Many rivers offer a rafting experience that is ideal for families and children. Rafting combines the very best elements of a summer holiday: excitement, adventure, scenery, camping, great food. Rafting can also be a multi-generational trip. As many as three generations (grandparents, parents and children) have safely paddled down rivers together!
Going with a professional rafting company is essential to ensure your safety and comfort. Many questions should be asked of your prospective rafting outfitter:
- What type of rafts are available?
- Which rafting trip is best for my family and what is the minimum age/weight to go rafting?
- How long have you been offering trips to families and what safety standards do you use on trips with children or older adults?
What are the Types of Rafts Available?
An important question to ask your rafting outfitter is what types of rafts do they use (type of propulsion)? The following types of rafts are available:
Each person in the raft gets a paddle and one professional guide who sits in the back calling out commands and steering the boat. This is the most popular means of rafting today, but does require the participation of everyone when doing rapids of moderate difficulty (Class 3 or higher). In Class 1 or 2 rapids, paddling is not so critical that everyone must be paddling. Younger kids could jump to the front of the raft in these rapids and just hang on. Paddle rafting is a true participation sport and paddle rafts are used on all classes of whitewater from Class 1-5. Paddle rafts are the preferred type of raft for most Class 3 and 4 whitewater trips. Paddle rafts can also do extreme whitewater as they are ideal on technical and steep rivers with an expert guide at the helm. Many of the Class 5 rivers that are run commercially use paddle rafts.
Oar rafts are simply rafts with a large rectangular rowing frame strapped in securely to the raft, either in the middle or the back of the boat (stern). This frame will have a seat for the guide and two pins or oarlocks that support the oars. The guide will sit facing downstream and row through the rapids. The oars are quite powerful and the guide often does not need additional paddlers. However, on some rivers with Class 3 and 4 whitewater, participants may each have a paddle and the guide will call out commands for them to paddle. In this case, the company should use a stern-mounted frame so that all the paddlers are in front of the guide.
A specialized type of oar raft, the cataraft, is typically two large tubes with an oar frame attached. Catarafts are capable of running extreme whitewater rapids and big holes, and for this reason, are often used as safety rafts on Class 4 and 5 rivers.
Motorized rafts are very common on large-volume rivers in North America.The Grand Canyon of the Colorado and the Thompson River in British Columbia are two of the most popular rivers for motorized rafting. Participants merely sit and hold on through the rapids so it is particularly popular with seniors and those that don’t want to actively paddle. One unique advantage is that motor rafts can zip back upstream and re-run some rapids.
Not technically a raft, but jet boats are now operating on many river sections that rafts also navigate. Some people may think this is a type of rafting as these boats frequently jet up and down whitewater rapids.
What Type of Raft trip is Best for my Family?
What type of raft trip is best for your family depends on the following factors:
- Age and experience of the family members
- Difficulty of the whitewater and special river hazards or features
- Personal preference for an active or passive trip
- Length of trip desired
Age and experience are important factors in deciding the type of trip. Every outfitter has different age limits for their trips and they will tell you what river is best. A few outfitters will take young children from ages 5 and up, especially if they are just doing a float trip. We recommend that families with young children try an easy river (Class 1 – 2) as a day trip (2 to 4 hours in length) to see how the children and parents enjoy the trip. These trips are often marketed as scenic float trips.
Whitewater trips that feature Class 3 rapids will usually have a minimum age of between 8 and 12. These age limits are often set by the outfitters based on their judgment. They may also ask you about the weight of your children since lifejackets have a weight rating. In our experience, children under the ages of 8 or 9 (usually less than 60 pounds), are not very good paddlers and thus should go in an oar raft or a paddle raft with other stronger paddlers. If your children enjoy camping, an overnight rafting trip would be a highlight of the summer.
Class 4 trips are best when your children are teenagers as most companies will have a minimum age limit of 12 to 14 for more challenging rivers. Check to see if any special river hazards or features exist such as extremely cold water, log hazards, portages (carry around an unrunnable rapid) or other features that you should be aware of. Swimming ability is a must when running Class 4.
An important consideration in choosing your trip is how active you want to be. If you’d rather just sit and enjoy the scenery, then an oar or motor raft trip is the best choice. If you want to be an active participant and feel the reward of paddling the river, then a paddle raft is your only option.
Multi-day rafting expedition trips, usually using oar rafts, are an incredible family experience. Chances are you’ll have miles and miles of floating, perfect for the guide to row you and your family while you relax, enjoy the scenery, float in the river, or try your hand at fishing. Motor rafts are an option on a few large volume rivers and one advantage is that they can speed up the trip during the calm sections. For example, motorized trips on the Grand Canyon are much shorter (7 days) than oar or paddle trips (up to 14 days or longer).
Why Company Experience is Important on a Family Rafting Trip
More experience generally means better judgment on the river. River trips with young children should offer a little excitement but the trip should not scare them either. Younger children have fun getting splashed on a Class 2 rapid and many Class 3 rapids are also appropriate. Some companies have a policy that only senior guides, those with 3 or more seasons of guiding, take families with children especially when the river has Class 3 or higher rapids. On any Class 2, 3 or 4 rapid, guides usually have many options in terms of how they run the rapid. Some routes are definitely more exciting and challenging and others are easier. Senior guides with more years of experience can best determine which route to take families with children.
In general, the outfitters on each river are the best judge of the type of trip that is best for you and your family. However, you should check with several companies because not all have the same standards of safety, customer service or experience on the river.
It makes sense to ask the outfitter how many years of experience their guides have or even request a senior guide for your raft. Some companies have such high turnover from year to year that many of their guides are new or even first-year guides. Others may employ guides with 10 seasons of raft guiding under their belt on rivers around the world. Again, these are questions that you should be asking particularly if you are rafting Class 3+ rapids.