What is a Raft?

Traditional raft and modern raft on whitewater

Rafts are fairly popular, simple watercraft, that are used across America for mostly recreational outdoor activities.  Without the presence of a hull a raft is used as a primitive vessel or simple floating platform. But what is a raft?

A raft is the very simplest type of watercraft. A traditional raft is a flat platform that is made from timber logs that are fastened together with braided fibers or rope. Historically it was used to transport people and goods along rivers and other water bodies. Most modern rafts are inflatables used for river and whitewater recreational pursuits. 

As a boat, it lacks any type of engineering.

It’s a large float without the functions for steer or direction other than the oars of the rower.

Rafts were originally a means of transporting timber logs downstream. The feller would gather the logs together and tie them up as a float or raft, whilst pulling them down the river on a leash.

Fishing also is an activity that was popularly performed on a river raft.

In modern times, the recreational sport has taken the fore when it comes to using rafts – with inflatables being the mode of choice for descending down white water rapids.

A short history of rafts

Rafts are likely to have been among the first design of boats for mankind. Along with canoes, wooden rafts are the kind of marine vessel that you could expect to find as the first experimental trial attempts in navigating oceans, seas and rivers.

There is a natural buoyancy advantage with traditional rafts, which are typically made with wooden logs or reeds, tightly tied together. By design, they don’t displace water in the same fashion that a boat with a deep v-hull does, and instead interact with the water surface in the same way as other flat-bottomed boats.

Rafts tend to “sit”on the water rather in it.

Purpose of rafts

There are two well-recognized purposes generally associated with the historic use of rafts. They are:

  1. Transportation.
  2. Fishing.

The raft was thus instrumental in helping primitive cultures to fulfill the two necessities of communities the world over. These are:

  • The ease of movement of goods and supplies from one location to another.
  • A method for attaining a fresh food supply.

Drawbacks to rafts

Although the basic design of a raft makes them easy to construct it does come with some challenges.

Maneuverability is a critical flaw with raft boats. Without a keel for the aid of direction or often without superstructure, like a sail for propulsion, there is total dependence on rowers to guide the watercraft.

On the sea, rafts offer no protection against the waves, and can be swamped easily and quickly. Being without sides of any kind, should rough waters arise, the passengers and cargo will get drenched by the water and likely washed overboard.


A peculiar practice known as “timber rafting” has been adopted by logger men throughout the ages and across the world as a means of quick transportation on rivers.

Timber rafting is a resourceful way of using felled trees.

The process involves lumberjacks gathering together, at times hundreds, of logs after felling them and lining them up on the water. In this way they are able to make massive makeshift rafts.

These mega-rafts are so effective that making and using them is a customary mode of transport for timber enterprises worldwide.

Aboard such innovative feats of engineering, sometimes hundreds of lumberjacks at a time can be found under shelters where they can bake in makeshift ovens and even care for livestock in temporary stables – all onboard the makeshift mega raft construction.

In such cases, oars are used for steering and not for propulsion.


Historical rafts were made from any buoyant material found in the natural world, such as logs or bamboo sticks which were fastened together with braided fibers taken from plants such as vines.

Later, in the pioneer times for example, when rope became available, this was used to lash the logs together logs.


Modern rafts can be rigid boats or inflatable. They are usually made from:

  • Rubber – material used for inflatable rafts.
  • Urethane – lightweight and puncture resistant but expensive.
  • Hypalon – Cheaper and usually glued together so not as resistant.
  • PVC – Cheap plastic that is lightweight.

These materials have there own strengths and weaknesses.

Modern rafting

Modern rafting closer to home less linked to commercial fishing, transportation or utility work and more twinned with recreational pursuits.

Modern rafting in America and most of the world usually comes in 2 types:

  • Rafting tours.
  • Whitewater rafting.

Although you may occasionally see someone fishing from a raft this is a much less common sight in the modern world than it was in pioneer times.

Rafting tours

Rafting, in the correct conditions and appropriate waters, can be a really fun activity.

Rafting tours, like those in Sweden and other Nordic countries, are poplar and exciting ways to navigate very calms waterways with amazing scenery or ride rapids in fjords.

Of course there are rafting tours much closer to home with some of the most popular trips taking place in Yellowstone, The Grand Canyon and Idaho among many other places. A simple Google search will help you find rafting activities and tours close to you.

Whitewater rafting

When it comes to rafting most people will think of whitewater rafting and for good reason.

Whitewater rafting is a hugely popular outdoor recreational pursuit for soloists and teams alike. During this activity, rafters use an inflatable raft like one of these to race down rushing rapids with only the aid of a paddle or oar for control.

The activity has attracted the term whitewater rafting because it accurately describes the appearance of the fast rapid water as it foams and froths along its course. Whitewater rapids are also a popular spot for kayaks – though a specially designed kayak is required to ride rapids as it is very dangerous.

Extreme, natural ecological gradients like mountains, valleys and canyons provide the steepness needed for the water to build up speed. Boulders in the river that act as obstacles to the speeding water, or drops in elevation of the river bottom which cause turbulence to the rushing wasters, turn those areas of the river into high-velocity watercourses, known as rapids.

From the earliest journaled account of whitewater rafting, written by Lieutenant John Fremont (of the US Army) in 1842 – whitewater rafting has barely changed at all. Back then, Fremont’s raft was constructed from 4-rubber cloth tubes crudely tied together, covered with a wrap-around material floor.

Today, the commercially manufactured rafts are no more further advanced in design – but more nuanced in assembly and engineered in material complexity.

It was in the 1960’s that whitewater rafting took on its highly popularized modern form. Iconic routes like the Grand Canyon were adopted by specialist tour companies which soon grew in popularity as they delivered the type of white-knuckled experience that thrill-seekers still enjoy today.

Whitewater rafting, know as whitewater canoeing (even though they use a raft) was first showcased as an Olympic sport in the 1972 Munich Games. The competition was hosted on the world’s first artificial whitewater concrete channel, the Eiskanal in Augsburg, Germany.

Another notable artificial white watercourse is the 2012 Olympic whitewater rafting venue, Lea Valley in Hertfordshire, costing some £31 million ($38.6 million) to develop.

Modern raft fishing

Although fishing on a raft is a matter of tradition for many around the world it is a waning tradition especially in America where there are so many excellent alternatives.

However, there is at least one country close-by that still enjoys raft fishing and has a large number of raft fishermen – Brazil.

A wooden raft known as Jangada (which can be a traditional Brazilian fishing boat as well as a raft) is used to indulge in the art of traditional fishing and is quite a fruitful commercial enterprise for many Brazilians. The expert fishermen using such structures are called Jangadeiros.

Made entirely out of wood, without any metal fixtures or fittings, the seafaring jangada is usually constructed from 6 lightweight Balsa logs all strapped together. It has a mast in the middle of the raft for harnessing the thrust of the wind.

A seat is propped against the sail and is occupied by the pilot of the raft. This is called the “master’s seat”.

The passengers of the Jangada are usually 3-5 in total. On a typical voyage, the boat could take a 3 -5 day round trip on the sea with the raft being the only protection of the fishermen against the water, wind and rain.

Types of raft

Raft builds and designs are quite broad, but all are extensions on the traditional theme of a buoyant platform with or without a sail, and steered by oar.

Interestingly enough, traditional wooden rafts are still favored by many around the world for fishing and minor transport runs between locales.

Modern rubber rafts has sides a font and a back, unlike traditional wooden rafts that are just flat platforms. This may be one reason the Olympics refer to their whitewater rafting competition as white water canoeing (as mentioned above).

Traditional raft and modern raft
Traditional raft and modern raft

Motorised vs oared

This is very simple to distinguish. We don’t need to point out the obvious here.

The benefit of motorized rafts is the speed at which they are able to traverse the course. It is quoted that they are able to move at twice the pace of the flow of the river.

This has its advantages for guided tours, where timely circuits make all the difference to profits and guest enjoyment.


A raft is a multi-purpose invention for travelling atop seas, rivers and other watercourses.

In times past, rafts made from wooden logs that were tied together to form a single flat platform and were purposed for practical voyages perhaps to courier supplies from one place to another, or as vessels for fishing.

Modern rafts are usually inflatable crafts that are used fro whitewater rapid rides and tours.

Recent Content