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Whitewater Rafting For Beginners – Our 13 Best Tips

You’ve decided to go whitewater rafting and bond with friends or nature while enjoying the thrills the sport has to offer. This gets you excited for your first rafting trip and with this comes several questions like what to wear, what to bring along, safety precautions and whether whitewater rafting is safe.

This article is to help you prepare for your first and subsequent whitewater rafting trips. Knowing what to expect and how to stay safe will make your rafting experience memorable.

Choose a licensed and professional rafting outfitter

This is super important. Research the available rafting outfitters around you and choose one that has good reviews. You can ask any friend or family member that has gone whitewater rafting before to recommend an outfitter for you.

Ask potential outfitters questions, find out how long they’ve been in business under their current ownerships, the kind of training they give their guides. The answers you get will help you determine whether you are dealing with professional outfitters or not.

By picking a licensed and professional outfitter, you are sure that all safety precautions will be followed.

Book early

Whitewater rafting has immensely grown in popularity over the years and spots on rafting trips tend to fill up fast. You’ll have to book as early as you possibly can, especially if you want to get your preferred trip length and level of difficulty.

Dress appropriately

Check out our article on what to wear whitewater rafting for a comprehensive guide about dressing appropriately for rafting. The main gist is that you wear quick-drying shorts or bathing suits and a synthetic upper for warmth and protection from the sun in summer. Waterproof and windproof layers, as well as wetsuits, should be worn in cold weather alongside synthetic or wool socks.

Shoes for rafting should be snug fit and could be water shoes or an old pair of sneakers. Stay away from flip-flops as they aren’t suitable for rafting. Also, all cotton clothing should be avoided as cotton loses its insulating properties when wet and will draw heat from your body.

Always wear a life jacket/PFD and a helmet

No professional outfitter will let you get on the water without a life jacket and a helmet. Your guide will ensure both your life jacket and helmet are properly worn. Typically, rafting uses heavy-duty and Coast Guard-approved life jackets that not only keep you afloat but are also strong enough to withstand being pulled. Why? This is because you may be pulled back into the raft by your jacket if you fall off. And never take off your jacket while on the water.

No matter the level of difficulty of the water you are on, it’s always advisable to wear a helmet. There’s nothing like being “too cautious” where whitewater rafting is involved, and this is how you stay safe while rafting.

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Hold your paddle properly

Holding your paddle incorrectly poses a danger to you and other rafters. The proper way to hold a rafting paddle is to have one hand on the shaft at the paddle’s base and the other hand on the end of the paddle, also referred to as the T-grip.

You must always have a hand on the T-grip. If your hand isn’t on the T-grip and the raft goes through a rapid, the paddle may slip off your hands and the T-grip can hit you or other rafters. And T-grips are notorious for blackening eyes and even knocking off teeth.

Stay in the boat

This sounds obvious but you can find yourself tossed out of the raft in the blink of an eye. Be very watchful of rocks downstream as you raft. Guides usually announce upcoming contacts with rocks by saying “Bump!” When you hear this command, prepare yourself for contact by leaning in the raft while placing the end of your paddle(the T-grip) on the floor. Ensure your hand is still over the T-grip to prevent injuring yourself or other rafters.

Should you execute the “Bump” command well, the T-grip of your paddle, with your fist over the grip, will be on the floor of the raft while the blade end of the paddle will be up in the air. Doing this will keep you in the boat during the collision after which you should return to your spot and prepare to paddle again.

Don’t panic if you fall off the raft

You may find yourself being tossed out of the raft into the water. It’s usually not expected and your first instinct may be to panic. Remember that you are wearing a PFD and won’t be drowning. Also, there’s a guide and other rafters so help will come to you.

You’ll be plucked, fished, or hauled out of the water. Whichever word you prefer. Try to swim close to the boat. You can be pulled in by the life jacket if you are close enough to the boat. There is also the outside safety (OS) line you can grab onto and someone (or two if you are heavy) on the raft will pull you back in.

If the OS line isn’t within your reach, then you’ll be tossed a throw bag or offered a paddle to get back in. Ideally, help will come within the first few seconds of falling off the raft. But if help is delayed for whatever reason, still don’t panic. Assume the whitewater “swimming” position (with your feet up and pointing downstream) while keeping yourself busy by praying, singing a lullaby, cursing, or waiting patiently. Whichever works for you, buddy.

Know the proper swimming techniques

Not knowing how to swim isn’t a deal breaker for whitewater rafting. However, your outfitter and guide would like to know this.

There are two important swimming techniques that are very useful if you fall overboard or just take a swim in the water. The first is the “Down River Swimmers” where you float on your back while keeping your head up to know where you are going. Also, your knees should be slightly bent with your feet pointing downstream. Doing this allows you to use your feet and legs to absorb the shock and push you off if you are heading towards a rock. It’s important to ensure your bottom doesn’t sink too low to reduce the tendency of hitting submerged rocks. Also, put your arms out to the sides to help maintain control.

The other position is more suitable for rescue situations and involves you floating on your stomach. Your head should be in the direction you want to go. Your guide will educate you on these swimming techniques and tell you the best to use in different situations.

Never stand or walk in a river with a current. You may find your foot getting stuck in a crack on the bottom of the river. It’s not a pleasant situation at all.

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Listen to ‘ye wise river guide’

Your guide is going to give a safety talk before you and the other rafters get on the water. This safety talk will include potential situations you can encounter on the trip and how best to deal with them. Be sure to pay attention to your guide.

Know the commands – High-Siding

The high-siding is perhaps the most important part of your guide’s safety talk. What’s high-siding? It’s a command your guide may call out as a last resort to prevent the raft from flipping over. Okay, don’t start to panic. Chances are that you’ll never find yourself in this situation but if you do, you’ll be glad you listened attentively to your guide.

Good thing is that high-siding is very straightforward. Your raft will most likely be in a sideways position in the water when it collides with a rock or a wave. This collision may cause water pressure to build on the upstream side of the raft eventually causing the vessel to flip over.

However, your wise guide isn’t going to let that happen. He/she is going to say “High-side”. When you hear this, you need to go to the downstream part of the vessel and this is in the direction that the water is moving. Never go the opposite direction. Throw all your weight into the downstream part of the boat and that’s all.

Don’t bring too many electronics – But a camera is always welcome

You don’t need too much electronics while rafting. You should focus on enjoying the beauty of nature and bonding with your friends and other rafters. Jokes, laughs, smiles, excitement, adrenaline. That’s what rafting is all about. Listen to the sound of nature, the sound of fast-flowing water, the howl of the wind, and the naked beauty of the outdoors. Okay, I’m getting carried away now.

But you should always bring a camera, albeit a waterproof one. There are bound to be so many exciting moments you’d want to capture. Having spare batteries and memory cards can also be a great idea.

Be prepared for a workout

It’s all hands on deck on a raft. Rafting is all about teamwork and everyone on the vessel has to do their part paddling in the powerful rapids. Prepare your arms and soul for a workout. You don’t have to be a professional athlete or even an experienced rafter to paddle a raft. As long as you are in good health and are on a class of rapids appropriate to your current level of fitness, you are good to go.

Wear sunscreen and hydrate

Rafting is done majorly in the summer and need I remind you that the summer sun isn’t always your friend? You may find yourself with nasty sunburns after a day on the water. So take sunscreen with you and apply it.

You also need to stay hydrated due to the physical requirement of the sport. All you need is a bottle of water (or two) to hydrate yourself.

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