Whitewater Kayaking for Beginners

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A decade ago, while living in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, I rejected an invitation to learn to whitewater kayak from a dude who lived in his van. Last year, older and wiser, I decided I wanted to do more than dip my toes in rivers. Rather than seek out a river rat, I signed up for a whitewater kayak clinic in Reno, Nevada, on the Truckee River.

On day one, I contorted my lower half into a hard plastic "play" boat--a short, nimble kayak--and pushed off the shore. At first, each hip flick teetered the boat, causing every muscle in my upper body to tense. But the water was flat, and under the watchful eye of an instructor, I began to paddle. It was effortless and thrilling.

Watch a kayaker paddle through rapids, and it's obvious the sport delivers a killer upper-body and aerobic workout. But beyond the cardiovascular bennies and the toned upper body and core, kayaking hones balance and demands focus--handy skills for any runner.

"When I'm kayaking, all of my concentration goes into each rapid," says professional kayaker Christie Glissmeyer. "It clears my mind of everything else."

The good news: You don't have to be a pro to reap the sport's benefits. Whether you want a way to strength train outside the gym or simply try something new, even the staunchest landlubber can learn to kayak. To get started, find a river and a school near you, and paddle in.

Beginner Basics For Whitewater Kayaking

Follow these tips during a whitewater kayaking class.

1) Stay centered.
Your upper and lower body work in sync to keep you balanced. Relax your abs and torso and keep your shoulders and hips in line to better control your boat.

2) Get a knee up. Inside the kayak, your bent knees point outward and touch the interior wall of the kayak. This helps you balance the boat. Push with your knees to help direct your kayak and to transmit power to your stroke.

3) Flip out. You'll cover a variety of ways to exit your boat safely. My instructor had me intentionally swivel my hips until I flipped over. Under water, I leaned forward, released my spray skirt and somersaulted out.

Gear Up

You need to be prepared to get wet. Most kayak schools provide the kayak, spray skirt, paddle, life jacket, helmet and wetsuit. In cooler temperatures, layer with an insulated top such as the Icebreaker Quantum Hood ($160, icebreaker.com) and CW-X Pro Tights ($95, cw-x.com).

For warm days, wear the Outdoor Research Via Long Sleeve Tee ($40, outdoorresearch.com) and Patagonia Wavefarer Board Shorts ($55, patagonia.com). Protect your feet with neoprene booties like the Teva P1 Water Shoe ($50, teva.com) and your eyes with polarized sunglasses like the Kaenon Hard Kore ($209, kaenon.com).

Where to Play

Whitewater parks feature beginner-friendly pools and turbulent waves and holes for experts. The parks are free to use and serve as a classroom for local kayak schools. Here are a few places to get wet.

Charlotte, North Carolina
During the week, your companions will likely be hawks, osprey and even wild turkey on the Catawba River. Learn at the U.S. National Whitewater Center (usnwc.org), an official U.S. Olympic training site. Packages start at $250 for four classes.

Durango, Colorado
The 4 Corners Riversports school (riversports.com) offers myriad options to explore the area and learn the sport, including a roll class in a local swimming pool. Classes start at $185 for a four-session course.

Hood River, Oregon
You can admire the Northwest's towering volcanoes in the distance along the massive Hood River. Columbia Gorge Kayak School (gorgekayaker.com) offers group lessons, private instruction and customized trips. Two-day weekender courses cost $225.