Written by 6:25 pm Sports

Whitewater Rafting

Imagine drifting down the river through a gorge, the steep canyon walls looming above you. A lone bald eagle circles the pristine blue sky. Then the slightly rippled surface of the water becomes increasingly turbulent as the river plunges 100 feet downward over the next mile, churning and crashing over a series of huge boulders. A wall of water slapping your face, you summon all of your strength and paddling skills to successfully maneuver the obstacles. Finally, after what seems like hours but is really only minutes you are once again peacefully floating downstream.

If you can envision yourself in this scene if just reading about it makes you feel a tingle of excitement then whitewater paddling may be the sport for you.

For many, the lure of whitewater has everything to do with adventure. The thrill of competing against the river, sizing up options for navigating the obstacles and ultimately winning is what counts. Others return again and again for the glorious experience in the remote wilderness. Here, animal and plant life abounds, affording an opportunity to observe things that might have never otherwise been seen.

And while few people have the time or ability to paddle the river the number of hours per week needed for sufficient exercise, this sport is a wonderful option as part of a total fitness program. Both paddling itself and the hike often required to access put-in areas provide ample opportunity for upper body strengthening and a good cardiovascular workout.

A Matter of Preference

There are several whitewater-paddling options. Each has its own value, and your choice is largely a matter of preference. Some of the alternatives are:

Kayak- The whitewater kayak is generally made of rigid fiberglass or plastic, although there are inflatable models. It is designed for 1-2 persons and affords great maneuverability in river rapids. Set lower to the river and usually less buoyant than a raft, it is also somewhat less stable. Count on tipping over in this boat! You need to be in at least average physical condition and willing to spend considerable time practicing kayaking skills on flat water before venturing into whitewater areas.

A kayak has limited cargo space so it is not the ideal option for multi-day adventures.

Raft- A whitewater raft is an inflatable boat made of fabric, plastic, or rubber. It is generally navigated by 2-6 or more persons. Rafts are either oar-rigged, with one person manning the oars and the others along for the ride, or paddle-rigged, with all crew working as a team to propel the boat. These options make it possible for those of varying skills and physical abilities to enjoy a rafting adventure. All aboard must know how to swim.

A raft has plenty of room for larger groups and cargo, making it the ideal multi-day adventure option.

More buoyant and stable but less maneuverable than a kayak (especially for the oar-rigged model), the raft requires teamwork for successful navigation. If not self-bailing, one person is needed just to bail water from this boat!

Cataract- The cataraft is a boat with two inflatable pontoons connected by a frame. It has the capacity to seat 1-2 persons. With the buoyancy of a raft and the maneuverability of a kayak, it needs no bailing. Cargo space is limited.

Sold on Rafting

If you think rafting is the way to go, you’ll need to learn more before venturing out. Check your local library or bookstore for books and videos. You may also find classes or workshops on whitewater rafting through the recreation department of a college or through an outdoor sports shop or outfitter.

One of the best ways to learn about this sport is by taking a short (half or full day) guided rafting trip. Plenty of options may be found through your favorite Internet search engine. You might also ask at an outdoor sports shop or check advertisements in a paddling periodical. When choosing a guided raft trip, look for:

A short trip on a Class I or II river- An internationally accepted Ïgrading systemÓ classifies whitewater from I-VI according to the difficulty one might experience while paddling. A Class I or II trip is ideal for beginners.

All equipment and supplies provided- Most introductory rafting trips provide almost everything youÌll need for the adventure, including raft, helmet, paddles or oars, and sometimes a wet suit. Some trips even provide food! Ask for a list of supplies you need to take along and what clothing or footwear is recommended.

Instruction- Look for a trip with experienced guides who offer adequate instruction prior to boarding the boat. Points that should be covered are water safety, basic river dynamics, and paddling skills.

If your trip leaves you longing for more, there are many paddling schools that provide advanced rafting instruction.

Buying Your Own Equipment

You may choose to purchase your own whitewater rafting equipment, but before doing so, consider whether you will be able to go rafting enough to justify the expense. Do you live near whitewater river areas or will you need to travel there? Another important consideration is a crew. Are there others who will be able to join you on your adventures? Remember that once youÌre on your own, you’ll no longer have a guide to help you out. You’ll need to make sure you have sufficient paddling skills to navigate safely.

Read about the pros and cons of equipment options prior to purchase. A good tip is to ask others whoÌve spent a great deal of time rafting. Basic equipment needs are:

Raft- Choose a raft designed for whitewater. Options available include models made of PVC, polyester fabric, and Hypahon (a rubber material) please note: Hypahon has a trademark symbol, unavailable on my computer. Check the weight/person capacity and whether it is a self-bailing model or not. Expect to spend from $1,000 and up.

Frame- If you choose to rig your raft with oars, you’ll need a frame with oarlocks to hold the oars. Rafts rigged for paddling may also have a frame used to secure cargo. Frames come with a variety of features and cost $300 and up.

Oars or Paddles- Oars and paddles come in a variety of lightweight materials or combinations of materials such as wood, fiberglass and carbon, as well as different designs for efficient paddling. Expect to pay $100 and up for a good paddle or oar. You should always carry an extra in case one is lost.

Personal Flotation Device (PFD)- Buy a life jacket designed specifically for whitewater rafting, as it provides greater flexibility and more buoyancy than those designed for other water sports. Your PFD should be Coast Guard approved for whitewater paddling. Some options have headrests to keep the head above water if youÌre accidentally knocked unconscious. A good life jacket costs $100 or more.

Helmet- A helmet is one of the most important pieces of equipment for water safety. A fall into the water could result in a head injury, and even the best swimmer may drown if knocked unconscious. Choose a whitewater helmet, which drains easily. Helmets may be found for $50 or more.

Clothing- What you wear while whitewater rafting depends upon the weather and river conditions. You may wear as little as a bathing suit or in cold temperatures or cold rivers, a full wetsuit. The wetsuit adds insulation to your body by trapping a thin layer of water between the suit and your body. Your body temperature warms this water layer up, providing extra warmth. Wetsuits come in a variety of materials, including neoprene. Choose one designed for boaters rather than divers because the latter is less flexible. YouÌll pay about $100 for a good wetsuit.

Other clothing options for cooler temperatures include paddling jackets and pants. A good synthetic material sweater is sufficient, too.

Footwear-Your feet need protection from rocky river bottoms. While a pair of tennis shoes is adequate, you may choose to invest in a pair of neoprene booties.

Other supplies- Other essential supplies are straps to tie gear down, plenty of rope to use as grab handles around the raft, a floatable throw rope for rescue, a medical kit, and a whistle (to summon help). You may also want dry bags to keep supplies in, a lighter, and of course, a bail bucket!

On Your Own

When planning your first rafting adventure, you must check whether you need a non-commercial river permit to launch your raft on a specific date. Many river regulating agencies, such as the Bureau of Land Management or National Park Services require permits during the busy rafting season (April through October).

Prepare for your trip with practice. Practice basic fast river swimming techniques and rigging and loading your raft. Review river dynamics and safety and rescue information. Then look for local clubs or state/national groups where you can learn more about whitewater rafting and where you can find others who share your interest.

Over time, you’ll undoubtedly find whitewater rafting to be more than a challenging sport, good exercise, and healthy fun. Your whitewater adventures are also an opportunity to learn more about ecology and conservation, natural and geological history. You may even become involved in work to protect and conserve river recreation for future generations.


  • Class I: Small riffles or waves, easy to maneuver, no major obstacles or hazards
  • Class II: Some obstacles, may require maneuvering. Wide and clear passage with low waves and some moderate rapids. Medium difficulty, good for beginners
  • Class III: Difficult, with numerous large waves, small falls, eddies and rocks. Passages are clear but narrow, requiring intermediate skills in maneuvering
  • Class IV: Very Difficult, for advanced rafters. Powerful waves, extended and difficult rapids, dangerous rocks and eddies. Requires excellent skills in maneuvering
  • Class V: Extremely difficult and even hazardous, with extended stretches of rocky and violent whitewater and large falls. Only the most advanced rafters should attempt
  • Class VI: Considered foolish to attempt, involves life-threatening risks


The following tips will help to assure a safe and happy trip:

  • Check with the regulatory agency that issued your permit regarding current weather and river conditions. High/low water conditions can change whitewater classifications
  • Let someone know when you are leaving, where you are going, and when you expect to return
  • Dress correctly for weather/water conditions. Expect to get wet!
  • Alcohol and rafting don’t mix. Alcohol affects judgment, easily leading to accidents
  • Bring nutritious snacks even if only taking a short trip. Cold and hunger increase the chances of making poor decisions.
  • Remember appropriate safety supplies

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