Whitewater rafting is a group recreational activity using inflatable rubber dinghies which can often accommodate up to 8 people or sometimes more (plus a qualified guide) which travel downstream on rivers which have flowing rapids (whitewater, which causes ‘wave like’ undulations) and which often speeds up and disorientates the dinghy unexpectedly and the objective is to successfully navigate the water through a stretch of the river over a half day/full day (or longer) trip with the help of a guide.
Many people will have seen whitewater rafting adventure films, mostly from America, which may have made them apprehensive about the dangers and difficulties encountered during, what many would term, this ‘extreme’ sport.
And, although, there are rivers and rapids which do require a lot of skill and can be dangerous if not navigated with care, here In the UK, there are plenty of rivers, mostly (though not exclusively) located in Scotland and Wales, where you can enjoy a beginner’s experience of whitewater rafting at a much gentler pace. In fact, you can go rafting without ever having tried it before and there are even companies who offer it as an activity for stag and hen parties or for corporate team building so it’s an exhilarating way to try something different without having to be an expert.
Planning Your Trip
Many rafting companies in the UK now have their own websites so you can do plenty of research before you go. The main rafting ‘season’ usually runs from late April to the end of September and the main thing you should consider is to plan around water levels. Each rafting location will be able to give you a good indication as to the time of the year when the water levels are at their highest and fastest and also when they’re usually at their most sedate. That way, you can plan the date of your trip around the level of difficulty you wish to encounter. Freak weather aside, however, the water tends to be wilder in spring and sometimes in autumn and less so in summer.
Once you’ve decided on a river and course, call ahead to make a booking. You can book anything from a day’s rafting to a whole weekend and sometimes even longer. The rafting companies need to know the size of your party so that they can allocate the necessary equipment and number of rafts to suit. All the equipment and your raft and paddle will be included in the cost of the trip.
Often, there are several rafting companies offering similar trips in the same location so do your research first and compare costs and speak to the company itself to get a feel for it. The company can make or break a trip so it’s important to choose a reputable one. Check out to see if they have experienced guides. The general rule of thumb is that you’ll be in a party of perhaps 4 or 5 dinghies all navigating the river at the same time and each one will be ‘skippered’ by a trained guide who’s responsible for keeping you on course, keeping the dinghy afloat and travelling as it should be (which can often mean them barking orders such as “all those of you on the left, paddle like mad, all those on the right, drop your oars NOW!”
However, it’s not as bad as all that. Generally, your guide is there to ensure you have a fun day and, above all else, to ensure you have a safe passage.
What Do I Need to Bring?
First things first. You WILL get wet and there is the chance that your dinghy will be flipped over! That’s all part of the fun.
Water friendly clothing is the order of the day. A swim suit or swim shorts and a T-shirt are standard in summer. The rafting company will provide you with a crash helmet (similar to cycling helmets) and a life jacket which you’ll wear over your T-shirt and you should wear a pair of trainers which you don’t mind getting wet or river sandals if you prefer. Because there are rocks in the river, you can’t go barefoot. They’ll also provide you with your dinghy and a paddle each to row with. Yes, you’ll be expected to do some paddling. It isn’t a leisure cruise, after all!
The safety wear is more precautionary than anything else but, it’s not uncommon for your dinghy to overturn and for some or all of you to end up in the river. However, that’s part of the fun and an experienced guide will be able to tell you what to do in the event that should happen.
Wear sunscreen for protection. It may not seem all that hot out on the river if you’ve got a soaking but the sun’s rays are still dangerous.
Check out if lunch is provided. Many organised trips include the cost of a packed lunch or barbecue which your guide will prepare for you half-way through at a spot where you can moor up your raft during your trip but you should bring your own provisions if food’s not included – don’t take food or drink onto the dinghy though!
Apart from this, there’s very little else you should bring. Don’t carry valuables, mobile phones, keys or money with you once you’re actually out on the water. Leave them back in your vehicle. You’re dinghy is going to get tossed around to some extent on your trip so the likelihood is you’ll lose anything that’s in your pockets or things will get water damaged.
What do the Different Grades of Rapids Mean?
Rapids vary in their degrees of difficulty and are usually classed from 1 to 6. Class 1 is considered very easy and the gentlest, calmest water whilst Class 6 rapids are only for extreme experts as the water can be almost impossible to navigate and can also be very dangerous. On most UK rafting trips, the waters are usually Class 2 and 3, alternating calm passages with some trickier irregular high waves but, with an experienced guide in there with you, they shouldn’t present too much of a problem. A guide will usually tell you that you’re about to come up to a tricky part of the course and give everyone in the raft full instructions as to what he/she expects them to do and what to do in the event that the dinghy does temporarily capsize. Rafting company websites will often tell you how their own specific stretches of river are classified so you can gauge the degree of difficulty in advance.
Whitewater rafting is such a fun activity. You should be able to swim adequately but you don’t need to have extreme levels of physical fitness or rowing ability and children are welcome on most trips too, although it’s not a suitable activity for babies and very young children. Rafting companies can advise you on their own policies on age.
As long as you’re up for pitching in, you’ll experience a day full of laughter, adventure and it’s a great way to spend a day out on the river…getting soaked at the same time, of course!