This glossary is a compilation of basic whitewater kayaking terms meant to be a useful resource for new paddlers. If you have a term that you’d like to see added to this article or if you have questions about a definition please let me know.
Aerial: When a kayak leaves the surface of the water. Usually refers to freestyle (see freestyle) moves.
Attainment: When a kayaker paddles upstream against the current to get from a point downstream to point upstream. Many whitewater paddlers do attainments for a workout or to train for extreme racing (see extreme racing).
Back band: The band located behind the seat that can be tightened to keep the paddler in an aggressive, upright seated position. The back band provides support for the lower back.
Back deck roll: A type of eskimo roll (see Eskimo roll) performed with the paddlers body positioned on the back deck of the kayak. This roll is used by freestyle (see freestyle) paddlers to quickly roll back up while surfing a hole (see hydraulic) or a wave.
Back Loop: A freestyle move. A loop (see loop) performed from stern (see stern) to bow (see bow).
Back Stroke: The technique used by paddlers to paddle backwards.
Back Surfing: Surfing (see surfing) backwards on a wave.
Backwash: The water behind a hydraulic/hole (see hydraulic) that flows upstream back into the hydraulic. The flatter the backwash the more danger of getting recirculated (see recirculate) by the hole.
Base layers: Layers of clothing made from natural (except cotton) or synthetic fabrics that paddlers wear under their outer layers. Good baselayers wick moisture away from their skin, keeping the paddler warm or keeping them cool — depending on the weather. Always avoid wearing cotton as a base layer as it traps moisture close to your skin, doesn’t dry quickly and keeps you cold. Examples of good base layers are fleece, wool, polypropelene and neoprene.
Bent shaft paddle: A paddle with a shaft that’s ergonomically bent where the hands grip the paddle so that the paddler’s wrists maintain a neutral position. Paddlers with tendonitis or wrist problems usually prefer bent shaft paddles.
Big Wave Surfing: Surfing on waves that are 5 ft or higher. These waves are typically found on rivers like the White Nile in Uganda, the Ottawa in Canada and the New River in West Virginia.
Blunt/Backstab: A blunt is a freestyle (see freestyle) move performed on a wave where the paddler does a cross-grain vertical spin using a quick edge to edge transition. The backstab is the move performed backwards beginning in a back surf and landing in a front surf.
Boat scouting: Scouting (see scouting) a rapid from your kayak by catching multiple eddies (see eddy) at the top of and on the way down the rapid.
Boils: Boils are found on very large rivers that have a lot of CFS (see CFS). They’re usually found in spots where the river constricts, forcing most of the water down. Because the flow of the river is so constricted the water is forced back up to the surface and then down again and forms features that resemble boiling water. Boils are very unstable for kayakers and can easily flip them over if paddlers don’t know how to maneuver through them.
Boof: A river running move performed over a rock, waterfall, drop or hole to keep the bow of the paddlers’ boat above the surface of the water and to keep the kayak flat or close to flat. The boof is a really fun and important move for remaining stable and making moves, especially on steep creeks.
Boof Stroke: The stroke used to perform a boof. It’s a very vertical stroke that the paddler plants at the edge of the rock or drop while they thrust their hips and feet forward at the same time to lift their bow.
Booties: Neoprene shoes that fit tightly so that they can easily and comfortably fit in a kayak to protect the paddlers’ feet.
Bow: The front of a kayak.
Bow Draw: An intermediate turning stroke performed at the bow of the kayak. The bow draw is a very efficient turning stroke.
Bow Stall: A flatwater trick where the paddler buries the bow of her kayak and balances the kayak close to vertical on her bow in flatwater.
Bulkhead (whitewater): The foot brace in creek boats and river running kayaks. Bulkheads are usually made with strong materials and fill the area at the front of the kayak so that the paddler’s feet can’t go underneath or above the bulkhead. The bulkhead is attached to the kayak via metal pieces with holes in them that can be slid back and forth depending on the length of the paddlers’ legs and are secured with removable bolts.
Carabiner: Is a metal loop with a gate. They’re used in climbing and in rescue systems in kayaking as well as tow leashes. They can also be used to secure drybags, throw bags and water bottles inside the kayak.
Cam straps: A piece of webbing with a metal buckle that is used to tie down kayaks on roof racks.
Carping: When a frantic paddler takes a big breath while their head is briefly above water during a failed roll attempt – resembling a carp coming up for air.
Carwheel: A 360 vertical spin in a hole. A freestyle move that requires good edge control, torso rotation and quick transitions.
Cave: A cave in the side of a river or canyon wall or behind a waterfall or drop in a river.
CFS: ‘Cubic feet per second.’ The unit used to measure the volume of water in the river. The metric system is called CMS ‘cubic meters per second,’ also called ‘cumex.’
Class I Rapid: Very mellow, easy-going whitewater with little or no consequence.
Class II Rapid: A rapid that has some waves and whitewater, but that is still very easy to maneuver with little or no consequence.
Class III Rapid: A rapid with faster flowing water and a few whitewater features to maneuver around. Some consequence.
Class IV Rapid: A rapid that contains a number of features that require skill and experience to maneuver around with consequences that include the possibility of injury.
Class V Rapid: A very difficult rapid where consequences of missing a maneuver or swimming may result in severe injury or death.
Class VI Rapid: A rapid that is not runable.
Creek: A narrow, constricted, low-volume river that has steep drops.
Creekboat: A whitewater kayak that is designed specifically for running creeks. Creekboats usually have higher volume to keep the kayak above the water and they’re designed to resurface easily, to maintain stability and to have speed.
Creeking: The act of kayaking a creek.
Cross-bow: When a stroke is taken with the paddle blade on the opposite side of the bow of the kayak. This requires that the paddler reach across the bow with his/her paddle blade to initiate the stroke.
Drop: A steep rapid. Usually found on creeks.
Drydeck: A drytop and sprayskirt sewn together as one garmet designed to keep the paddler’s upper body and the inside of their kayak completely dry.
Drysuit: A full body suit made with wind breaking material with latex gaskets at the neck and wrists and booties at the feet to keep water out and keep the paddler’s body completely dry.
Drytop: A paddling jacket with latex gaskets at the neck and wrists designed to keep the paddler’s upper body completely dry.
Double-pump: A technique using upper body rotation and edge control to initiate a cartwheel or a bow stall.
Downstream: The direction in which the current is flowing.
Downstream V: A tongue of dark water that loosely forms a ‘V’ shape with whitewater at the edges. The downstream v is a river feature that indicates the deepest and most obstacle-free entry into or path through a rapid.
Dry bag: A waterproof, sealable bag that keeps contents dry. Paddlers use drybags for first aid kits, snacks and other stuff they want to bring down the river with them.
Eddy: A river feature formed when the current flows around an obstacle and water flows back upstream to fill in the space left by the deflected current. The current inside of eddies flows upstream. Eddies are great for resting, getting out of the current, getting out of the river and scouting.
Eddy Line: The line at the edge of an eddy where the current flowing downstream meets the current flowing upstream in the eddy. Eddy lines are swirly and unstable places in the current.
Eddy Turn: The technique used to enter an eddy with speed and stability.
Edge Control: The ability of a paddler to set, maintain and change their kayak edge to varying degrees to maneuver through whitewater and perform freestyle moves.
Edge to Edge Transition: When the paddler transitions from one edge of the kayak to the other. Edge to edge transition is used in freestyle moves like the blunt and in river running moves like the boof.
Ender: An old school freestyle move where the paddler thrusts his/her bow into the green water of a hole or pourover. This pushes the bow down until the water pressure releases it and sends the kayak up vertically in the air.
Eskimo Roll: The technique that kayakers use to right themselves when they flip over.
Extreme racing: A competition where kayakers race down sections of steep creeks, many containing waterfalls.
Feather: The cocking or bending of the wrist to make small adjustments to the angle of the paddle blade. Feathering is used to ensure that the paddle blade enters the water at a certain angle, remains neutral in the water or creates resistance against the water to perform strokes and maneuver.
Ferry: The river running technique used to cross the downstream current to get from one side of the river to the other without being taken downstream with the current.
Flat spin: A freestyle move where a kayaker does a full 360 degree spin on the face of a wave.
Flatwater: Water without any current. Usually referring to lakes or very large calm pools with little or no current.
Flatwater cartwheel: A cartwheel performed in flatwater.
Flatwater Loop: A loop performed in flatwater.
Float bags: Plastic bags shaped like the stern of a kayak that the paddler can place in the stern and inflate. Inflated airbags keep water from filling up the kayak and make it lighter and easier to pull or push to shore after a swim.
Foam pile: The part of the hydraulic or hole that is flowing back upstream mixing with the air to become aerated water. It looks like a pile of foam and allows paddlers to surf friendly holes and wave-holes by creating the upstream force needed to keep them from continuing downstream.
Foot foam: Specially formed foam that is used instead of bulkheads in smaller freestyle/playboating kayaks.
Freestyle Kayaking/Playboating: A discipline of whitewater kayaking where paddlers surf waves or holes and perform tricks, including aerial tricks.
Forward Stroke: The stroke that paddlers use to propel themselves forward in the water.
Front Surfing: Surfing a river wave facing upstream.
Gauge: An instrument used to measure the speed of the current or the water level of a river.
Grab loops: The loops or handles situated at the bow and stern of kayaks that allows the paddler to carry and strap down the kayak. They are an important safety feature for attaching ropes or tow leashes in order to rescue or extract kayaks in rescue situations.
Gradient: In simple kayaking terms the word gradient is used to refer to the amount of drop or loss of elevation in a river from put-in to take-out.
Green water: Refers to the dark water that flows downstream. The water is dark or green because it is obstacle free and/or contains a large amount of water. Because the green water is obstacle free it can be very powerful.
Hand of God: A rescue technique where a paddler rights another paddler who has flipped upside down and can’t roll up. The rescuer places him/herself alongside the kayaker that is upside down and pushes down on the edge closest to them while pulling up on the opposite edge, righting the kayak.
Helmet: The piece of gear that protects your head.
High Brace: A stroke used by a paddler to prevent him or herself from flipping over.
Hip pads: Padding that is placed on the sides of the seat at or above the hips to make the seat fit more snuggly to the paddler.
Horizon Line: A point in the river where the current drops off and the rapid below cannot be seen from upstream.
Hull: The bottom of the kayak.
Hydraulic/Hole: A river feature created when water flows over a rock or shelf in the river, drops, comes back up, mixes with the air and travels upstream back toward the obstacle that it flowed over. This creates green water that is flowing downstream and a foam pile or backwash of aerated water that flows back up and into the green water creating a continuous flow cycle.
Jet Ferry: Using the trough of a wave to ferry quickly and efficiently across the current.
Keeper Hole: A very powerful hole or hydraulic in which the foam pile or backwash is so strong that it doesn’t easily release kayaks, debris or bodies and recirculates them in the hole for a long time. Kayakers should always avoid keeper holes.
Lateral Wave: A wave that is breaking at an angle toward the center of the river.
Line: The path through a rapid.
Longboat: A kayak that is longer than 9 ft and is often used in extreme racing.
Loop: A freestyle trick performed in a hole where the paddler does a complete front flip from bow to stern and remains in the hole.
Low Brace: A stroke used by a paddler to prevent him/her from flipping over.
Micro Eddy: A very small eddy.
Neoprene: A material commonly used for making wetsuits, booties, sprayskirts and other garments used for paddling. Neoprene insulates the body when it’s wet and keeps paddlers warm.
Noseplugs: A piece of gear used to keep water from going up the nose into the sinuses.
Outfitting: The term used for the additional adjustable features that allow for the kayak to fit snuggly to most paddlers. Includes hip pads, seat, back band and thigh braces.
Paddle: A shaft with two blades on either end that a paddler uses to maneuver his/her kayak.
Paddle Jacket/Splash top: A paddling jacket without gaskets that is used to break the wind, but that doesn’t keep the paddler dry.
Park and Play: A term that refers to the act of going to a wave or hole to playboat without actually traveling downstream. The paddler plays at the feature and gets out when he/she is done. Park and play spots usually have road access nearby.
Peel Out: The technique used to exit an eddy into the downstream current efficiently with speed and stability.
PFD: Personal Floatation Device or lifejacket. One of the most important pieces of safety gear for paddlers.
Playboat: A kayak specifically designed to perform freestyle tricks in holes and waves.
Pirouette: A 360 degree vertical spin performed on the bow or stern of a kayak.
Portage: The act of carrying your kayak around a rapid because you don’t want to run it in your kayak.
Pourover: A river feature formed when just enough water pours over a rock to form a steep drop into a strong recirculating backwash.
Power Circle: A warm-up/stroke technique exercise that helps a paddler develop edge control, boat control and graceful paddle strokes.
Power Face: The concave side of the paddle blade that always faces the paddler as she/he is paddling.
Put-in: The place where paddlers access the section river they are paddling to start their descent.
Racks: A system of bars mounted onto the roof of a car used to carry kayaks or other toys such as bikes, skis etc…
Rapid: A section of river where the gradient increases causing the flow of the water to speed up creating more turbulence.
Reading water: The technique used to decipher and recognize the safest paths through turbulent whitewater.
Read and Run: Reading the water from your kayak as you paddle down the rapid.
Recirculate: The action of being caught in a hole or hydaulic where a person or kayak is pushed down by and pulled back up into the feature over and over again carried by the continuous flow cycle.
Rescue Vest: A PFD that is equipped with a rescue harness used in rescue situations. Often worn by instructors and paddlers who kayak difficult rivers.
River knife: A small knife carried by kayakers and raft guides that can be used in rescue situations.
River Running: The act of kayaking down a river for the sake of paddling downstream and not stopping to playboat (the opposite of park and play). Some paddlers who river run do stop and surf at playspots on their way down, but they usually focus on making river running moves such as boofs.
River Running Boat: A kayak that is designed specifically for river running – easy to maneuver, is stable, but can still surf a wave well. Somewhere between a playboat and a creek boat.
Rodeo: Another name for freestyle kayaking.
Scouting a Rapid: The act of pulling over above a rapid, getting out of your kayak, and walking to the edge of the rapid to look at it from land, discern the safest path and decide if you want to run it or portage.
Safety Harness: A harness attached to a rescue vest that has a quick release system that allows the paddler to attach him/herself to a rope or kayak in a rescue situation without being tied in. This way the paddler can release him/herself from the object keeping them safe.
Seam: A place in the river where two currents flowing in opposite directions meet and form a ‘line’ in the current. Seams can be powerful and unstable.
Sculling Draw: A stroke where the paddle moves in the shape of a figure eight and draws the kayak sideways through the water.
Shortie: A short sleeve paddle jacket.
Shuttle: The act of setting a car at the take-out to the river so that you have transportation when you’re done with your run. Shuttle requires at least two cars – one to set at the bottom and the other to drive the paddlers and their gear to the put-in.
Shuttle Bunny: Traditionally referred to women who drove the shuttle for their boyfriends or husbands. She would drop them off at the put-in and pick them up at the take-out saving time. Now that there are more women paddlers there are also male shuttle bunnies! Yay!
Sieve: A pile or jumble of rocks in the current that creates a dangerous feature for kayakers. Water flows through the rocks pushing the kayaker in and trapping him/her. The pressure of the water keeps the kayaker trapped, but the rocks don’t allow the paddler to push through. Paddlers should always avoid sieves. They are more common on class V steep creeks.
Side Draw: A stroke that draws the kayak sideways in the water.
Slide: A rapid where the water flows over a rock shelf forming a slide that the kayak can paddle down.
Spin: A basic freestyle trick where the paddler spins his/her kayak 360 degrees in a hole.
Spray skirt: A neoprene skirt that’s worn by the kayaker and seals off the cockpit of the kayak so that no water can enter the kayak while he/she paddles downstream.
Stackers: Rack accessories that assist in stacking and tying down multiple kayaks on the roof of a car.
Stern Squirt: A basic freestyle trick performed on an eddy line where the paddler sends the bow of his/her kayak vertically in the air while sinking the stern of the kayak in the seam of the eddy line.
Straight shaft paddle: A paddle that has a straight shaft.
Strainer: Refers to a tree or tree branches in the current that allow for the water to flow through but that trap a kayak. Works just like a spaghetti strainer. Paddlers should avoid them.
Standing Wave: A tall wave that has no foam pile and that the water is flowing through quickly. Standing waves are really friendly and fun!
Stern: The back of the kayak.
Stern Draw: A quick and efficient turning stroke performed with the paddle sweeping from the hips back to the stern of the kayak.
Stern Stall: A freestyle trick performed in flatwater where the paddler balances his/her kayak vertically with his/her stern submerged.
Sweep Stroke: The most basic turning stroke performed with the paddle planting at the feet and sweeping back to the stern.
Swiftwater Rescue: Rescue techniques specifically for situations involving current and fast flowing water.
Swimming: The act of bailing out of your kayak and swimming through the rapids because of failed roll attempts.
Tea cups: Friendly waterfalls with surrounding walls and rock that make the features look like water is being poured from a kettle into a tea cup.
T-Rescue: A rescue technique used when a paddler is having trouble rolling up. One kayaker paddles the bow of his/her boat into the side of the kayak that’s upside down so that their kayaks form a T. The paddler who is upside down can then reach up and roll themselves up using the other kayak.
Take-out: The access point for kayakers at the end of the section of river they’re running.
Thigh Braces: Plastic pieces just below the cockpit of the kayak that keep the paddlers’ thighs in the proper position.
Throw Bag: A rope that is packed in a bag that can be carried in the back of the kayak or on the kayaker that can easily be thrown to a paddler in trouble in a rescue situation. Also used in other swiftwater rescue techniques.
Tow leash: A long piece of webbing packed and secured in a small bag that can be attached to a rescue harness. Used by kayak instructors to pull kayaks to shore when their students swim.
Trashed: When things go bad and the paddler gets tossed around like a rag doll and spit out by the river. Not usually life threatening, but not very pleasant.
Undercut Rock: A rock in the current that the water flows under and out the other side. Usually enough room for the water, but not for a paddler. Very dangerous for kayakers. They should always be avoided.
Upstream: The opposite direction in which the current is flowing.
Waterfall: A place in the river where all of the water goes over a very tall, vertical drop.
Wave: Is a feature formed when the gradient increases, when the river constricts or when the current flows over rocks and other debris on the riverbed.
Wave-hole: A wave that has a foam pile at the crest. Wave-holes are usually great for surfing because the foam pile makes it easy for the paddler to remain on the wave.
Wave wheel: A downriver freestyle trick where the paddler performs a cartwheel as he/she paddles up and over a standing wave.
Wet Exit: The act of pulling your spray skirt and swimming out of your kayak.
Wetsuit: A neoprene suit that insulates the body when wet.
White water: White water is formed when flowing water mixes with air forming aerated water. On rivers white water is formed when water flows over obstacles such as rocks in the riverbed or when the gradient of a river increases, quickening the flow and creating turbulence.
White Water Kayak: A kayak specifically designed for maneuvering in whitewater. Whitewater kayaks are designed to maneuver and turn very easily and to be stable on edge.
If you are interested in private white water kayaking instruction, email me and visit my private instruction page.