Unlike whitewater kayaking or canoeing, which are performed in smaller one or two-passenger boats, whitewater rafting is typically done in much larger inflatable rafts that can carry a dozen paddlers or more, and which are owned and operated by commercial rafting companies.
As the name implies, this type of rafting is usually done along mountain rivers that contain a large degree of rapids and whitewater, thus giving the raft passengers the thrill they’re seeking. Most rafting runs are taken along stretches of Grade 2 to Grade 5 rapids, with Grade 2 being fairly calm water with a few rocks or water hazards, and Grade 5 being large waves, high volumes of water, lots of water hazards and is usually reserved for paddlers with advanced whitewater experience.
Whitewater rafts have evolved over the years along with the sport. A modern raft is inflatable and constructed from an extremely rugged, multi-layered vinyl or rubberized fabric. Just like a large ocean-going ship, a modern whitewater raft is built with several separate inflatable chambers, so that if one is punctured, the raft will still stay afloat. There are a variety of sizes of rafts in production today, ranging in size from about 10 feet long to over 20 feet or more.
Whitewater rafts can be steered in several ways, but the most common methods are via a rudder or paddle at the stern of the raft. Each of the 4 to 12 raft passengers also helps to propel and maneuver the boat with a standard wooden paddle similar to a canoe paddle.
Unlike kayaks and canoes, which are small and nimble enough to maneuver between and around many water hazards, whitewater rafts often try to “punch” their way over obstacles. Basically the raft is large enough, and has enough speed and momentum, that it can push right through and over river hydraulics that would stop a smaller boat. Sort of like a monster truck barreling over the top of a bunch of parked cars. This adds to the thrill and excitement of whitewater rafting, and even fairly inexperienced paddlers can navigate Grade 4 rapids with little experience or training.
There are a variety of other maneuvers common to whitewater rafting, techniques like “high siding” where rafters climb to one side of the raft to keep it from overturning, or the “taco” where an underinflated raft basically buckles and folds up like a taco from the powerful water hydraulics. These rafts can even completely capsize under certain circumstances, dumping their passengers and all their belongings into the raging river.
Know The Risks
As fun and thrilling as it can be, whitewater rafting is also an extreme sport that can be quite dangerous. Many people think of rafting as some sort of amusement park ride, like a roller coaster that delivers them safely back to the starting gate after a few minutes of excitement. But while safety has improved over the years, rafting can still be a dangerous sport, performed in remote locations miles away from paramedics or rescue personnel. There have been any number of serious injuries and even fatalities on private and commercial rafting trips, even with highly skilled guides and paddlers on board.
Because of this fact, most commercial rafting operators require customers to sign waiver forms prior to the trip informing them of the risks involved. Some stretches of river are inherently unsafe, due to extreme water features, fallen trees, “keeper hydraulics,” rock slides, and of course dangerous waterfalls. Rafting with an experienced guide or outfitter is the best way to navigate these hazards safely, as they will know the river and what to expect around the next turn.
Unfortunately, some whitewater rafting mishaps occur because of recklessness or improper behavior. Thinks like drinking alcohol before or during a raft trip, goofing around at the wrong moment, showboating, or jumping out of the raft to swim along in the current. There are risks in the water even in areas that appear calm and safe, like when a swimmer abruptly decides to stand up on a rocky riverbed in a strong current – and risks having his or her foot entrapped in the rocks.
If you are on a rafting expedition and you somehow find yourself out of the raft, stay calm and look for safe place to swim to. One such area could be an eddy in the river, basically an area of calm water behind a rock that’s shielded from the stronger currents. Get out of the water where you can, and always try to prevent yourself from being swept up in the current and taken downstream.
Give It A Try!
But don’t let the risks scare you away from a memorable whitewater rafting adventure. If you choose a good guide or outfitter, make sure you have the proper training and equipment, and take the necessary precautions, there’s no reason you can’t have a safe and exciting raft trip that you’ll remember for a lifetime.