Tips on Preparing for Your Whitewater Rafting Trip


Spring is here and summer is well on its way, which can only mean one thing in the river rat’s world – rafting season is upon us! The warm spring sunshine is melting the winter’s snow, filling the rivers to capacity and, in some cases, moving boulders and obstacles in the river to create giant waves and holes and in essence a brand-new river to run

. Colorado is one of the foremost locations for spectacular rafting adventures with several rivers to choose from and everything from gnarly rapids to relaxing float trips. If you are planning a rafting trip this season for you and your friends or family, this is your ultimate guide to ensuring that your experience is safe, fun, and memorable for everyone in your party.

1. First, identify what level of rafting your party would enjoy and is capable of handling. Rivers are labeled according to six classifications indicating the level of difficulty of the rapids and navigation. Classes I-V are commercially raftable. Classes’ I-II are usually navigable by athletic amateurs with some paddling experience. These classes indicate that the rapids have only small waves and clear routes and that no technically difficult maneuvers are required. Class III rapids have large waves, usually have clear routes but might contain some obstacles within them, and necessitate some difficult maneuvers and skills. This is also the highest level of rapid that a first-year river guide is supposed to run, though many outfitters fail to adhere to this rule. Classes IV and V have large waves and holes, unclear lines with many obstacles, and require difficult maneuvers to navigate.

If you have young children or older adults, be aware of their limitations and recognize that some stretches of river might frighten them. Also, Class IV-V stretches, as well as many outfitters, have age requirements and may also require paddling experience and physical fitness.

2. Next, check the water levels of the rivers you are considering and the weather conditions during the time of your trip. The volume of water flowing in a river is measured by cubic feet per second, a figure that not only indicates how much water is in the river but also how fast it is flowing. The larger the number, the bigger the waves and holes will be. Many rivers begin the season at around 3,000 cfs, making for an excellent whitewater trip but will drop significantly in later summer months to as low as 100-200 cfs, which creates a more technical but much slower trip. However, depending on the width of the river, even lower volumes of water can produce quite breath-taking whitewater. (The narrower the river, the bigger the whitewater during low-water seasons). Ask outfitters what they expect their river levels to be at the time of your travel and what they project the weather to be doing. In many regions, the weather is quite predictable, with clear, cool mornings and regular afternoon rain showers. Inquire about their cancellation policy due to weather.

3. Decide whether you will go with a commercial guide or will paddle yourself. Please, please make the wise decision. If water levels are high or fast, strainers (downed trees and other obstacles that block lines) are prevalent, or your experience is limited, choose a commercial outfitter. Commercial trips range from around $30/adult to about $75/adult for a half-day trip, and day trips and overnight trips are offered by many companies. Raft rentals are usually more expensive but can be divided between party members. However, ask the local whitewater rafting companies what stretches can be navigated safely by amateurs. If you do decide to go with a commercial rafting company, many companies also offer adventure packages that include another activity such as rock climbing, hiking, or mountain biking. Furthermore, some companies are Christian-owned and -operated and are great for youth group, camp, or church trips.

4. Choose between a paddle-guided trip or an oar-frame boat. If you decide to book your trip with a commercial guide, you will usually be offered the choice between two types of trips, depending on the stretch of river that will be run. In an oar-frame, the guide sits in the chair in the middle of the boat and rows the boat by herself or himself. This way, the guide has complete control over the boat, and the passengers can sit back and enjoy the ride. This is ideal for those with small children or who want to relax on their trip. In a paddle-guide, all (or most) rafters will paddle the boat, and the guide will sit at the back of the raft with a longer paddle, called a guide stick, and call instructions to the other boaters. Because of the speed and power with which the paddlers are able to propel and maneuver the boat, paddle-guides are sometimes the only options on rivers with higher classifications. However, four strong paddlers are the usual minimum requirement for a paddle-guided boat. Some combinations of oar-frames and paddle-guides can be arranged if fewer people or younger children want to paddle.

5. Find out what amenities the price will include with various companies. Some companies offer locker rooms and showers, wetsuits or splash pants and jackets, and meals for the price of the trip. All commercial trip prices will include PFDs (personal flotation devices), shuttle to and from the river, First Aid kits, limited dry storage, and paddles for paddle-guided trips. For an additional fee, many outfitters offer wetsuits and booties (with some, this is complementary), photo services, and gift shops. Also, check whether or not your large party is eligible for a group discount.

6. Identify what you need to or want to bring on your rafting trip. For overnight trips, the companies usually provide tents and sleeping bags, but you will want to pack toiletries and extra clothes. Some outfitters allow coolers on the boats but will limit or prohibit alcohol consumption – make sure to ask if this is a consideration. Ask if you should purchase your own dry bag if your party has a great deal of extra gear they want to bring along. If you intend to bring a camera, buy a waterproof disposable one or a waterproof case to put yours in. Pelican brand cases are specifically designed to hold electronics, are shatterproof, and even float. If you plan on bringing snacks, put them in a labeled zip-lock bag.

7. Book your trip well in advance. The summer is a busy season for river outfitters, and oftentimes they book up quickly. Make sure to give advance notice if you need to cancel and make changes in your reservation.

8. When selecting a company, take note of customer service, organization, and certifications. Remember, these are the people who will be managing your trip, to whom you will be entrusting your life, and with whom you will be spending a great deal of time. Are they courteous and cheerful over the phone? Do they respond promptly and in a business-like manner? Do they seem to enjoy what they are doing? Do they treat people of the opposite sex with respect? What licenses does the company hold, and what training and certifications are required from the staff? How many years have they been in business? Make sure that the guides instruct you in river safety should the boat high-side or you fall out.

9. Dress appropriately. Avoid cotton – it holds moisture close to the skin, keeping you cold and wet. Even in warm weather, hypothermia can set in. Synthetic and quick-drying materials are best. Swimsuits are usually good to wear under other clothing (and you might even get the opportunity to swim in slow, deep areas). River sandals or watershoes with good traction help with traction on rocky river bottoms. Wear sunscreen of SPF 30 or greater, sunglasses, and a hat (and remember to bring a means to fasten your glasses and hat to you). Keep in mind that sunlight reflects brightly on water and that you will most likely be at a high elevation and therefore closer to the sun. For warmth, bring along a polypropylene/fleece top or a rain jacket, and make sure to pack a change of clothes. Finally, do not bring along or wear valuables, as they make get lost, broken, or ruined.

10. Reward good service and report bad experiences. The staff and management will appreciate your feedback. Gratuities are welcome but not required.

When the river beckons your name, answer the call to adventure with preparedness and awareness of how to make your trip the experience of a lifetime!


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