7 Tips for Your First Whitewater Rafting Trip

As a first-time whitewater rafter, you might be feeling some combination of anxiety, uncertainty, and excitement. First, you should know that’s totally normal. There are plenty of unknowns that come with river trips, and no experience is ever the same, but that’s also what makes these adventures so special. 

In my decade of guiding across the Western U.S., I’ve been honored to accompany hundreds of travelers on their first whitewater rafting trip. It’s been one of the highlights of my career to help people step out of their comfort zones and adapt to life on the river. So before you go, here are some practical tips to help you have the most rewarding trip as possible.

Whitewater Rafting Trip Tips: Before you go

7 Tips for Your First Whitewater Rafting Trip

1) Accept your nerves.

It is okay to be nervous. Really! Nerves are a healthy protective mechanism when you do something new, especially something as adventurous as a multi-day whitewater rafting trip.

Ask yourself what you’re most worried about. Then, reach out to friends, family, or colleagues who have gone on a similar trip and ask for their perspective. They might be able to share some solid advice or insight that will help you address your nerves in a productive manner.

Similarly, you can contact your outfitter. Chances are the person on the other end of the phone has been on the river many times, and is happy to address any questions or concerns you might have in advance of your trip.  

2) Pack accordingly

Packing for a river trip is much different than packing for any other vacation. Notably, your personal items must fit into waterproof dry bags that are typically provided by the outfitter. Always follow the packing lists provided for your specific adventure, but if you’re a bit overwhelmed, check out this handy guide to packing for rafting trips full of advice and tips that our team has compiled over the years.

My must-haves beyond the basics? A comfy camp outfit (loose jean shorts, a cotton tank top, favorite sweatshirt, and flip flops), rain boots (even if it’s not raining, they’ll keep your feet dry if you are in and out of the water at camp, especially during early season trips), and a fun piece of flair or an easy costume. If you’re on the river with me, make sure to ask about my costume bag…

During your trip

Boat options on a Lower Salmon River rafting trip

3) Ask questions!

You will have a lot of questions. Guaranteed. What’s the name of that rapid? Whose land is this? Is that a river otter? Did you see THAT?!

I never tire of guests asking me about tree rings, river depth, rock type, indigenous peoples, or any of the other creative, wonderful questions that wander into their minds. Wilderness adventures provide a quiet slow-down for you to observe, ask, learn, and engage. We are guides, but we are also educators, and love nothing more than to share with you our love for these places and help protect them for future generations. 

4) Switch it up.

Some outfitters offer a fun variety of crafts to try on the river. Depending on your trip location, there might be dories, oar rafts, paddle boats, inflatable kayaks, and even stand-up paddle boards available. Each type of boat changes up the river experience and can add new layers of challenge and excitement. Choose your own adventure, or if you decide to stay on the same type of craft each day, know that there is tremendous value in mixing up which guides and guests you ride with.

I love guiding because I get to talk to new, fascinating people (like you!) each day. Special bonds are made on boats, splashing through whitewater and floating through awe-inspiring landscapes. 

Hiking on Idaho's Lower Salmon River

5) Know your no and love your yes.

Often, I see advice for adventure trips somewhat along the lines of, “Say yes to everything.” Though surely coming from lovely intentions, you do not have to do everything. Not a fan of heights? You don’t have to hike to the top of the rocky overlook ahead. Do you prefer early bedtimes instead of campfire sing-alongs? Sneak off to your tent whenever you’re ready. This is your vacation after all.

Of course, there are always opportunities for personal growth on river trips too. Many guides encourage a challenge-by-choice mentality, or a comfort level plus one perspective. Have you always wanted to try an inflatable kayak but are apprehensive? That’s okay! Talk to a guide, and we can help you practice skills in a calm section of river.

When you hold healthy boundaries and let your no be no and your yes be yes, you’ll  have the best trip possible for you

6) Embrace silence and downtime.

You will know when it is time. Maybe it will be late at night, eyeballs engulfed by stars you never knew existed. Maybe it will be during an otherwise loud time, while you watch your children splash, swim and smile. Maybe it will be early in the morning, cup of coffee in hand as the sound of canyon wrens tickle your ears.

Though it may seem unnatural to invite silence inward, I encourage you to pause, breathe it in, and reflect on the simple pleasures of life along the water and under the stars. 

After the trip

7 Tips for Your First Whitewater Rafting Trip

7) Be kind to yourself.

Transitions can be challenging, especially one as dramatic as switching between a wilderness river trip and a technologically-driven life. It is okay to feel discombobulated as you ease back into life after a river tripI still do! 

Practical tips? Leave your phone off until after you shower. Also, ask yourself how you want to stay connected to the place: is there a special moment or memory you cherish? Find a way to make it front and center in your daily life or hold it lovingly in your heart and mind so that you can always be transported back after the trip ends. 

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If you have a question about whitewater rafting trips, leave a comment below and we’ll give you our best tips and and advice.

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