National Park whitewater in WV

5 essential whitewater rafting tips for beginners

Rafting is intimidating for first-timers, but almost anyone can take on the easy waves! You just have to know what to expect.

Follow these simple tips, and your first raft trip will be a smooth one:

1. Dress for success

Even if you stay in the boat the whole trip, you will undoubtedly get wet. Basically, you should dress like you would for a day at the beach, with a swim suit and maybe a light, sunproof shirt that can (and will) get soaked. For footwear, err on the side of velcro-closing sandals or even open shoes, rather than flip flops (It’s easy to lose flipflops if you fall out). Avoid cotton.

Your outfitter may give you the option of wearing wetsuits or waterproof splash jackets. Go with the advice of your guides; the Gauley River is cold water, and if you’ll be doing it in the fall, warm gear is usually mandatory. Doing the New in July? You’ll probably be fine with just a swimsuit.

2. Paddle! Paddle harder!

Many rafters assume that their guide is knowledgeable and strong enough to get them through the rapids alone, and that the act of paddling is just an optional placebo to make them feel like they’re doing something. This could not be further from the truth. If your guide says “PADDLE!” he or she means it.  

There are obstacles on the New and Gauley that require a full crew of paddlers, plus an expert guide to maneuver the crew. Listen to the guide, learn what proper paddle strokes are, and do them. An added bonus is that if you are actually paddling, you are safer– paddle strokes actually push you back into the boat, and you are better off than if you are hunkered down in fear.

3. Swim!

Oh! You’ve fallen out of the boat, and it looks like you’re not getting back in until the end of the rapid. There are many rapids on the New and Gauley that require active swimming for you to avoid bad spots.

Above each rapid, your guide will tell you what obstacles to avoid, and which direction you should swim if you cannot get back to the boat. If it’s a rapid that is safe just to float through with your legs below you, your guide will let you know.

4. Relax

Most boaters panic the first time they fall into a rough rapid. And the second, third, and fourth times! The thing is, most swims through whitewater are not that bad once you get used to them. Just breathe when your head is up and relax when it’s down, keep swimming, and let your PFD (life jacket) do its job.

Your guide will still be helping you, too. He or she will continue to watch you and call out any directions you need, while working back toward you to get you back in the boat. If things get even a little out of hand, the guide will toss you a throw bag with a rope to pull you back in.

5. Listen to your guide

Honestly, we could have just left this whole article at this bit of advice. Guides will tell you how and when to paddle, where to swim if you fall out, what to avoid and what to wear. Listen to them. They have more experience than you likely ever will, they have probably seen much worse than you’ll ever be in, and they are being paid to thrill you but keep you safe. All they ask for in return is a good time— and maybe a good tip.

What are your first-timer tips?

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