yellow rafting boat

I must admit, I was downright spooked before my first whitewater rafting trip. I had nightmares of dramatic rapids consuming our entire raft, causing me to fall overboard and get lost at sea. My imagination got the best of me. Clearly. It’s a river, not an ocean.

Jump forward to the end of my first rafting trip. Our group is exiting the raft, giddy and howling with laughter, already reminiscing about our adventure. Like a kid at an amusement park stepping off a roller coaster, I already wanted to go for another round. What was I so nervous about?

Having been rafting, I no longer have those first-time jitters. At the same time, I wish I would have saved myself some of the anxiety. Or maybe you are embarking on a family rafting trip and you want to help ease your child’s woes. Here are some beginner tips I wish I had to make me less nervous about my first rafting experience.

1. Plan Your Trip Strategically

Choose the right time of year to go. Rafting in the early summer is known to be more challenging. The mountain snow has started to melt, making tides higher and rapids more menacing. If you want a more mild trip for your first time, plan your trip for July or August.

2. Be Prepared to Get Wet

For most people, getting splashed by the water is the most fun part. It’s like Water World minus the long lines of sweaty strangers. But it’s only fun if you’re mentally and physically prepared for it. Wear a bathing suit or workout clothing that won’t feel uncomfortable when it gets wet. Going out in all-cotton is not the move…as my younger cousin can attest.

The same goes for shoes. You can wear old sneakers, river sandals, or water shoes (many rafting companies rent them to you). I personally think Chacos or Tevas are the right move. They stay on your feet, they’re comfortable, and water doesn’t sit inside them turning your feet into prunes. My dad and I were wearing Tevas for our first trip, and I can’t tell you how many jealous glares we got from all of the miserable sneaker wearers.

3. Be Prepared in General

I can’t stress enough how important it is to be physically prepared. There’s nothing worse than feeling tired, sunburnt, and soggy in the middle of the Arkansas River. Hydrate, wear sunscreen and do everything you can to eliminate discomfort so that you can focus on listening to your guide and navigating the rapids. Feeling miserable will make you irritable, and no one wants to be stuck in the middle of a river with a petulant group member.

4. Learn to Love Your PFD

Your guide won’t let you step foot on the raft unequipped. This means you’ll be armed with a helmet and a personal flotation device (PFD). It isn’t the most stylish ensemble. I remember feeling shamefully dorky wearing it on my first trip. You’ll quickly learn to embrace your PFD though. After all, it takes the “sink” out of “sink or swim”.

5. Guide Knows Best

Guides are highly trained in risk management and aware of all potential risks. A rafting company’s certification and guiding requirements are often far higher for individual rafting companies than the minimum requirements by the state. Guides have advanced first aid certifications specifically crafted for the wilderness. Depending on the rafting company’s requirements and incentives, many guides also have wilderness first responder certifications and swift water rescue certifications. They take safety seriously, so take their instructions seriously. Everything they ask you to do is in your best interest. Listen up before, during, and after your trip. Many accidents can be avoided by simply following directions.

6. Watch the Paddle, Will Ya?

You might hear your guide say, “Keep your hand on the T-grip.” The T-grip is the end of your paddle, and while rafting, you should always have one hand over it. The rapids are strong, so as soon as you remove your hand, you basically put everyone else in the raft at risk of being smacked in the face with your paddle. Don’t be that person. In general, though, listen carefully to your guide when he or she tells you how and when to use your paddle.

7. No “I” in “Team”

This isn’t middle school sports, but the same rules still apply. Everyone on the boat has to paddle in unison and follow the rules if you want to make it down the river in a safe and timely fashion. During the trip, your guide might ask certain members to refrain from paddling or to lean a certain direction to balance the raft. Take instructions seriously and be a good teammate. You were never going to single-handedly row your team down the river, anyways.

8. The Deal with Falling Overboard

First of all, it’s avoidable to some extent. Sure, accidents happen and the river has a mind of its own. But if you listen to instructions from your guide and keep your feet and paddle where they’re supposed to be, your chances of falling in are reduced.

Second, guides know how to deal with someone slipping overboard. It’s not as if someone slips overboard, and everyone is at a loss of what to do. Before the trip even starts, you and your group will be prepped on what to do if you or somebody else slips out. And if it does happen, your experienced guide will talk you through what to do at the moment as well. Falling out might take you by surprise, but rest assured, you’ll be sufficiently prepared to handle it.

I admit that before my first trip, I assumed people would be falling overboard left and right. To my surprise, I never fell out. That’s not to say that people never do. We saw a woman in a downstream group slip out, but she was smiling and laughing all the while they were pulling her aboard. If it happens to you, listen to your guide and stay calm.


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