Beginner’s guide to whitewater rafting

When my boyfriend first proposed the idea of going whitewater rafting, I envisioned the experience being something like this:

Photo by Colorado Adventure Center

Much to my surprise, you can actually go whitewater rafting on completely newbie-friendly rapids. 80% of the ride you barely even see any white water. The rapids you do go through are totally non-threatening and are actually super fun! After witnessing other beginner rafters making their way down Clear Creek while driving on I-70, I began to think this was something I could definitely do.

Despite my newfound bravery, I was still dragging my feet about actually going…until my boyfriend’s mom said that her number one “to do” item was whitewater rafting when she and my boyfriend’s stepdad visited Colorado.

Taking on beginner-friendly rapids on Clear Creek

How do I find a rafting trip that’s beginner-friendly?

My boyfriend’s mom is ridiculously good at doing extensive internet research, which I admittedly lack the patience for. Thanks to her aptitude for Googling, she (unsurprisingly), found a great company based in Idaho Springs called Colorado Adventure Center.

Quick aside…since we went in August, the water levels were pretty low. Water levels are higher at the beginning of summer, so your experience might be a little different if you go in June or even early July. Whatever company you go with, don’t hesitate to contact them to make sure you’re booking a trip appropriate for beginners. The staff doesn’t want you to get in over your head anymore than you do!

So what the heck do I wear rafting?

Figuring out what to wear was the most complicated part of rafting. I knew the water would be absolutely frigid, but it was also going to be a pretty hot day. Thankfully my boyfriend had no qualms about bringing an entire bag of clothes “just in case.” I brought all quick-drying layers (this means no cotton or denim!) as well as my raincoat and waterproof pants.

Once we were out in the sunny parking lot, I quickly ditched my rain gear and opted for running shorts and a long-sleeved running shirt that has really good ventilation. This ended up being the ideal combo – I had sun protection and a little bit of an extra layer, but nothing that was going to make me too hot. Typically, when you’re out on a river, there’s little to no shade. With the Colorado sun beating down on me, I was begging to get wet, so it ended up being overkill to worry about wearing a raincoat or something waterproof up top!

For your feet, I personally like renting the wetsuit booties. The first time I went rafting, I wore old sneakers, which was fine, but then I had to deal with SOAKING wet sneakers. And by “deal with” I mean that I forgot them in the car overnight and they cooked in all their smelliness and the odor was horrific the next day. The second time I went, I rented the booties and had no smelly shoes to contend with, plus my feet stayed dryer and more comfortable.

The real mistake I made with sneakers was wearing socks. Go barefoot so your feet don’t stay as wet the whole time. You could also consider water shoes or sandals that strap on your feet like Chacos or Tevas. Just remember to back dry socks/shoes/flip flops to change into when you’re done!

It’s not an option to not wear sunglasses. The glare of the sun off the water is blinding. To be safe, make sure you have Croakies or something similar so they don’t end up in the water. You can buy some cheap ones on Amazon.

Make sure to wear sunscreen (find a safe option here), but don’t put it on your forehead or above your eyes! You’ll have a helmet on, so you don’t need to worry about protecting it, but also you don’t want to spend the trip with your eyes on fire when your sunscreen is running into your eyes after being splashed by water. Ask my boyfriend, he experienced this agony for a majority of our day.

What is the rafting experience actually like?

If you have a big enough group, you’ll all just be in the boat together (four to six people, depending on the company). If there’s only a few of you, you might end up with strangers. It’ll be fine!

Your guide will go over all the safety information, how to use your paddle, and the basic commands they shout out at you to guide you through the river. Once everyone has a helmet, shoes, properly fitted life jacket, and paddle, you head down to the river. Everyone piles in and away you go!

The guide sits in the back to act like a rudder and lets you know what to do the entire time. For example, “Forward One!” means paddle forward once. Sometimes you need to paddle backwards, or just paddle continuously. The guide will let you know what to do and when so you can safely navigate rapids, other boats, and debris in the river. It’s important to listen to them the entire time!

Depending on the river, there might be some time to talk with your guide, or they’ll bless you with all of their local knowledge of the surrounding area. It’s fun to get to know them or at least learn from them!

At the end of the trip, your guide will help you get the boat into a spot to pull-out and get out of the water. The rafting company will pick you up (a lot of them use old school buses, which is a fun throwback) and take you back to your starting point (and your car). There are typically semi-private or private places to change back into dry clothes. Don’t forget to get a picture with the raft before you leave!

Whitewater rafting sounds super intimidating, but beginner rapids are often quite calm and good guides make you feel at ease! Most people going rafting with a guide company are total beginners, so don’t be shy about being upfront about your inexperience. The guide company wants to make sure you have a great time, too!

a whitewater rafting guide poses with a small group of people holding their paddles and ready to raft

Published by Laura Cardon

Laura Cardon moved to Colorado as an adult and quickly realized how difficult it was to get started exploring the outdoors in a state full of experts. She founded Outdoor Beginner in 2014 to fill the gap in beginner-friendly content for camping, hiking, skiing, and other outdoor activities. In addition to Outdoor Beginner, she coaches beginner trail runners and works at Runners Roost in Golden, Colorado, where she lives with her spouse and toddler.

13 thoughts on “Beginner’s guide to whitewater rafting

  1. It’s great to know that there are rapids in white water rafting that are non-threatening and can be good for newbies. I will make sure to look for a trip like that to try with my best friends next summer. We all have never tried that kind of activity, so we decided together that we are going to do it this coming 2022.

  2. I am happy to hear that guides can help instruct you on when and how to paddle during a river rafting trip. My boyfriend just planned a getaway for us for our anniversary and it includes whitewater rafting. I am excited to go and try something new, as long as we can have an experienced guide helping along the way!

  3. Thank you for stating that you should rent wetsuit booties if available for white water rafting. My family and I are thinking about going white water rafting for the first time. I will definitely utilize all of your great tips and information when going white water rafting.

  4. I like how you mentioned that you recommend renting wetsuit booties if available. My family scheduled a whitewater rafting trip for us this summer, and I’ve never been before and don’t know what to wear or what to expect. I will definitely keep your great tips in mind so that I can be well prepared for our rafting adventure.

    1. Thanks Brooklyn! I’m so sorry it’s taken me this long to get back to you. The booties are so convenient if you don’t have sandals like Tevas or Chacos. Have a blast rafting!!

  5. It’s interesting that you mentioned avoiding sunscreen above your eyes. My wife and I are going rafting this summer, and I was looking for ways to prepare. It would be smart to keep sunscreen off my forehead because I don’t want anything getting in my eye.

    1. Yep, I would wear a hat instead! My husband spent this rafting trip with his eyes half shut because of the burning from the sunscreen. Have fun, and let me know how your trip goes!

  6. My wife and I are thinking about going on our first rafting trip together soon, so thanks for sharing these tips. I like your point about remembering to bring sunglasses. We’ll be sure to get some Croakies too so we don’t lose them in the river.

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