How White-water Rafting Works

By: Maria Trimarchi
Extreme Sports Image Gallery White-water rafting is a fun (and wet) adventure sport. See pictures of extreme sports.
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If you've ever tried hiking, mountain biking or camping, you may have found you caught the outdoor adventuring bug. These activities frequently inspire people to become outdoor enthusiasts who look for the next adventure sport to try. Adventure sports challenge the body and offer an exhilarating escape from the day to day. They include activities such as rock climbing and bouldering, skiing, kayaking and canyoneering, to name just a few.

In 2004, nearly 160 million Americans participated in some form of active outdoor recreation. That's everything from fishing to snowboarding to the more extreme sport of mountaineering [source: Outdoor Industry Foundation Participation Study]. But whether you're a weekend warrior, expert athlete or just testing the waters of adventure sports, there's one activity waiting for you no matter what your skill level: white-water rafting.


In white-water rafting, participants guide and paddle a raft through whitewater, or a river's rapids. The sport's popularity began to grow when it became part of the Olympic Games in the 1970s. Today it's estimated that between nine and 10 million people have tried white-water rafting, with about three million rafters running a river more than twice a year [source: Wilderness Medical Society].

So how are rapids classified? What are the different types of white-water rafts? Find out in the next section.


White-water Rapids

Frans Lemmens/The Image Bank/Getty Images Men negotiate the raging rapids of the Chattooga River.

Anyone with an adventurous spirit can enjoy white-water rafting. But no matter what your age, you'll need to know how to choose the right river for your experience level. White-water rapids are rated for difficulty, and there are six levels of classification.

Class I and II rapids are best for families and beginners:


Class I: Class I rapids are categorized as the easiest. This is generally flat, moving water with few or no waves or obstructions. Very little steering is needed.

Class II: Class II rapids are slightly more difficult. This water may have medium-sized waves and may require some maneuvering around rocks.

For the more adventuresome novices and intermediate rafters, Class III and IV rapids provide technical challenges. Many confident beginners try Class III rapids on their first rafting trip.

Class III: Class III rapids have many moderate, irregular waves, fast currents and narrow passages. These rapids are less forgiving if you make a mistake. You may encounter large but easily navigable waves.

Class IV: Class IV rapids are very difficult and should be navigated by only those with advanced maneuvering skills. These rapids have cross-currents, fast and turbulent water and large, powerful waves.

Experts in search of a challenge will find the most challenging rapids in Classes V and VI.

Class V: Class V rapids are extremely difficult. These waters are intense and have powerful currents, cross-currents, large drops and holes as well as obstructed, turbulent rapids.

Class VI: Class VI rapids are impossible or almost impossible to navigate.

Rivers won't always fall easily into a classification and may surprise you with their difficulty. You'll also need to learn how to "read" the river from your raft and from the shore (called scouting).

The art of river reading involves looking at the different elements of the river to determine any possible dangers. Break down your read by first looking at the big picture, such as the direction of the current and scouting any hazards such as fallen trees or big rocks. Then scout out the details, such as available rest stops (known as eddies).

Rivers on the East Coast require more technical expertise than those on the West Coast, and have a greater number of boulders and rocks to navigate. West Coast rivers tend to have higher water volume and steeper descents. Be sure to pick a river that interests you -- you'll be looking at the scenery for the duration of your trip!

When planning an East Coast rafting adventure, some of the best river runs are the Ocoee River in Polk County, Tenn., which was home to the 1996 Olympic Canoe/Kayak White-water Slalom competition; the Nantahala River in Bryson City, N.C.; the Gauley River in Summersville, W.V. and the Chattooga River outside of Clayton, Ga. The Chattooga River, for the film buffs out there, is where "Deliverance" was shot.

On the West Coast, you'll want to explore Cache La Poudre and Gore Canyon in Colorado and Clarks Fork of the Yellowstone in Montana [source: GoogoBits].

Now that we know about rapids and some of the best rivers runs, let's talk about types of crafts used on whitewater.


White-water Rafts

A team of rafters rides out the rapids of the Kicking Horse River in Yoho National Park, British Columbia.
Marcel Antonisse/AFP/Getty Images

Most white-water rafting trips are group adventures in rented paddle rafts or oar rafts. Choosing which type of raft will depend on what type of outing you're planning.

Paddle rafts usually seat a group of four to eight people and a guide. These inflatable, plastic rafts are quick in the water and may be taken out on any level of whitewater. Most commercially guided services use paddle rafts. Everyone is expected to paddle while a guide positioned at the rear of the boat shouts out instructions. There's also a small version of a paddle raft, the sporty and challenging R2, made for two people.


If you're looking for a less-participatory adventure, try renting an oar raft. Oar rafts are inflatable and powered by a guide with a set of long wooden oars. These rafts usually seat three to five people and are taken on easy to moderate river runs.

There's also a hybrid -- oar rafts with paddle assist. These rafts are inflatable and maneuvered by a guide with a set of long wooden oars, but the passengers help with the paddling. These rafts are used on intermediate to advanced rapids.

Rafts are also categorized as either self-bailers or catarafts. Self bailers look like traditional inflated rafts but the edges of the base are laced to the sides of the raft allowing water to flow across the floor, down the edges and out through the lacings. Most modern rafts are self bailers.

Catarafts are made of two inflatable tubes held together by a metal frame and are easier to maneuver than self bailing rafts. They're designed to hold fewer passengers and are good options for people who want to own their own raft.

There are many other alternative white-water river crafts, big and small, that you may encounter as you become more skilled with white-water expeditions. For example, if you take a rafting trip in the Grand Canyon, you may come across a J-rig -- a big pontoon-style boat that's often motorized.

For people who are interested in solo or two-person adventures, ducks are small, inflatable and self-bailing kayaks that can be paddled down easy to moderate rapids. For the more performance-oriented river runners, hard-sided kayaks (made of rigid plastic) and canoes (made of fiberglass, Kevlar or plastic) are popular choices.

Next we'll learn about "river rats," what to expect from guided white-water rafting trips and some basic paddling techniques.


White-water Guides, Gear and Safety

Vincenzo Lombardo/Taxi/Getty Images You'll be required to wear a life jacket while white-water rafting -- just in case.

"River rats"are people with rapids experience who are hired as guides by commercial rafting companies. These trained professionals make sure your white-water rafting experience is safe and fun. Guides are trained in white-water CPR, first aid and many are wilderness experts.

Your guide will make sure you know how to paddle and will instruct you on ways to stay safe on the river. Some guides join you in the raft while others stay alongside in kayaks. Whether your guide is in-raft or not depends on the company you choose. Many guided trips last about 3 to 4 hours on the river, although some services offer full-day, multi-day and multi-sport packages.


At the start of your trip, you'll meet with your guide. You will be required to sign a release form and listen to a safety talk before heading to your boat. U.S. Coast Guard-approved life vests -- PFDs, or personal floatation devices -- are provided and required. Some services also require you wear a helmet.

Once your group is onboard and afloat, your guide will instruct you on basic paddling techniques and give you a little time to practice before heading out on the river. While you shouldn't expect to be a master rower your first time out, you should be aware of some basic moves: the forward stroke, stern draw, and the forward and reverse sweeps.

The forward stroke allows you to pilot your raft or boat by going faster or slower than the river current. If you were to execute this stroke on one side of the boat only, your adventure would simply take you in a circle. But do this stroke on both sides of the boat, and away you go.

You're at the mercy of the river current, so to avoid turning, use a stroke called a stern draw. This pulls the stern (the back of the boat) in line with the bow (the front of the boat), keeping you in a (relatively) straight path. If you want to make a turn, though, the forward sweep allows you to turn without slowing down.

And what do you do if you find yourself going backward? Don't panic -- try the reverse sweep. This stroke will slow you down and help get the boat headed in the correct direction again.

While many of these strokes are intended for solo or two-person rafters, not guided trips, the more you know about paddling, the safer you'll be on the river.

While the majority of injuries and fatalities happen on self-guided river runs rather than guided tours, it's important to keep in mind that rafting, while fun, is an adventure that comes with risks. To participate in white-water rafting, you don't need to be an athlete or swimmer but the better physical condition you're in, the easier it will be for you to paddle and pull yourself to safety if you fall overboard.


Lots More Information

Related Articles

More Great Links

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