River Rafting. What It Is & How To Do It

River rafting in Class VI rapids

Some people look for a rush in their lives and to get this kind of adrenaline rush they pursue activities that are high risk and dangerous. Although there are numerous land based extreme sports and activities, river rafting is one of the most popular water based ones. But what exactly is river rafting?

What Is River Rafting & How Is It Done?

River rafting is a recreational outdoor activity that involves maneuvering through river rapids in an inflatable raft.

River rafting can be experienced on different types of rivers that are categorized by the difficulty of their rapids.

The levels of difficulty range from beginner-friendly to very dangerous.

River rafting is an activity often engaged in by people who want a fun adrenaline rush or by professionals who want to test their rafting skills.

River rafting is similar to the river running done in a drift boat except you use an inflatable raft instead of a boat.

River rafting in Class VI rapids
River rafting in Class VI rapids

River rafting is sometimes called whitewater rafting because it involved riding rapids.

River rafting involves rapid riding; using a raft to navigate through rapids on a river.

Although most river rafting is experienced in a modern inflatable raft traditionally this type of activity was done with a wooden raft, though more out of necessity than choice.

Modern river rafting is a recreational pursuit that uses inflatable rafts.

However, in pioneer times wooden rafts were used as a main source of transportation along river routes and therefore navigating rapids in rivers often became a normal part of a journey.

If you want to know more about modern and traditional rafts and their uses read this article.

Rafting on the Colorado river (video)

River Rafting Rapids Categories

You might be fairly new to river rafting or maybe you are just considering this activity for the first time and you are afraid that river rafting may be dangerous.

So below we have included the different classes of river rafting that are used to help guide rafters to show you the type of river rafting activities available.

Rivers used for river rafting are categorized into 7 different classes.

They range from beginner level with no rapids, that anyone can raft on, right up to dangerous with extreme rapids that require experience, skill and top-of-the-range equipment to navigate safely.

There are seven classes of river difficulty in river rafting. The rivers are categorized by the difficulty of the rapids in that river.

The 7 classes of rivers for river rafting are ranked from the calmest rivers to the most dangerous rivers, these are:

  • Class A – Beginner.
  • Class I Rapids – Easy.
  • Class II Rapids – Moderate.
  • Class III Rapids – Moderately difficult.
  • Class IV Rapids – Difficult.
  • Class V Rapids – Extremely difficult.
  • Class VI Rapids – Dangerous and for experienced rafters only.

Class A

This class is completely still water with little to no perceptible movement.

This type of water is good for a complete beginner to practice his/her paddling skills and to get a feel for their raft.

This is the type of river that is best for flat bottom river boats or Jon boats.

Class I Rapids

Class I rapids are some of the safest type of rivers for river rafting.

Class I rapids refer to calm slow moving water that is perfect for people who just want to relax and enjoy the scenery.

This class only requires slight maneuvering so it is always a good starting point for people with no rafting experience and who want to try river rafting for the first time.

Class II Rapids

This class needs more experience when it comes to maneuvering because of the slight increase in difficulty.

These are rivers with easy rapids and waves up to 3 feet tall that are easily seen in advance and can be easily navigated by anyone with a little experience.

There are also wide channels in these classes that can be discovered without any scouting at all.

Class III Rapids

Once you get the basics down, then you might opt to get more of a thrill out of your river rafting sessions.

Although this type of rafting is more challenging it is still suitable for people who are not that good at rafting yet, but who are accompanied by someone with a bit of experience.

There are higher waves, narrower passages, and slight drops which offers the perfect rush for beginners who are seeking a slight boost in adrenaline.

Class IV Rapids

This class consists of narrower channels as well as long and difficult rapids with turbulent water.

These rapids require more precise maneuvering to get through safely and are therefore not suitable for complete beginners unless they are accompanied by experienced instructors.

Class V Rapids

If you are not yet feeling the adrenaline rush from the first four classes then this class offers you all of the above with additional large, complex, gushing rapids.

Not only that, but class V rapids will also give you a bumpy ride and some big drops along with plenty of chances to test your paddling skills as you must avoid large rocks obstructing your passage.

To tackle this class you should have already mastered maneuvering and on-water safety protocols as this class is for experienced rafters only.

Class VI Rapids

This class includes extremely difficult to navigate rapids due to the extreme dangers that they offer.

The only people who should attempt to go rafting in rivers under this class are seasoned rafters and they should only do it in groups!

Rivers with class VI rapids have huge rocks, extreme rapids, and substantially high drops that could not only damage your equipment and gear but can also cause severe injuries or even death.

Class V river rafting (video)

Safety Precautions To Take Before River Rafting

Since river rafting is a dangerous recreational activity if you are not experienced in rafting then you will be more prone to having an accident or picking up an injury.

Here we are going to discuss the safety precautions that you need to follow before engaging in river rafting.

The first thing your should do before you attempt to go on a river rafting excursion is to be sure to check what class category the river you intend to raft on falls into.

Make sure you have the skill set to tackle the river before considering going rafting on it.

Guidelines for river rafting:

  • Do not go river rafting alone.
  • Let a friend or family member know where you are going, what you are doing and when you intend to be back before you go on the water.
  • Wear an appropriate PFD and helmet.
  • Practice your paddle control in calm water first and work your way up to more challenging environments.
  • Stay hydrated.
  • Wear proper footwear.
  • Check your gear before hitting the rapids.

PFD and Helmets

This is a no brainer!

Everyone needs to wear safety equipment, from people new to river rafting to the most experienced rafters these two items are a must have.

You must wear a PFD and an a a high quality rafting helmet.

As well as being able to stay afloat you want to protect yourself from possible blows to the head if things go wrong and you are ejected from the raft while riding rapids.

Make sure that the helmet that you are going to wear fits snugly on your head and it does not move around a lot.

The same thing with your PFD. Make sure your life jacket fits your body well but is not so tight that you find it difficult to move about comfortably.

Do not go river rafting alone

You should not go river rafting alone even if you believe the river is calm and free of obstacles and/or rapids.

Make it a habit to look for people to join you because this means that you have someone to rely on when things start to go wrong.

This also ensures that should an accident occur there is someone to call for more help and apply first aid until help arrives.

Let someone know where you are going

You should always inform someone of your whereabouts and your intended route before you go river rafting – even if you are travelling in a group.

You should tell a trusted person where you are planning to go, how long you are going to be away, and the estimated time when you will be arriving home.

Should not not return in time, or contact them telling them of your delay, they should call emergency services and let them know you are missing and give them your planned route.

Practice paddle control

Paddle control is at the heart of river rafting. Your paddle is your steering mechanism.

When navigating fast water and rapids even the slightest movement of your paddle can dramatically change the direction of your raft.

Practice your paddle technique in calm waters before attempting to tackle rapids.

Although paddling in rapids is a completely different experience and requires different skills to calm water paddling, practicing in calm water will acquaint you with your paddle and your raft.

Increase your skills by gradually increasing the difficultly of your rafting.

Rise up the classes slowly taking each one in turn until you have mastered it and then moving on to the next level.

Stay hydrated

It is important to stay hydrated for several reasons.

Dehydration can lead to exhaustion which can cause a lack of control, slow response times and disorientation.

In extreme cases dehydration can cause nausea, headaches, and dizziness making river rafting a dangerous activity to be involved in, even in lower class rapids.

So, stay hydrated at all times when river rafting.

Wear proper footwear

Many rafters will spend a small fortune on safety equipment and state-of-the-art rafts and safety clothing but forget to properly protect their feet.

It is important for you to have footwear that will not only protect your feet from the water and the cold but that will also provide protection from slipping.

Should your raft overturn in the water and require retrieval, even in very slight shallow rapids, you run the risk of slipping and falling into the water if you don’t have the proper footwear.

On most river beds close to rapids there are small jagged rocks that are both slippery and dangerous.

It is all too easy to slip and fall onto a knee on slippery rocks which can lead to a nasty gash to your leg.

The best type of footwear also gives you better traction and keeps your legs from getting swept away from underneath you by the current.

Check your equipment

Make it a habit to check your equipment before you venture out on a rafting trip.

You need to thoroughly check your equipment before you leave for your trip and then perform a quick once-over check before you hit the water.

A lot of injuries could be avoided if people took more time to check all the equipment before taking to their raft.

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