How to Kayak Whitewater: Essential Skills and Techniques for Safety

How to Kayak Whitewater

Whitewater kayaking is a thrilling outdoor activity that challenges the body and the mind. As you navigate through turbulent waters and overcome various river obstacles, you’ll develop a deep connection with nature and a sense of accomplishment. To get started with this exhilarating sport, it’s essential to familiarize yourself with the basics of kayaking, understand the types of whitewater environments, and acquire the necessary skills and equipment.


Whitewater kayaking encompasses various disciplines, such as river running, playboating, and creaking, each offering unique challenges and experiences. For beginners, learning essential kayaking techniques like paddling, rolling, and edging is vital while gradually building confidence in more turbulent waters. Selecting the appropriate gear, including a suitable kayak and paddle, is crucial to ensure a safe and enjoyable experience on the water.

As you progress in your whitewater kayaking journey, it’s important to understand river safety and etiquette and how to transport and store your equipment correctly. Advanced boaters can further refine their techniques and explore the diverse culture of the whitewater kayaking community, where lifelong friendships and unforgettable adventures await.


Key Takeaways


Understanding Whitewater Kayaking


Whitewater kayaking is an exciting and challenging water sport where paddlers navigate through rapids and currents using a specialized kayak. To get started in whitewater kayaking, it’s critical to understand the different types of boats and gear involved and how to choose the right equipment for you.

Types of Whitewater Kayaks

There are several types of whitewater kayaks, each designed for specific purposes and river conditions:

  • Playboats: These short, agile kayaks are ideal for tricks and surfing waves. They are not recommended for beginners, as they require advanced navigation skills.
  • River Runners: With a blend of stability and maneuverability, these boats are perfect for paddlers tackling various river conditions and rapids.
  • Creek Boats: Designed for steep and technical rivers, these kayaks have higher volume and rocker to handle challenging whitewater environments.
  • Long Boats: Long boats or fast cruisers are excellent for covering long distances on rivers with varying difficulty levels. They are often used for multi-day adventures and expeditions.

Kayaking Gear Essentials

Besides selecting the right whitewater kayak, investing in the right gear is essential to ensure a safe and enjoyable paddling experience. Critical components of whitewater kayaking gear include:

  • Paddle: Choose a comfortable and suitable paddle for your height and paddling style. Paddles come in different materials and blade shapes, with fiberglass or carbon paddles being lighter and more durable.
  • Personal Flotation Device (PFD): A well-fitting, high-quality PFD is crucial for your safety on the water. Whitewater PFDs have specific features like more buoyancy, rescue capabilities, and storage pockets.
  • Helmet: Invest in a whitewater-specific helmet to protect your head from rocks and collisions. Ensure it fits appropriately and has dial or strap adjustments for a secure and comfortable fit.
  • Spray Skirt: This gear covers the kayak’s cockpit, keeping water out and you dry. Choose a spray skirt made from waterproof, breathable materials and ensure it fits you and your boat correctly.
  • Dry/Wet Suit & Layers: Dressing appropriately for the water temperature and conditions can make your time on the river more comfortable. Wetsuits or drysuits are essential and don’t forget to layer using moisture-wicking materials.
  • Throw Rope & Safety Kit: When kayaking in whitewater, always carry a throw rope for rescue situations and a safety kit that includes a whistle, a knife, carabiners, and a first aid kit.

By understanding the different whitewater kayak designs and essential gear, you’ll be better prepared to tackle the exciting challenges of this thrilling water sport.


Essential Kayaking Skills


Paddling Techniques

Proper paddling techniques are crucial for efficient movement and control of the kayak in whitewater conditions. Paddlers must master several basic strokes, such as:

  1. Forward stroke: Generates forward movement by pulling the paddle blade through the water beside the kayak.
  2. Sweep stroke: Helps turn the kayak by sweeping the paddle in a wide arc on either side of the boat.
  3. Draw stroke: Moves the kayak sideways by pulling water towards the hull perpendicular to the direction of travel.

Enhancing these techniques and adapting them to turbulent water will enable smoother navigation and, ultimately, a more enjoyable experience.

Kayak Rolling & Bracing

Kayak rolling and bracing are essential skills that provide stability and help prevent capsizing. They require practice and perseverance, but mastering them will transform your whitewater kayaking experience.

  • Rolling is the ability to recover from a capsize, using body movement and paddle to return to the upright position without exiting the kayak. Confidently moving your whitewater kayak means a flip doesn’t automatically result in a long swim.
  • Bracing refers to maintaining balance and averting a capsize using the paddle. This skill is achieved through paddle strokes and lower body adjustments.

Investing time learning these two fundamental skills will ensure greater confidence and safety on the water.

Safety and Rescue Basics

In whitewater kayaking, the potential risks are high; therefore, understanding safety and rescue basics is crucial. Key points to consider include:

  • Always wear a Personal Flotation Device (PFD), helmet, and appropriate clothing.
  • Check weather forecasts and river conditions before embarking on a trip.
  • Develop a self-rescue strategy, such as the wet exit technique, to safely separate from the kayakly.
  • Familiarize yourself with standard communication signals to effectively communicate with others in your group.

Being well-prepared and knowledgeable about safety measures will help mitigate risks and ensure an enjoyable whitewater kayaking experience.


Kayak Anatomy & Design


Understanding Hull Shapes

Kayak hull shapes play a significant role in the performance and stability of whitewater kayaks. There are two primary types of hulls: planing and displacement. Planing hulls have a predominantly flat base from edge to edge, allowing for better maneuverability and responsiveness. Displacement hulls, on the other hand, have a curved base below the waterline, providing a smoother ride when going through rapids or waves.

  • Planing hulls – Commonly found in playboats and river runners, these hulls are designed for agile moves, quick turns, and surfing waves.
  • Displacement hulls – Typically used in creek boats and longer kayaks, these hulls offer a smoother ride and better tracking, ideal for navigating steep or technical sections.

When looking at whitewater kayak hulls, another feature to consider is the rail (edge), a protruding edge at the point where the hull meets the sidewall. This edge can affect the boat’s performance when carving turns or holding a line in moving water.

Outfitting and Comfort

A key aspect of mastering whitewater kayaking is the proper outfitting that ensures comfort and safety. Outfitting components vary between kayak types. Still, they can typically be customized to suit individual preferences.

  1. Seat – Adjustability is essential for finding the perfect seat position, allowing proper weight distribution and efficient paddling.
  2. Hip Pads provide a snug fit and lateral stability, enabling better boat control and preventing your body from sliding within the kayak.
  3. Thigh Braces – Offering additional control and support, thigh braces help to maintain contact between your body and the kayak, especially during aggressive maneuvers.
  4. Footrest/Pegs – These keep your feet secure and comfortable, preventing slipping and allowing for more efficient strokes.

While the type of kayak – such as playboats, creek boats, or river runners – will dictate certain design elements and volume distribution, outfitting customization remains essential to achieving optimal performance and comfort in whitewater kayaking. Always prioritize safety gear, including helmets and lifejackets, and outfitting components.


Choosing the Right Whitewater Kayak


Considerations for Beginners

When starting in whitewater kayaking, there are a few essential aspects to consider when choosing your first kayak. The most critical elements to look for are the kayak’s stability, comfort, and ease of use. Beginner kayaks should be forgiving regarding maneuverability and provide ample stability to help build confidence in the water.

Playboats are a popular type of whitewater kayak, offering an agile and playful design. However, these boats may be more challenging for beginners, as they have less volume and focus on performing tricks and surfing river waves1. A beginner must assess their skills, age, and comfort level before opting for any particular kayak model.

Price is another factor to consider for beginners. A wide range of whitewater kayaks is available in the market, with prices varying drastically. Investing in a high-quality, affordable kayak and upgrading as skills improve is wise. You can find valuable information on choosing the right kayak in a whitewater buying guide.

Kayak Buying Guide for Experts

Seasoned paddlers may require more specific features in their whitewater kayaks to suit their preferences and skills. An expert whitewater kayaker will want to consider the kayak style that best suits their paddling preferences and goals. The options include playboats, creek boats, and river runners with different performance characteristics2.

Evaluating the kayak’s performance features, such as its rocker profile, edges, and chines, is essential. These attributes will determine the kayak’s maneuverability, tracking, and ability to hold a line in the water. The choice of material for the kayak is also crucial as it affects its durability and weight. Common materials include polyethylene and composite materials like fiberglass or carbon fiber3.

Finally, an expert kayaker should consider outfitting and adjustability. Many high-end whitewater kayaks offer customizable outfitting, allowing paddlers to achieve their desired performance and comfort. Adjustable seats, thigh braces, and footrests are some features to look for when choosing a kayak4.



  1. Whitewater Guidebook – Buying Your First Whitewater Kayak ↩
  2. Dagger Kayaks – How to choose a whitewater kayak ↩
  3. – How to Choose a Whitewater Kayak ↩
  4. Paddling Magazine – Best Whitewater Kayaks For 2024 ↩


Whitewater Paddles and Techniques


Selecting a Kayak Paddle

Choosing the right paddle is essential for a successful and enjoyable experience when it comes to whitewater kayaking. Single-bladed and double-bladed paddles are the two primary types of paddles used for this activity. While single-bladed paddles are commonly used in canoeing, double-bladed paddles are the most popular choice for whitewater kayaking due to their increased maneuverability and control.

To select the best kayak paddle, consider factors like the paddle’s length, weight, and blade shape. Longer paddles offer better reach, whereas shorter ones provide more control. Lightweight materials like carbon fiber can reduce fatigue during extended paddling sessions. The blade’s shape and surface area also significantly affect propulsion and turning efficiency. Some paddlers prefer wider blades for powerful strokes, while others opt for narrow blades for faster, less exhausting strokes. For more information on choosing a whitewater paddle, refer to NRS’ guide on selecting a paddle.

Efficient Paddling Strokes

Mastering efficient paddling techniques is crucial for navigating through challenging whitewater conditions. The following list highlights some essential whitewater paddling strokes:

  1. Forward Stroke: This basic stroke propels the kayak forward and is widely used while navigating downstream. With proper torso rotation and a vital catch phase, the forward stroke can be executed effectively in river running or creek boating.
  2. Sweep Stroke: This stroke helps in turning the kayak. A broad arc movement on one side of the kayak changes the boat’s direction.
  3. Draw Stroke: Used for moving the kayak sideways, the draw stroke involves inserting the paddle blade into the water parallel to the kayak’s side and pulling it towards the boat.
  4. Brace: A critical skill in whitewater kayaking, the brace prevents the kayak from flipping. This maneuver involves slapping the paddle’s flat surface onto the water’s surface while leaning on the paddle for support.

Additionally, mastering the ferry technique proves to be beneficial in crossing currents without being carried downstream. It helps improve boat control, balance, and edge control, making for an essential skill in whitewater kayaking.

In conclusion, selecting the appropriate kayak paddle and learning efficient paddling techniques are critical factors in having a successful and enjoyable whitewater kayaking experience. Practice these skills and techniques to enhance your prowess in this thrilling water sport.


Whitewater Environments


Fast-moving water, rapids, and dynamic river features characterize whitewater environments. Paddlers encounter challenges in whitewater, such as navigating through waves, holes, and eddies. This section will explore critical aspects of reading rivers and rapids and maneuvering through eddies and holes.

Reading Rivers and Rapids

Reading a river is crucial for whitewater kayakers to ensure safe and efficient navigation. Here are some essential elements to look for when assessing a river:

  1. Rapids: These are turbulent, fast-flowing river sections, often with steep gradients, where rocks or other obstructions break the water surface. Rapids are classified into six categories (Class I to VI), with Class I being the easiest and Class VI representing extreme challenges suitable only for experts.
  2. Eddies: These are areas of calm water behind large boulders or other obstacles found along the riverbank. Eddies provide opportunities for paddlers to rest, scout ahead, or make a strategic move using the calm water.
  3. Waves: Formed by water flow over obstacles, waves can vary in size and power. Conditions such as river gradient, water volume, and the shape of the obstacle all influence wave characteristics.
  4. Holes: Often created when water flows downward over an obstacle, then curls back upstream, forming a hydraulic or recirculating current. Holes can pose challenges for kayakers, leading to being trapped and flipped over.

Maneuvering Through Eddies and Holes

Effective maneuvering through eddies and holes requires skill and practice. Here are some techniques and tips to assist whitewater kayakers:

  1. Entering an eddy: Approach the eddy line at a 45-degree angle, then as your bow crosses the eddy line, take a forward stroke on the downstream side to pull the kayak into the calm water.
  2. Exiting an eddy: To leave an eddy, paddle upstream toward the eddy line and angle the kayak to face downstream. When the bow crosses the eddy line, take a forward stroke on the upstream side to move into the current.
  3. Navigating holes: To paddle through a hole without getting trapped, use a solid forward stroke at the lip of the hole, leaning slightly forward to keep the kayak’s momentum. This should help break through the hydraulic current and propel you downstream.

In summary, success in whitewater environments depends on reading rivers and rapids, understanding key features such as rapids, waves, eddies, and holes, and developing the skills to maneuver confidently and safely through these challenges.


River Safety and Etiquette

Risk Assessment

Before venturing into whitewater kayaking, assessing the risks and challenges associated with the activity is essential. Be aware of the potential dangers, such as swift currents and obstacles like rocks or fallen trees. A proper risk assessment includes researching the river’s conditions and difficulty level based on rapid classification.

Wear appropriate safety gear like a snugly-fitting personal flotation device (PFD), which offers back and shoulder protection and the necessary buoyancy for swimming safely in whitewater. Also, wearing a solid, correctly-fitted helmet during the activity is crucial, as upsets are likely.

Emergency Protocols

Being prepared for emergencies is vital for both experienced and beginner whitewater kayakers. Develop a plan that includes communication strategies with fellow boaters and familiarize yourself with rescue techniques, particularly whitewater kayaking safety practices.

When kayaking in a group, it’s essential to establish a set of emergency protocols that everyone is familiar with. These protocols should cover situations such as capsizing, injuries, or being separated from your group.

Follow these guidelines for better river safety and etiquette:

  1. Be aware of your surroundings: Look an eye out s and upcoming rapids to anticipate and react accordingly.
  2. Stay within your skill level: Do not attempt to navigate rapids beyond your ability, as this can lead to dangerous situations.
  3. Respect other boaters: Allow enough space for others to maneuver, assist as needed, and follow appropriate river etiquette.
  4. Remain in control: Maintain a steady paddle pace, and remember that maneuvering in whitewater requires skill, strength, and clear-headed thinking.

By being mindful of river safety, risk management, and etiquette, whitewater kayakers can enjoy thrilling adventures while minimizing potential hazards.


Gearing Up for Whitewater

When preparing for a whitewater kayaking adventure, the proper gear is essential for safety and comfort. In this section, we will discuss the selection of a personal flotation device (PFD), helmet, and spray skirt.

Choosing a Personal Flotation Device

A PFD is a crucial safety equipment for any water sport, especially whitewater kayaking. It should be designed specifically for whitewater activities and have enough buoyancy to keep the paddler afloat in turbulent water. Look for a PFD with adjustable straps for a snug fit, ensuring it won’t ride up while paddling. Some whitewater-specific PFDs, like these recommended models, feature additional safety components such as a rescue harness, whistle, and knife.

Helmet and Spray Skirt Selection

In addition to a PFD, a sturdy helmet is necessary to protect the kayaker’s head from impact with rocks and other obstacles. A helmet with an adjustable fit and adequate ventilation is essential for comfort and safety. Some helmets include features like a faceguard or ear protection, which are great additions for more intense whitewater situations.

Finally, a spray skirt is needed to prevent water from entering the kayak. When selecting a spray skirt, consider the type of kayaking you’ll be doing and choose a material that offers the appropriate balance of durability and flexibility. Neoprene spray skirts are typical for their excellent seal and stretch, but some paddlers prefer nylon spray skirts for their lighter weight and breathability. Ensure that the spray skirt fits both your waist and the cockpit of your kayak securely. You can refer to this guide for more information on essential kayaking gear.

By choosing the fitting PFD, helmet, and spray skirt, you can confidently embark on your whitewater kayaking adventure, well-equipped to handle the challenges that await you.


Kayak Storage and Transportation

Proper Gear Storage

Proper whitewater kayaks and gear storage are essential for maintaining their longevity and preventing damage. Keeping your kayak in a cool, dry, and shaded area is crucial to avoid degradation caused by prolonged exposure to sunlight and changing weather conditions. If possible, store the kayak in a specialized rack or hang it from secure wall mounts to avoid direct contact with the ground.

Likewise, gear such as paddles, helmets, and life jackets should also be stored away from direct sunlight and moisture. Before placing your gear in storage, ensure it is thoroughly cleaned and dried to prevent the growth of mold, mildew, or any unpleasant odors. Pro tip: mild detergent can help remove residues and keep your gear fresh.

Transporting Your Kayak Safely

Ensuring your gear is secure when transporting your whitewater kayak is of utmost importance. The most common method for transporting a kayak is via roof racks installed on the top of your vehicle. High-quality roof racks, paired with suitable accessories, provide a stable hold on your kayak, minimizing the risk of accidents and potential damage during transport (source).

Here are some critical steps for safely transporting your whitewater kayak:

  1. Place your kayak on the roof rack with the cockpit facing down to reduce wind resistance.
  2. Ensure that the kayak is centered on the roof rack and that the bow and stern are aligned with the vehicle.
  3. Secure the kayak using cam straps, looping them around the roof rack and through its grab loops.
  4. Tighten the straps, ensuring they are snug but not overly tight, as this may damage the kayak.

For added security, it is recommended also to use bow and stern tie-downs to prevent the kayak from shifting during transportation. Additionally, if you plan on renting a whitewater kayak, many rental facilities will offer transportation services or recommend safe transportation methods.

Properly storing and transporting your whitewater kayak and gear can significantly extend your lifespan, and you can enjoy many thrilling adventures on the water.


Techniques for Advanced Boaters

Mastering Eddy Turns and Peel-Outs

Eddy turns, and peel-outs are essential techniques for advanced whitewater kayakers. An eddy turn is a maneuver used to enter an eddy from the primary current, providing a place to rest or make adjustments to your course. To execute an eddy turn, approach the eddy at an angle, lean your kayak towards the eddy, and use a solid forward sweep stroke followed by a stern draw stroke. As you enter the eddy, count downstream to keep your boat stable.

peel-out is the opposite of an eddy turn, a technique used to exit an eddy and enter the primary current. Before attempting a peel-out, assess the rapid formed by the eddy line. Start at the upstream edge of the eddy, point your kayak towards the current, and apply a powerful sweep stroke on the downstream side of the boat. As you cross the eddy line, lean slightly downstream to maintain control of your kayak.

Technique Description
Eddy Turn Enter an eddy from the primary current to rest or adjust your course
Peel-Out Exit an eddy and enter the primary current to continue downriver

Creeking and Big Water Challenges

Creeking and high-volume river challenges distinguish advanced whitewater kayaking techniquesCreeking refers to navigating steep, low-volume rivers with numerous drops, ledges, and technical manoeuvers. To successfully creek, boaters must master skills such as booking (lifting the kayak’s nose over obstacles) and quickly identifying safe lines through the rapids. In creating scenarios, it’s crucial to understand the dangers of undercuts, sieves, and hidden obstacles formed by low water levels.

On the other hand, high-volume rivers present different challenges, including powerful hydraulics, whirlpools, and large waves. In these conditions, advanced paddlers must focus on maintaining momentum to avoid being pushed off course or destabilized by the force of the water. As mentioned earlier, mastering eddy turns, and peel-outs can be particularly helpful in maneuvering through big water.

Type of Water Challenges
Creaking Steep drops, technical manoeuvers, hidden obstacles
High Volume River Powerful hydraulics, whirlpools, large waves

By honing these advanced techniques, experienced whitewater kayakers can be better equipped for a more comprehensive range of river conditions and enjoy safe, thrilling adventures on the water.


Whitewater Kayaking Culture

Whitewater kayaking is a thrilling adventure sport with a rich culture and a strong sense of community and camaraderie. This culture is manifested through various competitions, events, clubs, and online forums.

Competitions and Events

Whitewater kayaking has evolved into several competitive disciplines, including slalom, downriver, and freestyle. Attending these events provides excitement and an opportunity to learn from fellow enthusiasts. Here are a few notable competitions in the sport:

  • World Slalom Championships: An annual event where paddlers navigate through a series of gates on a challenging, fast-moving river course.
  • Freestyle World Championships: Kayakers showcase their skills in performing acrobatic tricks while surfing on standing waves or in water holes, with scores based on technique, variety, and style.
  • The Green Race: A popular event held yearly in North Carolina, where kayakers race through Class V rapids on the Green River.
  • King of The Alps: A European competition in Italy, combining downriver and freestyle disciplines.

Community and Clubs

Whitewater kayaking enthusiasts form a tightly-knit global community. This community thrives in both online forums and local clubs. Participation in clubs and online groups significantly fosters camaraderie, provides valuable advice, and sets the stage for life-long friendships.

Clubs worldwide offer instruction, coaching, and organized trips for members of all skill levels. Most clubs prioritize safety and provide a supportive environment to beginners and experts. Here are a few ways to connect with the whitewater kayaking community:

  1. Visit local kayaking clubs: Most cities and towns have kayaking clubs, making it an ideal place to start your journey and meet like-minded individuals.
  2. Participate in online forumsWhitewater kayaking forums and social media groups allow paddlers from all over the globe to share their experiences and advice.
  3. Attend festivals and events: Events like the Gauley Fest in West Virginia or the Whitewater Symposium offer an opportunity to network with fellow kayakers and learn from expert instructors.
  4. Join whitewater kayaking organizations: National organizations, such as the American Canoe Association and the British Canoeing, offer resources, courses, and events to promote the sport and foster community among paddlers.


Frequently Asked Questions

What are the basic skills needed to begin whitewater kayaking?

Learning the basic skills of whitewater kayaking ensures a safe and enjoyable experience. Some critical skills include rolling your kayak, reading the rapids, and maintaining proper body posture while paddling. It is crucial to master techniques like rolling your whitewater kayak to recover from a flip and avoid a long swim.

Where can I find whitewater kayaking lessons for starters?

Whitewater kayaking lessons are at local kayak clubs, paddling schools, and outdoor centers. Look for experienced instructors and reputable organizations offering beginner courses in your area. Websites such as can be a great starting point for finding kayaking lessons nearby.

What equipment is essential for safe whitewater kayaking?

Essential equipment for safe whitewater kayaking includes a correctly fitting helmet, a personal flotation device (PFD), a whitewater kayak, a paddle, and a spray skirt. Other helpful items involve a paddle float, a throw bag, and a whistle for emergencies. Having the right gear to ensure your safety and comfort during a whitewater adventure is essential.

How does one prepare physically and mentally for whitewater kayaking?

To prepare physically for whitewater kayaking, focus on improving aerobic fitness, upper body strength, and flexibility. Swimming, weight training, and yoga can be beneficial exercises. Before heading out, educate yourself on whitewater kayaking techniques, safety measures, and any anticipated challenges. Developing a proper understanding and realistic expectations can significantly enhance your experience.

What are the safety measures to consider when whitewater kayaking?

Essential safety measures for whitewater kayaking include choosing the right river difficulty based on your skill level, understanding river hazards, and executing rescue techniques if needed. Use the International Scale of River Difficulty to gauge river difficulty levels. Always kayak with a partner or group, check weather and water conditions before starting, and avoid kayaking while intoxicated or under extreme fatigue.

How long does it typically take to become proficient in whitewater kayaking?

Proficiency in whitewater kayaking varies based on individual commitment, frequency of practice, and personal aptitude. On average, it may take a few months to a year to become proficient, with continuous improvement. Remember, training and experience are critical to building expertise and confidence in whitewater kayaking.



Whitewater kayaking is an exciting and rewarding sport, allowing individuals to experience the great outdoors while mastering challenging and thrilling activities. To have a successful and enjoyable experience, keep all elements in mind.

Proper t some essential elementsraining is crucial, as it helps develop the necessary skills such as edging, paddling, and low bracing. These techniques will enable new kayakers to confidently navigate rapids, face obstacles, and maintain safety on the water.

Selecting the right gear is also essential for beginners who want a comfortable, safe, and enjoyable time. This includes the kayak, helmet, a life jacket, and a paddle. Savvy beginners can save money by purchasing used gear or looking for deals to ensure they have the necessary equipment without breaking the bank.

Finally, practicing whitewater kayaking skills, such as reading rapids and making split-second decisions, is essential. Developing these abilities will ensure a more confident and safe experience on the water. Additionally, practicing skills like the low brace helps kayakers prevent rolling, thus reducing the risk of injury.

In summary, the key to a successful whitewater kayaking experience is proper preparation through training, selecting the right gear, and consistently practicing essential skills. With the right mindset and commitment to learning, beginners can embark on this thrilling adventure with confidence and enjoyment.

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