Beginners Guide To White Water Rafting

White Water Rafting

What is White Water Rafting?

White water rafting is an adventure sport and outdoor hobby in which you use an inflatable raft to travel along a body of water normally a river, mainly on the rough parts where there is white water.

In the UK and the US, there are also many whitewater centres you can visit to take part.

Traditionally you will be a part of a team while on the inflatable raft and will need to work together to navigate the waters.

A Brief History

The earliest recordings in the history of white water rafting were around 1811 when someone had planned to navigate the Snake River located in Wyoming. At this point in time, they did not have the right experience or equipment and they believed it too dangerous.

In the 1840’s Horace Day and John Fremont would create a rubber raft to survey the Rocky Mountains.

In the early 1900’s Clyde Smith went on to lead the first commercial raft trip along the Mad River (Snake River, Wyoming)

By the 1960’s & 70’s white water rafting companies were born and popularity and demand was on the up!

Finally, in 1972 White Water rafting was added to the Olympics in Munich and since then the interest and popularity has continued to increase.

White Water Rafting Equipment List

White Water Rafting Equipment List

The beauty of white water rafting is that as a beginner you can experience the hobby before you go out and purchase your own equipment.

Most whitewater rafting centres will rent you the equipment that you will need to partake, so you can decide if the hobby is something you will continue with before buying personal equipment.

That being said I’ll include a list of what equipment is needed for white water rafting so you know what to expect and learn more about this wonderful white-knuckle water hobby.

What equipment do I need to start White Water Rafting?


The type of wetsuit you would require highly depends on the location you are white water rafting in, this is all down to weather conditions and climate.

You’ll want a wetsuit that keeps you warm but allows you to move freely without any problems like chafing or discomfort.

If you are in somewhere like the UK where the waters and temperature can get rather cold you’d probably want something like a 4/3 wetsuit.

For a warmer climate then a 3/2 suit would be the better option.

Check wetsuit prices 


A helmet is a must when whitewater rafting, with there being so many dangers in the water you need to protect your head.

The waters will drag you around quite rapidly and there is a huge risk of banging your head against rocks, paddles or even the person sat next to you!

A good choice would be a bright colored helmet that is easy to see in case you fall in the waters.

There are a variety of whitewater helmets available and some have a peak to keep the sun from your eyes.

Check Rafting Helmet Prices


Grip is the most important aspects of appropriate footwear for rafting.

Most people will opt for wetsuit boots, these are waterproof and help keep you warm.

When buying wetsuit boots you should ensure they have the best grip possible this will help you if you fall in and give you much better support.

Hiking boots with a good grip are adequate!

Buoyancy Aid/Flotation Device

A buoyancy aid is also commonly known as a personal flotation device.

Their main purpose is to help you float and they achieve this by filling the jacket with a type of foam.

When purchasing your own Buoyancy jacket you should choose one that is lightweight and allows you to move freely without compromising your movement at all.

They are designed for both male and female users based on body weight, this is something you will want to get properly fitted from a specialist shop.

Check Prices of Flotation Devices


Choosing the type of paddle that is right for you is a must if you are going to be rafting frequently.

It’s not just as simple as picking a paddle and making do especially if you want to get the most out of your white water rafting experience.

Firstly you will need to consider your height and strength, if you are smaller than 5 and a half foot then you will want a shorter paddle. If you are taller a longer paddle. This will ultimately put less strain on your arms, shoulders and back.

Paddles come in a range of shapes and sizes, generally speaking, cheaper paddles are quite robust and will not perform as well as a more expensive paddle.

A good paddle will have a flexible shaft and a stiff blade.

Shafts can be made from a large range of materials and give different amount of flexibility.

Blades vary in size, width and style. They can be symmetrical, spooned, dihedral, asymmetrical and more.

Where can I go White Water Rafting?

Whitewater Rafting centres are located all over the world.

The best way to find where you can go white water rafting local to where you live is to perform a simple Google search.

Go to Google and type in ‘White Water Rafting near me’ you should be presented with your local centres on the Google maps or at least other websites that should be able to help you find somewhere to go locally.

How to

Before you get into the water and go white water rafting you should learn a few basic things.

Most importantly safety procedures, as the actual practical will be best learnt in a team and with practice.

In the next section I will teach you the basic white water rafting signals for communication purposes, these will help keep you safe.

This is a very basic rafting beginners guide as there is no real way of teaching white water rafting other than getting out there and experiencing it for yourself, that being said it’s always good to have a basic knowledge of the important aspects to help you be prepared for your new hobby.

White Water Rafting Basic Signals

A basic set of signals have been established as a form of communication, learning these signals is a must and can potentially be life-saving.

A more comprehensive and full list can be found on the International Rafting Website

Before you get started with whitewater rafting it is a good practice to learn at least the very basic of signals.

They are known as the universal river signals and are used worldwide.

Stop – Take your paddle and raise it over your head, parallel, and pump the paddle up and down.

After the stop signal has been performed the other rafters should wait for an all-clear signal before continuing.

All clear – Raise the blade of your paddle or a single finger directly overhead. Try to turn the paddle blade flat to increase surface area.

Help/emergency – For emergencies in the water there are a couple of ways you can signal this, one is to hold your paddle vertically and wave the paddle back and forth.

Whistle available? Blow three long whistles and wave.

OK – Simply pat the top of your head repeatedly this will let the rest of the group know your ready to continue.

Here’s a helpful video to show you some of the basic signals. It’s good practice to learn these before you start as they could potentially save your life.


How to paddle

Firstly the crew should be spread evenly to both sides of the raft with an even number on each side.

Taking your inside hand grip the top of the paddle.

Take your outside hand and grip the stem of the paddle.

To move the raft forward push the top end of the paddle away and pull the stem inwards.

To move backwards pull the paddle stem from one hand and push the top end away with the other hand.

To steer the raft and move left and right: To move right, crew on the right should paddle backwards and the crew on the left forwards. To move left the opposite applies.

A fantastic infographic can be found here.

Check out this video if you prefer to watch

What to do if you fall out of your raft

This was something that scared me before I first went white water rafting. I actually never fell out but my brother did. Most importantly before anything is really try not to panic.

There are trained professionals firstly in case of emergency and secondly it’s actually all part of the experience and this happens constantly. Embrace it and have fun! Here’s a few tips to bare in mind if you do fall out to help you.

Stay calm is the most important tip, by staying calm you keep your reactions and senses at a maximum and you’re easier to assist.

Don’t try to stand up, there are rocks you may get your feet caught in.

Don’t try to swim! The current is strong you will not be able to swim against it and are putting yourself at risk of injury and physical exhaustion if you do.

Float down the river on your back, if you are being pushed downstream by the current, lay back, put your feet out in front and wait for a rescue raft.

Where possible try to reach for the rafts safety rope, all rafts are fitted with a rope around the exterior. If you fall out the first thing you need to try to do is reach out for this rope, this will stop you from being dragged away from the raft.

Keep hold of your paddle, I know this will be pretty tough if you fall in but by keeping hold of it it extends your reach and may help your crew or the guides to pull you out.

White Water Rafting

White Water Rafting Safety Tips

  1. Wear a life jacket/flotation device

    This is so important and it is mandatory when visiting a white water rafting center. Ensure that the jacket is fastened correctly with all of the buckles clipped. You should make sure that you have the guide fit your life jacket so the jacket is nice and tight to your body but not tight enough to effect your breathing. You should not be able to remove the jacket over your head.

  2. Hold the paddle correctly

    As explained previously your outside hand should be on the shaft of the paddle near the base and the other should be placed over the T grip at the top of the paddle. You must hold the paddle this way as the T grip is hard and if not controlled it could smash you in the face.

  3. Listen to the safety talk

    Your guide knows what he or she is talking about, before you go out on the river you should as standard procedure have a safety talk. You should always listen intently and if you have questions do not be afraid to ask. This will ensure that you are fully prepared for your rafting experience.

  4. Always stay calm 

    Never ever panic, you are in safe hands and there are many professionals watching over you. Stay calm and aware of what is happening.

  5. Always wear full safety & protective gear

    This is so important, you should always wear the full kit no matter what. Helmet, lifejacket or flotation device, hiking shoes with a good grip and a wet or drysuit! The protective gear is always worn for a reason and may just save your life.

  6. Stay in the raft


    Do your very best to stay in the raft, you can ensure this happens by listening to your guide in the pretalk, preparing yourself before hand and concentrating. You obviously want to enjoy the experience but try not to mess around. Pay attention to your surroundings and watch for rocks.

    If you hear “Bump” being shouted from your guide you should straight away lean inwards and place the top of the paddle (the T grip) on the floor of the raft, keeping your hand over the grip. This should ensure you stay in the boat. If you hit the rock straight afterwards return to your seat and continue to paddle. If you fall out, refer to the section above about what to do if you fall out of the raft.

  7. Swimming


    Swimming in a swimming pool is totally different to swimming in the river, you should be aware of some special swimming techniques. The “down river position” and the other is the “Michael Phelps”

    Down River swimmers position is on your back nose to the sky. Feet out with toes upwards and knees slightly bent. Your feet should be down stream so if you come in contact with a rock you can use your feet to protect yourself. Keep your bottom tucked up to avoid nasty bumps.

    Michael Phelps swimmers position is onto your stomach pointing to where you want to go and swim until you get out of the river.


Rafting Water Grades

In White Water Rafting, Waters are divided up into 6 grades and this is known as the international scale of difficulty. The higher the grade the more dangerous the water becomes with the Class 6 being a potential fatality risk!

Class 1 

Class 1 whitewater grade describes water with fairly fast moving current and with little or no obstacles in the way.

Class 2

Class 2 is perfect whitewater for the beginner, whitewater rapids that are fast moving but with a wide channel. There will be a few obstructions for you to manoeuvre if you desire but can be easily missed if you do not want to.

Class 3

Whitewater with a class or grade of 3 is for a more experienced whitewater rafter, with intermediate rafting skills. It will have a powerful current and be very fast moving. There will be plenty of objects in the way and you’re going to need some skills to manoeuvre them, in order to get down the river.

Class 4

Intense, but predictable rapids that need precise boat handling and fast manoeuvres under pressure. Moderate to high risk of injury to people in the water. Dangerous obstacles, large waves, holes and narrow shoots. Experience highly recommended.

Class 5

High risk of harm or injury. Class 5 rapids are very aggressive and strong with demanding courses. The use of all professional equipment, advanced rescue skills and a vast knowledge and experience of rafting is needed.

Class 6

Could be fatal! This is the worst kind of rapid, Class 6 is for the experts only and even then there are huge risks with potentially severe consequence. The challenge of class 6 is gruelling, vigorous and would take years and years of practice to navigate.


How dangerous is White Water Rafting?

Whitewater rafting is not without its risks, but that is the same for most adventure and sports hobbies.

To put some perspective on this, bicycle riding is more dangerous than white water rafting statistically.

As long as you act responsibly, follow all safety guidelines and only raft in river grades according to your level of expertise the dangers and risks are very low.

What you should not take White Water Rafting?

There are certain items that you do not want to take with you on the raft. These would include valuables, cell phones, wallet or purse, money, unsuitable clothing and last but not least fears and a bad attitude.


If you have any more questions about white water rafting or want to discuss this amazing and exciting hobby then please leave a comment below in the comment section we would love to hear from you.

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