet Planet’s Beginner Kayaking Course. Our instructors, myself included, have dedicated our lives to our passion for kayaking, and our lead instructors are ACA certified, Wilderness First Responders and have Swift Water Rescue training. We are stoked to share our knowledge and experience with you, and are here to help you start chipping away at these barriers and expedite the learning curve to whitewater kayaking. See you on the river!

Author Paul Butler has been kayaking for 30+ years, and is a Lead Instructor and Kayak School Manager at Wet Planet Whitewater. He enjoys sharing his love of kayaking and the outdoors with new paddlers.

Paul Teaching Kayaking to two new students. Wet Planet Whitewater

Paul teaching a Beginner Kayaking Class on the Lower Klickitat River