What is white water rafting?

What is white water rafting?


I couldn’t believe I was white water rafting. A friend of mine convinced me to try it, and now here I was, going down my first rapid. I tried my best to hold on as the raft slid up the steep, slippery rock. The waves kept pushing us further up the rock face. 

“All forward!” The rafting guide exclaimed

We all dug our paddles as deep as we could into the river. The boat began to move, and we spun around through the rapid. 

“Hold on, here comes the drop!”

My adrenaline was pumping, and I kept fiercely paddling. We all let out a scream and lifted our paddles into the air. We had made it through Dragon Tooth Rapid, and I could see why people love white water rafting. 

It has been over 20 years since I first started paddling a raft through rapids, but I still get asked: what is white water rafting?

what is white water rafting

What is white water rafting?

White water rafting is an adventure water sport where you go down a river in a raft. Most of these rivers have rapids on them that vary from Class I-VI. Rafting offers thrills, adventure, and access to the great outdoors. 

For example, Oregon has multiple rivers classified as wild and scenic, and accessible by running the rivers. Steep canyon walls encompass many of these rivers that prohibit hikers from exploring. Yet, in a boat, you can experience these beautiful places. 

Typically, a river guide accompanies you on white water rafting trips. However, many rivers are safe for beginners, and there are classes offered to teach you how to run trickier waters. White water rafting has become much more approachable, and I invite you to explore the rivers!

what is white water rafting

This article will go over what white water rafting is, how it started, and what you need to get started in the sport. 

What is River Rafting?

In 1811, explorers set out to float the Snake River. This expedition was the first recorded trip in history, and it turned out to be a disaster. They did not have the skill or the equipment for white water, and they didn’t make it far down the river and nicknamed it the “Mad River.” 

In 1940 Clyde Smith set out on the Snake River with a new invention: a rubber raft. Lt. John Fremont ad Horace Day started building these modern marvels to assist them in surveying rivers on the great plains. Smith took it down the rapids on the Snake River and successfully navigated the river. This rubber raft would open up doors to waterways that were considered unrunnable. 

In the 1950s, the commercial outfitter started guiding using these rubber rafts, and the white water rafting era began. The 1972 Olympics introduced white water rafting as an Olympic sport, further solidifying it as an actual adventure sport. Today, white water rafting is growing across the globe. You can watch videos of people running rivers in Russia, Alaska, Costa Rica, and many other places. 

Why is it White Water Rafting?

The following four components form white water:

  1. Gradient: Steeper gradients result in fast and rough water.
  2. Constriction: a river flowing through a tight space, causing the river’s speed to increase.
  3. Obstruction: are large boulders or underwater cliffs that result in disruption of the flow.
  4. River flow rate: The amount of water passing through a river can cause rapids to form that were not present at lower flow rates.

These four components together or separately create white water. 

White water class rating

White water is separated into six classifications. Some areas, such as the Grand Canyon, have their unique classifications.

The international rapids class scale of difficulty are as follows:

Class I: the easiest and safest whitewater. Some paddlers do not even consider Class I true whitewater.  

Class II: considered mild to moderate with few moves requiring technical maneuvers or experience. I would recommend this for beginners. 

Class III: considered intermediate, with less river stability. This Class is where more complicated maneuvers begin to arise. Boat fips or wraps can happen in these rapids.

Class IV: The waves produced by these rapids are much larger, with unavoidable river features that require maneuvering. Falling out of the raft becomes much more dangerous. I strongly encourage you to scout the rapid.

Class V: The waves and river features will be much larger and more complex, requiring high levels of river-reading capability. Mistakes made on these rapids could prove to cause severe injury or fatality. 

Class VI: This is considered extreme and exploratory, and sections of this Class of rapids may be impossible for rescuers to reach. Only experts should approach these rapids with extreme caution.

How are River Rafts made?

We have come a long way since Fremont and Day constructed those rubber rafts. Today, most rafts are built using three kinds of rafting materials: polyvinyl chloride (PVC), polyurethane (also called urethane), and Hypalon.

Polyurethane is a very rigid material, and boats built out of it typically slide over rocks much easier, are less likely to wrap around rocks, but they are more likely to flip, and they also are harder to repair out on a trip.

PVC-made rafts are less expensive than Polyurethane or Hypalon rafts, and they do not hold up as long, which is why most commercial outfitters don’t use them. The upside is they are affordable and can get you on the water.

Hypalon boats are durable, and the material is softer than polyurethane. As a result, the softness of these rafts makes them less likely to flip compared to other rafts. Hypalon boats can last 20+ years if you take care of them. NRS makes great Hypalon boats, and I have used them for years. 

what is white water rafting

What to bring on a white water trip

Here is a list of things you should bring on a warm-weather white water rafting trip:

  • Type V Life Jacket
  • Wide-brimmed hats for sun protection
  • Quick-dry clothing for river use 
  • River shoes (river type sandals with heel strap or tennis shoes)
  • Sunscreen and lip protection
  • Sunglasses with strap (spare pair recommended)
  • Camera or cell phone for photos 
  • Personal medications, prescriptions (bring two containers)
  • Extra contacts or glasses

You would want to wear warmer clothes and potentially a dry suit for cold weather trips. 

Now go on a White Water Rafting trip.

All you need is a river guide, or buy a raft and head to your nearby river. I have posted articles on determining which river is suitable for you called:

Check those out or email me for more information.

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