Guests often ask about appropriate ages for whitewater rafting trips. River rafting outfitters vary and river trips vary on how to coordinate rapid classifications and minimum ages for family rafting adventures. There are no hard and fast rules, but here are some factors in determining minimum ages: length of time on the river, difficulty of rapids, necessary paddling and FUN.
Younger children (and most adults, haha) have a certain attention span that they can devote to an activity. Younger kids, roughly 5-9 years old, are best suited for river trips that last up to 3 hours on the water and some are better with shorter spans of 1-2 hours. Each child, of course, is different and able to focus and enjoy for different periods of time. Kids that are 10 years old and up to early teens seem to be able to handle full day trips with 3-5 or more hours of river time. Middle teens and up should be able to enjoy long days on the river and overnight river rafting trips.
The most obvious factor in determining appropriate ages for a trip is safety related to the size of the rapids on the trip. Size matters when it comes to paddling and staying in the raft. Generally speaking, kids under 12 are best suited for trips up to Class III. Twelve year olds and a little older up may be able to handle a Class IV challenge depending on the amount of paddling help that the guide may need in the rapids. Class V rapids should only be enjoyed by strong paddlers and individuals that can react quickly and help their raft get through the rapids safely – these rapids are for older teens only.
Life skills can be a factor in Class IV and V rapids – how will a teenager react when a raft capsizes or they see a loved one fall out of the raft and swimming a very big rapid? Will they panic and hinder the rescue or cause more stress for other rafters and the guide? Or will they stay calm and be an asset in a tough situation? No way to know, so best policy is to be conservative when choosing a trip. Adults have life skills and have been tested in tough situations ie driving a car. Kids are missing these life experiences that may help them in such situations.
Choose a whitewater rafting trip that is guaranteed to be FUN. Scary is not fun. Comfortable and exhilarating is the match to seek out. Kids that are afraid on their first whitewater raft trip may not wish to ever return to the river again. Rather, a kid that goes on just the right trip will hopefully say, “That was awesome. I want to come back next year and try a harder one”.
Finally, choose a professional whitewater outfitter that has a lot of experience and clearly knows their rivers, guides and clientele. Established outfitters will tend to have conservative minimum ages because they are not desperate for every dollar and willing to take people on trips that are marginally appropriate for some guests.
Article by Frank Mooney, Crab Apple Whitewater Rafting ownership family Deerfield River guide since 1990, Millers River guide since 1991, Kennebec River guide since 1991, Dead River guide since 1991, West River guide since 1991. Total of over 2,000 river days and over 15,000 river miles covered (and counting).