Part 1: Skill level and boat type
Is white water rafting dangerous? I have gotten asked that a lot by parents, clients, and young kids. Whitewater rafting can certainly be dangerous, but the best way to mitigate the danger is knowledge. It doesn’t eliminate all the risks, but it does allow whitewater rafting to become more accessible. This has been my experience as well. When I started I knew very little about whitewater rafting. I had a basic understanding of how to row a boat and I knew I needed a good life jacket, but that was pretty much it. Yet, over the years, through reading books, watching videos, spending time with river guides, and gaining knowledge by being on the river, I have found myself to be comfortable in most situations I find myself in.
My goal for these articles is to break down what you need to know into categories that we can tackle. It is certainly not going to be an all-encompassing river manual, but a good starting place for deeper discovery. You can almost use this as a report card or a gauge to assess your ability to tackle more complex rivers.
Most of the incidents where I have seen people get into trouble while whitewater rafting is not having a good grasp on their whitewater abilities. You have two chances to assess your skill level: before the trip starts or on the river. I can promise you that being honest with yourself upfront will save you from a lot of heartaches. You must have a healthy respect for the river. Any river.
First, let’s discuss rapid classifications and your experience running each class. Most rivers have their rapids rated by a class system. 1, being the lowest and easiest rapid, and 6 being virtually un-runnable.
If you are new to whitewater rafting it would be safe to say that I wouldn’t run anything above a Class 1 without an experienced guide. There are plenty of places to safely be on the river and dip your toe short-a-speak. The alternative would be to hire a river guide so you could safely experience rivers with a higher degree of difficulty.
If you have been on guided rafting trips through Class 3 rapids or more you could start venturing into bigger water. One way to do that is to run the same stretch of river that you were guided on. I did this often when I started. I wanted to learn how to run the Deschutes River so I hired a guide. After a couple of trips, I felt comfortable running sections of it myself. This is a good strategy for running rapids up to class three. I would not try this method in anything larger than that.
Class 4 rapids are defined as long, turbulent water that requires difficult and complex maneuvers, and scouting is necessary. To run Class 4 and above I would recommend that you learn how to read a river, undergo a swift water rescue class, and have a couple of years of running rapids under your belt. I will post an article that reviews multiple swift-water rescue classes I have attended or have sent my guides through that I would recommend.
In addition to a swift water rescue class, I would strongly suggest spending time learning how to read a river. It is one thing to know how to run a rapid, but something completely different in learning how to run any rapid based on the makeup of the river. River bends, for example, tend to be deeper on the outside of the bend. This piece of information can cause you to line your boat up appropriately before entering the river bend. The “V” at the entry of a rapid usually indicates where you want to point your boat. There are books I will suggest as well as videos I will point you to that can help with this. However you learn it, learn it. Especially if, like me, you want to explore new rivers regularly.
You also have to take into consideration what type of boat you are going to use. A center-frame raft moves differently than a paddleboat. An IK can handle most rapids, but not all. Also, how much time have you spent in the boat-type you are going to use? I have run Class 1 through 5 in a center frame, and feel comfortable doing so. However, I would not feel comfortable in a hardshell where I have limited experience. Each type of watercraft moves differently, and the time to learn that is not in rapids you already don’t feel comfortable going through.
One way to mitigate that is to follow a seasoned guide or river-runner through sections of water that you are learning. My son has been into whitewater rafting since he was 6. I have had him accompany me on many of my trips. When he first started, I would have him in the boat with me–both a paddleboat and a center-frame setup. As he got more comfortable I introduced him to an IK. We started on a gentle class one and two sections of the river and then had him follow me through class three and four rapids. As his skill level grew I let him tackle larger sections of the river with bigger rapids. Sure he made some mistakes, but I made sure it was in a context that was not above his skill level.
When he was 14, he wanted to float the Middle Fork of the Salmon with an IK. He had never run that section before and wanted to do it safely. So we hired a guide and my son followed him through on the six-day trek. It was a great experience for my son and a sense of security for me as his father.
In my opinion, if I had to choose one type of watercraft to use, it would be a raft. They are pretty forgiving, can carry people and gear easily, and do relatively well in windy conditions. I started with running drift boats, and they are fun to maneuver but are not as forgiving when you make a mistake. I have run pontoons, kayaks, and even a canoe once, but I always fall back on choosing my raft.
So when thinking of running a particular river stop and consider your abilities and boat type. I will cover the other categories in the next articles in the series: Is white water rafting dangerous?