Whitewater Rafting with Kids

The Clark’s Fork through Alberton Gorge in Montana is a Class II/Class III float during the summer months. This is not the big water I used to float in my younger years, but it is a great first trip for my 11-year-old and 6-year-old, who have been paddling calmer water in canoes and kayaks since they were 2.

I watch the kids in our group, who range between 9 and 11 years, take turns standing on the front of the raft while their dads and the guide spin the boat in circles. I smile as one of them splashes face-first in the river, because new adventures teach kids skills that transfer to other aspects of life: being in the moment, looking ahead, approaching obstacles with a clear head, and not letting fear get the best of you. The most important lesson it teaches them is to laugh and have fun with it!

Whether rafting with kids for the first time, or upping the level of intensity from a previous trip, here are a few tips to keep in mind:

Pick the right river. Rafting guide Adam Divens says doing research before you go is essential. He suggests looking up the river you want to visit and talking to the guide company ahead of time. Owner of rafting company Wiley E. Waters, Josh Flanagan agrees: “You don’t want to do a section of river you’re not prepared for.” Flanagan recommends that more nervous kids or parents start with an easier river like the Spokane. Good guiding operations will always emphasize safety, have up-to-date equipment, and try to keep it as fun and relaxed as possible for both kids and adults.

Know your (and their) abilities. For parents who have never been rafting, take a trip without your kids. Get a feel for what your limits and abilities are before you get the kids involved. For more adventurous kids who have experience on the water but have never been on a whitewater raft, I still recommend a guided trip the first time. Wiley E. Waters often offers a Groupon in spring and summer that makes a first-time trip more affordable.

Teach them some boat basics. Explain directional words like downstream, river right, and river left. Let them know that if they do wind up out of the boat, either accidentally or on purpose, to stay near the boat and not swim to shore unless told to by the guide. Remind them the safest position in the water is on their back, hips up, with toes downstream. Show them the universal sign for “I’m ok”—using one hand to tap the top of their heads.

Love the life jacket. Obvious fact: water presents a drowning hazard. If you are near the river, wear a life jacket. Hard as it may be on hot days, parents need to set the example.

Let your kids take some risks. For your sanity and their enjoyment, remember to let go a little. Kids want to test limits (theirs, and yours at times). Provide safety guidelines and then encourage kids to try new things and to attempt something that scares them a little. Then sit back and be amazed at what your kids can do.

Trust the guide. On a guided trip, parents are lucky enough to have the opinion of someone with hundreds of hours of experience. Rafting guides want to make this fun and memorable. They can often be the first to encourage hesitant kids to push their limits and will nudge confident kids in the right direction.

Be the parent. Although guides seem like they’d be amazing babysitters, sadly that’s not actually part of their job. They will likely play with your kids, and perhaps fool them into thinking there is a hot spring hidden in one of the coldest stretches of a nearby stream at the lunch pullout; however, it’s still up to parents to actually parent the kids. Ground rules set up at the beginning of the trip help, but it is your job to enforce those.

Dress for the occasion. The rafting company will usually provide a gear list of what to bring, but here’s a brief shakedown:

  • Swimsuit and/or quick-drying shorts and shirt, comfortable shoes that won’t fall off.
  • Waterproof sunscreen (slather it all, including hands and exposed parts of your feet).
  • Sunglasses and hat (a glasses strap is highly useful if you don’t want to lose them).
  • Water bottle with a carabiner (to strap it to the side of the raft).
  • Dry clothes for post-trip comfort.
  • For cooler weather a rain jacket, compression shirt, fleece, or wool clothing will help keep you warm on the water (no cotton as it pulls warmth from you once wet).

Get the kids excited! A good whitewater trip lets kids of all ages experience the exhilaration of using their bodies and minds to navigate new challenges. They get to expand their skills, cool off, and have fun. Bonus: tired, happy kids make for a peaceful, relaxing night around the campfire.

Crystal Atamian is a science editor who writes about wildlife conservation and the benefits of getting kids outdoors. She wrote about her experiences studying Greater-Sage Grouse in the June 2017 issue.

[Feature photo: Whitewater rafting provides kids with a challenge and new skills. // Courtesy of Wiley E. Waters]

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