What is Whitewater Rafting?

whitewater rafting

Whitewater rafting is a recreational outdoor activity and sport in which an inflatable raft navigates fast and shallow stretches of whitewater for an exhilarating experience. Whitewater rafts carry four to eight people, who  use paddles to help steer and direct the raft in the proper direction, and propel it through the rapids. Additionally, there are six classes (also known as levels) ranging from easy to extreme that rafters can choose to venture on. 


The first recorded attempt at whitewater rafting took place in 1811, at Wyoming’s Snake River. Also called the “Mad River”, this river was known to be dangerous to raft along without proper equipment, training, and experience. By the 1840’s, Horace Day and Lt. John Fremont built the first rubber raft to explore the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains. However, it wasn't until 1940 that the first commercial rafting trip took place. In 1940 Clyde Smith made it through the Snake River canyon and finally, by the 1960’s and 1970’s, whitewater rafting gained popularity and whitewater rafting companies began to form.

Playing Surface

whitewater rafting playing surface

Whitewater rafting can be done on nearly any body of water, though locations vary in terms of levels.  There are six levels of rapids in whitewater rafting starting with class 1 as the easy level, to novice, beginner/intermediate, followed by advanced, expert, and lastly extreme/exploratory waves. Therefore, rafters’ experience matters when determining the playing surface and types of rivers and rapids that are preferred. However, most rafters prefer locations where there are heavier rapids to make the trip more adventurous.

Whitewater Rafting Equipment

Whitewater Rafting Equipment

Whitewater rafting can be a dangerous sport to be a part of, so there are many safety measures and types of equipment that should be brought along when partaking on this adventure. Most whitewater rafting facilities will provide a boat, life jacket, paddle, first aid kit, and other necessary equipment, but passengers should bring some of their own gear such as proper footwear and sunscreen when out on the water for hours, to ensure comfort and safety.

Here is the essential Whitewater Rafting equipment you should have:

  • Boat
  • First-aid kit
  • Footwear
  • Helmet
  • Life jacket
  • Paddle
  • Sunscreen
  • Wetsuit


Whitewater rafting’s main objective is to navigate downstream on river rapids in an inflated raft. It can be very challenging and risky because of the teamwork required and the rough waters that one has to go through. Although whitewater rafting is often done recreationally, people also perform competitively. The two different types of races that are conducted are sprint and slalom. Sprint rafting involves riders having to complete the course through the best route possible, while slalom rafting has individuals make turns navigate around barriers. 

Rules and Regulations

Whitewater Rafting Rules and Regulations

There are certain rules that people who go whitewater rafting should follow in order to have a safe and fun experience. Most of them are straightforward, and the few rules in existence are only put in place in order for rafters to stay safe and be comfortable on their ride.

Here are the most important Whitewater Rafting rules you should know:

  • Never forget your flotation device
  • Stay on the boat
  • Wear appropriate footwear
  • Pay close attention to the guide


There are a few things rafters should do to ensure they are safe and prepared for their trip. These include knowing the river, understanding your physical limitations, choosing a good life jacket, and having a good grip on the paddle. However, there are a number of techniques or strokes that whitewater rafters should use, especially when paddling.

Here are the most important whitewater rafting paddling techniques you should know:

  • Hand placement and grip
  • Having fluidity and balance
  • Draw stroke: This basic motion involves placing the paddle vertical in the water with the blade parallel to the raft. When the paddle is upright with the blade submerged, the individual can pull the raft in the direction of the paddle.
  • Sweep stroke: This enables a raft to initiate a sharp turn or spin, which can be helpful in the rough currents encountered. It is performed by sitting in the back of the raft and holding the paddle out horizontally. Then, the individual must grip the paddle and exert force against the current which forces the raft to rotate circularly.


Whitewater Rafting Lingo

Here is the common lingo and slang in whitewater rafting:

  • Bow: The bow is the front of the raft or boat.
  • Bump: This is said by the rafting guide right before the raft is going to hit a rock or hard surface. When this is said, it is a good idea to lean in the center of the raft.
  • Dig in: This term is used when giving directions. It is said when a specific technique when paddline needs to be used, where you have to push the paddle blade deep into the water.
  • Eddy out: This term describes the hand gestures that are used by guides when they need passengers to move to the side of the river. The gesture involves placing a hand in the air and motioning it in a circular motion, followed by pointing to the direction they want them to move in.
  • Line: This term is used to show and describe the best path through a particular rapid or wave.
  • Wave train: When rapids have over three consecutive waves and the watercraft will move up and down rapidly.


whitewater rafting players

Since whitewater rafting is a competitive activity, it is not surprising that a select few have risen to the top of the sport. One such competitor is Italian rafter Roberto Schifferle. Recognized by the International Rafting Federation as one of the most decorated rafters ever, Schifferle has been rafting since 1995. Through practice, dedication, and experience, he has climbed to dominance, as his Italian club has collected an astounding 17 team medals. A younger, equally prestigious player is Naina Adhikari. Despite only being 19, she won the Ganga Kayak Festival tournament, making her a noteworthy player in the rafting community.

Here are the most famous whitewater rafting players you should know:

  • Roberto Schifferle:
  • Naina Adhikari:

Events and Competitions

Whitewater Rafting Events and Competitions

As whitewater rafting has gained popularity, the number of events, competitions, and tournaments in the sport has increased globally. Tournaments are usually held at different times of the year around the world, and often consist of four different events: sprints, head-to-head, slalom, and downriver. These competitions are separated by age group for fair judging, and only one person can be the winner.

Here are the most popular tournaments in Whitewater Rafting:

  • IRF World Rafting Championships: This rafting championship is one of the most renowned in the world. Rafters from around the globe come to compete in one of the toughest rapids on the Tully River in North Queensland. It takes place for seven days and includes sprint, head-to-head, downriver, and slalom competitions.
  • Zambezi White Water Festival: This festival celebrates the Zambezi river with food, drinks, and live musical performances. The rafting competition lasts 2 days with teams of 6 battling it out for a grand prize.
  • World Rafting Champs - Argentina: This yearly whitewater rafting competition is open to men and women from 3 age groups: masters (40+), under 19, and under 23
  • River Rafting Competition Kitkajoki: The wild waters and rapids of Kitkajoki challenge teams which consist of 5 people with one as the leader.
  • World Rafting Championships in New Zealand: 69 teams from 27 countries compete to win a grand prize. Each raft team has 6 members and male and female categories are separated by age and participate in four events: short sprint, head-to-head, slalom, and downriver.
  • European Rafting Cup: International event consisting of Slalom, RX, and Downriver disciplines and in the class II level.
  • World Series: The IRF World Series is a rafting event that consists of Cups where people who enjoy traveling and competing can compete in a good race. 


Are there any dangers involved in whitewater rafting?

Whitewater rafting is an adventurous sport, so there are some risks involved. These include drowning, cold water concerns, rock collisions, and getting stuck in river features, though these are usually rare occurrences. It is generally safe, especially with proper equipment and precautions taken. 

What are the top places to go whitewater rafting in the US?

The best whitewater rafting locations have strong and shallow, fast paced water rapids. The top locations are the Colorado River, Gauley River, Salmon River, Rogue River, Arkansas River, Nenana River, Youghiogheny River, Kennebec River, and Deerfield River. 

Are there any age requirements for whitewater rafting?

Children over 5 years of age are typically allowed to go whitewater rafting, but often partake in less strenuous and dangerous courses. Anyone over 10 years old is allowed to do most courses but, depending on their age, they may only be allowed to ride in certain levels or classes of rapids. 

What clothing should be worn when whitewater rafting?

Loose, dri-fit shorts and a t-shirt are usually worn when whitewater rafting in order for passengers to be comfortable. Additionally, river sandals, old sneakers, or sturdy footwear should be worn. Some optional things that rafters should have are sunglasses, hats, a towel, and dry clothes to change into.