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River Rafting: What Families Need to Know

Rafting Kitcking Horse River
Photo courtesy Glacier Raft Company.

The weather is warming up and many of us are planning river raft vacations with our families. However, take heed river rafters. Do not go blindly onto that river with children and seniors in tow. Do your homework and make the right inquiries to ensure you get home safely.

Our friends at Western River Expeditions, a rafting company based in Salt Lake, Utah, warn us that taking a river rafting vacation, especially with children and elders, can be dangerous, even deadly. Last year, RFT Editor Bobbie Hasselbring successfully rafted the Kicking Horse River in British Columbia, which was swollen to record levels (see large photo). A week later, a raft from the same company making the same trip flipped over and a 50-year-old rafter was killed. The thrills—and the risks—of river rafting are real.

“In our 50-plus years of operation, Western River Expeditions has created lasting memories for literally thousands of families,” said Brian Merrill, CEO. “We’re always learning new things about how to engage parents and children both ashore and on the river. And we love it when families take the time to ask us questions before they make reservations for a rafting adventure.”

white water rafting central oregon

If you’re looking for thrills, rafting rivers like Central Oregon’s Deschutes River can’t be beat.

Merrill and his staff have heard it all from first time river runners, from “Will there be flush toilets and room service?” to “I can’t swim, but can I still go?” Remember when booking a rafting trip, no question is too silly or inappropriate. Following are a few questions they suggest anyone considering a raft trip should ask:

“Is a raft trip right for me and the family?” If you’ve been eager to get the kids away from an over-civilized world and all its technology and overload, river rafting is a great place to start (hint – no Internet or cell service!).

“How young can children be?” This question is river-dependent. If the river is relatively tranquil in post-spring runoff, with most rapids being Class III or lower, children as young as five can often be accommodated with Coast Guard-approved age-appropriate life jackets.

“How old can Grandma and Grandpa be?” This is truly more a question of physical ability over age. Western River Expeditions has taken 85-year-olds down the river who can get on and off the boat and hike better than a 60-year-old. Discuss your physical level with your outfitter to help you make the best choice.

Slapshing water in the raft

Rafting can get serious quickly so it’s good to have experienced guides.

Western River Expeditions offers an interesting option for the older crowd. On Grand Canyon trips, they use a patented boat called the “J-Rig.” This 37-foot motorized craft offers more flexibility in seating and comfort than traditional rafts and can be a great way for older people to join a trip.
“Is it mandatory to know how to swim?” Non-swimmers are welcomed on most river trips. Coast Guard-approved life vests (PFDs – personal floatation devices) are mandatory as well as a safety talk prior to departure. Non-swimmers, however, should have a heart-to-heart chat with their potential tour company before making a reservation for a rafting trip with larger whitewater.

“Is rafting dangerous?” The element of risk (and thrill) that comes with running the rapids is why river rafting is so popular. But there’s perceived risk and then there’s real risk. That’s where professional river guides come in. They are extensively trained to minimize and manage risks.

Once you’ve decided a river raft trip is right for your family, consider the following:

white water rafting in Colorado

White water rafting can team teamwork to family members.

“How many hours will your gang want to spend on the river each day?” Some itineraries involve less time on water, more time at camp and exploring trails. Plan a trip that fits your lifestyle, but have a flexible attitude. The speed of the flow, location of campsites and how long lunch and day hikes take influence the amount of time floating, swimming and paddling on the water each day.

“What if I’m nervous about whitewater?” It’s natural to feel excited and even a little nervous about white water rafting. Remember, you can choose any level of trip. There are rafting trips on calm water and trips with world-class whitewater. The type of boat you’re in also dictates the adventure. You can choose to paddle your own craft (most adventurous), ride in boat with a guide at the oars or take a motorized boat.

“In camp, how much ‘roughing it’ is there?” Each river rafter offers a different level of camping for rafters on overnight trips. Some are pretty basic; others are quite glamorous. River raft camping is usually pretty deluxe, comfortable and easy. Meals are often better than what you have at home.

At Western River Expeditions, for instance, guests sleep each night in a wilderness setting on the river, in a tent or out in the open under the stars (guest choice). Your biggest responsibility is pitching your tent. The guides take care of setting up the loo, food prep and clean up.

“What do little ones do at camp?” Think nature-oriented games and exploration. In most cases, even with kids and teens who are “citified” and spend most of their days at home attached to screens or monitors, there is truly never enough time for all that they want to experience on the river. Many rafters offer special hours for dining for youngsters who are supervised by staff trained to work with children.

Hiking along Grand Canyon

Many companies combine rafting with hiking. Photo courtesy Arizona Rafting Co.

When you are ready to make a reservation, let the company know the ages and experience levels of participants. The company will guide you.

For a copy of Western River Expedition’s 2015 catalog, questions, availability and reservations call toll-free: 866.904.1160 (Local: 801.942.6669), or visit:

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Bobbie Hasselbring, RFT Editor

RFT co-founder Bobbie Hasselbring has been a travel junkie her entire life. An award-winning writer and editor for more than 25 years and author of the regional food-travel bestsellers, The Chocolate Lover’s Guide to the Pacific Northwest and The Chocolate Lover’s Guide Cookbook, Bobbie is editor-in-chief at