Whitewater Rafting 101

The thrill of whitewater rafting attracts thousands of enthusiasts every year. If you haven’t tried it yet, you’re missing out on one of the best adventure trips. When done right whitewater rafting can be safe and fun for the whole family, from the beginner to the advanced paddlers. Here is a look at all you need to know before you head down the river.


According to Wikipedia (and based on the International Scale of River Difficulty), there are six types of rapids, classified according to navigational difficulty:

  • Class I – Easy. Small waves in fast-moving water. Few obstacles.
  • Class II – Novice. Full channels and rapids that are easy to navigate, without many turns or obstacles. Small waves are less than two feet high.
  • Class III – Intermediate. Strong currents require training and ability to manoeuvre quickly and effectively. From this class on, rafters need a guide. Not suitable for young children.
  • Class IV – Advanced. Powerful rapids for strong paddlers that can handle hard turns and spins. Drops and waves are common.
  • Class V – Expert. Violent, dangerous rapids, usually through obstructed channels, tight turns, and soaring falls. Requires professional equipment!
  • Class VI – Unrunnable. Likelihood of death in attempting class 6 runs.

Types of Crafts

Kayaks – Kayaks designed for whitewater are usually shorter than sea kayaks, and most are made of plastic (although fibreglass kayaks are favourite among racers). Kayaks are prevalent because paddlers can quickly roll them back upright when flipped (a manoeuvre known as the “Eskimo Roll”).

Rafts – The preferred type of craft for large groups, they are made of inflatable plastic and can handle almost any kind of current.

Catarafts — Similar to rafts but more comfortable to manoeuvre, they consist of two inflatable tubes held together by a frame.

Canoes — Made of fibreglass or plastic, they can handle an Eskimo roll the same way kayaks do. They are either decked (closed) or open, as a typical canoe.

When to Go

“Fall has always been one of the most amazing months for rafting,” says Evan Phillips, Director of Operations for Canadian Outback Adventures. “To add to the incredible scenery, bears, mountain goats, deer, and cougars are often seen along the way. After all, the wildlife shares the same harvest season as we do. Also, during lower flow times, the big hits and tight, technical manoeuvres make for an exhilarating ride!”

Summer rafting is calmer due to lower water volume. Some rivers provide daily dam releases from May through early October; others take advantage of melting snow (which increases water flow).

What to Bring

It varies according to the season and the company offering the trip –Some places have particular outfit rules, so it’s always better to ask in advance. Some basics you need include:

  • Wetsuit (in spring and fall); bathing suit or shorts (summer)
  • Wetsuit booties or strapped sandals (no flip-flops)
  • Pogies (special gloves to use when dealing with cold water)
  • Polypropylene t-shirt (avoid cotton, as it takes a long time to dry)
  • Wool socks and a windbreaker in spring and fall
  • Waterproof sunscreen
  • Bug spray
  • Sunglasses (with neck strap)
  • Disposable waterproof camera (do not bring any expensive equipment)
  • First aid kit (if you’re not going with a group)
  • Fresh Water
  • Depending on the location, the water may be cold even in May, so make sure you ask beforehand so you can decide what to wear.

Safety Tips

Head to the library or go online to learn as much as you can about the sport. Consider buying a video that shows the necessary skills and manoeuvres and learns them by heart. There are also whitewater rafting classes that teach you the basic techniques before you even get into moving water.

Make sure your swimming skills are first-rate. If not, plan on getting better before heading to the rapids.

Do not go alone. Either hire a guide, join a group, or take a buddy along. “Guided trips are best for groups and families who have never been on a trip and who are considering running rivers with rapids rated Class III or better,” says David Brown, Executive Director of America Outdoors, the nation’s leading association of outfitters and guides. “Even some Class II streams may be enjoyed more fully if you get guidance since all the equipment and instruction come with the trip price.”

Do upper body exercises (weight training is optimal) to ensure you have the strength to handle paddling in strong waters. If you’re not in reasonably good physical condition, you shouldn’t attempt rafting.

Do not raft in the dark. Allow plenty of time for the trip back, so you’ll be safely on the ground when darkness falls.

Check the local regulations. Some states do not allow rafters under the age of 12.

Do not drink alcohol before or during a trip. You will not only endanger yourself, but you’ll also be a risk to other rafters.

Choose a lifejacket you feel comfortable. Avoid oversized vests. “Always, always wear personal floatation devices (lifejackets) on whitewater rivers,” says Brown. “This is standard procedure for professionally guided trips and should also be practised by those paddling on their own.”

Best Rafting Rivers in the US

East Coast rivers are more technical, with lesser water volume but hazards such as boulders and undercut rocks. Best rivers in the East include:

  • Nantahala in Bryson City, North Carolina
  • Gauley River in Summersville, West Virginia
  • Ocoee River in Polk County, Tennessee (home of the 1996 Olympic Canoe/Kayak Whitewater Slalom Competition)
  • Chattooga River, outside of Clayton, Georgia (where they shot movie Deliverance)

West Coast rivers have a higher water volume and steeper descents. Best destinations include:

  • Cache La Poudre, Colorado (with rapids from class I to VI)
  • Gore Canyon, with excellent Class IV and V rapids
  • Clarks Fork of the Yellowstone (Montana)

What You Need to Know

Before you sign for a guided trip, make sure that you know what you’re getting into, including:

What is included? Will the company provide transportation to and from the river? What about food and water? Will you have to pay extra for wetsuits, lifejackets, helmets and paddles?

How much does it cost? Are there extra costs involved?

How long is the trip? Is this a full day adventure, an overnight expedition, or a short pleasure trip? All require different preparation and skills.

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