White Water Rafting | A Beginner's Guide
Everything you need to know about white water rafting
White water rafting is probably one of the craziest water sports you can get involved in. The idea of hurtling down a river in a blow up rubber boat, dodging whirlpools, hitting rocks and falling down waterfalls just sounds nuts right? But it isn't. And here's why.
White water rafting is an awesome adrenaline rush that mixes the thrill of dangerous white water with the camaraderie of a war movie, pitting you and a group of similarly petrified individuals against the best that nature has to throw at them. There's something about an experience like that, facing down an opponent staggeringly more powerful than you, that really brings a group together. This is why white water rafting has become a go to choice for stag/hen dos, team building, youth groups and gaggles of generally insane people the world over. While many action sports are about a single athlete pushing their limits alone, rafting lets you enjoy those jaw dropping moments together, sharing that joy and triumph from right in the heart of the action.
On top of the thrills and bonding of a white water rafting trip, you also get to experience nature in a whole new way. Rafting takes you to areas that don't see a lot of people, letting you get close to wildlife and travelling through places that are almost impossible to reach unless you're on the water.
This mixture of danger, stunning scenery and team work is what's helped white water rafting to reach the ripe old age of 200 years and still be going strong. So if you're looking for a fun way to celebrate your action sports-mad mate's upcoming wedding or just have a tonne of friends who are up for a crazy challenge, here's everything you need to know about white water rafting.
How Did White Water Rafting Begin?
Rafting started way back in 1811 when a group of explorers decided to try and make it down Snake River, Wyoming in wooden boats without any proper kit or training. Weirdly enough this expedition wasn't a success and it took until the 1840s for Lt. John Fremont and Horace H. Day to create the first rubber raft that could take the punishment of white water rivers.
The boats became popular with scientists who used them for 'research trips' (otherwise known as having a good time with their mates). Fast forward to the 1940s when there was a surplus of rubber rafts left over from World War II and commercial rafting trips started to become popular. The 1970s saw white water kayak slalom enter the Olympics, giving rafting a huge boost too. In 1997 the International Rafting Federation was founded to manage represent rafting across the world and today rafting is so popular that if there's a stretch of rapids near you (and there are plenty of spots to go white water rafting in the UK) there's a good chance you'll find some rafters in amongst the kayaks.
What Is A White Water Raft Made From And How Does It Work?
White water rafts vary in size from single person models up to boats that can take 12 or more, but the usual group size is between 6 to 8 paddlers with a guide sitting in the back. The rafts are normally made of synthetic materials like urethane which is tough wearing and slips easily over rocks. White water rafts are made of several different inflatable chambers so that if one punctures there will still be air in the others to keep you afloat.
Most rafts follow the same basic design with an upturned nose and tail and a couple of thwarts - inflatable tubes running across the bottom of the boat – which paddlers use to sit on. Thwarts are also used by paddlers to jam their feet under which helps them stay in the boat while paddlers at the front use foot loops fixed to the floor of the raft.
The guide will be the most experienced person in the boat and will often have either 1 or 2 longer paddles that are used to steer the raft through the water. The guide's job is to navigate the boat safely down the river and to tell the paddlers when to paddle to get through the rapids. The paddlers are armed with shorter single blade paddles and have to work together, paddling at the right time to create forward thrust in the direction needed.
Who Can Go White Water Rafting?
In tour groups, most white water paddlers will have little to no experience, relying on the guide's knowledge of the river, so don't be worried if you get into a boat with a whole load of people who also don't seem to know what they are doing, though for class 4 rapids and above it's usually good to have some experience.
No matter what level of rapid you're tackling there's is a good chance you'll end up in the water. You don't have to be able to swim to go white water rafting, but you will need to be able to move into the defensive swim position, lying on your back with your feet floating near the surface and pointing down stream to protect you from the rocks. You'll also need to be reasonably fit to go white water rafting because on average you'll be burning around 300 calories an hour as you paddle.
How Hard Is White Water Rafting?
White water rafting difficulty is based on how tough the river is to navigate. Rivers across the world are normally graded by the International Scale of River Difficulty, a system developed in America that divides white water into 6 classes with 1 being the easiest and 6 the most dangerous:
Class I: Easy - Fast moving water with few obstructions.
Class II: Novice - Straightforward rapids with wide, clear channels. Some obstacles that might require maneuvering but are easily avoided.
Class III: Intermediate - Rapids with moderate and irregular waves which can be hard to avoid. Powerful currents can be found and expert maneuvers will often be required to get through sections of the river.
Class IV: Advanced - Intense, but predictable rapids that need precise boat handling and fast maneuvers under pressure. Moderate to high risk of injury to people in the water. Dangerous obstacles, large waves, holes and narrow shoots. Experience highly recommended.
Class V: Expert - Very violent rapids with complex, demanding routes. Proper equipment, extensive experience, and practiced rescue skills are essential. There is a high risk of injury to people in the water and rescue can be difficult.
Class VI: Extreme and Exploratory Rapids - Tough, unpredictable and dangerous. For teams of experts only, errors can have severe consequences and rescue may be impossible. After a Class VI rapid has been run many times, its rating may be reduced.
If you're going white water rafting in the Grand Canyon be aware that they operate their own grading system that runs from 1 to 10 with a grade 10 being roughly equivalent to Class V on the International scale.
What Equipment Do You Need To Go White Water Rafting?
Apart from the obvious boat and paddle, white water rafting gear is pretty simple and is mainly centred around keeping you afloat and warm enough to enjoy your trip. If you are going white water rafting with a tour guide all of the necessary equipment should be provided for you but if you're looking to get your own kit here's what you need.
Wetsuit – Unless you're white water rafting somewhere tropical with almost zero wind you'll want one of these. Your should be thick enough to keep you warm but not so thick that it causes rubbing or discomfort when you paddle. A 4/3 suit should would be a good investment for rafting in the UK but a 3/2 suit would do for summer or warmer locations.
Footwear – There are a couple of options here. A lot of tour operators will ask you to bring spare trainers with you, and if so try to make sure they have good grip and are relatively sturdy to give your feet some protection if you fall in and good traction on slippery rocks etc. as you walk the boat down to the water or make a hopefully dignified exit from the river.
Your second option is wetsuit boots which might not have the same support as trainers but will keep your feet much warmer. Am for a 5mm thick boot here and go for the toughest sole you can find to give you the best grip and support.
Buoyancy Aid – Also called a personal flotation device (PFD) these lightweight jackets use foam to help you float on the water. You should be looking for a slimline, open cut model that will give you good freedom of movement for paddling. You can get both male and female models PFDs and each one is designed to give a different degree of float, based on the user's body weight, so make sure you get one that's right for your size.
Helmet – With all the rocks and paddles flying about there's a good chance of getting bumped in the head so you'll need a helmet that can handle the river. You'll need a helmet that is designed for water sports because some, skate helmets for example, are not designed to handle water and have a good chance of getting damaged by it. White water helmets come in variety of styles, depending on what you prefer, but a peaked model can help keep the sun out of your eyes and the water out of your face. Also go for a bright or contrasting colour so that you're easier to spot if you fall in.
Where Can You Go White Water Rafting In The UK?
The UK is packed with great spots to go white water rafting catering to all abilities. There are top notch man made venues like Olympic site Lee Valley White Water, just outside London, Cardiff's International White Water or the Nene White Water Centre near Northampton which all give big cities access to rafting trips on their doorstep. If you're looking for something more scenic then the natural beauty of the Welsh River Dee and Scotland's River Findhorn will float your boat, while big thrills can be found on Scotland's River Orchy grade 5 rapids.
Where Can You Go White Water Rafting Abroad?
The sport started in America and white water rafting in the USA is still massively popular, so it's a great place to start. You can take on icons like the Colorado river which flows through the bottom of the Grand Canyon or go on a historic trip back to where it all began, the Snake River in Wyoming.
Action sports capital of the world New Zealand should definitely be on your list with epic rivers combining the best of stunning scenery and amazing thrills. The Rangitikei and the Shotover are two top rivers to visit here.
If you fancy something a little different then white water rafting in Zimbabwe could be the one for you. You can ride the Zambezi river through the Batoka Gorge and down 23 rapids below the Victoria Falls to enjoy some of Africa's best rafting. Have a look at our guide to the world's best white water rafting spots for a few more ideas.