The Only 3 Differences You Need To Know About River Boats

4 Min. Read
The Only 3 Differences You Need To Know About River Boats

It usually doesn’t occur to new river travelers to ask about their floating conveyance until, well, the moment they’re on the bank about to step into it.

This is surprising, of course, to river guides, but even more so to the travelers themselves, who thought to ask about what to wear, what the rapids are like, what’s for dinner, where they’ll sleep, how the, uh, bathroom issues work out, and many other details that have far less to do with how they’re going to cover miles and miles of water over the span of days or weeks.

“Where do I sit?” some ask.

“Which end is the front?” others inquire.

“What if it gets a hole poked in here?” they wonder.

This is all quite natural, so don’t worry. And, there’s no test, obviously.

There are actually quite a lot of details about various river craft that determine how it performs, how comfortable it is, and so on. But, really, unless you’re driving, there are only a few things that should really concern you.

In fact, I’d say these are the only 3 differences you need to know about river boats:

Hard or soft?

Your boat is going to be inflatable, or not. Inflatable rafts are awesome because they’re big and roomy, and they’ll remind you of the bouncy-jumpy-playland fun of your youth. They’re also going to have self-bailing floors — and all you need to know about that is that you don’t have to scoop out the water that splashes into the boat every time you crash through a wave.

If your boat is hard, you’re likely riding in a dory. High-five, because you’re in for an incredible ride. You might be headed down the Grand Canyon, Cataract Canyon or on one of OARS’ Idaho trips. These hard-hulled boats originated as ocean-going fishing boats, actually, but they slice up the Colorado like a Ginsu. They also float pretty high, so you get an awesome view from the top of those wave trains you’ll be roller-coastering down.

Oh, and just because you’re still wondering: Those inflatable boats can get punctured, but that rarely happens, and they’re multi-chambered so they’ll never lose all their air from one hole.

How’s it propelled?

You get out of a river trip what you put into it, I think, so the most satisfying boat is propelled by paddles. This means you’ve got the same tool the guide does, and we all work together to get the raft down the river. If this is the way you go, you’ll definitely be in an inflatable raft, as described above.

Want to paddle, but maybe want some help? There’s the oar raft with paddle-assist for this. In this setup, the guide will sit in the back of the raft with two large oars on either side. This gives your boat tons of maneuverability and plenty of power.

Lounging as you float is its own kind of therapy. To get some, climb aboard a full oar rig — probably the gear boat that’s accompanying your multi-day trip — and soak up some sun. Just don’t sleep through the rapids. But, don’t be fooled, even if it’s just the guide rowing, you’re going to have work to do: You’ll learn the art and science of weight management, as you shift around the boat as rapids demand. In a dory, you’ll be on bailing duty, too.

You also might end up on a motorized boat. If you join OARS through Cataract Canyon, their 22-foot pontoon rig offers both wild and mild rides, depending on where you sit. This rig gets us into the whitewater in a timely fashion on the 4-day version of this trip.

How many people does it fit?

With any of the rafts or dories, you’re always going to have a guide in there with you. From there, it’s just a function of the size of the boat (or the size of your group, perhaps).

With a paddle crew or an oar raft with paddle assist, there will be at least 4 of you, but maybe up to 8.

On an oar rig or a dory, you’ll be a 3- to 5-person crew.

The motorized raft will fit up to 8 passengers.

If you’ve got an adventurous streak, you can also get some solo time down the river: Most trips bring along “duckies,” or inflatable kayaks, and stand-up paddleboards for you to try your hand at. And, don’t forget about the sea kayaking trips you could be taking, too.

Still have questions about the boats? Don’t hesitate to post them in the comments below.

Reid Williams

Reid has guided whitewater and taught swiftwater rescue in the U.S. and Central America on 13 different rivers, after brief turns as a chemistry teacher and a newspaper journalist.

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