Think class IV rapids through wildlife rich Virgin rainforest and not a car in sight. Think an alpine shoot surrounded by snow capped mountains in the summer. Whitewater, created from changes in the path of fast moving rivers and streams, can be found all over the globe from the Himalayas to the Americas and the South Pacific. Quality outfitters with safe, top of the line equipment are as common in India as they are in Colorado. The world’s rafting and kayaking rivers are in danger though; dams and hydroelectric projects have already slowed several whitewater havens to a trickle. So find a river and a kayak/rafting operator now while you still have the chance.
Whitewater Rafting Basics
Rafting and kayaking in white water is much different than doing so in the ocean of on lakes. Rapids are the focus of whitewater paddling and the more difficult and larger amount of rapids, the more difficult the river and the greater the Class ranking. Most skilled paddlers like rapids and search for more and more difficult runs.
While both are run on, for the most part, the exact same rivers, kayaking is slightly more difficult than rafting, as you need to have more control over your boat than a raft where another person can pick up the slack. Kayaking is also a solo activity. (One man/woman per boat). You will likely be with a group of kayaks; however, tandem boats are rare with whitewater in sight. Rafting is a team sport. To be successful at rafting, the perfect cohesion of the team is necessary; therefore a leader or guide will generally step up and take control.
Whitewater Rafting - Beginners
If it is your first time out, attempting to raft above a Class III rapid is probably not wise, no matter how great of shape you are in. Most beginners stick to Class II-III rapids. Occasionally a low end Class IV rapid is thrown in with a good guide.
During off-season rafting or kayaking the water levels are at their minimum. Rapids that were once a Class V become a Class III, so if you’re a beginner and your heart is set on running a particular piece of the world you likely can in the off season without much risk. Afternoon or day tours are standard for beginners, although many multi-day tours can be quite mild as well. In fact, many multiple day tours are aimed more at the scenery such as the wildlife, isolated cultures, forests, and open skies, so the difficulty of the rapids is sometimes secondary.
A beginner must pick and choose the right rivers for them. There is not certification system for paddling that a tour operator can verify before allowing a paddler on an advanced run. Therefore, a beginning paddler can get on a Class V run, but they will put their life and everyone else’s life on their raft in danger.
Whitewater Rafting - Advanced
Advanced whitewater enthusiasts stick to the upper level Classes and try to paddle rivers during their peak seasons when the water levels are highest and the flow the strongest. The advanced paddler will likely find their rivers in the tallest mountains. The Himalayas, the Andes, and the Alps are all favorites of experts. These are places with intense runs over long periods of time or short bursts. Heart pumping, speed, adrenaline are all favorite themes for the expert. Long trips are favored and while scenery is important, it comes second to the excitement of the water itself.
Safety equipment is equally important even for the expert. As many river trips as one has been on proper training and equipment is still necessary, as lives are often lost due to careless rafters and kayakers.