White Water Rafting For Beginners: The Complete Guide

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White Water Rafting For Beginners: The Complete Guide

Are you preparing for your first time whitewater rafting? If so, you’ve come to the right place. In our guide to white water rafting for beginners, we’re going to cover the basics to prepare you for that first trip. Sure - there will still be some growing pains as you practice your paddling techniques on the water and are actually faced with raging whitewater rapids. But you can do a lot to prepare yourself beforehand - and this guide to white water rafting for beginners is a great first step!

By taking heed of our white water rafting tips for beginners, you can head out on that initial journey with much more confidence. And if you’re lucky, you’ll actually enjoy your first trip - something not all seasoned rafters can say for themselves! Let’s explain what we’re going to cover today.

What You’ll Learn In Our Guide To White Water Rafting For Beginners

Here is what you’re going to learn in our guide to white water rafting for beginners:

  • River Grading & Picking Your First Destination
  • Key Terms You Must Know
  • What To Wear & What To Bring
  • Additional White Water Rafting Tips To Set You Up For Success

As you can see, we’ve got a ton to cover in this article. Let’s not delay any longer. The first thing we want to cover in our white water rafting for beginners guide is how to choose your first destination.

River Grading: How To Choose Your First Time Whitewater Rafting Location

As you probably already know, not all rivers are created equal in terms of intensity. There is a grading system used to define the intensity of the currents of a given river. We’re going to share some of our favorite places to learn how to whitewater raft. But first, let’s break down the different whitewater rapid grades.

Breaking Down The Different Whitewater Rapid Classes

The American Whitewater Association uses the International Scale of River Difficulty to help people understand what exactly they are getting themselves into when it comes to a particular river. This grading system will help you pick your first whitewater rafting destination - as you’ll want to start with one of the lower grades. They range from Grade I up to Grade VI - let’s break them down for you below:

  1. Grade I - this is a great starting point for first-timers, as you can get a feel for some fast-moving water with small waves without much risk. If you fall overboard, you won’t have trouble swimming to safety or getting back in the raft.
  2. Grade II - after your first time whitewater rafting you may consider this class. Here, you’ll experience faster rapids - but they’re still straightforward with clear channels. You and your team will have no problem navigating medium-sized waves and avoiding rocks. And like grade I rapids, swimming is easy. Recommended for novice rafters.
  3. Grade III - in this class, you’ll find that rapids are a bit faster than grade II and they don’t necessarily work the way you expect. This irregularity requires rafters to navigate with complex maneuvers. The AWA recommends scouting your location if it’s grade III or higher. Still, though, you can typically swim to safety on your own - or be easily helped with minor assistance.
  4. Grade IV - these are more advanced rapids that can be intense and powerful - however, they are still predictable to some degree. The AWA recommends these rapids for experts who possess the ability to maneuver their boats with precision and quickness as they encounter unexpected changes in the water. A key takeaway is that in grade IV rapids, self-rescue is virtually impossible - group rescue may be necessary. And, there is a moderate to high risk of injury.
  5. Grade V - the second highest class of rapids, these locations are recommended only for groups of experts who are up for the challenge of long, obstructed, and/or violent rapids - sometimes, all at once. There will be drops along the course of the river, and the risk of injury is higher - even group rescue is challenging.
  6. Grade VI - the pinnacle of whitewater rafting. These rapids are actually very rarely tackled, as the risk of injury is very serious and rescues are next to impossible. You will likely never find yourself on this type of river.

A Few Of Our Favorite Places To Learn How To Whitewater Raft:

Now that you know all about the grading system, your next question is probably - where should I head to learn how to whitewater raft? Anywhere you can find a well-respected guide that has experience in training beginners is a great place to start. However, if you are looking to knock something off your bucket list, here are some of the most amazing places to learn how to whitewater raft in the country:

  • Utah (Colorado River)
  • Wyoming (Snake River)
  • Oregon (Rogue River)
  • California (Salmon River)
  • Maryland (Potomac River)
  • North Carolina (Tuckasegee River)
  • Arizona (Colorado River)

Want to find the best location within your local vicinity? Just type in “whitewater rafting guided trips near me” and see what comes up. Or, if you have a white water rafting group in your area on Facebook, see what they recommend! And, similar to choosing among the best fishing spots in the US, it really comes down to personal preference and what you want out of the experience. As long as you’re surrounded by friends and the serenity of nature, you are going to have a great trip!

Key Whitewater Rafting Terms Beginners Must Know

Once you’ve picked out your destination and set the date (well in advance, ideally), it’s time to start preparing yourself. First and foremost, there are some important terms you need to know.

first time whitewater rafting

Knowing what these terms mean and when to use them won’t just help you look the part on the big day - it could very well save lives. Remember - whitewater rafting is a group activity, so communication is important. Here are some terms you need to engrain in your brain:

  • Put In & Take Out - these terms symbolize the start (put in) and the end (take out) of the whitewater trip. 
  • River Left/Right - along your trip, your guide may point out cool scenery or important elements of the river ahead to guide the group through paddling. They will likely be facing you rather than the path ahead - and when they call out “river left” or “river right”, they are describing something important on that side of the boat. It’s important to note that they call out these directions relative to your position - when the guide says “rocks ahead on river right”, it means you need to watch out for rocks to your right side ahead.
  • Swimmer - this one is pretty obvious. When the guide yells out “swimmer” he is talking to someone in the water. The term swimmer refers to both those who intended to take a dip and those who have fallen overboard. This is a common term you’ll need to know for performing group rescues.
  • Safety Kayak - depending on the class of your rapids, you may have a safety kayak following behind you. These are professionals who can assist in keeping everyone safe - especially swimmers. The number of safety kayaks accompanying you on your journey will depend on the number of rafters and the grade of the rapids.

On the day of your trip, your guide will likely go over a few more important terms with you. And chances are, your guide may have their own unique terms - so be sure to listen carefully and follow along so you aren’t confused in a high-stakes situation!

What To Wear & Bring Your First Time Whitewater Rafting

What you wear and what you bring for your first-time whitewater rafting will make or break your experience. The proper attire can be the difference between a fun, exciting day on the water and an uncomfortable, cold, wet, miserable day. Worry not - here are all the clothing essentials you need:

Clothing To Wear

The perfect whitewater rafting outfit depends on the conditions. If it’s going to be cold and rainy, then you may want to layer up strategically. However, during the hot summer days, you can strip those layers off and just stick with a tank-top and swimsuit.

  • Swimsuit and quick-drying shorts. Guys will ideally wear board shorts with a rash guard - while ladies will want to wear swim shorts rather than a bikini. Opt for performance/function over appearance.
  • Close-toed shoes that you don’t mind getting wet. Sandals may be fine as long as they strap on securely, but a pair of water shoes are recommended.
  • Synthetic tops. Stick with this material as it resists water and dries out quicker. Cotton should be avoided at all costs. Opt for a short or long sleeve depending on the weather. Ideally, you would get a dry top that is entirely waterproof.
  • Sunglasses and a hat. These will protect your head, face, and neck from the sun beating down on you. Sunglasses in particular are important to help you prevent glare and keep your vision clear.

Essentials To Bring

Along with the essential clothing, there are some essential items to pack on your journey. Here are the basics:

  • Sunscreen
  • Water & snacks
  • Trash bags if necessary
  • A dry bag to keep valuables safe (unless you leave these at home/in a locker)
  • Extra clothing for after the trip
  • Towels
  • Cash 

Perhaps as important as knowing what to bring is knowing what not to bring. We encourage you to leave the following items at home, in your car, or in a locker

  • Jewelry
  • Smartphones and electronics (unless waterproof)
  • Wallet

Additional White Water Rafting Tips For Beginners

You’ve got the essentials prepared for the big day - you’re just about ready. But, allow us to share a few additional white water rafting tips for beginners before you make your way to the destination.

how to whitewater raft

These white water rafting tips for beginners will help set you up for success and enjoy a fun, exciting day on the water.

Book A Trip With A Guide Well In Advance

Make sure you book your trip with a guide well in advance. You’ll save a ton of money this way - and you can make sure you get all your essentials together before the big day. You don’t want to scramble to find the right clothing or gear - give yourself a good runway. And, this will also give you time to learn as much as you can before the big day - which is our next white water rafting tips for beginners.

Learn As Much As You Can Before The Big Day

Your guide will teach you all the basics on the water or before you get out there. However, you should still take time to learn as much about how to whitewater raft as you can before the big day. That means learning:

  • How to hold a paddle (and how to use it)
  • Where to position yourself in the raft
  • How to swim to safety if you fall overboard
  • How to execute a group rescue
  • The importance of working as a team

Spend a little bit of time watching videos on rafting techniques and swimming methods - and just immersing yourself in the wide world of whitewater rafting. You’ve got a lot to learn - but by preparing yourself before the big day, you’ll be able to hit the ground running and be well ahead of the curve.

Bring Experienced Friends To Make Yourself More Comfortable

If this is your first time whitewater rafting, it can be daunting. You can make the experience less stressful and more comfortable by surrounding yourself with an experienced group of friends. But, even if your group is inexperienced, just being with people you know can make the world of difference. Because you all have to work as a team, it’s best to be in a group of people you are comfortable working with.

Trust Your Guide & Listen To Their Commands

This is the most important of any white water rafting tips for beginners: trust your guide and listen to their commands intently. They are the experts and they have your best interests in mind. While they are certainly going to do everything they can to ensure you have a fun day, they are more concerned with your safety. When they are lecturing you before you get on the water, be present and listen intently. And when they give you a command, follow it. Don’t make the mistake of thinking you know more than your guide - this is what they do for a living!

Final Thoughts On White Water Rafting For Beginners

At this point, our guide to white water rafting for beginners is complete. We’ve shared our top white water rafting tips for beginners and taught you the basics of how to whitewater raft. 

There is much more to rafting on whitewater rapids, but advanced techniques are a discussion for another day. For now, you can get started preparing for your trip well in advance and securing all the essentials. Prepare yourself for the big day and you’re sure to have a memorable experience that leaves you looking forward to the next trip.

And when the time comes to get your own whitewater raft, trust the experts at Red Beard Sailing. We have one of the best whitewater raft collections online. But that’s not all - we’re your one-stop-shop for all things boating. Whether you want a small catamaran or Takacat, we’ve got all this and more. 

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