Whitewater Rafting 101: What You Need to Know

Whitewater rafting is a lot of fun but can be dangerous. Of course, we only work with reputable outfitters and highly experienced guides, but if you are new to whitewater rafting, it’s important that you have an understanding about the rating system (International Scale of River Difficulty), where whitewater (usually rated as an individual rapid, but can be the entire river) is classed in 6 categories from class I (the easiest and safest) to class VI (the most difficult and most dangerous). The grade reflects both the technical difficulty and the danger associated with a rapid, with grade I referring to flat or slow moving water with few hazards, and grade VI referring to the hardest rapids which are very dangerous even for expert paddlers, and are rarely run.

  • Class 1: Very small rough areas, requires no maneuvering. (Skill Level: None)
  • Class 2: Some rough water, maybe some rocks, small drops, might require maneuvering. (Skill Level: Basic Paddling Skill)
  • Class 3: Medium waves, maybe a 3–5 ft drop, but not much considerable danger. May require significant maneuvering. (Skill Level: Experienced paddling skills)
  • Class 4: Whitewater, large waves, long rapids, rocks, maybe a considerable drop, sharp maneuvers may be needed. (Skill Level: Advanced Whitewater Experience)
  • Class 5: Whitewater, large waves, continuous rapids, large rocks and hazards, maybe a large drop, precise maneuvering. Often characterized by “must make” moves, i.e. failure to execute a specific maneuver at a specific point may result in serious injury or death. Class 5 is sometimes expanded to Class 5+ that describes the most extreme, runnable rapids (Skill Level: Expert)
  • Class 6: While there is some debate over the term “Class 6”, in practice it refers to rapids that are not passable and any attempt to do so would result in serious injury, near drowning or death. If a rapid is run that was once thought to be impassible, it is typically reclassified as Class 5.x rating.

Most guided trips fall in the Class II-IV range. If you love an adrenaline rush, the bigger the number the better, but if you are more on the conservative side, you can have just as much fun on a more mellow river with a few big wave trains.

Managing Your Fears

Whitewater rafting can be scary whether it’s your first time or you have hundreds of river miles under your belt. If you get on the river and it’s a little more action than you were mentally prepared for, keep in mind that your guides are trained and seasoned professionals who know how to read the river they are guiding. Pay attention to the safety briefing and know what to do should you or someone fall out of the boat, and have confidence in their skills and feel comfortable telling them if you are scared.

What to Bring

Warm Conditions: 

  • Quick dry shorts/ Swimsuit and a synthetic shirt that offers sun protection, like a light rash guard or long sleeve shirt (Avoid all cotton fabrics)
  • Sturdy footwear – sandals with straps (no flip-flips) or sneakers that you don’t mind getting wet
  • Sunglasses with a strap to keep them from falling off
  • Hat with brim that you can wear under a helmet to protect face from sun

Cool/Cold/Rainy Conditions – everything required for warm conditions +: 

  • Outer layer of windproof and waterproof jacket
  • Outer layer of windproof and waterproof pants
  • Thin, snug, warm hat
  • Synthetic or wool socks
  • Synthetic long sleeve shirt(s) and layers
  • Synthetic long underwear layer for legs

Note: Many rafting companies will provide or have available for rent a wetsuit or splash jacket, if needed. You might also consider bringing your own if you have one and the weather is cool, cold or rainy.

What to Wear/Bring for after the trip: 

  • Set of dry clothes, shoes, and socks
  • Towel
  • Bag for wet clothes

What to take in the raft: 

  • Sunscreen and lip balm
  • Water bottle (preferably with a carabiner to attach to the raft)
  • Dry bag
  • Snacks

Note: You may opt to bring a waterproof camera, but keep in mind that you won’t be able to use it when going through the rapids unless it is attached to your body or the raft and does not require the use of your hands since you’ll need them for paddling.

Oh, and one last piece of advice… be prepared to get hooked! This is one sport that will keep you coming back for more!

Adventure People Preferred Rafting Outfitters

United States

Whitewater Voyages – California
All-Outdoors – California
Outdoors Unlimited – Grand Canyon
O.A.R.S. – Grand Canyon and the West as well as International Destinations
Brown’s Canyon Rafting – Arkansas River in Buena Vista, CO and Clear Creek in Idaho Springs, CO
A Wanderlust Adventure – Colorado Rafting near Fort Collins and Denver on the La Poudre River
Holiday River Expeditions – Colorado, Utah, Idaho
Copper Oar – Alaska
Denali Outdoor Center – Alaska
Rogue Wilderness – Rogue River in Western Oregon
Northwest Rafting Co – Oregon
Wildman Whitewater Ranch – Wisconsin and Michigan
USA Raft – North Carolina and Tennessee
Zoar Outdoor – East coast
New England Outdoor Center – Maine
Landers River Trips – New York
New & Gauley River Adventures – Gauley River, West Virginia

3 Responses

  1. Thanks for explaining that being careful about rocks is very important to keep in mind when it comes to whitewater rafting. I’m interested in looking for something fun to do outdoor the next time I can find time to take a vacation. Traversing a river sounds fantastic considering that I haven’t been to one in years.

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