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How White-water Rafting Works

White-water Guides, Gear and Safety

Vincenzo Lombardo/Taxi/Getty Images You'll be required to wear a life jacket while white-water rafting -- just in case.

"River rats"are people with rapids experience who are hired as guides by commercial rafting companies. These trained professionals make sure your white-water rafting experience is safe and fun. Guides are trained in white-water rescue, CPR, first aid and many are wilderness experts.

Your guide will make sure you know how to paddle and will instruct you on ways to stay safe on the river. Some guides join you in the raft while others stay alongside in kayaks. Whether your guide is in-raft or not depends on the company you choose. Many guided trips last about 3 to 4 hours on the river, although some services offer full-day, multi-day and multi-sport packages.


At the start of your trip, you'll meet with your guide. You will be required to sign a release form and listen to a safety talk before heading to your boat. U.S. Coast Guard-approved life vests -- PFDs, or personal floatation devices -- are provided and required. Some services also require you wear a helmet.

Once your group is onboard and afloat, your guide will instruct you on basic paddling techniques and give you a little time to practice before heading out on the river. While you shouldn't expect to be a master rower your first time out, you should be aware of some basic moves: the forward stroke, stern draw, and the forward and reverse sweeps.

The forward stroke allows you to pilot your raft or boat by going faster or slower than the river current. If you were to execute this stroke on one side of the boat only, your adventure would simply take you in a circle. But do this stroke on both sides of the boat, and away you go.

You're at the mercy of the river current, so to avoid turning, use a stroke called a stern draw. This pulls the stern (the back of the boat) in line with the bow (the front of the boat), keeping you in a (relatively) straight path. If you want to make a turn, though, the forward sweep allows you to turn without slowing down.

And what do you do if you find yourself going backward? Don't panic -- try the reverse sweep. This stroke will slow you down and help get the boat headed in the correct direction again.

While many of these strokes are intended for solo or two-person rafters, not guided trips, the more you know about paddling, the safer you'll be on the river.

While the majority of injuries and fatalities happen on self-guided river runs rather than guided tours, it's important to keep in mind that rafting, while fun, is an adventure that comes with risks. To participate in white-water rafting, you don't need to be an athlete or swimmer but the better physical condition you're in, the easier it will be for you to paddle and pull yourself to safety if you fall overboard.

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More Great Links


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