Whitewater Thrills: Family-Style River Rafting

Family bonding and adventurous recreation come together on whitewater.


The day was sunny and warm. A gentle breeze rippled across the water. We loaded our children, ages 5 and 8, into an inflatable raft and started down Alaska's Big Delta at the confluence of the Tanana and Delta rivers. An easy day trip, we’d been told.

The kids smiled and squealed as we bounced over gentle rapids, moving just fast enough to keep the mosquitoes at bay. After a few hours, we pulled over to devour our picnic lunch of hot dogs and marshmallows. Back on the river, we cruised past other rafters setting up camp and cooking their evening meals. I began to wonder if this really was a day trip after all.

Hours passed. Our picnic lunch, our only food, became a distant memory. Clouds rolled in; the air turned cool. Fat drops of rain began to fall. Ripples turned to white caps. The river hurled us faster and faster. I hugged my children close and tried to calm their fears, but it wasn’t easy. I was terrified myself. What had we gotten ourselves into?

By midnight we were crashing through Class III and IV rapids, the end of the river nowhere in sight, wind flapping at our flimsy jackets, rain stinging our faces. After several near-misses with boulders and sweepers, we somehow maneuvered to shore and crawled through the window of a vacant cabin, where we huddled under a stranger’s blankets until morning. Our first family rafting trip became our last.

Required Research

As it turned out, the Big Delta was a 29-mile float, a two-day trip at best. Marshmallows and hot dogs were hardly adequate provisions. And the class of rapids was far too challenging for a family with young children, especially at Alaska’s peak run-off in July. We never tried family rafting again, not until the children were grown and they took their own genuine day trip on calmer waters.

It didn’t have to be that way. Had we planned our trip with professionals that specialize in kid-friendly adventures, we would have learned that nothing beats thrill-filled river rafting for family fun.

"There’s no better place to get your kids away from the distractions of everyday life," says Steve Markle, marketing director of Outdoor Adventure River Specialists (O.A.R.S.), based in Angel's Camp, California. And don’t worry if you've never been rafting before. Markle estimates that 40 percent of O.A.R.S. participants are first-timers, including a number of people who’ve never so much as pitched a tent.

On the river, families bond like nowhere else. "Rafting is the only team-based adventure sport," notes Ken Streater, owner of Destination Wilderness, in Sisters, Ore. "You have fun working together in a paddle raft to overcome challenges. It builds teamwork and camaraderie in a family."

Planning Essentials

When planning a river adventure, start by researching your options. While many companies claim family-based tours, Streater recommends that you check the experience level of the guides, their safety record and whether the trips include specific activities for kids. Family-focused outfitters designate guides to make sure the kids are having a blast, whether it’s with kids-only nature hikes, rope games on the beach or giving your 12-year-old a chance to tackle the rapids solo in an inflatable kayak while her younger siblings enjoy an easier ride in the big boat.

Rafting specialists set minimum ages for their trips by considering the level of difficulty of the river, the remoteness of the location and the season of the year. Class II and III rapids provide plenty of excitement for kids under 12. Markle cautions parents against thinking their children can take on more than the experts recommend. It’s better to do a tamer trip now and wait a few years for the wild one.

Once you've honed in on an age-appropriate adventure, take advantage of the preparatory materials your guide provides. Follow the recommended packing list to the letter, and complete any questionnaires that will help your guides tailor the trip to your needs. Talk with your kids about where you'll be going and what to expect.

Fun as it is, river rafting offers educational benefits, too. "First and foremost, kids reconnect with the natural world," says Streater. "And you become more aware of how much you can challenge yourself."

What You Should Know:

  • Oar vs. paddle rafts: Paddle rafts—you man the paddles and help do the work. Oar rafts—the guide's at the helm. Oar rafts tend to be heavier and more stable.
  • Class of rapids: I: gently moving. II: currents and small waves. III: fast current, medium waves, obstacles to maneuver. IV: faster current, bigger waves, tricky maneuvers. V: long rapids, extreme turbulence, experienced boaters only.
  • Length of trip: Streater suggests starting with a day trip close to home to see if your family enjoys the experience. Noting that families really bond on overnight trips, Markle recommends a three-day minimum.
  • When to go: Water in most places is highest in the spring. For a greater variety of options for younger rafters, plan a summer trip.
  • Popular family rafting destinations: Oregon’s Rogue River, Idaho's Lower Salmon, California’s Lower Klamath, Utah’s San Juan.
  • Lesser-known family spots: Colorado's Yampa and Green Rivers (through Dinosaur National Monument) and Alaska’s Chitina River.

Themes: Outdoor Adventures

Activities: Rafting

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