Skills Session for Whitewater Packrafting

By Rachel Davies

Getting bored of the same whitewater runs and want to improve your skills? Head to your local river for a skills session! You’ll fine tune techniques like boat angles, body positioning, and balance points to work them into muscle memory. Running laps to develop skills can also be a great way to try new lines you haven’t done before and get to know your paddle partners better while you learn. Here are a few skills to get you started. 

Popping up with a low brace while packrafting

Popping up with a low brace. Photo by Spencer Sawell.


What: Bracing is a technique to recover the boat when leaning or getting pushed over by whitewater or big waves. By pushing against the water, the paddle gives momentary stability to get the boat back upright using momentum and body positioning.

Why: Practicing bracing will help make it a reflex so when you get off balance, you’ll be able to recover quickly and safely. Practicing will also help you find your balance point as you tilt over (packrafts don’t have a hard edge like other boats so it’s much trickier) as well as better paddle control and positioning.

How: For a low brace, hold the paddle in a push up position with the blade curve (power face) up. Tilt over to one side and push the water with the paddle. As the momentum shifts back up, flick your hips (and knees if using thigh braces) by pushing down on the high side and up on the low side. Keep your head tilted towards the water until the end. The low brace is the safest recovery technique for shoulders.

For a high brace, hold the paddle in a pull up position with the blade curve (power face) down. Keep your elbows tucked in and hold the paddle on the side you’re tilting towards at about shoulder height, and the other side by your waist. As you tilt and your paddle touches the water, pull down to give yourself that momentary stability to come back up, again using your hips, knees, and head to help. When the paddle face goes underwater, rotate your knuckles forward so the paddle can slice out of the water easily.

Make it fun: Find a calm area of river or flat water to practice. Play with how far you can dip your side tube before tipping!

Tilting to find the balance point while packrafting

Tilting to find the balance point. Photo by Spencer Sawell.

Catching Eddies

What: ‘Catching an eddy’ means getting into the pool that recirculates back up behind an object or bend in the river. It’s a safe place to wait for fellow paddlers, take a rest, or exit the river.

Why: Being able to stop on the river is an essential skill for safety. Entering and exiting eddies confidently is a major key to safely running whitewater. Practicing this will also help you to better read current lines and understand boat angles.

How: An eddy is where water circulates back up stream. There will always be a line between where the water is flowing downstream and where it’s coming back upstream: this is the eddy line. The water circulates here so it will usually show boils or other turbulence and is the most unstable place to be. The eddy line starts smallest at the top, near whatever is creating it (usually rocks) and gets wider further downstream. To enter or exit, it’s easiest to cross the eddy line as high upstream as possible, where it’s the thinnest. Cross the eddy line with speed to break through it, angling your boat at a 45 downstream going into an eddy, and 45 upstream when exiting.

Make it fun: Find a section of river with a lot of eddies and hop from one to the other. If you miss one, catch the next. Try playing follow the leader down the river or pick out a zig zag of eddies you want to catch.

Exiting the eddy while packrafting

Exiting the eddy, facing 45⁰ to the main current and paddling hard across the eddy line. Photo by Coburn Brown. 


What: Ferrying is a method of crossing the river by using the current and the angle of your boat to push you across.

Why: Ferrying is the quickest way to cross a river without losing too much ground. It’s possible to ferry straight across from one side to the other and back to the same eddy. This can be helpful when setting up for a line down a rapid, getting to someone quickly and directly in a rescue, and just playing in the river!

How: Starting from an eddy, face your boat upstream at 45 as you would to exit, but hold the angle even once you’ve exited. As the water pushes against your boat, it will drive you across the river. Play with the angle to face more upstream or perpendicular to the current, depending on how fast you want to cross or how strong the current is. Look over your shoulder like checking a blind spot while driving to see where you’re heading. If you have thigh straps and can hold an edge with your boat, try tilting downstream slightly by tilting your hips and pushing up with your upstream knee.

Make it fun: Make a game of it to see how few paddle strokes you can take to cross the river, playing with the angle of the boat on the river as well as your tilt. The next level up is to practice ferrying on a wave. Find a small wave that runs across the river and enter on one side with your 45⁰ angle and hold it to get carried across like a typewriter.

Holding onto the surf while packrafting

Holding onto the surf. Photo by Coburn Brown. 


What: Surfing on a river means finding a wave and sitting on the seam – the line where the water flowing over a drop meets the water that’s recirculating back.

Why: This skill teaches boat control, balance, and quick thinking. If you’re often running whitewater, you may get surfed by accident if you go through a large wave without enough momentum to get past the seam, so it’s good to know the feeling and how to stay in control.

How: Start small. It’s possible to surf on even the tiniest waves a couple inches high! It will teach you how to find the balance point and how the nose of the boat will get pushed side to side or get pulled underwater. Build up to bigger waves and just know that you’ll likely swim a few times while learning (make sure the river isn’t too shallow and have someone in a boat nearby).

Most waves will have eddies on either side. Get into one of the eddies and right up to the top. Exit at that 45⁰ angle but be ready to adjust to face more upstream once you’re on the surf (if you hold 45⁰, you’ll just get pushed across). Once on the surf, play to find the balance point: lean too far forwards and your bow will dunk, too far backwards and you’ll get pushed off the wave. Use your paddle to push and pull the water to keep facing forwards. If you get pulled sideways, do a strong draw to regain balance (reach out to the side opposite the way you’re tipping, stick your paddle in vertically and pull the water fiercely towards you).

Make it fun: Surfing can be really exciting to begin with! Get some friends together and try surfing at the same time for a party wave. You can also surf facing sideways or backwards, and if you’re really testing it, try tricks like spinning.packrafting surf

1. Pulling a strong draw to regain balance off the surf. 

2. Leaning forward and paddling hard to get back on the seam. 

3. Leaning forward to dunk the bow of the boat. 

Photos by Coburn Brown. 


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