There are over 3,660,000 miles of rivers in the US. Many of these are perfect for tranquil river activities such as fishing and scenic boat trips. But there are plenty more fast-flowing rivers offering the ideal natural playground for a range of exhilarating river activities.
One of the most popular river sports by far is whitewater rafting. Combining adrenaline-pumping thrills, teamwork, and scenic views of the surrounding landscape, river rafting is wet, wild, and a whole lot of fun.
But if you’ve never been whitewater rafting before, you might be full of doubts about the rules and requirements involved. Keep reading to find out some of the most important questions to ask before your first whitewater rafting adventure.
How Fit Do I Need to Be to Go Rafting?
Whitewater rafting involves a lot of paddling so it’s wise to consider whether you’re up to the physical challenge.
You and your fellow rafters will be responsible for powering through rapids and steering the raft as it moves downstream. To be able to do this you must be in at least a reasonable state of health. You’ll also need to be able to move your arms and upper body without pain or restriction. Paddling can be tiring, although your guides will help you learn techniques that can help conserve your energy.
With all this in mind, if you have any doubts about your fitness, check with your doctor before you go river rafting.
Do I Need to Know How to Swim?
Knowing how to swim is a definite advantage for any whitewater rafting trip. While it’s unlikely that you’ll fall out of the raft, it does happen from time to time. In this eventuality, being able to swim makes everything a lot easier for you and your guide.
That said, swimming ability is not a requirement for most operators so you won’t be excluded if, like almost half of Americans, you can’t swim. Many non-swimmers go on river rafting trips and have an amazing time. By law, you must wear a life jacket or personal flotation device (PFD) to keep you safe in the water. This critical piece of equipment ensures that you will stay afloat if you fall into the river at any point.
If you can’t swim, make sure to inform your guide at the start of the trip. This way, they can show you a few swimming techniques in a shallow section of the river if you would like some guidance.
Will I Fall Out? What Happens if I Do?
As we explained above, you’re unlikely to fall out of the raft during a whitewater rafting trip. As the guides will tell you, there are plenty of people who’ve been on multiple trips who haven’t fallen in once. Then there are the odd few who fall out the raft on their first time.
Although it might seem hard to believe, many people who fall out actually end up enjoying the experience. Yes, it’s overwhelming and disorienting at first, but it can be exciting too.
While plan A is always to stay in the raft, your guide will give a detailed explanation of what to do if you do fall out. These instructions will depend on the river and the specific rafting trip, as well as whether you can swim or not. Once you’re close to the raft, your guide will then pull you up so you and your team can continue along the river.
Are There Different Difficulty Levels?
Yes, the rapids you encounter on a rafting trip are all referred to by different ‘classes’, ranging from class I (easy) to class IV (very difficult). If you’ve checked out any rafting trips, you might have seen that many trips state the classes of the rapids they include throughout as well as a general classification level.
For example, a trip may state that it includes 50 rapids, with most of these being class I and class II, with a couple of class III rapids. This kind of trip is ideal for beginners as you’d get a taste of a few more difficult rapids but most of the trip would be on the easier side.
In contrast, trips with the most difficult class IV rating are likely to include many difficult rapids or long stretches of rapids. These involve a lot of coordinated paddling as you and your team work together to plunge through fast-flowing water and navigate the twists and turns of the river. This kind of trip offers the perfect challenge for experienced rafters, but if you want to take on a class IV trip for your first time, there’s nothing stopping you!
How Long Does a Rafting Trip Last?
The answer to this question can be a little misleading as some rafting operators state the total trip time, some state the time on the water, and some state both. In total, you’ll need to set aside anything from two to six hours for a rafting trip. This will include training and instructions, changing clothes, and traveling to the starting point, as well as time in the river.
Something else to bear in mind is that river trip times vary a lot due to water conditions. This can mean that in April the same trip takes twice as long as in July, or that the time on the river can change from year to year.
To get the most out of your first rafting adventure, we’d recommend a trip that includes at least two hours on the river. Some affordable travel operators provide 45-minute trips. While these are still fun, many people find them too brief to get the full whitewater rafting experience.
What Happens on a Typical Rafting Trip?
Your trip begins at the check-in time provided by your operator when you made the reservation. First, you’ll fill in and sign release forms before collecting your life jacket and helmet. Here, you’ll also have the opportunity to pick up items such as neoprene booties and a neoprene suit.
Once everyone is geared up and ready, you’ll head out to a bus for transportation to the rafting start point. Depending on the size of the operator you may travel with other rafting teams alongside several guides and a trip leader or just with your guide and a driver. As you make your way to the starting point, you’ll hear a talk with vital information about staying safe on the water.
On arrival, your team and guide will then head down to the river. There, your guide will give you a paddle talk, show you how to paddle as a team, run through instructions, and answer any questions. Before you know it, you’ll be in the water, enjoying what is sure to be an exhilarating experience you’ll never forget.
Do I Have to Wear a Wetsuit?
Although you don’t have to wear a wetsuit to go whitewater rafting, we highly recommend that you do.
All operators have equipment such as neoprene gloves, a neoprene suit, and neoprene booties on hand. Some operators include this equipment in the price of your trip while others will rent it out to you for an extra charge. These items are always high-quality, well-maintained, and are cleaned after every rafting trip.
A wetsuit provides a warm, protective layer to ensure your rafting experience is as comfortable as possible. Neoprene booties are also perfect for keeping your feet secure and warm while neoprene gloves stop your hands from getting too cold in winter. But don’t think that wetsuits are only for the colder months. Even during the warm days of summer, rivers tend to remain very cold, especially if the water you’re rafting in flows down from nearby mountains.
Many skeptical first-timers have found a wetsuit to be more than necessary even when the temperatures soar to 90 degrees. This is especially true if you’re headed out on a high classification trip with plenty of rapids. During these trips, you can expect constant splashing with freezing water so it’s likely that you’ll be shivering in a swimsuit.
If you do decide to forgo wearing a neoprene suit, make sure to choose your clothing with care. You’ll need clothes that reflect water rather than absorb it. With this in mind, avoid cotton and denim and stick to a nylon jacket and pants as well as a fleece for extra warmth. In summer, swimsuits, shorts, and t-shirts are all fine but make sure to wear closed, well-fitting shoes.
What Should I Bring?
Make sure to arrive on the day with a spare set of clothes and shoes to change into after the rafting trip is over. You can leave these in the rafting center or on the bus, depending on the logistics of the trip. You may also want to bring a small energy-boosting snack for the bus trip to the river.
As for what you bring onto the raft, keeping things to a minimum avoids clutter and the worry of getting items wet or losing them in the rapids. Your guide will have a dry bag to keep items secure in the raft but other than emergency medication such as an epi-pen, sunscreen, and possibly an extra jacket, it’s not necessary to take anything with you onto the raft.
Are There Any Age Restrictions?
All whitewater rafting excursions have a minimum age limit. That said, restrictions tend to be specific to different rafting operators, rivers, or river rafting trips. While you might find some trips aren’t suitable for children under 12, other trips with lower classifications will have a much lower minimum age.
For example, Bearvalleyrafting.com offers whitewater rafting trips for children as young as four years old. These kinds of rafting trips are great for giving your little ones a taste for adventure as well as the chance to enjoy nature from a different perspective.
To avoid your kids getting turned away on the day, always check the details of the trip you’re interested in to see if your children will be able to join you out on the river.
As for upper age limits, the seniors out there will be pleased to hear that healthy people of all ages can go whitewater rafting. In fact, lively folks in their 70s and 80s enjoy all levels of river rafting.
Are There Weight Restrictions?
Some operators have a minimum weight requirement when admitting children onto their rafting trips. For example, a high-classification river rafting trip might only admit children over 12 or those who weigh at least 100 lbs.
As for maximum weight requirements, thanks to the buoyancy of a raft in the water, there is no weight limit for enjoying a day of whitewater rafting. But, you should bear in mind that you will have to fit into a life jacket. In most cases, these can accommodate people with a chest measurement of up to 54 inches, although you should check with your operator to make sure.
Will There Be Photos?
Most rafting operators have at least one photographer in position to take photos of your group as you pass through some of the more thrilling sections of the river. This way you’ll have some quality action shots to take home with you as a memory of your amazing experience. Guides also wear a GoPro on their helmets to capture more informal, close-up images of your group.
You’ll then be able to buy these photos and videos when you get back to the rafting center. Most operators also post photos on their website so you’ll still be able to view and buy them if you change your mind at a later date. These photos are often much better than anything you can capture from the raft, plus it saves you the hassle of fiddling around with your own camera.
Your Whitewater Rafting Questions Answered
If you’ve always dreamed about going whitewater rafting but have never taken the plunge, what are you waiting for?
As this guide shows, the great thing about this exciting adventure sport is that it’s suitable for everyone! And now, armed with all this information, you’ll be more prepared than most when you finally head out on your first river rafting experience.
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