Whitewater Rafting: Paddle or Ride?

If you’re interested in taking a thrilling whitewater rafting trip on a mountain river, the first thing you should know is that all outings are not the same. There’s a diverse world of whitewater adventures from which to choose, and there’s literally something for everyone of all ages and skill levels in the mountain waters. If you’re looking for a riveting river run, book a trip along a Class IV or Class V stretch of rapids and get ready to paddle for your very existence. If that’s not your cup of tea, plan on a more relaxing river journey where you don’t even have to paddle. There’s a diverse menu, so picking the right trip for you and your group is important.

Whitewater Rafting: Paddle or Ride?

How hard to do you want to work in the river? That’s the first question you should ask when planning a whitewater rafting trip. This mainly comes down to paddling, and the level of physical exertion that you want to endure. There are primarily two types of boats used for whitewater rafting: paddle boats and paddle-assist boats. Let’s take a look at the pros and cons of each:


Grab your paddle and get ready to be part of a team, listening to your guide’s instructions and working in unison to navigate the river. Your guide will be positioned at the back, acting as the rudder while your group powers the raft. These rafts commonly fit four to eight people (seven paddlers and a guide as a rudder) and can really move on the river if everyone works together. The rafts are very maneuverable and perfect for hair-rising rides through Class IV and Class V rapids.

Most of the rafts used for whitewater rafting are inflatable. Most come equipped with what’s called a “self-bailing floor,” meaning that water drains from it so you don’t have to scoop it out every time is comes splashing in. (And don’t worry about inflatable rafts getting punctured on your trip. A quality inflatable raft is multi-chambered, so it’s not going to sink from a single puncture hole.)

Whitewater Rafting: Paddle or Ride?

A “hard” boat is called a dory. An oar rig, or dory, fits 3-5 riders. Resembling a traditional ocean fishing boat, these hard-hulled boats provide a rip-roaring ride on a mountain river. A dory sits higher on the water than an inflatable raft, so your views are going to be incredible as you sit on top of the waves.  In a dory, you’ll need to scoop water out of your vessel as it takes it on, as there is no self-bailing floor.

When riding in a paddle boat (especially in Class IV-V rapids), it is imperative that each member of the team be properly outfitted with a life vest and helmet. There are instances where you may end up in the water. Definitely plan on getting wet! Be sure to ask about dry bags for your valuables, and other floatation devices in the raft as well. Having all of the pertinent information will be useful if there is any issues on your journey.

It’s important to choose wisely when selecting your seat on a paddle boat. If you’re looking for a rousing ride, position yourself in the front of the raft. But be prepared to get wet! The middle, back and sides are a little more tame. Many riders like to mix it up and switch spots along the way. Most whitewater outings can last an hour or two (or more), so there’s plenty of time to switch it up. It’s also keeps everything fair for all riders. Trying all the spaces will help you decide your favorite place to sit.

Your guide should review all safety precautions before heading out on the river. Your guide will also give your group training on how to paddle before you head out. Be sure to listen up and ask questions before you get out on the water.

You’ll be given a T-grip paddle to use, in most cases. It’s called a T-paddle because there is a handle on the end shaped like the letter T. The T-grip allows you to have a firm hold on the paddle while it’s in the water. Secure the T-grip with one hand, while your other hand holds the paddle about halfway down the shaft. Lift the T-grip up above your shoulder and dip the paddle end into the water at a slight angle. Once it’s in the water, you’ll smoothly push down, back and through for a full stroke. (Don’t worry, your guide will show you the finer points doing your training session. You will also learn how to back-paddle and other handy tricks.) Once everyone masters the technique, you’ll be navigating the waters like a pro team.

You will utilize your shoulders, back, legs and core if you’re paddling on the river. It’s a great workout, but prepare to be stiff and sore the next day if you don’t prepare beforehand. Weight training and cardio exercises are both important to build the necessary muscles to paddle effectively. Work in some exercise before your big trip to lessen the physical burden your body will experience.


Paddle-assist boats do just that – they help you paddle. This is great for groups with smaller children, active seniors, or anyone who may be physically unable to paddle. Maybe it’s your first time, and you’re leery of the whole paddling thing. Or maybe you just want to enjoy the ride. Paddle-assist rafts make is possible for each rider to participate as much or as little as they want.

In a paddle-assist raft, your guide will be more in the center-rear on the boat. There will be seats for active paddlers, usually about four spots near edge of the raft. The rest of the seating (mostly in the middle of the raft) is for riders only. Many paddle-assist rafts have inflated bench-like seating in the middle of the raft called a thwart where non-paddlers sit. They can hold on and enjoy the ride while the paddle team propels the raft down the river.

If you don’t plan on paddling, it’s still a good idea to listen to all of the safety precautions and instructions carefully. Your guide should talk about important aspects of whitewater rafting, including weight distribution, shifting weight and what to do if your raft takes on too much water. Listen up and be ready to chip in if needed. Remember, everyone in the raft is considered part of the team.

A good option for those who want to paddle a little, but may need some help, is a oar raft with paddle assist. Your guide will sit in the back with two large oars to help power and maneuver your raft.  The extra power of the large oars can help take the physical burden off of you so you can enjoy the trip.

If you’re looking for a full-on ride, check out a motorized boat option. These unique rides utilize a larger pontoon boat to whisk vacationers down the river. Don’t be fooled: Some of these pontoon rides can get pretty wild!

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