OARS Response to COVID-19: What to Expect

Originally posted March 11, 2020 – updated November 18, 2020

Looking Ahead to 2021

With our last river trip of the 2020 season officially off of the water, all of us at OARS are breathing a collective sigh of relief. Thanks to our loyal guests who put their trust in us, a stellar team who was able to “go with the flow” and new protocols that worked—like a Health & Hygiene Pledge, pre-screening protocols, enhanced sanitation procedures, and measures to maintain as much physical distance as possible—we were able to “stay float” during the COVID pandemic.

Rafting with OARS in the COVID Era - What to Expect

In the end, this has been a very challenging year at OARS, just like for everyone else. OARS revenues for 2020 are down more than 70% from 2019, but hearing the positive feedback from our guests and our staff has helped us weather the storm. We had some close encounters with the virus, 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 this year, not a single person contracted COVID-19 on an OARS trip.

And now that we’re on the other side and can look ahead to 2021, we’re more confident than ever in our ability to facilitate life-changing experiences for our guests regardless of the circumstances. We think the overwhelmingly positive feedback we’ve received this 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 the protocols we developed that helped us have a successful 2020 season. We don’t know how our mitigation plan will evolve in 2021, but you can count on us to have thoughtful and responsible measures in place to give our guests and guides peace of mind.

Read Full Mitigation Plan

Current COVID Measures


High-risk Individuals

If you’re over 65 years of age, immunocompromised, or at a higher risk for severe illness from COVID-19 as outlined by the CDC, the National Park Service and others recommend you do not go on a backcountry trip during the pandemic.

Enhanced Screening

Leading up to your trip, this means exercising extra caution to reduce your risk of exposure to COVID-19, and closely monitoring yourself and your family for symptoms prior to departure. Five days before your trip, you’ll also be required to sign and complete our Health & Hygiene Pledge, stating that you 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.

Should accurate rapid response testing for COVID-19 become more broadly accessible in 2021, OARS may seek to administer tests for guests at the pre-trip meeting or prior to joining a trip.

Face Coverings

Generally, face coverings are not required while in a boat. However, guests and staff may be expected to use them in 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 such as a bandana, cloth mask, or neck gaiter 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, 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 frequently, or have been eliminated. For example, group games that involve close contact and touching of a common object are restricted.

Following every trip, all equipment is properly sanitized or laundered. Tents and sleeping pads are sanitized and/or cycled out of use for 72 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 are required to wear face coverings and gloves and we’ve enhanced sanitation efforts across all areas. We’ve removed communal snacks and appetizers from our menus, and instead of our traditional breakfast and dinner buffets and make-your-own-sandwich lunches, all meals are 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. These individuals will also be isolated from others and we will follow EMS/WFR protocols to provide appropriate medical treatment. 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.

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 negative COVID-19 test result not older than 72 hours prior to arrival or take a test upon arrival for a cost of $250; a completed “travel declaration and self-isolation plan“ (available online).

Argentina – remains closed to U.S. travelers.

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

Canada – remains closed to U.S. travelers.

Chile – opens to U.S. travelers on November 23*. Requirements for entry include: a negative COVID-19 test result not older than 72 hours prior to arrival; completed “Affidavit of Travelers” within 48 hours of boarding your international flight (available online); proof of health insurance that provides coverage for COVID-19 related health issues during your stay in Chile.

*From Nov 23 to Dec 7, U.S. travelers will be required to complete a mandatory 14-day self-quarantine upon entering Chile. After Dec 7, the three items listed above are sufficient for entry.

All non-resident foreigners entering Chile will be subject to a 14-day “Period of Vigilance for Travelers.” During this period, travelers will have to report daily their location and health condition to the Health Ministry through a system that will be implemented for this purpose.

Costa Rica – open to U.S. travelers. Requirements for entry include: proof of travel insurance that covers accommodation (US$2,000) and medical expense (US$50,000) in case of quarantine due to COVID-19; a “health pass” completed 48 hours prior to arrival (available online).

Croatia – open to U.S. travelers. Requirements for entry include: a negative COVID-19 test result not older than 48 hours prior to arrival. Travelers whose test is older than 48 hours will be allowed to enter Croatia, but they will be issued a self-isolation order (of at least 7 days) and will have to be tested again locally at their own expense.

Cuba – despite the U.S. Embassy website suggesting Cuba is open, information from Havana confirms the suspension of flights into José Martí International Airport remains in place. Likely requirements for entry include: a negative COVID-19 test result (time frame unknown), mandatory quarantine in a government facility (time frame unknown), travel medical insurance.

Fiji – remains closed to U.S. travelers.

Ecuador – open to U.S. travelers. Requirements for entry include: a negative COVID-19 test result not older than 10 days prior to arrival (for travelers age 18 & older).

Galapagos – open to U.S. travelers. Requirements for entry include: a negative COVID-19 test result not older than 96 hours prior to arrival (for travelers age 18 & older); 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: a negative COVID-19 test result not older than 72 hours prior to arrival; a completed “Affidavit of Health and Geolocation Authorization” (available online).

Zambia & Botswana – Zambia is open to U.S. travelers. Requirements for entry include: a negative COVID-19 test result not older than 14 days prior to arrival; mandatory 14-day quarantine. Botswana remains closed to U.S. travelers.

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.

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 minimal 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 this 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 we carefully scout our 2021 season, 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.

We hope you’ll join us for an adventure in 2021.

Wishing you a happy and healthy holiday season,

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


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