White-water rafting on a family holiday (La Plagne)
© OPGP (Promotion Office of the Grande Plagne)
White-water rafting on a family holiday (La Plagne)

White-water Rafting with Kids

by Theodora Sutcliffe

If you love rapids, rivers, nature and boats but also have a sneaky fondness for rollercoasters and the like, white-water rafting could be for you. BUT you have to be happy at the prospect of buying a little adrenaline at the expense of safety.

At its tamest, white-water rafting is a gentle drift down a lazy river in an inflatable dinghy, with the odd wobble courtesy of a bubbling shoal. You sit on the edge and paddle a little, with the kids sat in the middle, bobbing about like loons. At its most extreme, it’s a risky sport involving capsized boats, rafters swept hundreds of metres down the river and battered against rocks, and, in some cases, death and serious injury.

The key thing to understand before booking a white-water rafting experience are the six grades of difficulty, from Class I (small areas of rough water) to Class VI (waters that cannot be navigated reliably safely – the sort of lethal drops and stretches that make incredible video footage, reserved for expedition professionals). Different operators place different age limits on child participation, partly for safety reasons and partly because the paddling required in fierce, fast, extensive white-water is physically quite demanding. You need to find a level that will deliver the right balance of thrills, safety and exertion for the different ages and temperaments in your family. 

In some parts of the world, operators welcome children of all ages into their boats for Class I and II white-water; others have a minimum age of 8. Safe, relaxing, and gentle, Class I and II rapids are entertaining, offer a lovely view of the world around you and require little by way of physical contribution. Class I may, in fact, be too tame for many.

Class II–III or III–IV rapids are an excellent place to start with older, adventurous children, though many operators require a minimum age of 12 for Class IV. Do not embark on a Class IV+ rapids trip unless you are confident that your children will cope should they be flung from the boat and swept downstream away from you. Class V rapids can be dangerous and generally require experience. 

If that all sounds a bit much for your family, try tubing – lazing in an idle current in a giant rubber ring, or a truck inner tube. If, on the other hand, you’re looking for something even more extreme, trying canyoning, or canyoneering – descending narrow canyons, often at considerable speed, in a range of flotation devices from miniature rafts to simple wetsuits and lifejackets.

You can enjoy white-water in most parts of the world. Closest to home are the relatively tame waters of Wales and Scotland, while many Alpine resorts offer the chance to experience serious rapids. Further afield, the Canadian Rockies have white-water experiences suitable for every age of family, while Chiang Mai in Thailand is popular during the rainy season. For more adventurous trips with teens, consider Nepal, Ecuador, Chile or even Uganda (where crocodiles await the unwise rafter!)

Choosing a White-water Rafting Trip

Check safety standards are in place. Lifejackets and helmets are a must, whatever the level of rapids. Lifejackets should come in smaller sizes. Helmets need to be sturdy and fit closely to the skull. Even on Class III rapids, you may need to duck under overhanging objects. All rafts should have throw ropes with which to haul any missing rafters in. At higher levels, you need to think about escorts. Is there a safety kayaker or a safety rafter accompanying the raft?

Ask what sort of briefing your family can expect when you enter the raft. What are the recommended procedures should you land up outside the boat?  Will the younger members of the family be balanced on the edge of the raft and paddling, or sat safely inside the boat?

Check the expected state of the river, although most operators in the developed world will not take families when a river is dangerous. Snow melts, in temperate climates, flash floods, in drier climes, and the rainy season in the tropics will all affect water levels – and add to the number of hazards in the water.

Choose a site that is not too busy. At its finest, white-water rafting gives you a river to yourself, whether on a multi-day expedition or an hour or so’s leisurely drift. Establish from the operator how many groups will be rafting the river as you do. Big groups can transform the rafting experience from a magical adventure into a watery coach tour. At its worst, you are floating in an inflatable dinghy with a myriad others bobbing along behind you.

See our feature on a White-water Rafting Trip with Kids in Indonesia.

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