Whitewater Rafting for Beginners - How to Splash Fear in the Face

Nervous about whitewater rafting?

We were too... until we survived our first set of rapids.  As last summer came to an end, we decided it was time to check another item off our Colorado Bucket List.  Whitewater rafting down the Arkansas River in Brown's Canyon National Monument.  For years, we watched the colorful school buses filled with smiling rafters traveling the highways of central Colorado.  Even though it always felt like we were missing out, whitewater rafting continued to remain on our "someday" list.  

Why did it take so long to finally go whitewater rafting?  Fear.
Fear of crashing into a boulder and falling into the Arkansas River where cat-like swimming skills would be useless in the swift currents.  Surprisingly, we were not alone in our fear of rafting.  Over the last couple years, we have met a number of people, including locals, that had never been rafting because of fear.  It turns out there is nothing to be afraid of.  We began planning our next rafting adventure before our raft was pulled out of the Arkansas River at Hecla Junction.  

What should you expect on your first whitewater rafting trip?

For our first rafting trip, we arrived at The Adventure Company's Buena Vista office in time for their complimentary fajita lunch with homemade brownies.  Both were great.  Afterward, we picked up our gear.  Guides gave us Coast Guard approved life jackets and made sure they were extra tight. 

The Arkansas river is calm in many parts of Browns Canyon National Monument

The Arkansas river is calm in many parts of Browns Canyon National Monument

I grabbed a helmet with a GoPro mount and also picked out a wetsuit.  The smell and feel of the wetsuit reminded me of a raincoat, (identical to the one on a box of Gorton's frozen fish sticks), that I wore on the long walk to school in the early 80's.  The wetsuit quickly went into our guide's dry sack for the remainder of the day.  

During the short bus ride to the Ruby Mountain Campground's boat launch, a long-haired guide known as "Squirrel", shared interesting facts about the area as well as a few bad jokes.  While several guides unloaded rafts at the launch site, Squirrel pulled everyone aside.  

Squirrel suddenly became very serious and gave us a detailed safety talk.  He covered important safety procedures on what to do if you fall in the river.  Things like keeping your feet up off the river bottom, as well as how to get back in the raft, or swim to shore.  Once the safety measures were covered, our helmets and vests were double checked for proper fit.  Life vests should be extra tight at the start of the trip since they will loosen up as you paddle.  As first timers, it was great to know that The Adventure Company is very serious about safety.

 As the safety talk ended, we quickly hopped into a raft with new friends from Chicago that we had just met at lunch.  As we began to drift gently down the calm waters of the Arkansas River, our guide gave us a quick paddle lesson.  He would call out Forward 1 or Forward 2 depending on how many forward strokes we needed to make.  Back 1 and back 2 were the commands for the times we needed to back up.  Paddling is only required while passing thru the rapids.    

More importantly, we learned what "Tuck In" meant.  Depending on where you are seated, you tuck your foot closest to the outside of the raft into a foot cup or under the seat in front of you.  Then place your other foot behind it and tuck it into the fold at the side of the raft.  Tucking in will help keep your balance in the rougher sections of water and might be the only thing that keeps you in the raft.  On the calmer sections of the river, you can stretch your legs and relax while the guide steers the raft.  

Photographers are located on the east (left) side of the Arkansas River along the stretch of rapids known as "Zoom Flume".  By the time you return to the rafting office, photos are displayed on a TV and available for purchase.  All photographs of your raft are sent via a convenient email link.

Traveling down the Arkansas River into Brown's Canyon National Monument was an amazing journey.  "We", mostly our guide, navigated rapids with names like Pinball, 4x4, Raft Ripper, Staircase, and Zoom Flume.  Big horn sheep, deer, and other wildlife would make an occasional appearance during the trip.  Whitewater rafting is definitely one of the best ways to check out Brown's Canyon.
As our brightly colored bus came into view, our only two regrets were:
1.  Our decision to book a half day trip instead of a full day
2.  Waiting too long to experience whitewater rafting in Colorado.

Special thanks to The Adventure Company for hosting us.  We are looking forward to our next trip!

Our most important lesson - How to Tuck in - place your outside foot into the foot cup, then your inside foot goes behind it and tucks into the fold of the raft.

Our most important lesson - How to Tuck in - place your outside foot into the foot cup, then your inside foot goes behind it and tucks into the fold of the raft.

entering The zoom flume - Browns Canyon National Monument

entering The zoom flume - Browns Canyon National Monument

Tweet: Nervous about #whitewater #rafting? Check out these tips for beginners: https://ctt.ec/EO576+

Plan your first whitewater rafting trip

What to wear whitewater rafting

  • Swimwear or clothing made out of quick drying materials, such as neoprene, nylon, polypro, wool or fleece.  A jacket or insulating layer of similar material might be a good idea on cool days.
    Avoid wearing cotton, jeans or long pants.

  • Sunscreen & Lip Balm

  • Sunglasses
    (with a strap or bring a cheap pair...  just in case)

  • Hat or visor - You can wear it under your helmet

  • Water shoes, old tennis shoes, or sandals with a heel strap are acceptable.  
    Flip flops & Crocs are not allowed. 

    Buy a pair of water shoes locally in Buena Vista at CKS or The Trailhead.  Salida Mountain Sports also has a nice selection.  Your feet will get soaked.

Check out the highlights of our first rafting trip!

What to bring with you on a whitewater rafting trip

  • Bottled water.  Tuck it into the fold of the raft by your feet.

  • Cash for souvenirs and tipping your guide

  • Change of clothes and a towel.  You can leave these in your car and change after the trip

  • Waterproof Camera.

  • Dry Sack.  Not necessary but recommended if you are bringing any electronics.  I brought a small one for extra GoPro batteries and memory cards and was able to swap batteries on a calmer section of the river.

Guides load rafts at Hecla Junction after rafting the arkansas River

Guides load rafts at Hecla Junction after rafting the arkansas River

Still nervous about rafting?  Here are some additional tips to help you out:

  • Raft late in the season (August thru Labor Day).
    Most of the snow has already melted and the river isn't flowing as fast or deep.

  • Sit in the middle of the raft.  It is easier to hang on and you will feel more secure

  • Pick a trip with Class I or Class II rapids such as a half day or full day in Browns Canyon National Monument.

  • Choose a rafting company with experienced guides and up to date equipment. 

Rafting with children?

The minimum age for a rafting trip varies from one company to another.  Some factors include which section of river you will travel on as well as current water levels.  Ask for details anytime you book a trip with kids.  If you plan on rafting with children other than your own, you should print out a waiver from the rafting company's website and have a parent or legal guardian sign it before leaving home.

Make today your "Someday" and plan your summer rafting adventure now
Be sure to get a great deal on your Colorado whitewater rafting trip by checking out our Colorado Vacation Coupons