How to “ride the rails” on a river?

What “Riding the Rails” means?

A SUP’s rails are the sides of a paddleboard extending from the nose to the tail. On the river, we predominantly use inflatable SUPs with rounded rails, measuring from 4.75 to 6 inches in thickness. Learning how to effectively ride and pressure a SUP’s rails allows a river paddler to successfully cross current and navigate challenging rapids.

How to have an effective rail pressure in whitewater?

Effective rail pressure comes from a combination of both distribution and timing. Let’s discuss distribution first. Typically, when we paddle a SUP in flat water the pressure is evenly distributed between both rails; we will refer to this as 50/50. On the river, the pressure distribution is constantly changing in response to currents moving in different directions. The more complex the rapid, the more complex these currents can be.

The angle the SUP is traveling in relationship to the direction the current is moving determines rail pressure distribution. If a SUP is moving in the same direction as the current, or in a direction directly opposite to the current, the rail pressure distribution can be 50/50; the same as in flat water. On the other hand, if a SUP is traveling across current, a technique called ferrying, greater rail pressure needs to be applied on the side the current is moving towards. So, if I ferry my SUP across current moving downriver, I will increase pressure on the downriver rail. I like to think of either leaning or shifting my hips over a rail to increase pressure. Because of the high volume of inflatable SUPs, remember to be aggressive when doing so, and also remember that a wide stance will make this easier.

TIP: a lighter paddler can offset their stance to the side where rail pressure needs to increase.

Next, let’s discuss timing. Water flowing over and around features like rocks creates currents moving in different directions. To successfully negotiate these currents, the paddler needs to learn the correct timing for changing rail pressure distribution. A good rule of thumb is to shift rail pressure when 1/3 to 1/2 of the board has crossed into the current moving in a different direction.

Ineffective or incorrect rail pressure distribution and/or timing will always yield the same result: a swim! Swimming is a natural part of river SUPing and should be expected, especially as one is learning. As one becomes more experienced and gains a better understanding of riding a SUP’s rails, the swims should become less frequent. Be safe out there!

WARNING: Remember river paddling can be a dangerous endeavor without the necessary knowledge, skills, and equipment. These articles are not meant to replace instruction from a certified instructor is recommended.

About the Author

Davide Sartoni

Here's Davide “Dave” Sartoni (aka The River SUP Guy). He was first introduced to Stand-Up Paddleboarding on the crisp, blue waters of Lake Tahoe, CA. He was captivated by the very first paddle stroke. When he later discovered that he could take a SUP down a river, his life was literally turned upside down. Today, Dave spends over 100 days per year riding rivers on his SUP, and sharing the stoke for the sport has become his mission! Dave is a certified river SUP instructor with the American Canoe Association and he's also certified in Swift Water Rescue and as a Wilderness First Responder.

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