Get Ready for Rafting Trips

By Paul Cleveland.

Then there's the natural beauty of places seen only by you and fellow rafters willing to run a gauntlet of wild rapids.

So do I have you hooked on the idea of taking a rafting trip? Great, then the next choices are which river to run and finding a good guide service. As a professional whitewater river guide who has run his share of the world's great rivers, I can give you an insider's perspective on these decisions.

The Right Trip for You

First, honestly assess your abilities and interests by answering the following questions: Is this your first time rafting or are you an old river rat looking for new rivers? Are you a thrill seeker or are you a bit timid when you try something new?

I've guided everyone from little kids to grandparents down all kinds of whitewater, which is the beauty of whitewater rafting: anybody can do it. Still, you'll want to work up to the big stuff. If you're a novice, then start with an easy river rated at Class 3. Add a few Class 4 rapids if you're adventurous by nature (see chart below). Hold off on the intense Class 5 until you've sampled some solid Class 4 rapids during big water.

Choosing a river and guide service

When you know what level of trip you're after, the next step is to the river that offers the kind of rafting you're looking for. Every region of the globe has raftable rivers. In the United States most states offer rafting. Departments of tourism offer information on rafting as well as a plethora of other recreational opportunities in their state. Access to the Internet is also a good place to get overwhelmed with all kinds of information on rivers and whitewater rafting.

Some suggested questions you might pose: How long has the company been in business? How long have the current owners managed it? How long has the current ownership been licensed to take passengers for hire? How many trips a year do they do on average?

Other questions might include: do they use self-bailing rafts? Do they offer vegetarian fare at the lunch? Is there any camping or lodging near the launch?

A good rafting company will include most everything you need in its price. What is everything? You should get wetsuits if they are needed, splash gear, a PFD (life jacket), and a helmet if required. That's just the basics. Some outfitters provide lunch, some don't. The lunch can be anything from cheap sandwiches, chips, and soda pop on the riverside to a full blown catered lunch. I prefer the latter myself. Ask ahead of time what kind of meal they serve. Of course, the fee should also include an experienced guide in your boat and shuttle service.

What to Expect

If this will be your first raft trip, then I'd suggest starting with a half- or full-day trip. A modicum of general fitness is required. The guide service will have a set of directions as to the time and place to meet. Many outfitters provide a snack or a lunch on these kinds of trips, but call ahead to double check. For more details about preparing for a one-day raft trip, read "Gearing Up For Rafting" story under the Paddling Gear section. Overnight trips combine rafting and camping and can vary from one night to a couple weeks depending on the river. Guide services that run overnight trips will send you a packing list of gear you need to bring. If you don't have some camping gear, don't sweat it outfitters will likely provide most if not all of the camping gear you need. If you have your own gear, though, you're better off bringing it.

Typically the guides will set-up camp, cook a 5-star meal, and do the dishes as well. While those poor galley slaves are doing all of the work, you get to fish, swim, make new friends, or quietly sit on a rock and contemplate the river. You can't beat a raft trip as therapy. A few days whitewater rafting and camping will wash away all of those worldly cares dragging you down. I guarantee it.

Types of Boats

The two styles of rafting are dictated by the choice of boat: paddleboats and oar boats. A paddleboat can hold up to 6 to 8 people plus the guide. In these craft, the crew powers the boat upon command of the guide, who steers from the back. You are an active participant in getting downriver and through rapids.

In an oar boat, the guide sits on a frame mounted either in the center or the stern. Instead of acting as a rudder, the guide uses the oars and some paddle assistance from the crew to navigate the boat. You are still involved in getting through rapids, but to a lesser degree than in a paddleboat.

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