Whitewater rafting has been around for a long time. In fact, it could be argued that early North American explorers were some of the first to explore the whitewater of this country, albeit most of them were in wooden canoes.
But is whitewater rafting dangerous?
If you’ve never tried it before, it can be easy to feel uncertain about careening down a river with seemingly little control over your speed or path. However, this is rarely the case if you’re guided by a seasoned river guide.
Still, not all rivers are created equal and some are more dangerous for whitewater rafting than others. In this guide, we will cover some of the basics of whitewater rafting and provide a path for even beginners to experience this sport in a safe manner.
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So let’s begin!
Table of Contents
- 1 Is Whitewater Rafting Dangerous?
- 2 Whitewater Rafting Jargon Buster
- 3 What First-Time Whitewater Rafters Should Know
- 4 Rapid Classifications for Whitewater Rafting
- 5 Five Great Whitewater Rafting Destinations for Beginners
- 6 Final Thoughts
- 7 Enjoyed Is Whitewater Rafting Dangerous? Share it with your friends so they too can follow the Kayakhelp journey.
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The short answer is yes, it can be. The longer answer is that the level of danger you will experience when whitewater rafting will depend on river conditions, your experience level, and several other factors.
It is also worthwhile to know that the same river can be dangerous at certain parts of the year and perfectly safe at other times. That will largely depend on the flow rate, which we will discuss more later.
For beginners, the best way to whitewater raft safely is to go with a licensed guide company. A company that takes hundreds or thousands of people whitewater rafting every year has a duty to prepare properly and know whether or not river conditions will allow for safe passage.
If you don’t go with a guide company, there are some things that you need to know to whitewater raft safely. Fortunately for you, that is exactly what we are going to talk about in this guide!
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If this sport is new to you, there are some important terms that are quite different than those used for most forms of kayaking or canoeing. So let’s start by defining some of the terms you will see throughout the rest of this guide.
A whitewater raft is different than a kayak, canoe, and, certainly, a bass fishing boat. It is closer to the best inflatable kayaks out there, but is much larger and made to be paddled by multiple people.
There are various sizes, but the smallest still usually accommodate 4-6 paddlers. The largest sometimes hold more than 10 paddlers, but all are typically captained by a guide that sits centrally at the stern.
CFS stands for ‘cubic feet per second’ and it signifies how much water is moving down a river. Another term called flow rate is typically used to refer to a river’s status, but the measurement of flow rate is CFS.
A river’s flow rate (measured in CFS) will dictate whether or not it will be safe to navigate certain stretches. On some rivers, a lower flow rate makes the river more dangerous and some rivers become unsafe when more water is flowing rapidly through the channel.
Paddles used for whitewater rafting are different from kayak paddles or the paddles used for paddling an inflatable paddleboard. They are more akin to canoe paddles, but they are typically made of plastic instead of wood.
Some whitewater rafts are also guided by oars and these must be differentiated from paddles. Oars are longer than regular whitewater paddles, they still have a single blade, but they are usually attached to the raft by an oarlock.
If a raft is equipped with them, oars are typically only operated by an experienced river guide. While other paddlers provide some of the muscle, the guide uses the more effective oars to steer the raft.
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It is our experience that many feelings of danger can be abated by knowing more about what you’re getting into. So if you’ve never gone whitewater rafting, here’s what you need to know about this fun outdoor activity.
It is also a good idea to use some sort of waterproof helmet to protect your skull when whitewater rafting. Most guide companies will equip you with these items, but you should have (and wear) them if you’re going rafting on your own.
Another thing to think about is what will protect your feet if fall out into whitewater. A good pair of kayaking sandals or waterproof wet shoes are a good idea so that it is easier to regain your feet on a rocky river bottom if you need to do so.
The good news is that most guides will instruct you on this front before you even climb into your raft. Still, it helps if you are already prepared for how to position yourself in a raft and what to do to keep yourself secure once you’re seated.
Most whitewater rafters sit on one edge of the raft with both feet inside. Usually, nobody sits on the tubes that run width-wise unless it is a small child that is not actively going to be paddling along your journey.
When you’re seated as such, it helps to tuck your toes underneath one of those tubes that run across the width of the raft. This will help you hold your body on the raft if it tips or bucks when you’re going through a rapid.
If you are right-handed, you will be more comfortable paddling on the right side of the raft and the reverse is true for a left-handed rafter. Still, you may have a raft guide that encourages everyone to switch sides at some point, so it is eventually best to get comfortable paddling with both hands as the dominant one.
Like we said, expecting to fall out is a reasonable expectation for all whitewater rafters. On hot summer days, you might even want to fall out purposely just to cool off a little bit.
However, most rafters fall out when the raft is turned or bucked by a particular nasty rapid. Rapids tend to be caused by rocks or other submerged obstacles, so there is a safe way to position yourself if you find yourself swimming in fast-moving water.
For starters, you will want to position yourself so that your feet are pointed downstream. Take a second to compose yourself and be glad that you followed our earlier suggestion to wear your PFD and a helmet.
Keep your feet up so that they are less likely to get caught on submerged obstacles and use them to cushion your impact if you find any larger obstacles in your way. You can also use your hands to guide your position and keep your feet downstream.
The last thing you want to do if you fall out of your whitewater raft is to have your head pointed downstream.
Wait until you are out of the majority of the rapid section to turn and start swimming towards the closest and/or most easily-accessible shore. If your raft is nearby, you might also hail your fellow paddlers to haul you back up and inside.
Once again, we feel it necessary to mention that you should expect to get wet when you go whitewater rafting. In fact, it is kind of part of the fun and this is, after all, a watersport.
What that means for you from a logistical standpoint, however, is that you will need to pack some extra clothing layers in your car so that you can change for the drive home once you return from your river adventure.
You should also pack some extra water and snacks so that you can tide your thirst and hunger before you and your rafting crew decide s where you will head for drinks and a proper meal to regain the calories you’ve spent on the river.
If you’re heading out on a multi-day rafting trip, you’ll have to have your extra clothing and supplies packed in an appropriately-sized dry bag and secured on board so that you can clean up and change when you make camp in the evening.
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Another big factor that determines the adventure level of your whitewater rafting expedition is something called rapid classifications. This system is used to provide some standard level by which the size and difficulty of river rapids can be classified.
Please note: A rapid that might be considered Class IV on one river can be considered a higher or lower class rapid on a different river. Like flow rate, you need to understand the individual river you’re rafting to get a better sense of the skill and experience required for your adventure.
This is as close to a lazy river as you’ll get when whitewater rafting. Class I rapids are defined by minimal ripples, small waves, and very few obstructions, if any.
Class II rapids are a great place for beginners to start and they offer small waves with clear channels that seldom require scouting. Still, some maneuvering will be required, so it’s a great way to get used to handling a whitewater raft.
Class III rapids have high waves that crest and trough with irregular frequency. Passages can sometimes be narrow and maneuvers require skill and experience.
Class IV rapids usually require navigating long, and often narrow, passages of swift-moving water. They require tricky maneuvers and the right course to take can be hard to determine from the water, so scouting is often recommended.
Class V rapids should be scouted from the shore before running them if you have never done so. These rapids are categorized by long and violent rapids that are extremely difficult to navigate and often very congested.
These rapids also present very difficult rescue conditions and the most potential for bodily injury if a rafter falls overboard. Class V rapids are also the largest and most difficult rapids that can be run by a commercial whitewater raft.
Be aware that there may be a little variation in these definitions depending on your location and the guide company you’re going with. We have set them forth here so that you have an idea of the classification system used for whitewater rafting.
If you want to push your comfort zone and give whitewater rafting a try, there are plenty of places to go. Here are a few destinations that are great for your introductory whitewater rafting experience.
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Location: Yakima, Washington
River Classification: Class III+
September is the month for your whitewater adventure on the Tieton River. While other rivers in the area see levels drop, the Tieton steps its game up and provides a great river rollercoaster as it winds through the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest.
The warm water released from the dam provides excellent river conditions during this time of year and Wet Planet Whitewater offers guided river adventures on this stretch. From their basecamp, they’ll provide everything you need for a great first whitewater experience.
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Location: Oak Hill, West Virginia
River Classification: Class I to III
The Upper section of the New River Gorge is the perfect place for new rafters to get their feet wet. While lower sections of the river get quite big and require more skill, the upper section is suitable for ages six and up.
ACE Adventure Resort provides eight to 13-mile rafting trips through this section and the season runs from May through October. This is a full-day rafting adventure, but it will leave you with memories that will last a lifetime.
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Location: Bryson City, North Carolina
River Classification: Class II and III
The Nantahala is the perfect family-friendly river in one of the most expansive areas of whitewater in the entire US. You’ll enjoy a great mix of bouncy waves and stretches of calm water while you enjoy the river’s surrounding mountain scenery.
The Nantahala Outdoor Center offers guided adventures on the river for participants ages seven and up. The entire trip takes about three hours (two hours on the river and one hour of instruction) and you will be accompanied by an experienced river guide who will share his or her favorite rafting lingo along the way.
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Location: Portland, Oregon
River Classification: Class III to IV
The White Salmon River offers a great whitewater rafting experience for beginners that feel particularly adventurous. While the rapid classifications are a bit higher for this river, this eight-mile raft trip is suitable for ages 10 and up and runs through volcanic basalt canyons that slowly give way to majestic, forested valleys.
Wet Planet Whitewater guides trips on this section, which start from their private upstream put-in. Excitement is impossible to miss with all the fun sections of whitewater on this river, and there’s even an optional cliff jump opportunity at the base of BZ Falls before your rafts pass the river’s public access point.
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Location: Buena Vista, Colorado
River Classification: Class I to III
Not all of the Arkansas River is suitable for beginners, but certain stretches offer calmer waters that are great for first-timers. Browns Canyon offers family floating opportunities that are suitable for ages three and up and offer plenty of chances to learn about the canyon’s history and geology.
River Runners offers this four-mile, 1.5-hour float trip with all gear included and no added rental fees. The Milk Run, as it’s called, offers mild rapids and excellent views of the canyon walls on either side and ends at the Riverside Grill where you can extend your time on the river with a delicious meal and some lounge time on the beach.
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The final answer to this question is that whitewater rafting is only dangerous for the unprepared or ill-advised. With the proper skills, experience, and respect for running water, it can be one of the best outdoor activities to partake in.
We hope you have enjoyed this article and feel comfortable giving whitewater rafting a try if you have never done it before. If this is the case, find yourself a guided whitewater rafting adventure to get your feet wet!