Rafting is loads of fun. Whether you’re rafting a river or a rapid, it’s a great way to get out into nature to enjoy the thousands of American waterways. Rafting is a popular pastime, and there are tour operators based in locations across the country.
Check through the listings in your preferred destination, and you’re sure to find a raft tour operator offering services to tourists. A tour operator gives you everything you need for your rafting experience. You get your safety gear, including your PFD and helmet, the boat, a tour guide, accommodations, and food, all included in your package.
So, what can you expect from a rafting experience? Let’s unpack everything you need to know about how to raft.
- Do I Need to Be Fit to Go White Water Rafting?
- The Whitewater Rapid Grading System
- What Equipment Do You Need For Whitewater Rafting?
- Paddling Technique and Tips for Whitewater Rafting
- Top Rafting Tips for Beginners
- Key Rafting Terminology – Know the Lingo
- Wrapping Up – What Do You Need to Take on a Rafting Trip?
Do I Need to Be Fit to Go White Water Rafting?
If you’re going rafting, you need a certain level of physical fitness. If you weigh 300-lbs and you never get off the couch, then it’s probably not the right choice for you. However, if you have a decent level of fitness and enjoy physical activities, you won’t have a problem with the demand for rafting.
Whitewater rafting requires a higher level of physical conditioning. Once again, you don’t need to be a professional athlete. However, some situations in Class III rapids can get somewhat hairy, requiring you to know how to swim and control yourself in the water.
If you’re planning on a trip in a Class IV rapid, you’re going to need to be fit and experienced. The reality is rafting is an intense and physically demanding experience. The fitter you are, the more fun you will have out on the water.
The Whitewater Rapid Grading System
If you’re taking on a whitewater rafting trip, you need to know how rivers and rapids work. The International Scale of River Difficulty is a standard defining the different types of rapids and the characteristics of each class. It ranges from an I to VI rating, with I being the softest rapid and VI being life-threatening conditions.
Class I – Beginner Level
A fast-moving river with little to no obstructions.
Class II – Novice
Easy rapids with clear channels and easily avoidable obstacles.
Class III – Intermediate
Rapids with irregular waves that might be challenging to avoid. Strong currents and expert maneuvering are required to navigate certain sections.
Class IV – Advanced
Predictable but intense conditions that require quick decision-making skills under pressure. Narrow shoots, holes, waves, and dangerous obstacles.
Class V – Expert
Demanding rapids with violent water conditions, obstacles, and serious consequences to the rafter. There is a high risk of injury and even loss of life.
Class VI – Extreme Athletes
Challenging conditions with waterfalls, large drops, and violent waters. Avoid unless you’re an extreme athlete.
Note: The Grand Canyon uses a different grading system on a 1 to 10 scale. The Class V in the international standard is roughly equivalent to the 10 grading in the Grand Canyon system.
What Equipment Do You Need For Whitewater Rafting?
If you’re going with a tour operator, you have everything you need to be supplied by the company. However, check with them before you leave. Some operators require you to bring your “soft gear” like your PFD and helmet with you.
Buying a raft and all the gear is an expensive purchase, and unless you intend to do it every weekend, you’re better going with a guided tour to save money. Other than the soft gear, the rest of your equipment centers around your clothing.
Wear fast-drying clothing that wicks moisture away from your skin. We recommend avoiding wearing cotton t-shorts as they get wet and cold, even when it’s warm out. Look for rash guards or Gore-Tex t-shorts that are lightweight and fast-drying.
If you’re rafting in cold water conditions, you’re going to need a wetsuit to keep you warm. A 3/2mm surfing-style wetsuit is all you need to keep you warm. You’ll also need a pair of rafting or reef shoes. These shoes have a neoprene upper and soft rubber sole, offering you plenty of traction in slippery conditions while drying fast.
Paddling Technique and Tips for Whitewater Rafting
When rafting, most of the paddling work involved with the trip is to direct the raft as you’re moving down the river. The current does most of the work of propelling the boat forward, especially in stronger rapids and faster-moving rivers.
The rafting paddle is similar to the canoe paddle. It has a shorter shaft than a kayak paddle, with one end featuring a “T.” You grip the top of the paddle with the hand opposite to the side of the boat where you’re dipping the blade in the water.
Place the other handle around 2-feet lower on the paddle and dip the blade into the water so that it’s fully submerged. Push the blade down, back, and through. The other people on the raft will need to complete this motion in unison to ensure accurate boat tracking.
You slow and turn the raft using the backpaddling technique. With this approach, you’re reaching behind you in the reverse movement of the forward paddle. It’s important to note that you get the power of the stroke from your back and core, not your arms.
Here are two common paddling techniques you can use for different purposes when rafting.
The Sweep Stroke
This stroke gives you the ability to turn the raft sharply. It’s a useful stroke when the water gets rough, and you need better control over the raft.
Perform the sweep by holding the paddle horizontal to the water with the blade penetrating the water. Use your core to get the best power out of the stroke, and you’ll find the boat starts to turn in the desired direction.
The Draw Stroke
This stroke also helps you with maneuvering the raft. The paddling motion involves vertically anchoring your paddle with the blade facing your blade parallel to the raft. After the paddle is standing upright, leverage the anchor point to pull the boat in the direction of your paddle.
Top Rafting Tips for Beginners
So, how do you start whitewater rafting? Check out these tips to get the best rafting experience possible for your first adventure.
Choose the Right Rafting Tour Company
There are thousands of raft tour operators across the US. Chose any destination you want, from Maine to the Grand Canyon, and research providers online. When you find a provider, check their Facebook page to see what people say about the company.
Get in contact with the tour operator and ask them how long they have been in business under the current ownership and management. Ask about the qualifications and training for the tour guides and what you can expect from the experience of joining one of their tours.
Ensure that your rafting outfitter has membership with rafting authorities like the Colorado River Outfitters Association (CROA), America Outdoors (AO), and All-Outdoors Whitewater Rafting. The best operators bring you a tip with full amenities, including the following.
- Trained guides qualified in CPR and emergency first aid.
- Complete briefing and trip orientation.
- All gear is included with your tour costs.
- Radio communication onboard all rafts.
- Shuttle services.
Know what to Do When You Fall Overboard
Whitewater rafting is thrilling. The one rule in the sport is “stay in the boat.” It might sound simple, but it’s more challenging than you think. Eventually, everyone falls overboard. You need to understand how to behave when you end up in the water, or you could end up sustaining an injury or placing yourself in a bad situation.
When you end up in the water, you’ll need to know how to swim. When swimming in the river, you have to contend with the current. So, you can use the “Down River Swimmers Position,” where you lie on your back with your feet pointing downriver.
Keep your knees slightly bent and use them as shock absorbers to absorb the impact of any rocks you encounter going downriver. Keep your arms out to the side to provide you with drag and assist you with steering yourself through the current.
Keep your legs together and your butt high up in the water to avoid striking submerged objects. Guides call hitting a submerged rock with your butt “romancing the stone,” and you’re sure to feel it for a good few days afterward.
When dealing with a rescue situation, you’ll use a different swimming technique. Surprise, it’s the standard swimming posture. Point downriver to where you want to go, and swim, keeping your head out of the water to watch for oncoming obstacles.
When you get closer to shore, wait until you are in knee-deep water before placing your feet on the river bed. Even waist-deep water might have a strong enough current to sweep you away.Listen to the Guide and Communicate
Listen to the guide’s instructions when you’re out on the river. They have experience in the scenario, and they know what to do in all river sections. Failing to listen to them puts the entire team in the raft at risk.
So, make sure you pay attention to instructions. It’s important for good communication between everyone on the boat. Everyone should be looking out for the person next to them to ensure everyone stays in the raft, and you know when someone goes overboard.
Your tour guide will explain the “high-siding” command to you during the briefing before you leave for the trip.
The high-siding command involves a last-ditch effort to prevent the raft from capsizing. If you strike a submerged object in the water, the boat’s natural tendency is to want to turn broadside to the direction of the current, resulting in a capsizing event.
When the guide calls out the high-side command, you will all move to the downstream tube on the raft. The force of the weight change should be enough to get the boat to move away from the obstacle and continue downriver.
When things go wrong on the water, most people’s first instinct is to panic. However, you need to keep your head cool and your wits about you. Panicking won’t help the situation, and it draws other crew resources to keep you calm.
As mentioned, the golden rule of rafting is to stay in the boat. The guide will usually call out “bump” before you strike a rock or object, allowing you to brace for the impact. Lean into the raft while placing the T of the paddle on the floor.
After the collision, return to your seat as soon as possible and get ready to paddle. If you fall overboard, remember not to panic and use the swimming techniques to get back to the boat or the shore.
On many occasions, you’ll find you’ll pop up right next to the boat after being thrown overboard. Reach out and grab the lines on the side if you can. If you’re further away, swim to the raft, and your team members will help you back aboard.
If the boat gets away from you, and you’re approaching rough water or a rapid, swim for the shore. Your tour guide will give you detailed briefings on what to do if you have to swim for the beach.
Key Rafting Terminology – Know the Lingo
Rafting is like any other sport; there’s a certain lingo that you need to know before you go. Your rafting guide will give you a breakdown of all the terminology you need to know before you hit the water for your journey.
However, we thought we would give you a head start. Here’s some of the basic rafting terminology you need to know on the water.
The starting point of your rafting journey.
The destination of your rafting journey.
River-left or River-right
The guide may occasionally sit facing the stern of the raft. When they want to shout commands, they use “river “left” or right, depending on which side of the river they want you to move on. This call helps to prevent confusion between left and right and the direction of the command.
Any person that falls overboard is a swimmer. When someone falls overboard, you shout, “we have a swimmer in the water.” This strategy is important because you might forget the name of a person you just met when you’re dealing with a stressful situation. Everyone on the raft must look out for each other.
This expression means that the raft capsized.
Wrapping Up – What Do You Need to Take on a Rafting Trip?
As mentioned, the rafting operator will provide you with everything you need for the trip. However, some of them might require you to bring soft gear like your helmet and PFD with you. It’s a good idea to call ahead a few weeks in advance and ask them for an essential gear list.
Most providers have a list of essential items like bug repellant, sunscreen, a hat, clothing, and other things to bring on your trip. When you’re packing for your trip, your clothing choices depend on your water conditions. If you’re in very cold water, you might need to bring a wetsuit along. The wetsuit traps a thin layer of water between your skin and the neoprene material that heats your body.
In most cases, you’re going to be rafting in summer. So, make sure you bring along fast-drying clothing. The reality is that you’re going to get wet. Having wet clothing throughout the trip will dampen your spirits.
Chose fast-drying clothing and shoes. We recommend avoiding wearing anything cotton. Cotton will get wet and make you feel cold. Avoid wearing flip flops as they tend to slip out from under your feet., and you’ll also end up losing them in the water.
Avoid wearing old sneakers as they’ll take on water, and the river will suck them off your feet. Leave your valuables and jewelry at home. The last thing you want is to drop your wedding ring in the river. If you’re bringing your cellphone, make sure you have a waterproof housing or casing to prevent damage to your electronics.
If you want our advice on the best piece of equipment you can take with you on your trip – it’s an action camera. You don’t need to spend hundreds of dollars on the latest GoPro either. Plenty of action cameras has the same functionality as a GoPro, available with a price tag of less than $100.
Secure one of the mounts you get with your kit to your helmet and record every minute of your rafting trip. Capture every minute of the action and enjoy it with your friends back home.
Finally, the last thing you need is a baseball hat to keep the sun out of your eyes and some sunscreen to stop the UV from burning your skin. You also have the option of wearing a long-sleeve rash guard. Rash guards will protect you from the sun, and they have less drag than t-shirts if you end up in the water.