OARS Response to COVID-19: What to Expect

Last updated March 3, 2021 – Originally posted March 11, 2020

Launching into 2021

One year into the COVID-19 Pandemic, our 2021 season is already underway. While we’re all still very much living with the realities of COVID, the increasing availability of testing and vaccines has many of us excited about travel this year. In fact, when we polled our travelers in January, nearly 78% of respondents said they are planning two or more multi-day leisure vacations this year and nearly 70% are planning a road trip. We’re also seeing record demand for many of our river trips in the Western U.S.

Rafting with OARS in the COVID Era - What to Expect

In our current outlook, the ability to maintain small group sizes, and evidence that outdoor transmission of the virus is very rare, we believe that our mitigation plan—which includes a Health & Hygiene Pledge for guests and guides, pre-screening protocols, sanitation procedures, and measures to maintain as much physical distance as possible—will allow us to continue successfully operating group outdoor adventures during the pandemic.

We had some close encounters with the virus in 2020, but we’re proud of the fact that to the best of our knowledge out of 4,492 adventurous guests and more than 300 dedicated guides, drivers, and support staff who joined us for our abbreviated season last year, not a single person contracted COVID-19 on an OARS trip.

With that, we’re more confident than ever in our ability to facilitate life-changing experiences for our guests regardless of the circumstances. We also think the overwhelmingly positive feedback we’ve received last season speaks for itself…

“Deep Appreciation” in Grand Canyon

The Canyon itself met every expectation, but we also just loved the sense of safety and order the leaders provided in the midst of this crazy world. We haven’t felt such peace since before the pandemic. We really appreciated how OARS figured out how to provide an adventure in these difficult times. Perfect trip. —Doug & Mary Claire

A “Special Memory” on Idaho’s Middle Fork of the Salmon River

We had a small group, we’re all a bit on the ‘mature’ side & all appreciated the complexities of keeping everyone safe. Overall you nailed it. It was flexible yet strict. Thank you for a special memory.  —Julie & Anthony

“Fantastic Family Trip” Rafting through Dinosaur National Monument, Utah

The trip was amazing. It exceeded our expectations and was one of the best family trips we’ve ever taken. The guides did a great job with COVID precautions and so did the other guests. We’re already planning our next OARS trip, probably Main Salmon River in ID next summer. —Chris K

“Rad River Experience” Rafting the Tuolumne Near Yosemite in California

OARS Tuolumne trip was fantastic! Their attention to COVID-19 precautions were the very best, even on a river trip…and we couldn’t have asked for a better guide group. Also the food was awesome. Do this trip and get outdoors. Don’t let the pandemic hold you back because they made it very safe amid the restrictions and new norm.   —Sightseer655303

“A Truly Great Adventure” on Oregon’s Rogue River

The OARS staff were extremely knowledgeable which made my first time on whitewater a truly great adventure. I always felt safe in their hands. The food was so much more than expected—I actually gained a couple of pounds, LOL! And, everyone respected each other’s space due to COVID. The whole trip was terrific. —Judy K

If you’re already booked on or considering an OARS adventure in the future, read on to learn more about some of our current protocols and mitigation efforts.

Read Full Mitigation Plan

Current COVID Measures

High-risk Individuals

Based on information from state and federal agencies, if you’re over 65 years of age, immunocompromised, or at higher risk for severe illness from COVID-19, we strongly recommend that you consult with your physician about the potential for infection while participating in a group backcountry adventure.

Enhanced Screening

We expect all guides, staff, and guests to be familiar with and follow the guidance provided by state and local authorities for mitigating the spread of COVID-19. And, while we are strongly encouraging our guides and guests to get vaccinated for COVID-19, we know not everyone has that option currently.

Leading up to your trip, it’s critical that you exercise extra caution to reduce your risk of exposure to COVID-19, and closely monitor yourself and your family for any symptoms. Four to five days before your trip, the guest who placed your reservation will be required to sign and complete our Health & Hygiene Pledge, stating that you/your travel unit are healthy and you will abide by OARS protocols and participate in all screening measures. These screening measures include a COVID-19 symptom questionnaire and temperature check prior to travel, at the pre-trip meeting, and daily for the duration of your trip to ensure there hasn’t been any changes in health among the group.

Face Coverings

Generally, face coverings are not required while in a boat. However, guests and staff may be expected to use them when at least six feet of distance between travel units/guides isn’t possible, including the following situations:

  • At the pre-trip meeting
  • When entering any building
  • While traveling in a vehicle or aircraft
  • While in flat-water sections between rapids in a paddle raft when six feet of physical distancing from other travel units can’t be achieved
  • When meeting someone for the first time, or when approaching another group on the river/trail
  • In the food line for breakfast, lunch, and dinner

To adhere to these guidelines, we’re asking all guests to arrive with a minimum of two reusable/washable face coverings, and be prepared to use a clean face covering each day.

Morning temperature checks on OARS trips during COVID

Sanitation & Hygiene

OARS has always adhered to a high standard of sanitation and hygiene, but we’ve doubled down on certain protocols when it comes to transportation, equipment, hand washing, and food service.

Transportation — In addition to reducing the number of people in all vehicles, including planes and helicopters where applicable, face coverings and hand washing/sanitizing is required before boarding. Once on board additional precautions include: maximizing physical distancing, opening windows whenever possible, and eliminating the use of recirculation mode for the air conditioner/heater. All vehicles are cleaned and sanitized after each use.

Equipment — With an emphasis on reducing or eliminating shared items, all personal gear including helmets, PFDs, tents, sleep kits, and dry bags are assigned for the whole trip, clearly marked and distinguishable from others. Other communal items are sanitized regularly, or have been eliminated.

Following every trip, all equipment is properly sanitized or laundered. Tents and sleeping pads are sanitized and/or cycled out of use for 24 hours.

Hand washing — In camp, there is an added emphasis on hand washing. In addition to convenient locations for two to three foot pump-operated hand wash stations at every camp, we also bring a supply of hand sanitizer and each boat is equipped with soap and/or hand sanitizer. However, we’re also asking guests to bring their own supply of hand sanitizer for more convenient personal use when other options are not available.

Food service — When packing, preparing, or otherwise handling food or beverages, staff will wear face masks and adhere to applicable local, state, and federal food handling requirements. At camp, no congregation will be allowed in the kitchen. We’ve also removed communal snacks and appetizers from our menus, and instead of our traditional breakfast and dinner buffets and make-your-own-sandwich lunches, meals are generally served by your guides.

Rafting with OARS during the COVID era - What to expect

Physical Distancing

Despite the communal nature of our trips, we’re asking guests to practice physical distancing and maintain at least six feet from OARS staff and other people who are not part of your household or with whom you did not travel to the meeting place for your trip (your travel unit). Travel units will travel together in vehicles, aircraft, and boats with generally no more than one or two travel units per boat (one travel unit per inflatable kayak) with limited mobility between rafts, dories, inflatable kayaks, and SUPs during the day. However, the composition of some trips may at times require more than two travel units in a boat, which compromises our ability to achieve six feet of physical distancing between travel units.

COVID Protocols

If a guest or guide exhibits COVID symptoms while on a trip, we will consult with local agencies on availability and justification for evacuation as soon as possible. One liaison (guide or a family member/traveling companion) will be identified to provide care to this person. These individuals will also be isolated from others and we will follow EMS/WFR protocols to provide appropriate medical treatment. Family members and friends who were traveling with the person who displayed positive symptoms will also be placed on a separate raft and required to wear a face covering. Testing for COVID-19 will be performed at the earliest opportunity and OARS will notify the appropriate agencies along with all trip participants of the results.

Traveling Responsibly

Please be aware of your potential impacts on the small communities you may travel through on your trip. Physical distancing, using a face covering when you’re close to others outside of your travel unit, avoiding crowded places like restaurants and bars, and not traveling at all if you have symptoms are important considerations. We also recommend driving instead of flying if at all possible. An outbreak in a small community could end your river trip and work for our employees—but more importantly it could be devastating for that community.

“The Difference is Noticeable” in Cataract Canyon

Absolutely exceeded my expectations! Your attention to detail from booking, COVID planning and implementation, guide selection, menu, gear, and execution were flawless. I paid close attention to other guided groups we met along the way. Hands down, no comparison, glad I was on an OARS boat. The difference is noticeable even from a distance! —Cataract Canyon guest, Chad Catledge

Read Full Mitigation Plan

OARS International Trips

OARS and our affiliate operators are excited for international travel to return to some semblance of normal in the near future. Travel to some countries has resumed, bringing much needed work and revenue to the travel industry. Tourism is critical to the livelihood of our affiliate operators—the local guides, transportation services, hotels, camps, etc. These are small local businesses that support resident communities, and we’re proud to consider them part of our team.

As travel restrictions vary from country to country and may change from day to day, staying up to date on the most current information can be a challenge. Here at OARS, we work to keep our guests informed about the status of their upcoming trip, any requirements in place for arrival, and to provide the information needed to consider options for future travel.

Once in a country, local regulations for wearing a face covering, physical distancing, and other guidelines will apply. It is up to you, the traveler, to familiarize yourself with those regulations and abide by them during your visit.

Effective January 26, all travelers arriving to the United States by air must provide proof of a negative result from a COVID-19 test taken no more than 72 hours prior to boarding a flight. Alternatively, documentation of recovery from COVID-19 stating you’ve been cleared to travel must be provided. This information needs to be provided to the airline prior to boarding a flight. In addition, travelers arriving to the U.S. by air may be required to quarantine. We recommend visiting the CDC for the most current information.

Below is a list of destinations offered by OARS International and the status of traveling there. (This list is intended for citizens and travelers originating from the U.S. If you’re a citizen or traveling from another country, you’re best served checking the website of that country’s embassy in the destination you’re inquiring about.)

Alaska – open to U.S. and foreign travelers. Requirements for entry include: a completed Travel Declaration Form and a Self-Isolation Plan (available online); a negative COVID-19 test result not older than 72 hours prior to departure to Alaska, or; submit proof of a test taken within 72 hours of departure and then upload results to the Alaska Travel Portal when received, or; if arriving without a test result or having taken a test, take a COVID-19 test upon arrival for a cost of $250, or; provide proof of a previously positive result from a COVID-19 test taken within 90 days of departure to Alaska and the traveler must currently be asymptomatic and the traveler must provide documentation of recovery provided by a medical provider or health care official indicating the traveler has been released from isolation. Fully-vaccinated travelers must follow pre-travel protocols, but do not need to follow strict social distancing while they are awaiting test results.

Argentina – remains closed to U.S. travelers.

Baja, Mexico – open to U.S. travelers arriving by air. Requirements for entry include: none.

Canada – Closed to U.S. travelers for the purpose of tourism. For our trips in the Yukon Territory, you can find information specific to that region here.

Chile – open to U.S. travelers. Requirements for entry include: a negative COVID-19 test result not older than 72 hours prior to boarding the final flight to Chile; an “Affidavit of Travelers” form completed 48 hours or less prior to boarding your final flight (available online); quarantine upon arrival, ending with a negative COVID-19 test result from a test taken on or after day 7; proof of a health insurance policy that provides coverage for COVID-19 related health issues during your stay in Chile.

Costa Rica – open to U.S. travelers. Requirements for entry include: proof of a travel medical insurance policy for the dates of travel that covers any COVID-19 related medical treatment (medical expense coverage of US$50,000 or more) and quarantine accommodation (US$2,000 or more); a “Health Pass” completed 48 hours or less prior to arrival (available online).

Croatia – closed to U.S. travelers.

Cuba – open to U.S. travelers. Requirements for entry include: a negative COVID-19 test result not older than 72 hours prior to arrival; a completed “Health Declaration Card” (available online); travelers must take a COVID-19 test upon arrival, and self-isolate until the result is received; travel medical insurance.

Fiji – remains closed to U.S. travelers for the purpose of tourism.

Ecuador – open to U.S. travelers. Requirements for entry include: a negative COVID-19 test result not older than 10 days prior to arrival.

Galapagos – open to U.S. travelers. Requirements for entry include: a negative COVID-19 test result not older than 96 hours prior to arrival (can be the same test for entry into Ecuador or arranged in country); completed “Safe Conduct” document provided by the tour operator or accommodation provider; completed Traveler Health Declaration Form; health insurance.

Morocco – remains closed to U.S. travelers (some exceptions apply). Requirements for entry include: a negative COVID-19 test result not older than 72 hours prior to arrival.

Peru – open to U.S. travelers. Requirements include: 14-day quarantine; either a negative real-time COVID-19 test result, a negative antigen test result, or a medical certificate of epidemiological discharge, none of which can be older than 72 hours prior to arrival; a completed “Affidavit of Health and Geolocation Authorization” (available online).

Zambiaopen to U.S. travelers. Requirements for entry include: a negative COVID-19 test result not older than 7 days prior to arrival (otherwise a mandatory 14-day quarantine will be enforced).

Botswana – open to U.S. travelers. Requirements for entry include: a negative COVID-19 test result not older than 72 hours prior to arrival; exit requires a negative COVID-19 test valid within 72 hours of departure.

The payment, reschedule, and cancellation policy for international trips varies depending on the OARS International destination you choose. We understand how important it is for our guests to know what payments are expected, when those are collected, and what policies are in place to assure a future credit or refund should the trip not take place. Our work ethic is to be transparent and up-front with guests, so you can rest assured you’re well-informed and kept up-to-date on the status of your reservation and trip. To discuss the various destinations and travel options with OARS International, please call our International Reservations Manager, Tom Patoff, at 209-753-4799.

Rafting with OARS during the COVID era - What to expect


If you need to cancel your trip — Please give us a call ASAP to discuss your options. To provide for some additional flexibility during these uncertain times, we’ve revised our final payment due dates and modified our cancel/transfer policies for many of our trips, which will allow you, under certain criteria, to transfer your trip payments to a hold account or request a refund at a reduced cost.

If OARS has to cancel your trip — If a trip (operated by OARS in the lower 48) must be cancelled or postponed due to factors outside our control, OARS will provide full credit for payments made toward future travel, or a refund less a 5% service fee plus any nonrefundable payments made on your behalf to 3rd-party suppliers. OARS will make good faith efforts to recover any payments made on your behalf to 3rd-party suppliers, however we can’t guarantee recovery of any or all of the advance payments made. OARS is not responsible for expenses incurred by participants in preparation for a cancelled trip.

Around the Next Bend…

We’ve long believed that wilderness experiences offer a much-needed refuge from the hectic nature of our day-to-day lives, but never more so than now. We heard again and again from our travelers last year that being on the river and away from it all gave many of them the chance to reconnect with others in person (with adequate physical distance when necessary) and feel at ease for the first time since the world went into lockdown back in March 2020.

As always, we’ll continue to watch, read, listen, and consult with health professionals, permitting agencies, local communities, and colleagues to plot the best path forward so we can keep doing what we do best.

All Forward!

Steve Markle
Vice President, Sales & Marketing
The OARS Family of Companies


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