White water rafting can be a fun and great family activity. However, rafting is not without risks, and people falling out of the raft, especially on big rapids, is not unheard of. So people with kids often wonder how old a child should be before they can go white water rafting with a group tour.
How old do you have to be to go white water rafting? To go white water rafting, you should be no younger than 5 years old and you should start on Class I, easy rapids. However, each rafting guide company will have its own requirements regarding minimum ages for rafters, and it varies with the difficulty and length of various rivers and tours.
Minimum ages for white water rafting vary, but you’d be surprised to find out that there’s no hard and fast rule for how old children have to be to go white water rafting. But there are some very important things to keep in mind when rafting with younger paddlers.
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White Water Rafting Age Limit Guidelines
Keep Their First Trips Short
If you’ve got kids, you know they have varying attention spans. Come to think of it, and I’m guilty, a lot of adults get bored quickly.
- 5-10 Years Old – Three hour rafting trips are about the limit for kids from 5-10. 1 to 2 hours, even better for a first trip.
- Over 10-14 – They can handle all day river rafting excursions on rapid classes that are appropriate for their skills.
- 15-19 and up – Should be able to have fun and participate in all day river trips and multi-day overnighters on the river.
Rapid Class Levels – Safety First
Staying safe while river rafting means knowing your own and your kids’ skill level and [picking rapid classes that are appropriate for each of you.
Here are some guidelines in choosing what class of rapids to take your kids on based on their age:
- Class I – Beginners – Lazy days with a 5 year old. Bring lots of food.
- Class II – Beginners – 5-10 year olds should be able to handle some beginning rapids
- Class III – Beginners who can focus and pay attention – 10-12 and things are getting more interesting
- Class IV – Beginners who’ll follow river raft guide instructions – 12-14 can handle some beginning thrills
- Class V – Beginners to intermediate rafters who’ve been on a previous rafting trip – 15 and up and hang on for excitement
Obviously, this is individual specific and these are just starting points. The thing to remember is to talk to the river rafting guide company and be honest with them in assessing each member of your family’s skills and experience. They’ll then steer you toward the right rafting adventure for you.
Only you will be able to determine this about your kids. And most of us parents will delude ourselves into believing we and our kids are more prepared than we are. So take heed…
Will you child panic in a tough situation? Will you?
Can you each participate in rescuing someone who’s gone overboard? Or will you get in the way of rescue efforts?
Three’s almost no way of knowing how you are they will perform until you are tested. So choose easy trips to start and work your way up. Better the lazy day doldrums of a boring rafting trip than drowned due to panic.
So the best thing to do is to find a rafting trip that’s going to be fun. Err on the side of fun over too much thrills.
Choose a Good Rafting Company
This should go whiteout saying, but I’ll say it anyway. As in everything, there are levels of good, great and outstanding river rafting guides/companies out there. Choose one that has lots of good reviews and lots of reviewers who have positive things to say about them.
These rafting companies and guides will be conservative when it comes to how old your kids have to be to go rafting. Listen to them, because they know what will work and what will be a dangerous age for the level of river you’ll be tackling.
And that leads us to…
Rafting Company Age Limits
For the most part, each rafting guide company will have their own white water rafting age requirements based on their own assessments of river danger levels.
Because each white water rafting trip is unique, there’s no hard and fast rule regarding the minimum ages. You can safely assume, however, that there aren’t going to be many tours out there that take kids less than five years old on a raft. Kids still need to be able to follow instructions, hold a paddle, and keep their seats on rough water, which precludes most toddlers.
While there are no definitive rules on white water rafting age restrictions, there are some guidelines that are generally adhered to by rafting guide companies. This has to do with the class of rapids the rafters will encounter; classes range from I to VI, with the most difficult class of rapids being rated as VI and only advisable for experts with special gear.
Example: American River California – Tributary White Water Tours says this:
“Our minimum age limit recommendations at normal summer flows are:
- 4 years old on Class 2 rivers
- 6-8 years on Class 3 rivers
- 13 years and strong swimming abilities on Class 4 rivers”
Here’s a breakdown of rapid classes and average minimum ages for them.
It includes rapid class descriptions, and a general idea of what ages can handle these rapids.
|Minimum Recommended Age
|Easy water, light to no rapids, few obstructions
|5 years old
|Faster water, some obstructions, but mostly clear lanes and smaller rapids
|10 years old
|High and irregular waves, regular obstructions, sudden banks,
|12 years old
|Fast-moving water, high waves, obstructions requiring significant maneuvering
|14 years old
|Extremely difficult, violent, and long-lasting sections of rapids, constant obstructions, steep drops
|16 years old
|Extraordinarily difficult, riders face an almost constant threat of death, left to paddlers of Olympic-level skills
|18 years old
As you can see, five years old is a reasonably minimum age to plan for a family white water rafting trip, and that’s if the rapids will stay at a Class I the whole way. Luckily, you can usually find a variety of rafting trips that offer a wide range of difficulty levels.
White Water Rafting Company Age Restrictions
As we mentioned, each tour guide company will have their own river rafting age limit restrictions when it comes to their raft trips. Even though many of these companies list their age requirements for each type of rafting trip on their websites, it’s still a good idea to call and confirm before booking a trip.
Make sure you tell the truth about your child’s age and don’t try to sneak your kid onto a trip. This can be dangerous.
Apart from the obvious concerns with safety, younger kids will often have shorter attention spans and lower levels of stamina than older kids, so they’re better suited to going on shorter trips. Kids under ten might only be able to handle trips that are shorter than three hours, while older kids may enjoy long trips.
Of course, each child is different, so it’s important to take your child’s individual strengths and weaknesses into account before taking them white water rafting.
Set your own river rafting age limit.
Hey, you’re the parent, remember? The good news is, for the most part, you can and should decide what you’re comfortable with as a minimum rafting age.
If it’s your family’s first trip, it’s usually advisable to err on the side of caution and take your kids on an easier, shorter rafting ride. Even if they’re a little bored, you can get a good idea of what they can handle for future trips.
Work your way up to more challenging length trips and more difficult classes of rapids.
We waited until our girls were 11 and 13 before tackling our first family rafting trip on Oregon’s Rogue River. And guess what? They were fine. I, however, had “issues”.
Regardless, at the end of the day, you’d probably rather your kids say their first rafting trip was too easy and they want more of a challenge on the next trip. It beats them telling you they were terrified and never want to go white water rafting again.
You can always take them on a more difficult trip as they gain experience and confidence, but getting them back out on the water after a harrowing trip may be difficult.
States Have Varying Age Restrictions
There’s very little in the way of state regulations on rafting minimum age limits. Only in very rare circumstances will a state regulate white water rafting ages. In a few instances, states will require that white water rafters be a minimum age for certain rivers.
However, whether a younger child can go white water rafting will largely depend on the river being rafted, their parents and the rafting company.
How old do you have to be to raft the Ocoee? In Tennessee, for instance, riders on the Ocoee River must be at least 12 years old.
Apart from this example though, it’s very difficult to find legal requirements for white water rafting minimum ages; river rafting is a loosely-regulated activity, and it’s largely left up to the rafting companies to determine age requirements.
However, it’s in a rafting company’s best interest to self-regulate, both from a liability standpoint as well as from the perspective of getting future business. If they’re constantly exposing young kids to tough rapid trips, they won’t get repeat customers and there will inevitably be tragic accidents. These companies are the experts and their advice should be heeded.
Even if participants sign a waiver, companies can still be subject to civil liability if they aren’t accurately assessing the appropriate age ranges for their rafting trips. As stated above, there are usually plenty of rafting trip options that are appropriate for all age ranges and skill levels. Normally, tour guide companies are happy to help their customers choose the right ones for the ages in their family.
There are a few risks that go along with white water rafting that you should be aware of before you bring your kids along for the ride. These can include, but are not limited to, the following:
- Drowning – Rivers are powerful rushing waters and this had to be said
- Impact on rocks or other obstructions
- Being hit by stray paddles in the boat
- Getting stuck in river features
No matter how skilled, experienced, and/or fit a rafter is, if they’re rafting rapid classes that are above their skill and experience levels, no matter what age they are, they run the risks of all these dangers. This is especially true for kids who may not have been in situations before where they’re under stress and pressure, unlike many adults. Kids may simply not know how to react when they’re stressed and therefore, may be at increased risk.
Therefore, it’s really important that you accurately assess your child’s potential skill level before you take them out on the river. It cannot be overstated that white water rafting is a dangerous activity even under the best conditions, and it’s infinitely better to be conservative in your estimates and take your kid on a trip that may be too easy. The risks are too great.
Rafting Age Limit Wrap Up
Many families enjoy going white water rafting with their kids, and it can be a very fun activity and adventure for parents and kids alike. While there isn’t much in the way of legal age restrictions, any reputable rafting trip company will have their own age restrictions in place. These restrictions are based on the length of the trip and the class of rapids you’ll likely encounter.
Instead of seeing this as a negative, parents should take their recommendations into account for the safety of their own children. Rafting can be dangerous, but it’s also a lot of fun. Introduce your kids to rafting slowly and cautiously, challenging them more and more little by little rather than overwhelming them on their first trip.