The Beginner's Guide to Whitewater Rafting

whitewater raft on green river through the grand canyon

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Whitewater rafting is an exciting sport and, despite how it looks, you don't need to be incredibly brave or technically skilled to enjoy it. Even beginners and older kids can enjoy a rafting adventure. Whether you want to add a half or full-day whitewater rafting excursion onto a trip or like the idea of spending several days (or even weeks!) on the river, there are all kinds of rafting destinations and trip types to suit your needs. From gentle floats along tropical rivers to epic expeditions through some of the world's greatest river canyons, here's everything you need to know about whitewater rafting.

River Grading System

The first thing you need to know when planning a whitewater rafting trip is about the grading system. The International Scale of River Difficulty is a standardized scale created by the American Whitewater Association used to rate the safety of a stretch of river or a single rapid. The grades can be summarized as follows:

  • Grade I, Easy: Fast-moving water with some small waves. The risk to swimmers is low.
  • Grade II, Novice: Straightforward rapids with clear channels; rocks and medium-sized waves can be easily avoided. Swimmers rarely need much assistance.
  • Grade III, Intermediate: Rapids with moderate and/or irregular waves requiring some complex maneuvers; scouting is advisable. Swimmers can usually self-rescue or are helped with some assistance.
  • Grade IV, Advanced: Intense and powerful but predictable rapids; precise and expert boat handling is required. Swimmers usually require group rescue, and the risk of injury is moderate-high.
  • Grade V, Expert: Long, obstructed, and/or violent rapids with drops, requiring high fitness. Swimmers risk injury, and rescue is difficult.
  • Grade VI, Extreme and Exploratory Rapids: Runs at this level are rarely attempted.

Well-trained whitewater rafting guides can guide even relative novices through challenging and high-grade rapids, but in general, beginners and older children will be safest and most comfortable on Grade II and III rapids. Those with more experience or advanced river skills and an appetite for adventure can tackle Grade IV and V rapids. Most trips—whether half a day or 10-plus days—will usually include a combination of grades, and tour operators will let you know the highest grade you'll encounter on the trip and whether that's suitable for you and your party.

Key Terms to Know

Your whitewater rafting guide will brief you before you hit the river and will run through the key terms and instructions they'll likely use. You don't need to know all the technical river terms to follow your guide's instructions, but here are some of the most important that you will hear:

  • Put in: The starting point of a rafting trip.
  • Take out: The ending point of a rafting trip.
  • River left/river right: Sometimes, your guide will be facing you, with their back to the front of the boat and the direction your raft is traveling. If they want to point out any features to the left or right, they'll use "river left" or "river right" relative to the direction in which you're traveling, so you don't get confused about whether they mean their left or your left!
  • Swimmer: Anyone who falls out of the raft is called a swimmer, whether they intended to swim or not. Your guide might shout "swimmer!" to get that person's attention when attempting a rescue, as they're unlikely to know every passenger's name.
  • Flip: When the raft capsizes, it has "flipped."
  • Safety kayak(er): The safety kayak, or kayaks, accompanies the raft to help swimmers. The number of safety kayakers on your trip will depend on the number of raft passengers and the safety credentials of the company (avoid traveling with tour operators that scrimp on safety kayakers).

What to Wear and Bring

Tour companies will provide you with the essential gear, including paddles, life jackets, and helmets. If you're rafting in a cold climate or cold water, you'll be provided a wetsuit, too. Some companies may provide a dry top, a water-resistant top that won't keep you as warm as a wetsuit but will reduce the effects of cold splashes and wind.

Your clothing is up to you, but you'll be expected to wear suitable shoes, which could be either closed waterproof shoes or sandals that strap firmly to your foot. Dress for the climate and conditions. Most people prefer to wear synthetic t-shirts and shorts of tight yoga-style pants for rafting. Cotton clothing isn't a great idea because it is cold when wet and retains water for a long time. If you're rafting in a tropical climate, this is less of an issue than in cold water or weather. If you're on a multi-day trip that requires camping, pack appropriately for overnight conditions in a tent.

Avoid taking valuables on a rafting trip, including cameras, unless you have a dry bag (and even then, keep these items to a minimum). Some guides will have a dry bag you can put small personal items in, but not all. Wearing sports shorts with sealable pockets for storing small items like keys is a good idea. If you want to take a camera, make sure it's waterproof or in a waterproof case and can be secured onto your lifejacket with a carabiner. However, rafting companies will normally take photos for you with a company camera and either provide the photos for free or at a cost after the trip.

Safety Tips

The most important safety tip is always to follow your guide's instructions. They are trained to keep you safe during what can be quite a risky activity to the untrained. It can be easy, especially when traveling with a group of friends, to get carried away with laughing and forget to follow the guide's instructions—but don't!

It should also go without saying that you shouldn't go rafting unless you can swim. Some operators in some locations (particularly developing countries where many of the local population can't swim) allow people to go on trips if they can't swim. This is a terrible idea and puts you at much greater risk if you fall off the raft. Guides are trained to swiftly pull swimmers aboard if they fall out, but your chance of panicking and behaving dangerously if you fall in the water and can't swim is much greater. You don't need to be an extremely strong swimmer to enjoy whitewater rafting, but basic water skills are necessary for your own safety.

Similarly, if you're a parent, only take your kids if they're comfortable in the water. Lower age limits will vary depending on the location and the company but are normally at least 8-years-old and sometimes 10 or 12. Lower-grade rivers and rapids will normally be more suitable for younger ages.

How to Plan a Rafting Trip

As well as the adrenaline rush associated with whitewater rafting, this sport is a great way to see landscapes that aren't accessible any other way. Floating down a river through the jungle with the sound of birdsong all around; gazing up at the walls of the deepest canyons in the world; jumping off the raft for a swim in warm waters; pulling up to camp on a riverside beach at the end of the day... these are some of the highlights of a whitewater rafting trip.

Climate and season play an important part in planning a whitewater rafting trip. In some places, it's only possible to raft during high or low water periods, before or after seasonal rains. In others, it's too cold for some of the year, while elsewhere, you can raft year-round, even in winter (with the right gear!) No two destinations are the same, and you might sometimes be surprised by what's possible: find out more about the conditions in your chosen destination before deciding whether to add a whitewater rafting trip to your itinerary. Just like you wouldn't plan to lounge on a beach and swim in the sea regardless of the season, the same applies to whitewater rafting. Know the local conditions.

Wherever you go, it's important always to choose a company with a good reputation that hires fully trained guides. While guides and companies are held to very high standards in some places (such as the U.S. and New Zealand), there are fewer legal requirements regarding safety and training in some countries. Always check a company's credentials before signing up.

Best Places to Go Rafting

Some of the most popular whitewater rafting destinations in the world are:

Some incredible long-distance river trips need to be planned well in advance, such as along the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon, because of their popularity and restrictions on the number of people allowed. In some lower-income countries (such as India and Nepal), you will find trips to be surprisingly affordable, so if you like the idea of a multi-day river trip but are on a limited budget, check out the Indus and Zanskar Rivers in India or the Sun Kosi and Karnali Rivers in Nepal.