Careening down narrow creeks and hucking over 20-foot waterfalls is life-changing for an average joe, but for professional kayaker Jake Greenbaum, it’s another day on the water. “I grew up on the Youghiogheny River, which has some of the best white water you could want for starting out,” Greenbaum tells us from the road on his way to a race in South Carolina. “I grew up on the water, and it became my passion.” Although not everyone has the advantage of an aquatic upbringing, the sport of kayaking is surprisingly accessible. Here are some pro tips to keep your head above water.

1. Steer Clear
Pick the proper paddle. “I always paddle with a creeking blade because it has the most surface area and I like the power,” says Greenbaum. “A river-runner blade is a great place to start because it has a good mix of power and maneuverability.”

2. Gear Up
You’ll also need a helmet, life vest and spray skirt. “The spray skirt is a neoprene bib that fits over the opening in your kayak and keeps the water out. A good fit is crucial.” The other accessories will help keep you safe, particularly a helmet to protect you from rocks. “You also need a kayaking–specific life jacket. One made for water-skiing isn’t going to work.”

3. Ship Shape
The length and shape of a kayak are crucial when determining fit. “A creek boat is a great starter boat. They’re about eight and a half feet long, which makes them more stable than shorter playboats,” says Greenbaum. “Make sure you’re in the correct weight range too.” The heavier you are, the more air you need inside the boat to stay afloat.

4. Let It Roll
It’s not a matter of if you’re going to flip over but when. Practice righting your boat before hitting the rapids. “Find a pool clinic in your area at a local college or shop,” Greenbaum recommends. “Flipping over for the first time in white water can make or break a person. It’s good to be ready.”

5. Have Class
Rapids are categorized from tame Class 1 runs to the frothy mayhem of Class 5 and even Class 5+. Also check for water levels and flow speeds.