whitewater and river paddle boards

Whitewater Paddleboarding – 101 Guide

Downstream paddling, wild conditions, adventure touring, rapids, river surfing – that’s what the whitewater paddleboard is originally designed for.

Roots in rafting and kayaking, whitewater paddleboarding is a technical, and demanding SUP discipline. It is another proof that speaks well for the popularity and durability in the inflatable industry as there are basically no solid whitewater SUPs around.

Although downriver paddleboarding is definitely not for the faint-hearted, this board allows tackling some of the most demanding waters out there. Take a look at the different features, sizes, and types compared to 12 other types of SUPs out there.

paddle board rapids paddling
Image – SOLpaddle.com


What is a whitewater paddle board?

Downstream paddling, river rapids, streams – a whitewater paddle board is a general term for a SUP that’s specifically designed for such conditions. Whitewater boards are also larger compared to river paddle boards, find out why from down below.

What is a river surf paddle board?

A river SUP is a term for a whitewater-specific river surf SUP board. These boards are shorter in length, width, and thickness which allows these boards to excel best in a moving river, and on a river wave. While you can use an 11′ board to paddle down the river, all river surf boards are less than 8′ in length.

Stand up paddle board white water selection
Whitewater on the top, river surf on the bottom


Main requirements for a whitewater paddle board:

  • Stability.
  • Robust durability.
  • Round-shaped paddle.
  • Inflatable construction.


Safety gear for whitewater paddling

  • Helmet.
  • Lifevest.
  • Leash.

Unlike any other paddling discipline out there, whitewater SUPing must be one of the most extreme right after SUP surfing.

Although there are considerable dangers to surfing where risks are manageable to a some degree, that’s not the case with whitewater paddling which means wearing safety gear is a must.

Suitable for intermediate to advanced paddlers – whitewater paddleboarding has a ton of unseen dangers – rocks, rapids, branches, unpredictable and fast-moving choppy waters.

A wetsuit or a waterproof clothing is another must-have item for cold-water river paddling.




Whitewater SUP features

  • Ample nose.
  • Tail rocker.
  • Curved rocker line.
  • Robust construction.
  • Wide and short outline.


Beneficial board features

What sets the curved, wide, and extra-durable whitewater SUPs apart from other types is that these boards excel best in moving waters. Therefore, the board doesn’t need to be as fast with all the latest bells and whistles, instead, it’s meant to be steered easily by the body and a paddle.

  • Wide deck – to move around freely and maintain stability.
  • Curved rocker – to prevent the nose from cresting.
  • Durable construction – to withstand the unpredictable river landscape.
  • Tail pad – to steer the board faster.


What kind of paddle is used for whitewater SUPing?

Fast & powerful strokes are required to rudder efficiently in the ever-moving river.

sup paddle blade designs
The round-shaped blade is more suitable for river paddling.
  • Round-shaped paddles offer more powerful strokes needed for fast direction changes.
  • Surfing/whitewater/river paddles should be adjusted 6″ – 8″ over the paddler’s height.
  • Blade curvature should be quite flat, at 7° degrees on average (Compared to 12° on racing paddles)

Read more about the sizes and materials – SUP Paddles 101 Guide


Whitewater fin set-ups

Fins play an important role in stability and steering. As the river water depth is unpredictable, it is best to prefer shallow fins over long & deep fins.

  • 1+2 fin
    A large single fin with two side fins is one of the most common set-ups.
  • 3 fin
    Another common set-up among the best whitewater paddle board set-ups. Three shallow yet same-sized (usually medium) fins are a great all-around whitewater set-up. There are also shallow fins available to be paddled in shallow waters.
  • 4 fin
    Quad set-up is known for its extra stability by leaving the centerline of the board free from any kind of direct obstacles. Two small to medium fins on each side is a noticeable improvement over a three-fin set-up.
  • 5 fin
    One of the most stable options out there for maximum lateral traction. The five fin set-up often on a whitewater board features small to medium-sized fins to paddle on shallow and rocky waters.
5 setup on a whitewater SUP fin
Image – Halegear.com


River surf vs whitewater SUP

There are two main types of paddle boards for river paddling – one to surf at a certain spot (river surf SUP), and the original whitewater SUP to paddle down the river. River surf SUPs are much shorter, averaging 6′ to 8′ in length and 30″ – 33″ wide, while whitewater boards can go up to 11′ in length, and 36″ in width.

River surf SUPs excel best at small and fast-moving waves which means these boards are specifically designed for such conditions, and might not be the best option to use it for anything else.

Can you use a river surf SUP for ocean waves?

Theoretically yes, but these boards have very different features and outline to enjoy each discipline in the long run. River surf SUPs have much smaller dimensions which limit the speed and buoyancy needed to paddle for a large ocean wave.

Can you use a surf SUP for river surfing?

Surf SUPs are not as suitable for whitewater paddling due to the sharp nose and longer overall length. Ocean surf paddle boards excel best in larger waves with a decent paddle-in, while river surfboards are best for small & fast, stand-still waves.

Surfing with sup
Ocean surf SUPs are larger to catch bigger waves.


Different disciplines of white water paddle boarding

  • Downstream / River running

Paddling down a slow or fast-moving river is the main whitewater paddle boarding acticity. Those boards are much larger (longer, wider, and often thicker) than river surf SUPs.

  • Surfing

Whitewater river surf paddleboards are usually 6′-8′ in length, round or rectangular in shape, ideal to catch those small and fast waves on the river.

whitewater paddleboard river surf
Image credit – SOLpaddle.com
  • Crossover

Crossover SUP is a mixture of one or more disciplines. In river paddleboarding, a crossover board is a blend of an all-rounder and a touring board that has the capability to pass through some small rapids.

Crossover boards can go up to 11′ in length and have bungee cords on the front to store extra gear on. What sets the crossover board apart from a whitewater-specific SUP is the bottom curvature. Whitewater SUPs have a noticeable curvature all the way from the nose to the tail, while crossover boards often have a lifted nose only.

  • Tandem

Not as common, but rafting and river kayaking are often performed in teams. Some larger tandem and even multi-person SUPs are used for slow-moving rivers.



Average Inflatable Whitewater SUP Sizes

Here are some of the examples found from the top SUP brands.

7’11” x 34″ x 6″
Volume 250L / Capacity 250lbs / Weight: 22.5lbs

8’6″ x 34″ x 6″
Volume 269L / Capacity – 250lbs / Weight 22.5lbs

9’6″ x 33″ x 6″
Volume 300L / Capacity – 286lbs / Max pressure – 18 PSI

9’6″ x 36″ x 6″
Volume 335L / Capacity 275lbs / Weight 26.2lbs

9’8″ x 36″ x 6″
Weight 26lbs / Capacity 250lbs / Volume 325L

10′ x 34″ x 6″
Volume 314L / Capacity 300lbs / Weight – 26.5lbs

10’10” x 35″ x 6″
Volume 345L / Capacity 325lbs / Weight 28.5lbs

11′ x 34″ x 5″
Weight 27lbs / Capacity 100-260lbs

11’0″ x 34″ x 5.9″
Volume 295L / Weight – 27.7lbs


Average River Surf Paddle Board Sizes

6’11” x 32″ x 2″ & 3″
Volume 185L / Capacity 230lbs / Weight 24lbs

6’11” x 30″ x 4.75″

7’ 6”x 33” x 5”
Weight 22lbs / Capacity 75-250lbs

8’6” x 36” x 6”
Weight 24lbs / Volume 285L




Best Whitewater SUP Brands

  • SOL – 7x inflatable
  • Hala Gear – 7x inflatable
  • NRS – 3x inflatable
  • BadFish – 3x inflatable
  • Aqua Marina – 1x inflatable
  • RED Equipment Co – 1x inflatable
  • Pau Hana – 1x inflatable
  • Click on the image to see more.
best whitewater sup brands
Read more7 Best Whitewater SUP Brands (and their boards)






Where else can you use the whitewater SUP?

SUP boards for whitewater are much like technical pieces of equipment, which means they are not best-suited for all-around paddling. A river SUP can be used for small surf, but they are not as efficient in all-around or touring purposes.

Due to the extra-wide outline, you can use a whitewater SUP for fishing, but unlike a fishing SUP that’s got all the features for a good day out on the lake – whitewater boards are quite basic for a full experience. They are not as fast and won’t steer as well with extra gear on the deck.


How much does an average whitewater SUP cost?

The prices of inflatable SUPs for whitewater range from $600 to $1,000+. While you can find cheaper boards on Amazon, a whitewater SUP must more durable for a safe and fun day out on the rivers. Since the main feature of whitewater SUPs is the extra-durable construction, these boards don’t have too many technical aspects to make them more expensive.


Is whitewater paddleboarding safe?

Whitewater paddleboarding is often considered an extreme sport – performed at places with considerable risks. Rocks in shallow waters, fast-moving streams, branches, and cold water are the main dangers to the sport.

You should have a lifevest, coil leash, and obviously above-average experience in paddleboarding to stay safe.


How to surf whitewater?


What are the downsides to whitewater paddle boards?

While most SUPs can be used for one or more activities, that might not be the case with a whitewater stand-up paddle board. Due to their different dimensions and lack of features for all-around paddling or touring, these boards are limited to excel in one activity only.


What is the average price for a whitewater SUP?

$600 – $1,000 is the average price for made by a well-known SUP brand.


Why do people even paddle on rivers?

When flatwater or SUP surfing gets boring – there’s always the element of unpredictability in river stand-up paddleboarding that attracts those who are looking for a more demanding outcome from their rides. While racing, SUP surfing, and flatwater are somewhat safe & predictable, there are way too many elements on the river that make each session unique.

Paddle boarding on a river is nothing else out there as you’ll have to plan the route to stay safe. Often performed in groups and with help of a pick-up driver, this must be one of the most adventurous SUP disciplines around. River paddling is often a field for experienced paddlers who’d like to master the art of paddleboarding in all kinds of environments.

river rapids on forest
Obstacles and dangers are well rewarded.




Read next


Which Type of Paddle Board To Choose?

How to choose the right sup review
13 types divided into 5 disciplines.


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I created Nulltuul to share my experience, research and analysis with other surf enthusiasts out there. If I'm not surfing on my travels - I like to photograph waves, surfers, and the surf lifestyle in general.

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