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5 Tips That May Save Your Family Whitewater Rafting Trip
Last month, I, along with my 11 year old son and some other family members, embarked on a multi-day whitewater rafting and camping adventure along the Green River that connects Colorado and Utah.
We considered ourselves to be relatively experienced for this trip given that I had participated in two days of whitewater rafting on the Pacure River in Costa Rica (Class III-IV) and rafted in the state of Veracruz in Mexico (Class III), my son had enrolled in a couple of day rafting trips around the Washington, DC area (Class II), and another family member obtained her whitewater rafting certification, as a young adult.
We were very excited to sign up for the Green River rafting trip, which was labeled as a family one, consisting of Class III rapids, and which allowed for children as young as 7 years old to participate (increasing to 12 years old at the discretion of the tour company).
However, as evidenced by the video below, one of the rapids aptly labeled Disaster Falls (Class IV), which we encountered on our first day of the trip, frazzled all of our nerves for the adventure activity to a point that I felt compelled to write a post of tips and questions to ask your tour operator both prior to booking and at the start of your trip.
Be mindful of the time of year you are rafting. We have all seen it. Whether it's a result of a dam release or other natural events, there are certain times during the year that a river flows higher. A higher river means that, as a rafter, you don't need to work as hard.
However, these conditions also translate to a higher Class of rapids. When we booked our trip, the tour company indicated that there would be a dam release anytime from late Spring to Early Summer. While we did receive an email one week prior to our departure that there was higher water due to a dam release and there would be in increased chance of "involuntary swimming", the company did not increase the minimum age requirement.
If you are concerned about anyone's swimming capabilities, book a trip for later in the season. Being an "involuntary swimmer" in a rapid is no joke as the undertow or current is very strong. It's important that everyone in your party understands what to do in case they fall out of the raft (most notably to remain calm).
For example, in the video above, what was not shown was that I had to hold my breath for about 20 seconds while being tossed around in the current only to encounter 20 foot waves when I popped up. All told, I was in the water for a total of 3 minutes 20 seconds before being pulled onto the raft It was physically exhausting to maintain "river position" during this time. So, better to assess everyone's readiness and willingness for the adventure beforehand.
At the start of the trip, ensure the guide goes over ALL of the raft commands AND practices those commands. Some commands are pretty standard, like “forward paddle,” “back paddle”, "left forward / right back" or “left turn/right turn,” but even those vary a little bit. Besides the paddling commands, there will be instances when the guide decides it’s necessary to make a last-second move to avoid a flip, or getting stuck on a rock. The main command that will come in handy to know is “over-right” and “over-left" and “hang on” or “get down".
For us, all commands were communicated and practiced with the exception of "hang on" / "get down / "hold on". From previous experience, I knew what to do when told to "get down", but the "hang on" / "hold on" command was new to me and not covered during our first drills. So, in the video when you hear the guide say "hold on", no one knew how to react accordingly.
Ask your guide if s/he has rafted or received information about your route within the last 48 hours. Rapid conditions can change very quickly, but in general a guide would have memorized the route to know which rapids are Class II, III, etc. so as to tell you and prepare the group ahead of time.
If your guide is not sure of the specific conditions at a specific rapid, ask if it can be scouted beforehand. To scout a rapid merely means that you tether your rafts and walk / hike to a viewing area to see the rapid and have the guide communicate the strategy for going through it. This is important if you have younger children or beginner swimmers in your party as everyone can assess beforehand whether the upcoming rapids are appropriate for them. If it's deemed too scary, then folks can easily switch bankside to the heavier gear raft (the raft that contains all the clothing, food, tents, etc.) and enjoy the ride down the rapids without worry.
Above all, going on a family whitewater rafting trip is a memorable travel experience that allows you to see phenomenal geologic formations and wildlife from a unique perspective. When prepared properly, you'll have lots of fun and will be talking about it for years!