Thinking of a river-rafting trip the whole family can enjoy? This adventurous mom explores the pros and cons with little ones, and offers helpful pre-paddling advice.
Mud. I knew our family rafting trip on Utah’s San Juan River would be a success late on the first day out, when our 4½-year-old son jumped into the muck-sodden riverbank and yelped for joy. Freedom! To get dirty (and stay there), pilot his own kayak, climb rocks at 8am and roast marshmallows at 8pm — river rafting was definitely kid-heaven.
It was our second trip on this 20-mile stretch of river, a lazy float amidst red rock canyons that comes complete with a few mini-rapids (Class II in a range of I-VI), big enough to be fun but not big enough to be scary. Our friend and trusted guide, Marc Smith of the former Riversmith Outfitters, had recommended this trip precisely for its child-friendliness. A professional river guide with many years’ experience on the world’s greatest whitewater (we’d met him on our first trip on the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon 10 years earlier), Marc announced to us when Moses was born, “When he’s 3, I’ve got a river for him.” So when Moses was 3, we went.
No Guarantees. No one can guarantee you a successful river trip, with or without kids; there are too many variables. Besides weather and river conditions, the composition of the group (when you book through an outfitter) and your capacity to live with usually minor, always unpredictable, discomforts are among the trip’s unknowns. For us, that gamble is part of the appeal and the adventure. (See “Who Probably Shouldn’t Go” on the next page.)
What to Look For
For those who aren’t experienced rafters, an absolute must is a guide or outfitter who understands childrens’ needs and builds around them a trip that’s also fun for parents. You can and should inform yourself, in advance, about:
- Safety Matters – Life vest policy (it should be strict); guides’ training in emergency care; river evacuation arrangements.
- Guides Experience – In leadership; In dealing with kids of varying ages.
- Degree of Challenge – What class of rapids on the river you’re interested in. (Note: Kids<8 shouldn't be on rapids above Class III.)
- Sleeping Arrangements – Are tents available? Sleeping bags? Mats to cushion sleeping bags?
- Meals – What type of food is served? Can the outfitter handle special needs?
- Bathrooms – Bathing facilities? Toilet tent?
- Type of Boats – Are there opportunities to learn about motor-powered vs. oar-powered inflatables, dories, kayaks?
- Numbers – People on the trip; People per boat
- Work Load – Outfitters’ expectations of paying clients to help with meals, dishes, loading and unloading the boats, etc.
It’s also a smart idea to ask your prospective outfitter for names and phone numbers of people who’ve taken the trip you’re considering, not because outfitters aren’t truthful, but because the river experience is so familiar to them that it often doesn’t occur to them to tell you things it would be nice to know.
Like, wear a belt bag during the day so that you have access to things like sunscreen or contact lens refresher, since your gear is packed away in waterproof bags while you’re on board the boats. Also, you might feel freer to ask another landlubber questions you’d be embarrassed to ask a guide.
Planning Your River Trip
Most important of all when planning to take your kids, is to find out if this trip is suitable for children and of what age? And don’t forget to ask, is there built-in downtime for kids to romp on shore, since there’s a risk of restlessness if they’re confined to small boats four or five hours a day. (Obviously, kids’ ages are a factor in their ability to sit for an extended time.)
Most outfitters indicate age requirements in their brochures, based on the class of rapids, length of trip and nature of the trip. When you speak to a prospective outfitter and any clients they refer you to, ask each to describe a typical day.
A good guideline in planning the duration of a river trip is your child’s age: roughly one day on the river per year of her age. Our three-night, four-day voyage on the San Juan was perfect for Moses at ages 3 and 4. At 5, he’ll be ready to spend four nights out and ride somewhat bigger rapids.
We traveled about five miles a day, an ideal pace that allowed for a balance of river time and shore activity — hiking, setting up and taking down camp, collecting firewood, river-bathing, cooking.
Our guide Marc had gathered a small flotilla for this trip, consisting of two oar-powered, Kodiak-style inflatables, in which we stored provisions and sleeping gear; a Mad River canoe, and two inflatable kayaks, all three of which were strictly for fun, diversion and development of our solo river-running skills.
Besides Marc and our family, we had Marc’s nephew Mike, 8, and three other adults — one river “virgin” and two experienced rafters — on the trip. Having a choice of craft made the trip interesting and challenging for adults and kids alike; before long, we each had a favorite vessel and savored mastering the river’s every little riffle. Even Moses, kayaker extraordinaire, who can’t wait for this year’s trip.
What most kids will need on a river trip:
Most important: if he’s a persnickety eater, ask for some of his favorite foods. Ask the outfitter to stock up and offer to pay for extra expenses.
- A favorite stuffed animal or blanket.
- A few favorite books and audio tapes for bedtime or lazy floating time.
- Small toys: a doll, action figures, car/truck.
- Clothes you don’t mind losing or getting totally destroyed. (This goes for parents, too; we accidentally burned up a sneaker one night in the fire.)
- Tevas or other stay-on sandals suitable for hiking and getting wet. (Sneakers are ok, too, but they take longer to dry.)
- Her own water bottle for through-the-day use.
- A notebook/scrapbook/diary in a zip-loc bag.
- Long-sleeve woven shirts and sunscreen for sun protection; bug repellent in certain seasons.
- Two or three hats, since at least one will probably disappear.
Who probably shouldn’t go overnight-river rafting
- A child who doesn’t relish change.
- A child who’s easily frightened.
- Anyone who demands that life always be his/her way and doesn’t welcome serendipity.
- Anyone who needs to be clean all the time.
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