White water rafting travel guide

White-water rafting is a wilderness experience unlike any other. Hiking and riding give you independence, but with rafting you work as a team to negotiate the river and the foaming rapids along it. Multi-day rafting expeditions accommodate complete beginners as well as old hands, with expert guides illuminating the threats rivers face, and inspiring travelers to help conserve them for future generations.
Often it is only when we experience something ourselves that we really feel the desire to save it.
There’s a happy inevitability to any white-water rafting vacation. The river is only going in one direction, so everyone has to go with the flow. The other pleasingly reliable fact is that you’ll quickly bond with your fellow paddlers, and your guide. Not only are you dependent on each other to reach your destination, you also share duties when it comes to setting up camp on the riverbank, and get to know each other around the fire in the evenings. The rapids may provide the thrills, but they’re rarely the most memorable part of these vacations.

Find out more in our white-water rafting travel guide.

Is white-water rafting right for you?

Do go white-water rafting if...

you’re happy to pull together as part of a team, whether it be paddling or putting up a tent.

Don’t go white-water rafting if...

you’re looking for a quick three hours of thrills ‘n’ spills on the river. These are multi-day epics.
Travel Team
If you'd like to chat about White-water rafting or need help finding a vacation to suit you we're very happy to help.

What does white-water rafting involve?

Small group adventures in nature

Our rafting trips are multi-day vacations, not short excursions designed to give you a fun taster session before heading back to base for a few cold beers. They combine adventure travel with a love for nature and wilderness. All participants are expected to work as part of a team, putting in the necessary effort to paddle the river and steer around rapids, and camp in the afternoons.

Professional & encouraging guides

White-water rafting requires good-quality equipment, but it also requires an intimate knowledge of the river itself, and how best to travel along it. Joining an organised tour means that you’re accompanied by expert guides who know every bend in the river, every rock, every overhanging tree branch – and how to navigate them all safely.

But more than that, they are a source of information about life in communities along the river, about the wildlife you’ll see, the local history and geology. Negotiating the rapids is just part of it – there are plenty of calm stretches along the river where you’ll really enjoy having a knowledgeable guide to chat to.

Protecting rivers

Rivers around the world, even those used regularly for tourism, are in danger. Not only from a warming climate that leads to drought, but from pollution, and demand for water from farms, ranches and urban areas. Many rivers are disrupted by networks of dams that limit flow.

Your guides are out on the rivers for months at a time during the season. They see first-hand the effects of climate change, sewage release, biodiversity loss, and waterways being dammed for hydropower. Which means there’s no-one more passionate about saving the rivers, or explaining the threats they face.

Our partners are involved with and financially support a wide range of conservation organisations that help to protect rivers and the wilderness areas they pass through. In addition to this, travelers may be asked to contribute a small daily donation – just a couple of dollars – which is then passed directly on to these organisations.

While rafting in the USA, you’ll pass through wilderness areas that are home to black bears, bighorn sheep, otters, bald eagles and falcons; soak in hot springs; bathe in the river and sunbathe on small beaches. But these places don’t stay pristine all on their own – responsible tourism is key to keeping them that way, and the hope is that every rafting trip helps inspire travelers to protect nature.

The chance to add on activities

Rafting can also be combined with other activities: safaris in search of rhinos, tigers and leopards in Chitwan, Nepal, for instance, or touring Maya sites in Guatemala. You can try packrafting in Croatia, hiking between bodies of water and carrying small rafts that are easily inflated and deflated.

What is the hardest level of white-water rafting?

Rafting trips are typically ranked by a universal classification system of white water, with VI being virtually impassable. The vast majority of white-water rafting trips are ranked at either III, which is ideal for beginners, or IV, for intermediate to advanced rafters. You can expect some pretty big rapids, but nothing too scary.

White-water rafting with kids

Rafting in some places, such as Madagascar or Guatemala, can be tough-going at times and is best-suited to adults or older teens. But the USA is particularly good for family rafting trips, and children as young as five are welcome to pick up a paddle and get stuck in.

They’ll need to be happy with camping in the evenings, and pitching in to help, but the actual rafting side of things isn’t too much hard work. In fact, you can even join trips where the guides do all the paddling. Some trips employ ‘river jesters’ – team members who entertain and engage kids throughout the trip with various nature-based activities.

In Croatia, children from 12 years old can join packrafting tours, although they’ll want to be quite active as this kind of trip, which involves hiking too, is more physically strenuous than your typical white-water rafting trip.

Is white-water rafting dangerous?

While there is always an element of risk involved in any form of adventure tourism – and your level of travel insurance needs to reflect that – you’ll be accompanied by professional instructors and river guides throughout.

It’s not always necessary to be a good swimmer (although that’s obviously another bit of peace of mind), as life vests and helmets will be mandatory whenever you’re on the water. You’ll be given some basic instruction on how to paddle and steer before setting off, and there is natural progression along the river to build up skills and confidence before you start hitting the bigger rapids.
Written by Rob Perkins
Photo credits: [Page banner: Chandan Chaurasia] [Intro: Brad Pearson] [Is white-water rafting right for you?: Vince Fleming] [Professional & encouraging guides: J V] [What is the hardest level of white-water rafting?: Lindsey Erin]