Inflatable Kayaking 101: What You Need to Know

5 Min. Read
A guests on an OARS trip tried inflatable kayaking on the Middle Fork of the American River
An OARS guest paddles an inflatable kayak on a calm section of the Middle Fork of the American River. | Photo: Dylan Silver

An inflatable kayak, also known as an IK, is an exciting way to travel down a river. Essentially, it’s a tiny raft that you navigate without the oars or paddle commands of a guide. In addition to offering more independence and exploring, IKs are a great way to see those beautiful waves at eye-level. It will definitely make those Class II-III rapids feel much bigger and more challenging than being in a raft. If you’re ready to up the adventure level on your next river trip, below are some tried and true tips for successfully inflatable kayaking on rivers.

Inflatable Kayaking: Whitewater Basics & Safety

For those who’ve never paddled an IK, this Inflatable Kayaking 101 video will help you get a feel for these maneuverable craft and some of the essentials for paddling in low-level whitewater. From how to hold your paddle to how to climb back in after a swim, learn the basics for inflatable kayaking in rivers.

4 Beginner Tips for Paddling an Inflatable Kayak

An OARS guide talks to a group of guests about inflatable kayaking.
An OARS guide chats with a group of guests preparing to inflatable kayak on the Snake River. | Photo: Dylan Silver
1) T ‘em up!

So you’re coming down the river, paddling leisurely, enjoying the scenery, and below are some Class II and III rapids. The waves are bigger, the current is stronger, and my oh my, your boat suddenly pales in comparison to the luxury rafts floating behind you. Your key move here is to avoid hitting waves or rocks sideways. In most cases, this is how people flip or wrap their IKs. So, in the rafting vernacular, the course of action is to “T ‘em up.” In other words, hit these waves at a 90-degree angle and you’re more likely to punch through the wave and avoid going overboard. If you can’t help it and hit a wave or rock sideways, you should lean into them. It’s a counterintuitive idea, but if you lean into the rocks or waves, the upstream tube of your IK is less likely to go underwater and send it upside down.

2) Always have your paddle in the water

This one seems obvious, but it’s not uncommon for IKers to head into rapids, and in the chaos of whitewater, completely forget to paddle. This is understandable, especially if it’s your first time in an inflatable kayak, but also leaves you at the mercy of the current rather than having a say in the matter. If you have a paddle in the water, you have at least some control. Sit upright, lean forward into those waves, and paddle hard. You can also do a kayaking move called a brace to keep your IK right-side up if you always have your paddle in the water. Imagine your IK is about to flip over to the right, but you keep your wits about you and get your paddle in on the right side. In a simultaneous combination of pushing your paddle down against the water on the right side and snazzily snapping your hips to the left, you should be able to right yourself and carry on downstream without incident.

An OARS guests flips over in an inflatable kayak.
An OARS guests practices flipping over in an inflatable kayak on the Snake River. | Photo: Dylan Silver
3) Try not to get separated from your IK

If you’re paddling an inflatable kayak, chances are you’ll go for a swim at some point. If you do, it’s important to know what to do next. First step: Get your feet to the surface of the water, and when possible, try to self-rescue. If it’s nearby, grab your IK (and paddle too if you can). You’ll likely bob around next to both for a bit until you get yourself oriented. If the inflatable kayak is upside down, push down on the tube next to you and grab the other tube, which is now airborne, and pull it toward you to right the boat. Then, keeping your body on the surface of the water, pull yourself on top of the IK so your body is at a 90-degree angle to the craft. Then, pivot your body, keeping your center of gravity low, and flip yourself carefully onto your back to sit up and get paddling again. The most important factor of the scenario here is to try not to get separated from your IK and paddle whenever possible. But if you do…

4) Stay close to your guide

Whether your guide is in a raft or in an IK nearby, be sure not to stray too far from them. Not only do they know the best way down the river, they’re there to help you and if you’re too far away they may not be able to do so. About four to five IK lengths is the perfect distance between each boat. If your guide is in an inflatable kayak, they’re likely out in front, leading the way. Follow their lines down the rapids; it’s likely the safest and most fun. If you hear a whistle blow, be alert for guide directions. It’s possible someone else has fallen out of their inflatable kayak and you should either pull into an eddy or help that person out. If you’re out of earshot, you may end up downstream alone and without any idea of what’s going on upstream. Likewise, if your guide is in a raft, don’t stray too far as they’ll be your best friend if you fall out of your own IK.

man and child rowing in a tandem kayak on a river.
Having fun in a tandem IK on the Green River. | Photo: John Webster

By understanding the basics of inflatable kayaking: mastering essential paddling techniques, and prioritizing safety—you can take on the challenge and fun of paddling some of the epic waterways on many of OARS multi-day trips. Paddle hard!

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