Swimming in Whitewater

Safety Guides & Info

Swimming whitewater: Beyond "feet-up"

Most whitewater paddlers have heard the rule of thumb: "keep your feet up", which is the cardinal rule for avoiding foot entrapments caused by trying to stand in the river. This defensive swimming strategy is important, but it is not the only thing one should know about swimming whitewater!

Swimming in whitewater has several different styles every paddler should know: defensive, aggressive, and special techniques for dealing with eddy lines, strainers, holes, drops, and big water.

Defensive Swim - the first thing

The first thing to do after an unexpected swim is get on your back with your feet pointing downstream. Floating in this defensive swimming position, you can evaluate what lies ahead, and you are well protected. Keep your body lined up with the current so you can slip by rocks without injuring yourself.

While swimming, always keep your feet near the surface, and never try to stand up in water deep enough to float you. If your foot gets caught, the water pushes your body over and can hold you underwater. A foot entrapment is a dangerous, but avoidable situation.

Experienced paddlers can make this mistake. Don't let embarrassment, frustration, or cold make you hunt for footing. Swim properly unless it is just too shallow to do anything!

From the defensive swimming position, on your back with your feet up, you can evaluate what's next. When you see a hazard to avoid, or an eddy or shore for safety, angle your body and backstroke to maneuver. You can move around by angling your body in the direction you want to go and backstroking upstream. You will be looking between your feet at what you are avoiding since you can't see where you are heading, this position can be disconcerting. Think of aiming the top of your head for your destination!


If you need more power, change to an aggressive swimming technique. Roll over on your stomach and use a crawl stroke. Breathe on the downstream side if you can to avoid inhaling water. This style of swim is pretty tiring, so it is best for short, intense bursts. A breast stroke or side stroke will improve your visibility but slow your progress.

Any swimming is exhausting, and you'll be thankful for a little practice and fitness training. The crawl style aggressive swim is especially important for rivers with deep turbulent water. If you see where you want to be, get there!



When you swim into an eddy, you will find it easiest to break through the eddy line by doing barrel rolls over the eddy line. This technique helps you break through the eddyline, which naturally tries to spin and reject you.


With powerful current you may not be able to swim into eddies, so your best chance may be grabbing for a rock, or even swimming head first up onto a friendly rock. In certain cases this can save you from a long battering swim.


Swimming over a strainer is done head first. You want to avoid this predicament, but if you find yourself unavoidably swimming towards a strainer, switch to head first, and kick flat to launch up and over the top. The goal is to keep your head up. The normal feet first position is too passive for strainers! Head first is an important technique to know.


Vertical drops have a unique swimming technique. The idea is to ball up, to avoid the possibility of washing into a foot entrapment. This is a concern starting with sheer drops of several feet or more.


Swimming in holes can be big fun with the right wave hole - but in larger pourover holes it is not fun. If you feel stuck in one don't just swim for the surface! Change your shape to see if this causes the hole to spit you out. The most reliable system is swimming aggressively for the sides where water rushes by or swimming upstream to hook up with current flushing out underneath.


It is best to avoid a swim on long stretches of continuous whitewater, especially in cold, flooded rivers lined with trees and strainers. But if you end up in an unfortunate big water swim, be super aggressive if you see a way to get to safety. You'll need to watch the currents to decide if you are safer staying with the extra floatation of your boat, or abandoning your boat to allow a super aggressive swim. In big flows you will probably need help getting to shore and you'll be thankful if your group has the skills to assist.


So there really are quite a few swimming techniques every paddler should know! Backstroke for orientation and protection, crawl strokes for deep water power, and use special techniques for catching eddies, handling unavoidable strainers and drops, and dealing with holes and big water. Don't wait until you really need the skill to practice. There is no replacement for on the water training with an instructor.

One More Warning

You end up in the water when you least expect it, usually from an unplanned swim or minor rescue situation. Being prepared to swim starts when you dress for the river. Cold water and hypothermia are an obvious threat on nasty snowy days. But good weather days can be deceptive. If the air temperature plus the water temperature combined is less than 120 degrees is pretty chilly. Check the water temperature, and dress accordingly.

Tip: Snug, quality helmets and PFDs round out proper preparation for boating. Keep everything streamlined so nothing holds water or can get snagged.