White Water Rafting: How-to Tips for Beginners

White Water Rafting - How To

White water rafting is an excellent adventure sport to try! It’s fun for families, friends, and even work retreats. If you’ve never white water rafted before you may feel slightly apprehensive, not knowing exactly how to white water raft.

How to white water raft? To white water raft for your first time, you should first choose a professional rafting company and take a guided trip, then wear the right rafting gear for the weather and water, and finally follow all your rafting guide’s safety and paddling instructions.

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How to White Water Raft Tips

To better prepare you for your first rafting trip, below are the most important tips on how to white water raft safely and successfully, ensuring you have the most fun possible:

Beginning whitewater rafting tips:

  1. Choose a licensed and professional rafting company
  2. Wear the right clothing for the weather and water temperature
  3. Always wear a life jacket
  4. Always wear a rafting helmet
  5. Learn to paddle properly
  6. Try to stay in the raft
  7. Learn how to swim should you fall out of the raft and into the river (it happens)
  8. If you do fall out or get scared, stay calm—don’t panic

Choosing a Good Whitewater Rafting Company

In order to choose a good whitewater rafting company you should check their:

  • Leader to Participant Ratio – for the average 14′ raft, there should be one leader to every six rafters/participants.
  • Safety Boats – No rafting trip should have one boat on it. A proper river rafting company will have multiple boats on each trip so that if one capsizes the other(s) can rescue that boats rafters.
  • Cut off Levels – Rivers rise and fall with seasonal snowmelt, rain, or dam releases. A reputable rafting company will have a set cutoff limit, above which, they don’t run trips. Find out if your rafting company has one and what it is. Then compare it to other rafting companies on the river.
  • Equipment – A river rafting company’s equipment should be in proper condition and function well, especially their life vests and helmets. Old, worn out gear is a telltale sign of a risky rafting company.
  • Proper Procedures – Make sure you are personally checked by one of your guides for the fit and function of your life vest and helmet. If you aren’t, don’t go on that rafting trip.

Safety Briefing – A reputable and professional rafting company’s guides will give you a pre-trip safety briefing before you ever get in the rafts.

Proper White Water Rafting Gear

The weather and water temperature will determine the type of gear and clothing you’ll need to bring. More than likely, for your first river rafting adventure, you’ll go on a commercial white-water rafting trip in the summer.

But keep in mind, you’re not dressing for the weather outside, you’re dressing for the water temperature. Colder water means you need warmer gear for when you get wet or go into the river.

Below is a list of recommended items to bring or wear during a guided white water rafting trip:

Cold Weather/Water Rafting Gear

Cold weather rafting requires specific clothing to help insulate and keep you warm, preventing hypothermia should you fall in the river.

Here are some basic items:

  • Waterproof and/or windproof jacket
  • Waterproof and/or windproof pants
  • Warm thin hat (tightly fitted – so it can go under your helmet and doesn’t fall off) I recommend wool.
  • Wool socks (wool holds in heat even when wet)
  • Synthetic moisture wicking or merino wool long-sleeved shirt (to hold in heat)
  • If it is really cold, you may want a wet suit (or reconsider rafting on a warmer day for your first trip)
  • Hybrid water socks/shoes (the kind that are good for both hiking and water sports)

Warm Weather/Water Rafting Gear

Warm weather rafting requires gear that is breathable and lightweight to keep you cool, but also insulates you even if you get it wet. 

  • Bathing suit
  • Quick dry shorts
  • Quick dry shirt
  • Lightweight hat to protect your face from the sun (tightly fitted – so it doesn’t fall off)
  • Cheap sunglasses attached with a strap (so they don’t fall off and into the water)
  • Synthetic moisture wicking materials
  • Water socks or shoes

Other Rafting Essentials

You’ll need the following for any kind of rafting excursion, whether hot or cold.

  • Environment safe sunscreen, so it doesn’t pollute the river
  • Fanny pack or small, lightweight backpack to keep on your person to hold necessities
  • Snack (granola or protein bars are great)
  • Towel for after the trip (you’re gonna get wet)
  • A fresh set of clothes for after the trip
  • Dry shoes and socks
  • Water bottle
  • Go-pro video camera or other action sport video equivalent (you can attach to your helmet or your life vest)
  • Life vest (*usually provided by the rafting company)
  • Helmet (*usually provided by rafting company)
  • Paddles (*usually provided by rafting company)

Learning Proper Paddling Form

Beginning rafters can easily learn to paddle and stay inside a raft from a licensed rafting guide on the day of the trip. They’ll provide examples of how to paddle, how to prevent falling out of the raft, and how to stay safe if you do.

When you go on your first rafting adventure, your river rafting guide will explain how to paddle properly, when to paddle, and how hard to paddle given the specific rapid.

Holding a river rafting paddle properly is very important. You are the raft’s “engine” and its only means of steering. If your entire rafting crew doesn’t know how to paddle properly, it can lead to capsizing or cracking against sharp rocks which could puncture a hole in the raft.

To properly paddle, do the following:

  • Hold one hand at the base of the paddle shaft
  • Hold the other hand at the end of the shaft over the T-shaped grip. The wider the birth between both hands, the more control you’ll have over your paddle. The closer your hands are together, the less control and power you’ll have.
  • Observe the pacing of the rafter in front of you. Try to get in sync with them so that you don’t accidentally hit their paddle or hit them in the face. The paddles are made of rigid plastic and can cause injury to yourself and other members in your rafting party if not handled properly
  • Always push the paddle into the water in a perpendicular fashion (so that when you look at the base of the paddle it appears horizontally, as oppose to parallel.) If you put your paddle in the water parallel to the boat, it will not cause friction against the water, which is exactly what you need to direct the boat.

Follow All Rafting Safety Instructions

White water rafting is relatively safe when performed with an experienced guide, physically able individuals, and when you follow your guide’s safety instructions.

However, falling out of a raft happens more often than you’d think, so knowing what to do should you or any member of your party fall out and into the rapids is key to getting back into your raft safely. Additionally, being prepared with the right equipment and having a knowledgeable rafting guide is key. (Trust me on this one, on my family’s Rogue River, OR rafting adventure, this one saved me.)

Here are some general rafting safety tips:

  • Always, always, always wear a life vest. Make sure all the buckles are snapped, the life vest is the right fit for your body, and that it is worn properly. You don’t want the life vest to be able to go above your head. Likewise, you don’t want to feel cramped in it either.
  • Always wear a helmet! It is preventative and necessary should you fall from the raft and hit a hard object in the river. 
  • Select a highly rated rafting tour company, and make sure you feel 100% comfortable with the guide you’ve been given.
  • Your rafting guide should be a licensed professional who has been rafting for years. 

Before booking your white water rafting trip, ask the rafting company what kind of training their guides go through to get certified and who approves and outfits their certification and training procedures. If the company is being cagey, you’ll be able to tell rather quickly that they aren’t following proper protocol.

White Water Rafting can be Dangerous

There are a very small number of white-water rafting deaths per year (roughly 50 deaths per year), which compared to other adventure sports is pretty low.

The most common way people perish white water rafting is by drowning. This occurs typically when a person falls from the boat and their foot becomes entrapped between racks or strainers (fallen trees with underwater branches.)

Don’t Panic if You Fall Out of the Raft

Should you fall out of your white water raft, or the raft flip over mid rapid, the first thing you should not do is panic. Panic is pointless and will bring about the exact thing you are afraid of.

Here are the safety instructions certified rafting guides recommend you follow if you do fall overboard:

  • Remain calm, do not panic! If you panic, you might flail around, and such an action could get your limbs caught, leading to drowning.
  • If you fall over the side of the raft, try to grab hold of the side of the raft if possible. There is always safety rope on the side of a raft for this very reason. Don’t let go of the rope until one of your party members has hold of you. At that point, make sure you re-enter the raft face first. Do not allow yourself to be pulled up sideways are by your feet.
  • When you have hold of the rope, lift your feet up toward you if possible, as opposed to letting your feet dangle and kick around. The fast-paced rapids are less dangerous than the oddly shaped rocks below which could catch hold of your food and make it difficult to escape.
  • Should you fall out of the raft and then be swept away from the vessel, try as best you can to adjust your body so that your feet are facing downstream. To do this, you would use your arms to switch your body’s angle. To slow your movement down the river, hold your arms out in a T formation. 
  • Should you float too far away from the rift for your party to reel you back in, stay calm and remain in your float position: floating on your back, arms out in the shape of a T, feet facing the current, feet floating up (not down). While it may feel scary being pulled by the current, all rapids come to a halt when the riverbed flattens. 

When the water calms you may be able to flip over to your stomach and swim hard and fast toward the river’s edge. Refrain from attempting to stand until you are in shallow enough water. Once on shore, stay put! Your rescuers are close behind. If you are uninjured and okay, signal that you’re well and wait for them to pick you up.

How to White Water Raft Wrap Up

Your first white water rafting trip should be easy once you’ve learned how to paddle properly, work as a team, and follow all the safety instructions.

Even if you’ve never rafted in your life, with the aid and instruction of a licensed rafting professional you can learn quickly. So, always be sure and vet the rafting company you choose to book your trip with. Then follow your rafting guide’s instructions. And finally, remember to wear the proper clothing for your trip so you aren’t uncomfortable or in danger of hypothermia!


I'm Steve, the research and technology workhorse behind Paddle Camp. I do tons of research on all our family's paddling gear before I buy or recommend anything. I grew up canoeing with my dad and brother. A few years ago I bought paddle boards for my daughters, myself, and my wife. Ever since then, we plan most of our vacations around kayaking, canoeing, or paddle boarding.

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