Whitewater rafting is definitely one of the most exhilarating outdoor adventures and can make for some memorable stories you’ll tell for years.
There’s nothing like the rush of adrenaline you get from hitting hairy rapids on some big water.
Or, if you prefer, enjoying the relaxing journey of sneaking your way down a beautiful lazy river while enjoying the breathtaking scenery.
THE NUTS AND BOLTS OF A WHITEWATER RAFTING EXPERIENCE
Believe it or not, rafting first started by accident in 1811.
Apparently, someone within a group of explorers thought it be a swell idea to take a shortcut down Snake River, Wyoming in wooden boots without proper training or kits.
As it turns out:
Strangely, this expedition didn’t work out so well for those gentlemen (may they rest in peace), and the activity didn’t take off until around the 1840s.
That’s when Lt. John Fremont and Horace H.Day created the first rubber raft that could withstand the punishment of whitewater rivers.
The boats soon became popular with scientists who used them for “research trips” (yeah right).
Jump to the 1940s where there was a surplus of rubber rafts left over from WWII, and that’s where you’ll find the explosion of the commercial rafting industry.
Then in the 1970s, whitewater kayak slalom made its way into the Olympics, which made the sport even more popular.
In 1997, the International Rafting Federation was created to represent rafting across the globe.
Today, rafting remains one of the most popular outdoor sports on the planet, with thousands of people enjoying the thrill of the rapids.
HOW DO RAFTS WORK?
We all know that rafts work by floating on top of the water.
However, most people don’t realize how far rafting technology has grown since the old days of rubber rafts.
The rafts of today are usually made out of synthetic materials such as Urethane, which is more durable and slips over rocks.
Whitewater rafts also have a series of small inflatable chambers, so if one punctures, there’s still enough air in the others to keep it afloat.
The size of the rafts varies in size from single person models up to rafts that can hold 12 or more. However, the typical group size is between six and eight paddlers with the guide sitting in the back.
Most rafts will follow the same basic design consisting of an upturned tail and nose.
They also have a couple of thwarts. These are inflatable tubes that run across the bottom of the boat and are used by paddlers to sit on.
Paddlers also use thwarts to jam their feet under which helps them stay in the boat while paddlers at the front use foot loops affixed to the floor of the raft.
“On average, you’ll be burning around 300 calories an hour as you paddle.”
MEET THE GUIDE
Your guide will be the most experienced person on the raft and will manage one or two longer paddles that are used to steer the raft through the water.
The guide’s job is to navigate the raft safely down the river and let paddlers know when they need to paddle through the rapids.
Paddlers control the shorter single blade paddles and must work together, paddling at the right time to produce forward thrust in the direction needed.
Who can go rafting?
In most tour groups the majority of paddlers will have little to no experiences. They will mostly rely on the guide’s knowledge of the river.
So don’t freak out if you’re in a boat with a load of folks who seem to have no idea what they’re doing.
That said, there are specific categories of rapids that may require a group with more experience.
You are probably wondering:
What are the chances you’ll end up in the water?
The short answer is pretty good.
Also, while you don’t necessarily need to know how to swim, you will need to learn some defensive in-water techniques.
How hard is whitewater rafting?
The difficulty involved in rafting depends on how hard the river is to navigate.
The International Scale of River Difficulty grades rivers around the world.
The system was developed in the U.S. and it divides white water into six classes, with one being the easiest and six being the most dangerous.
Here are the classes:
- Class I: easy
- Class II: novice
- Class III: intermediate
- Class IV: advanced
- Class V: expert
- Class VI: extreme and exploratory rapids
This one is easy-peasy with fast-moving water, but with very few obstructions.
These waters feature pretty straightforward rapids with wide, clear channels.
There are a few obstacles that might require a little maneuvering, but easily avoidable.
These are rapids with some moderate and irregular waves which are harder to avoid.
Powerful currents are also present which may require expert maneuvers to navigate.
Now we’re getting serious folks.
These rivers are intense but mostly predictable rapids that require precise boat handling and quick maneuvers under pressure.
There is a moderate to high risk of injury to people who fall in the water. They will have dangerous obstacles, large waves, narrow shoots, and holes.
Only experienced paddlers should even think about paddling in this class.
These are extremely violent rapids with complicated and demanding routes.
Proper equipment, loads of experience, and practiced rescue skills are a must. There is a higher risk of injury to people in the water and rescue can be challenging.
“The rubber river raft was invented in the 1840s by U.S. soldiers.”
These are difficult, unpredictable, and dangerous rapids.
These are for teams with experts only. One error can have fatal consequences. Rescue may be impossible.
After teams complete a Class VI a certain number of times, its rating may be reduced.
The Grand Canyon uses a different rating system that runs from one to 10. The 10 grade is roughly equivalent to a Class V river on the international scale.
How long is a rafting trip?
The time it takes to complete a trip can vary. However, most outfitters and guides would advise that you plan to spend at least half a day on the trip.
You’ll spend a lot of time getting to the area, conducting safety checks, paddling on the river, and finishing up.
Many excursions can take between three and four hours on the water, but remember there’s more to it than just showing up and jumping in a boat.
For obvious reasons, your guide will spend a lot of time going over safety procedures and what-if scenarios.
The job of guides and outfitters is to first and foremost ensure your safety.
Once they’re confident that you’re capable of staying safe, that’s when the actual trip should begin.
You can also plan for at least an hour or more going to the launch site and the same amount of time returning from the trip.
Your outfitter would likely be able to give you an excellent general timeframe on how long your overall trip should take.
Rafting novices often don’t take the time to think about how different seasons can play a significant role in their trips.
As it turns out:
Different seasons can actually mean different intensity levels on many rivers.
Most imagine paddling on a beautiful summer day on a raging river with crazy rapids.
While there are lots of sections out there like that, selecting the right time of year makes a big difference in how the water behaves.
Here’s a breakdown of the three seasons for whitewater rafting.
Early spring is going to be the best season for high-intensity whitewater rafting.
Thanks to the melting ice and snow in the northern states, water levels swell to levels not seen during the rest of the year.
The waves are considerably larger during the spring, and the water moves fast. If you’re looking for the best time of year to get your adrenaline rush on, spring is your season.
However, be aware that the weather is going to be considerably colder than in the summer months.
Not to mention:
The water will be nice and chilly. If you really dislike cold water, you may want to sit this season out.
While the weather is going to be much warmer, that also means the rafts are going to be less intense.
However, this could be the just what you’re looking for if you’re a beginner who just wants to their feet wet.
Usually, the currents are going to be a bit slower unless you time your trip during a dam release.
Increased water flow after dam releases can create artificial intensity similar to what you would find in spring.
This is the best time of year for family rafting trips. The water is warmer, with more mellow rapids, making it a more enjoyable trip for the kiddos.
This is a great way to introduce them to the sport without having to put them in therapy over the next couple of years.
“John D. Rockefeller, Jr. built a resort with the nation’s first commercial rafting trips.”
Fall is probably the second-best time of the year for intense rapids.
Depending on the area, increased rainfall after a dry summer season makes the water levels swell a bit. That factor makes for faster rivers and bigger waves which make for some seriously fun rafting.
But keep in mind:
Fall is probably the coldest season to be on the water.
Image: Public Domain, by ShadowNS, via Wikipedia
CHOOSING THE RIGHT WHITEWATER RAFTING OUTFITTER AND GUIDE
Planning the right rafting experience can be an even more daunting challenge than facing down some Class IV rapids.
However, it’s important to do your research when searching for the right outfitter who can make your trip memorable.
An outfitter is a company that should arrange everything from your classes, your guide, gear, and more.
However, the most important job for an outfitter and guide is to keep you safe.
Properly certified outfitters and guides will have extensive training on more scenarios than you could imagine.
They should also be certified in CPR and resuscitation techniques.
Most importantly, the best guides need to make sound decisions throughout the day to ensure that they never have to use them.
However, beyond the safety aspect, the best guides are going to be a blast to paddle with during the hours you’re going to spend with them.
They should have a great sense of humor, so much so that you’ll hurt just as much from laughing as from paddling.
Personality is a crucial component because miserable paddlers are also less inclined to be engaged.
People who are not as engaged as they should tend not to follow directions as well.
One of the best ways to find a great guide is to read a few online reviews on various sites from people who’ve paddled with that person.
Some outfitters will have testimonials on their websites, which can be helpful as well. However, keep in mind that they won’t be in the business of sharing a lot of negative reviews.
Also, don’t forget about rafting social media and forum sites. You’ll find a lot of experienced folks who can offer great recommendations.
EQUIPMENT YOU’LL NEED FOR YOUR TRIP
While your outfitter should supply you with the gear you’ll need for your rafting adventure, you will still need to bring a few items.
The main factor concerning what you need to bring will depend mostly on the season.
You probably don’t want to bring swim trunks and sandals during a cold fall season session.
Here’s a list of things you should bring for warm weather.
- Quick dry shorts or a bathing suit
- Synthetic shirt for sun protection and warmth
- Durable footwear that won’t fall off such as wetsuit boots, sneakers, sandals with straps (no flip-flops)
- Sunglasses with a retainer strap
Leave the cotton clothing at home, it doesn’t dry well and gets very cold when wet
Apparel for cold, cool, and rainy conditions
- An outer layer of waterproof and windproof jacket
- An outer layer of waterproof and windproof pants
- Snug, warm, thin beanie (must fit under a helmet)
- Pair of synthetic or wool socks
- A pair of synthetic long underwear for legs
- Consider renting a wetsuit from the outfitter
- Sunglasses with a retainer strap
Gear for after the trip:
- A set of dry clothes, shoes, and socks (make sure your gear’s warm enough if it’s cold)
- Good drying towel
- Bag for wet clothes
- Cleansing bathing wipes (good for controlling body odor after your trip)
What to bring on the raft with you:
- Sunscreen: Pocket-sized if possible
- Water bottles: Also make sure you have a carabiner or something to clip it to the raft
Here’s a great video with tips on how to pack for a rafting day trip.
WHITEWATER RAFTING SAFETY
The most important thing you need to do when rafting is staying safe.
Even the tamest rivers have an element of danger that you must learn to respect before getting in your boat.
Here are a few safety tips from raft masters that will keep you safe.
“Pigeon River considered the fastest-growing white water rafting river”
Always use a professionally licensed rafting outfitter
When shopping for an outfitter, it’s best to ask a lot of questions.
Find out how long they’ve been in business under the current ownership. Ask them what kind of training their guides have under their belt.
Find out what government entity manages their outfitter’s training practices and permit.
These people will have your life and maybe the life of your family and friends in their hands.
An up-to-snuff outfitter should be able to quickly answer such questions and make you feel reassured in their staff’s competency.
If you feel anything less than 100 percent confident in the company, don’t use them.
Wearing a life jacket or personal floatation device (PFD) is mandatory
A life jacket or PFD is something you must have on you at all times while rafting.
Keep in mind:
It’s critical to make sure that your life jacket or PFD is worn correctly at all times. Check all buckles and clips throughout your trip, and make sure it’s snug to your body.
The rule of thumb for jackets is that it’s loose enough to breathe but tight enough that you can’t pull it over your head.
Always allow your professional guide to fit your jacket to ensure the perfect fit.
Wear protective gear
No matter what, you must always wear your helmet. The danger of falling out of your boat and hitting your head on a rock is very real.
And for guys:
This isn’t absolutely necessary, but you may consider wearing a protective cup.
There are this little term rafters often use called “romancing the stone.”
This happens whenever you’re floating down the river outside the boat and come into contact with a rock in a somewhat “sensitive” area.
Hold your paddle properly
How you hold your paddle can be a significant safety concern.
One hand should be at the base of the paddle on the shaft. Meanwhile, the other end should be over the T-grip at the very end of the paddle.
The T-grip is made of hard plastic and when bouncing around can blacken eyes and bust teeth quite easily.
Keeping your hand over the T-grip will control the paddle and cushion the blow a bit should it happen.
Your professional guide should show you the right technique.
Know and utilize the proper swimming techniques
While this isn’t necessary, it’s still preferable that you know how to swim.
However, you also need to learn two crucial positions.
First is the “Down River Swimmer’s Position.” In this position, your nose and toes are pointed to the sky.
Your head should be up so you can see where you’re going. Your feet are pointed downstream with your knees slightly bent. Arms should be out to your side to help you keep control.
In this position, you should be able to use your arms and legs as shock absorbers if you come into contact with rocks.
“Depending on your weight and the difficulty of the river, you could burn about 350 calories per hour of rafting.”
Remember “romancing the stone?” Well, this can happen if you take this position but fail to keep your legs closed.
Also, make sure to keep your butt up, because if you sit too low, you may end up with some interesting bruises.
The other position is best described as a swimmers position. In this position, you just do your best Michael Phelps impersonation and swim to the closest shore.
Also, if you swim to shore make sure you keep swimming until you reach shore.
Never stand up in moving current. Most guides will never walk in water over their shins. By walking in the current, you run the risk of “foot entrapment.”
That’s what happens when your size 10 foot finds a size nine hole or crack in the bottom of the river.
It’s not as fun as it sounds.
So don’t walk in the river.
Stay in the boat
While this may sound like common sense, it’s easy to find yourself in the boat one second and in the river the next.
When rafting, pay close attention to rocks coming from downstream. Your guide should issue the command “Bump” just before the boat comes into contact with a rock.
If you brace yourself properly, you’ll likely remain in the boat.
What to do if you fall out of the boat
If you find yourself in the water, the first thing you should do is not panic.
Do not panic.
First, find your boat. Next, grab it, so you don’t float away. If you miss the boat, start looking for other rescue options such as other boats or the riverbank.
Remember that you have two riverbanks on either side for your convenience, swim to the closest one.
Stay calm and don’t panic; your guide will go over what to do in great detail before your trip.
During your guide’s safety talk, before the trip, pay very close attention to the part about high-siding.
High-siding is a command that your guide may yell out in a last ditch effort to prevent the boat from capsizing.
Once again, remember:
Do not panic.
This scenario is somewhat unlikely, especially on lower-rated rivers. But, if it does happen, you’ll wish you had paid attention during the safety talk.
While this situation can stress out both the guides and guests, it’s really a very simple command to execute.
Typically, when boats hit a rock or encounter a hydraulic (a river condition that sends the raft airborne), they are knocked sideways.
But if your guide yells out “high-side!” that means everyone needs to throw their weight into the downstream part of the raft.
In other words:
You move to the front of the raft quickly.
This action can prevent the raft from getting flipped or caught up on an obstruction like a rock.
“In 1819 the Adams-Onis Treaty made the Arkansas River a part of the frontier between the United States and Spanish Mexico until the annexation of Texas during the Mexican-American War in 1846.”
Pay attention to everything the raft guide tells you
This one should be a no brainer, but some people don’t pay attention to the guide’s instructions.
This person is in the boat to keep you and everyone else safe. Do yourself a favor and take the commands and safety protocols they teach you seriously.
Do this, and you’ll have some serious fun!
GREAT WHITEWATER RAFTING TIPS
Here are a few additional tips to get the most out of your rafting adventure.
Talk to strangers
Rafting is not a good activity if you’re anti-social.
During your trip, it’s likely that you’ll be in a group of strangers.
Along with your guide, these fellow travelers are also going to have your life in their hands in many ways.
It pays to relax and befriend your group, it not only increases your safety, but it makes the trip more enjoyable.
Taking care of business
This is not the most appealing topic to talk about, but let’s keep it real, folks.
During your trip, you will need to use the bathroom. Most outfitters have the same policies regarding bodily waste.
To answer the question on your mind:
No, you will never do your business in the boat. They will make several pit stops during the trip for that purpose. Or if you have an emergency, they will find a place to stop.
So let’s start with how you’ll take care of number one, urinating.
The rule of thumb is that all liquids must go into the river. That means you shouldn’t urinate in the woods or by the river.
Think about it:
Can you imagine how these areas would smell if thousands of people every year did their business on the banks of the river?
What you’ll most likely do is find a spot either upstream or downstream, depending on where your guide tells you to go.
You may head up or downstream about 20 feet or so before relieving yourself.
For guys, this is a simple process.
However, it’s polite not to face the group while you’re otherwise “engaged.”
For ladies, if you’re wearing a quick-dry swimsuit, the process is much more comfortable. Otherwise, you’ll work out the logistics.
While at camp, you may have to use a pee bucket if it’s too dark, rocky, or steep to get to the water. You’ll still need to dump the bucket in the river after use either right after or at a later time.
Last but not least, here’s what you’ll do if you need to defecate (poop).
I’ll make this quick.
The first thing your river guide will do as soon as you guys get to camp is set up what they affectionally call different names.
At the Grand Canyon, they call theirs a “groover.” A groover is a portable toilet system that’s like a metal vault with a toilet on top. Your guide will likely set the groover in a discrete location.
The Groover will usually have all the toilet supplies you’ll need such as toilet paper, wipes, disinfectant spray, and hand sanitizer.
Many outfitters use a toilet key that’s usually kept at the handwash station, so others will know the groover is occupied.
If that’s the case, never go to the groover without that key, or someone else will take it and visit the groover while you’re on it.
It’s ideal that you take care of business as soon as you can before you leave on your trip.
But if you really need to “go” during the trip, then your guide will once again stop and give you the portable groover.
Of course, you’ll need to bring it back afterward.
The Arkansas River is known for its exceptional trout fishing. Brown and Rainbow Trout tend to dominate the river. “
For ladies experiencing a menstrual cycle during the trip, I recommend that you bring something like a “Go-With-Your-Flow” pack.
The flow pack is a sanitary, odor-containing disposal system used to store used items like applicators, tampoons, and pads.
It may also have interior pockets that hold fresh supplies and pH-balanced personal wipes.
Or, you could bring a couple of little Ziploc bags and a travel size pack of baby wipes. You’ll want to make sure you have these supplies with you at all times.
It’s worth noting:
Since you’ll be in the water a lot during the trip, experts don’t recommend using pads. However, there is a handy little device many female river guides recommend called a Diva Cup.
This is a reusable menstrual cup that collects menstrual flow instead of absorbing it. It’s a great option because it can be used for up to 12 hours of leak-free protection.
Using and cleaning the device can take some getting used to. You may want to take a water bottle and use it to rinse it out over the river.
Leave your jewelry, grillz, and cash somewhere safe.
Here’s some excellent advice from a professional river guide at Ponoco Whiteriver:
“The general rule of thumb for river trips is if it got lost or wet and it would ruin your day, don’t bring it.”
The last thing you want to deal with is sunburn, so bring sunscreen.
Start slow and easy
If you’re a complete beginner, start with a Class I or maybe a Class II river first and move up.
The first one may feel a bit tame, but you’ll gain valuable experience in protocols and techniques.
Build up your skills and experience before taking on some of the more dangerous rapids.
6 TOP U.S. WHITEWATER RAFTING SPOTS
Here are the six top Whitewater rivers in the U.S. in no particular order.
Colorado River, Arizona
The legendary Colorado River that runs through the majestic Grand Canyon is a premier destination for rafters.
This big water river is 226 miles of adventure featuring some of the most beautiful scenery on earth.
Sections of the Colorado river range from Class I to V.
The Arkansas River, Colorado
Arguably the most popular rafting destination in America, the Arkansas River is one crazy good time.
The river stretches 1,469 miles, stretching from the Sawatch Mountain Range near Leadville, Colorado to Arkansas.
The section in Browns Canyon National Monument features Class III and IV rapids.
Chattooga River, South Carolina, and Georgia
If you’re looking for some Blue Ridge excitement, then the Chattooga River has you covered.
The Chattooga River also has captivating scenery featuring lots of beautiful free-flowing streams.
Depending on the time of year, this river ranges in different sections from mellow-kid-friendly to Class IV “hold on to your lunch” rapids.
“There are nearly 20 rivers for rafting in Colorado”
Nahatlatch River, British Columbia, Canada
If you’re looking for a little northern excitement, you can’t go wrong with the Nahatlatch River.
Located in the breathtaking wilds of British Columbia, Canada, this river is ready to take you on a wild ride you’ll never forget.
However, this river may not be for beginners as sections of the river rate from Class IV and above.
Kennebec River and Dead River, Maine
Wanna know where all the action is in New England?
Look no further than the Kennebec River and Dead River in Maine for your whitewater adrenaline fix.
Set in the colorful backcountry of Maine, these two rivers offer rafters many choices.
You can enjoy the Class II to Class IV rapids of Dead River.
Or go all out on Class IV rated Kennebec River.
Rio Santa Maria, Mexico
Get your kicks south of the border on the Rio Santa Maria River in Mexico.
Explore the vibrant jungles of the Mexican Huasteca in the eastern state of San Luis Potosi.
Then get ready for some intermediate-level action on the Rio Santa Maria’s legendary Class III to IV rapids.
ARE YOU READY FOR THE RUSH?
Whitewater rafting is one of the most exciting sports you can participate in on the water. It’s a high-octane adventure that will challenge you both mentally and physically.
Best of all:
You can make some lifelong friends through sharing unforgettable experiences both on and off the water.
If you haven’t booked your next trip yet, don’t wait.
Many of the best whitewater spots are booked months in advance, so once you’ve found your adventure book it right away.
We hope you’ve enjoyed learning about whitewater rafting.
Remember always to stay safe and have a blast!
Have you tried whitewater rafting? Tell us about your experience in the comments!