Whitewater rafting is a great family activity, but is there a minimum age requirement? There are no set rules on age for each rapid classification, so do we decide what is appropriate for children? In general, for commercial rafting trips, we defer to the equipment outfitter’s required ages and trust their experience on their favorite rivers. Outfitters choose minimum ages based on length of time spent on the river during a trip, difficulty of rapids, level of necessary participation by rafters, and fun.
In general, you will not see many outfitters allowing children under 5 to join commercial rafting trips. With short attention spans and constantly changing wants and asks, limiting a young child to the confines of a fairly small raft platform is not ideal. Safety concerns are of the utmost importance and the youngest children may have trouble understanding and following safety requirements during a whitewater trip.
Children (and most adults!) have a certain attention span or amount of “mental bandwidth” to dedicate to any activity. Younger kids around ages 5-9 are best suited to river trips that last a couple of hours or less. Of course, each child is different and able to enjoy and focus for different lengths of time. Kids above the age of 10 typically enjoy more time on the river if the action is consistent — many can handle trips with 3 or more hours on the water. Older teens can often handle full-day trips, lots of miles, and big challenges on the river.
The most obvious factor in determining appropriate ages for rafting is safety. The minimum age requirements for rafting should be directly related to the rapid classifications on the impending trip. Size and strength matter when it comes to paddling, holding on, and staying secure in the raft. Generally speaking, kids under 12 are best suited for trips with Class I, II, and III rapids. Adventurous “tweens” and a little older may be able to handle a Class IV challenge depending on what is expected of them in the raft. Class V rapids should only be undertaken by willing participants that can react quickly and help safely paddle the raft through complicated rapids.
Life skills can be a factor on whitewater rafting trips. Milder trips are accessible to most because the risk of danger or falling out of the raft is minimized. However, as trips move up through Class III, IV, and V rapids, the crew and guide need to be a cohesive
unit to navigate the rapids properly or, in the case of an upset, be able to handle the situation. How will kids react if a raft capsizes or they see a loved one fall out of the raft? Will they panic and hinder a rescue effort and, by extension, cause more stress for other rafters and the Guide? Or will everyone stay calm and be an asset in a tough situation? There’s no real way to know, so the best policy is to be cautious when choosing trips. Older kids have experiences such as driving a car that build quick decision-making skills, but younger kids are missing these skills that may be crucial in challenging situations on the river.
Before choosing a rafting trip, consider what is expected of each rafter. Will all of the participants be holding onto safety ropes on a motorized raft or a raft rowed by an expert guide? Will some or all of the rafters be asked to paddle? How much paddling will be required and how important will paddling be for the safety of the raft and crew? Obviously, kids of different ages and sizes will have their own ideas of fun on the river so ask yourself if your kids would prefer holding on and going for a “ride” down the river or sitting in the best “splash zones” and paddling furiously through the fun rapids.
When rafting with kids, choose an adventure that will be fun! Scary is not fun. Comfortable and exhilarating is the balance to seek out on a river trip. Kids that are afraid during their first rafting experience will not be excited to try future rafting trips. Find a trip that will encourage kids to build rafting skills and someday venture into the rapids again.
Our last tip? Choose a rafting outfitter that has a lot of experience and knows their rivers, guides, and clientele. Established outfitters will tend to have more conservative minimum ages for trips. Follow these minimum ages and don’t try to fudge the ages if your kids are too young. Trust the experts!
Frank Mooney, Crab Apple Whitewater Ownership Family
River Guide Since 1990, thousands of river days and tens of thousands of river miles traveled!