Whitewater SUP in Portland: Up-and-Coming Sport Making Waves

The Clackamas River, not far from Portland, is a popular whitewater SUP destination.
The Clackamas River, not far from Portland, is a popular whitewater SUP destination. Patrick Higgins
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On its face, whitewater stand-up paddleboarding sounds like a fool’s errand: Adventurous paddlers trade the lazy rivers and lakes on which flatwater stand-up paddleboarding has become popular for the speedier, more dangerous rapids more commonly associated with kayaking.

And while it remains a niche sport in these parts, whitewater SUP in Portland has become increasingly popular in recent years, says Patrick Higgins, programs coordinator at Next Adventure.

Originally, kayakers led the whitewater SUP charge as a new, more thrilling way to experience their favorite rivers. But as flatwater SUP has grown in recent years, veteran paddlers started looking for new challenges, says Higgins: “It’s a progression for a lot of people.”

Higgins, who also teaches flatwater and whitewater SUP classes for Next Adventure, discussed with RootsRated some of the ins and outs of the rapidly growing sport, including intel for would-be paddlers. Here's what you need to know before heading out in search of whitewater.

1. It’s a completely different experience than flatwater paddling.

The Clackamas RIver, also popular with floaters and kayakers, is a reliable whitewater SUP destination near Portland.
The Clackamas RIver, also popular with floaters and kayakers, is a reliable whitewater SUP destination near Portland. Paul Meier

Whitewater enthusiasts like this kind of SUP outing for a variety of reasons, including the way that it allows them to experience rivers in a whole new way. “It’s really fun, getting to go places and see things you wouldn’t normally see,” Higgins says. “The water’s like a big conveyor belt, taking you down [the river].”

It also requires a level of knowledge and familiarity with the surroundings that flatwater paddlers typically don’t need. “It’s all about reading the water and being able to predict what the water’s going to do,” Higgins says.

2. Make sure you show up with the right gear.

New paddlers should ensure they have a board appropriate for whitewater paddling before tackling their first currents.
New paddlers should ensure they have a board appropriate for whitewater paddling before tackling their first currents. Patrick Higgins

There are no two ways about it: Whitewater paddling can be a dangerous sport, and beginners should arrive with the right gear before catching their first eddy. Here’s a rundown of what paddlers should bring along:


  • SUP board: The ideal whitewater SUP board is either hollow (which allows for greater stability) or inflatable (surprisingly rigid and resistant to dings, yet easily portable).

  • Helmet: Slips and falls are common, and with a gauntlet of rocks and branches, a helmet is all but mandatory.

  • Personal flotation device: Because, of course.

  • Thermal protection: Even at the height of summer, local waterways can be frigid, and protection against the elements is important.

  • Leash: Whitewater SUP enthusiasts are divided on this one. Some advise skipping the leash, but others encourage a releasable leash. Both sides cite safety as primary concerns: Leashes can get snagged on branches, rocks, or other river debris, which may put fast-moving paddlers in danger. That said, releasable leashes are designed to safely disconnect paddlers from their board and prevent nastier spills.

3. There are no shortage of nearby rivers to try the sport.

Several rivers near Portland and throughout Oregon make ideal whitewater SUP destinations.
Several rivers near Portland and throughout Oregon make ideal whitewater SUP destinations. Paul Meier

Low snowpack and a relatively dry spring means that water levels have been low throughout the summer, limiting whitewater paddling options. “When we start getting more rain, our options are going to increase dramatically,” Higgins says.

Yet a few rivers nevertheless make for reliable destinations. Here are a few recommendations:


  • Sandy River: The stretch between Dabney State Recreation Area and Lewis and Clark State Park is great for its accessibility to new paddlers.

  • Upper Clackamas River: The stretch of Clackamas River between Fish Creek and Crater Bridge makes for an ideal locale close to Portland. “There are some really good surf waves you can get on, and that’s a fun spot,” Higgins says.

  • White Salmon River: The White Salmon River offers a mix of class-3 and class-4 rapids for more advanced paddlers to go along with some beautiful scenery. “The water’s crystal clear, and it has some good rapids,” Higgins says. “In general, it has some really nice river features, and it runs year-round, which is another nice bonus.”

  • Santiam River: The river, not far from Salem and Corvallis, offers clear water, challenging surf waves, beautiful scenery, and year-round paddling opportunities.

  • Wilson River: The river, close to Tillamook, will become one of the better destinations in the region once rainfall boosts the water levels this fall, Higgins says. Class II and III rapids give new and advanced paddlers alike plenty of challenges, and the surrounding Tillamook State Forest makes for a picturesque run.

4. It’s not just a summer sport.

Whitewater SUP outings extend well into the fall and winter, but paddlers should prepare for the elements and dress accordingly.
Whitewater SUP outings extend well into the fall and winter, but paddlers should prepare for the elements and dress accordingly. Paul Meier

Fall might be on the horizon, but Next Adventure offers free guided paddles throughout the winter. Next Adventure’s free Get Out and Paddle series is pretty straight forward: Starting in October, paddlers of all stripes (whitewater SUP, kayakers, canoers, and the like) are invited to try their hand at class II rapids on the second Saturday of each month, class III rapids the third Saturday of each month, and class IV rapids the fourth Saturday of each month. Next Adventure provides transportation to the various rivers, but Higgins notes that the trips aren’t guided tours or classes.

(In the meantime, paddlers can join Next Adventure’s free Carnage/Confidence Run. The weekly event, which wraps up this month, gives paddlers the chance to tackle class II and III rapids.)

5. It’s a good idea to start with a class.

Flatwater paddlers are typically hesitant to take classes because they feel like they’ve already mastered the basics, Higgins says. But a trained instructor can provide tips on how to read the river and catch eddies. Group lessons also allow paddlers to try whitewater gear, learn about what gear they should buy, and get a feel for faster currents. “It’s a lot easier to go with somebody who has experience reading the water,” Higgins says.

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