If you’re looking to get your adrenaline pumping, there are few sports more qualified for the job than white water rafting. Sometimes referred to as river rafting, this adventure sport truly has something to offer for everyone. From beginners looking to tackle a Class I section of rapids to professionals attacking the most extreme Class VI rapids, no white water rafting experience will ever be the same.
That’s one of the things that make this sport so much fun. The unpredictability of white water rafting makes for some incredible experiences, no matter how many times you’ve been through that section before. Water levels of the river can change throughout the season, altering the course of main currents & the route you will end up taking.
Selecting the right river rafting trip can be daunting, but to help we’ve put together a white water rafting guide! We’ll cover everything from rapid classes, to selecting a guide, gear, and more. If you don’t consider yourself a beginner and are just looking for a specific topic you can use our quick jump guide to go directly to the section you’re looking for!
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A Beginners Guide to White Water Rafting
If you’re new to white water rafting, it can be hard to figure out where to start. We highly recommend picking a reputable guide in your area (we list options for popular areas below). These white water rafting guides not only have all the gear to make your river rafting trip possible, but they have the knowledge & expertise to make it safe as well. Speaking of gear, what should you expect to need to bring to your next white water rafting excursion?
What To Bring White Water Rafting
The last thing you want is to show up for your white water rafting adventure poorly equipped for the day. Your guide or outfitter is likely going to have most of the actual white water rafting gear, but you want to make sure you’re properly dressed for the day. Here’s what you should wear & bring white water rafting:
Warm Weather Apparel:
- Quick dry shorts or a bathing suit
- Synthetic shirt for warmth and sun protection
- Sturdy footwear that won’t fall off – sandals with straps (don’t wear flip-flops), sneakers, wetsuit boots
- Sunglasses with retainer strap – Don’t lose those expensive shades you’ve got!
- Avoid all cotton clothing. It doesn’t dry well & gets very cold when it’s wet.
Apparel For Cool/Cold/Rainy Conditions:
- Important! Avoid all cotton clothing. It doesn’t dry well & gets very cold when it’s wet.
- Outer layer of windproof and waterproof jacket
- Outer layer of windproof and waterproof pants
- Thin, snug, warm hat (that fits under a helmet)
- Synthetic or wool socks
- Wear synthetic long sleeve shirt(s) and layers
- Synthetic long underwear layer for legs
- Consider renting a wetsuit from the outfitter
For After The Trip:
- Set of dry clothes, shoes, and socks (bring gear to warm up in if it is cold)
- Bag for wet clothes
What To Bring Into The Raft With You:
- Sunscreen – Ideally a smaller bottle that would fit in a pocket
- Water bottles – Make sure you also have a carabiner or HeroClip to secure it to the raft
- Snacks, if not provided by outfitter
As you can see, you likely don’t need to bring much unless your guide says otherwise. The list above is a solid reference but always check with them beforehand to make sure you’ll have everything you need. Most white water rafting guides & outfitters are actually going to prefer that you use their gear simply so they know it is reliable and safe.
Different White Water Rafting Seasons – What to Expect
If you’re new to river rafting you may not have thought about this before, but different seasons actually bring different intensity levels. Many people new to white water rafting imagine a beautiful summer day on a raging river with intense rapids. While there certainly are sections out there like that, selecting the right time of year can play a huge roll in the intensity of the river.
White Water Rafting In Early Spring
Early spring is going to be the most intense season to go white water rafting. The melting snow & ice in the northern states make the water levels swell to levels not seen the rest of the year. The waves are going to be considerably larger during the spring, and the water moves much faster as well.
If you are looking for a high-intensity white water rafting experience, we highly recommend going in the spring!
River Rafting In The Summer Months
While the weather is certainly going to be considerably nicer, it is also going to mean for less intense white water rafting. Depending on what you’re looking for this could be a perfect time for you to go. Typically the currents are going to be a bit slower at this time unless you’re able to time your trip with a dam release. The increased water flow after dam releases can momentarily bring the white water rafting intensity back up to those springtime levels.
We highly recommend the summer months for family whitewater rafting trips. The water is nicer, and the more mellow rapids make for an enjoyable experience for kids. For obvious reasons kids often get scared if their first white water rafting experience is too intense, so this is a great opportunity to ease them into it.
Taking On White Water Rapids In The Fall
Depending on where you live, fall can be an excellent time to get out for an adrenaline pumping white water rafting trip. Increased rainfall after the typically dryer summer season makes the water levels swell a bit. This increases the speed & wave sizes in the river, allowing for some memorable white water rafting!
How Long Does A White Water Rafting Trip Take?
This is a huge “it depends”, but there is still a pretty good rule of thumb that most guides & outfitters fall into. You should plan on at least half your day being spent getting to the area, getting ready, safety checks, white water rafting, and finishing up. Many river rafting excursions take about 3-4 hours just going down the river, but you have to remember there is more to the day than simply showing up & going down the river.
For obvious reasons, time is spent beforehand going over safety procedures & what-if scenarios that you might run into. The guides & white water rafting outfitters job is first and foremost to keep you safe. Once they are confident that they can accomplish that, the river rafting trip will actually begin.
You should plan on about an hour before and after the white water rafting trip to get ready & get going. To add to that, there is more than likely going to be some transportation time added into the equation. It would be impossible for us to cite a “one time fits all” transportation time, but once you’ve selected a guide or outfitter they’ll be able to give you all the details you need. Hey, speaking of selecting a guide & outfitter…
Choosing A Whitewater Rafting Guide & Outfitter
As you’d expect, picking the right whitewater rafting guide & outfitter is critical to how much fun you are going to enjoy your adventure. More importantly than that, they are going to keep you safe throughout the day. Typically guides & outfitters have gone through extensive training on more scenarios than you could possibly imagine, and that is for good reason. They should be certified in CPR & resuscitation techniques, and make sound decisions throughout the day to make sure they never have to use them.
On top of the safety aspect, the best white water rafting guides are going to make sure that you have a blast throughout the day. They’ll have a great sense of humor when you’re on the water, making your gut hurt both from laughing and the exercise of paddling. Much like fishing guides, the skill set to be a good white water rafting outfitter doesn’t exist in everyone.
Our best advice here is to do your research on potential white water rafting guides so you know what you are getting into. Often times there will be reviews on various sites from people that have already gone with that particular guide. Some white water rafting outfitters will have testimonials on their websites which can also be very helpful.
To help with your search, we’ll be working through some of the most popular white water rafting locations. Whether you’re camping near the Grand Canyon & want to go white water rafting, or simply looking for an adventure near you, we’ll try to do our best to help!
How Does The White Water Rating Scale Work?
Obviously, once you start down the river you’re pretty well committed to going down the entire section. There typically aren’t many take-out points along any given section, so if you don’t have a gauge of what kind of rapids are in front of you that can really spell trouble. Luckily, there is a solution in place to be able to gauge how difficult sections of whitewater rapids are going to be.
In order to make sections somewhat predictable for white water rafters of various skill levels, a white water rating system was developed. The system ranges from Class I (one) for beginners to Class VI (six) for seasoned white water rafting professionals. When you’re booking a trip with a white water rafting outfitter this rating system really helps a lot.
Let’s take a look at each class within the Whitewater Rapids Rating System:
Class I Rapids – Easiest:
Class I rapids have slow to fast-moving water. Expect some small waves and ripples along the way. There won’t many obstructions, and your path ahead will be easily visible.
Class II Rapids – Easy:
The rapids of Class II sections are slightly larger than Class I. Expect channels to be wide, clear and easily navigable. You may need to maneuver around some rocks and other objects, but it won’t be very difficult.. If slightly more navigation is necessary or water is quicker, the rapid may be considered “Class II+”.
Class III – Medium:
Class III rapids have moderately sized, irregular waves. The current will be faster than Class II, and the passages will likely be narrower than easier classes. You should expect large waves, obstructions, and rocks that can be easily avoided with precise maneuvering. Currents are powerful and eddies will be powerful. Injuries are rare.
Class IV – Advanced ***:
Currents in Class IV rapids will be fast, rapids are long and difficult. Passages are constricted and may include unavoidable waves and holes. We strongly recommend scouting the rapid to know the best route.
Class V – Expert ***:
Class V rapids are going to be extremely long, complex and difficult. Waves are large and they will be unavoidable. You should expect drops, holes and steep chutes as they are quite common. Even more so than Class IV rapids, scouting is highly recommended with Class V sections.
Class VI – Extreme ***:
Class VI rapids are often going to exemplify the extremes of difficulty, unpredictability, and dangers of white water rafting. The consequences of errors can be very severe!
*** These trips are not for the faint of heart! Often times prior experience will be required in order to go white water rafting in these sections. Check with your outfitter before booking.