If you’re looking to try something new and exciting, to go on a real adventure with friends and family, there’s nothing better than whitewater rafting. Getting your adrenaline pumping and your body working, rafting through rapids is the perfect way to get outside and challenge yourself.
Because of the intensity of the river and the many hours of training needed to get down safely, it would be foolish to face your first rapid blindly. That’s why I’ve compiled this beginner’s guide to whitewater rafting.
Here’s everything you need to know before you head for the put-in.
Book a Tour with a Whitewater Outfitter
If you’ve never been river rafting or you’re a little rusty, it’s crucial that you float with an experienced, professional guide. The easiest way to do this is to book a tour with a whitewater outfitter.
Anywhere you find exciting rapids, an outfitter will be available. Do some research on the outfitters in your area and choose the one that’s best for your group. Each tour offers different amenities for its customers, such as free rides to the put-in (start of the float), free access to wetsuits and a free meal after your ride.
Some outfitters even work with different companies to offer you packaged deals. For instance, when rafting with American Adventure Expeditions in Buena Vista, Colorado, we purchased the horseback riding package, allowing us to ride through the mountains after our morning float.
Whichever outfitter you choose, be sure it offers everything your party needs and will safely guide you down the river.
Know What to Pack
When preparing for a multi-hour trip on the river, it’s best to overpack. If you’re worried you might forget something important, take a look at this list of anything you could possibly need on the raft.
- Swimsuit and Quick-drying Clothes: You will undeniably get splashed on the river, so wear clothes that aren’t made of cotton and dry quickly in the sun.
- Water Shoes: Keep your feet from sitting in stagnant water and protect your feet from sharp rocks near the river with shoes meant for swimming and water activities.
- Safety Equipment: A helmet, life vest and splash jacket are essential attire for any rafter. Luckily, these are usually provided by your outfitter.
- Sunscreen: You will likely be sitting directly in the sun’s rays on the raft. Protect your skin with some SPF.
- Water Bottle: Rafting can be very active. Stay hydrated by bringing a water bottle. But be sure it fits snugly somewhere in the raft to avoid losing it during a bumpy rapid.
- Sunglasses: Avoid the sun’s glare during an intense section of the river with a good pair of polarized sunglasses.
- GoPro: If you want to capture the excitement of the river, leave the camera at home. Instead, bring a waterproof GoPro and ask your outfitter for a helmet with a built-in mount.
- Plastic Bags: Other items you may need to bring along with you (such as phones or emergency medication) can be safely stored in plastic bags to keep them dry. Typically, your guide will carry a dry bag for you to put items in, but you can bring these disposable bags just in case.
Choose your River Wisely
For active groups, it may be okay to start with a more challenging river. But for parties of young children or nervous paddlers, it’s probably best to take on an easier float.
Do some research on where you plan to float and determine which area of the river best fits your group. If you’re not sure, make a call to a local outfitter and ask for their opinion. Since they probably don’t want to float with inexperienced riders on difficult routes, they will likely be honest with you.
Listen to your Guide
This is key for getting down the river safely. Your guide is most likely certified with lots and lots of training under their belt. They know the ins and outs of whitewater rafting and instructing others on exactly how and when to paddle.
Your guide will probably give you an introduction to your paddle first. Depending on which side of the raft you are sitting on, your hand closest to the inside of the raft will firmly grasp the base of the paddle (the shaft) at all times.
Your other hand will hold closer to the paddle’s edge, over what’s called the T-grip. By constantly keeping your hands in these positions, you will prevent unexpected rapids from flinging your paddle out of control, potentially injuring yourself or others. And you will always be prepared for your guide’s next command.
You will then be instructed on how to paddle. The proper technique for paddling includes using your whole body, not just your arms. Throw yourself forward as you dip your paddle deep into the water. Then pull your entire body back to get the strongest stroke.
If you are paddling backwards, the process is very similar. Just start with your paddle behind you and move your body forward to bring it back to the front.
And finally, the most important thing is to understand your guides commands. As you float through the rapids, they will instruct you on how to paddle. Some guides will tell you how many strokes and in which direction. Others will give you a direction to paddle and expect you to continue until they tell you to stop.
To avoid confusion, listen carefully when your guide explains their commands. Don’t panic in the middle of a rapid because you’ve forgotten what “all forward” means. Be prepared when you hit the water.
One of the best parts about whitewater rafting is that all your friends are there to help you out. But if you are out of sync, you’re paddling will be less efficient.
As you get used to your paddles and your guides commands, take a look at your raft mates. Try to paddle synchronously with them, finding a rhythm together.
And when the rapids get tough and you see others struggling, don’t be afraid to encourage them. A simple “keep going!” or “you can do this!” can go a long way. And helping someone who is feeling overwhelmed can get your raft through a tough rapid.
To learn more about how whitewater rafting made me feel more connected with my family, read my post Listen to Your Guide: White Water Rafting through Browns Canyon.
I’m not going to lie. Rafting can be scary. There are tight, technical turns where, if you’re not careful, you could easily run your raft into a large rock.
But remember, you have an experienced guide on your raft who you can always trust. Even when the water is splashing you in the face and you want to shield yourself from a boulder in your path, keep following your guide’s commands.
Throw your paddle into the water even when you don’t want to. Paddle harder even when your arms and back are in pain. You will eventually get through the rapid, and you’ll feel immense pride for fighting through it.
Prepare for the Worst
Even with every precaution taken, there is still a possibility for the unexpected. Most outfitters will require you to watch a safety video before arriving at the site and then another in-person safety meeting before arriving at the put-in.
Although each outfitter has different safety regulations, here are a few tips that can be useful to anyone.
First, if you fall into the water, don’t panic and stay horizontal. Even if it’s shallow, if you step on the river bottom, your foot could get stuck between rocks and the current could push you under. So be sure to always tread water on your stomach or back.
While doing this, look around for your guide and listen for their instructions. Depending on how far you are from the raft, they will tell you to either swim towards them or towards the shore. Some rafts even have a rope to cast out and pull you in.
If one of your raft mates has fallen out of the raft and you’re close enough to reach them, grab them by the straps of their life vest and pull them in on top of you, falling backwards into the raft.
In the unlikely event that your raft tips and you are beneath it, put your hands up to touch the raft and move in one direction. This will eventually lead you out from under it.
Other instructions are specific to each outfitter. Be sure to pay close attention to all safety information that is presented to you. The chances are little to none that you will need to know any of it, but it’s much better to be prepared for the worst than to panic when things go wrong.
River rafting for the first time is an experience you will never forget. Twisting through the rapids with your loved ones is such a thrilling and rewarding experience.
If you know the basics of whitewater rafting, you can go into your first float with no fear, confident that you can get down the river safely and efficiently. And have the adventure of a lifetime.