River Surfing for Whitewater Kayakers

If you’re coming to river surfing from whitewater kayaking, you have a number of things going for you already. You generally understand river dangers and how river currents, river waves, and eddylines generally work, particularly if you’ve done any playboating. You probably also have some understanding of what it feels like to paddle from an eddy onto the face of a river wave. And basics of playboating, like turning from edge to edge and not getting your upstream edge caught in the current all come into play when you’re on a board, you’re just controlling things a little differently. Here are some tips for those already familiar with surfing whitewater kayaks. 

The Setup

Ideally, it’s good to start on a wave that you don’t have to do much paddling to get to, since you’re going to be falling off a lot. Try and find a wave you can jump onto from the eddy or from shore, and if the wave allows for it, jump onto the wave with your belly on the board. If you’re hunting for a board and for some gear to start with, check here for some recommendations.

Your body position on the board while laying down is going to depend on the board and on the wave, but a little trial and error will get you there.

The Pop Up

Now for the hard part – getting from your belly to your feet. The good news is that popping to your feet on a river wave is generally a little easier than popping to your feet on an ocean wave because on a river wave, your timing doesn’t really matter. You can ride around on your belly all day on most waves, and it isn’t like an ocean wave where if you don’t pop up at the right moment the wave is past you.

The standard pop up imported from ocean surfing goes like this: place your hands on your board about even with your shoulders, either flat on the board or holding onto your rails. Then, in one swift motion, pop your feet up under your body, and then stand. There are a ton of videos floating around on youtube; feel free to find any one you like, though I like the instructor’s accent in this one

I’ve also had decent luck popping up by bringing my knees up onto the board first, and then popping to my feet from there. It’s not a good habit for ocean surfing, since it slows down the process, but since speed isn’t essential on a river wave, it works fine. Adding the knees as an intermediate step also allows you to keep more control of how the board is balanced on the wave, which sometimes allows you to stay on smaller, weaker waves that are more sensitive to small mistakes.

On Your Feet

Whichever way you pop up, make sure to land with your feet wider than your shoulders, and roughly on your board where you want to be balanced. Where that is depends again on the board and the wave, but generally your rear foot should be over your board’s fin (or fins). And the biggest thing: STAY LOW. Keep your knees bent and your center of gravity as low as you can. Most people tend to get excited when they first pop up successfully and stand up completely vertically, which is usually the quickest way to fall off your board. So stay low and keep those knees bent.

Controlling The Board

Once you’re on your feet, carve left and right on the wave by using your heels and toes on the board to engage your edges and your fins. Different boards and fin setups will carve pretty differently, so you’ll need to get used to whatever board you’re using. Again, keep your knees bent and ankles loose; it’s not a lot different from carving a snowboard if that’s something you’re used to.

Shifting your weight between your front and back foot will adjust where your board sits on the wave front-to-back. This part of river surfing feels a lot different than surfing a whitewater kayak on a wave because small changes have such a big impact on where you are on the wave. Too much weight on your front foot and your nose will probably pearl into the oncoming green water, wiping you off the wave. And too much weight on your back foot will generally create too much drag and pull you backwards off the wave. So continually pay attention to where you’re sitting on the wave and how you need to adjust your weight front-to-back to stay on the sweet spot of the wave.


You’re going to fall a lot when you’re starting out, and unless you’re surfing a very deep wave, do everything you can to try and fall flat, rather than penciling into the water. Most river waves aren’t terribly deep, and falling out of control or trying to “catch” yourself by reaching your arms down can result in injury, particularly when you’re surfing shallow spots. If at all possible, try to land on your board and stick with your board, particularly if you’re not wearing a leash (and you’d better not be wearing an ankle leash; read more here).

Get yourself onto your board and paddle for the nearest eddy, reaching your arms down into the water as straight as you can get them on your paddle strokes for maximum power. Make sure not to walk on the bottom in the current if the water is deeper than your knees (more reading here), and head up the eddy to do it again.

It’s going to take quite a bit more effort to get your first surf on a shortboard than it did to get your first surf in a kayak, but I think the rides are way more fun; hopefully you will too. If you’re looking for advice on your first board and what other gear you might need, head over here.

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