Written by Sarah Spalla
After 20 years of guiding trips down multiple rivers in Colorado I’ve had my share of successful adventures…and some not so much. If your vacation plans include some time on the river, and it should, take a look at some tips straight from a river guide to have a great trip!
1. Book the right trip for your group with a reputable outfitter
There are countless options for whitewater trips in Colorado. From challenging whitewater, to mellow floats. From half day trips, to multi day overnights. I find most people’s success begins with this planning step. Your safety and happiness are our first concern as guides, so we want you to sign up for a trip that is appropriate for your group. We certainly don’t like to see kids in over their heads with difficult whitewater nor do we want our guests to be disappointed by lack of excitement. Seek out a reputable outfitter and talk to their office. This will be your first glimpse at a company’s competency as the reservation agent should be able to steer you in the appropriate direction. Please ask questions!
2. Come prepared
Over the years I’ve seen more folks’ trips affected by poor preparation than I care to remember… trust me we don’t want to see you cold, sunburnt or generally uncomfortable! The first step is following the recommended gear suggested by your company. It depends on the time of year, weather, water temp etc. on how many layers you will want. If your guide is suggesting a wetsuit, get one! Temperatures can fluctuate greatly throughout rafting season. If you’re hitting the river on a hot summer day, guys and gals should wear tee shirts and comfortable shorts.
If you’re rafting on a cooler day or if you’re boating at high water, wear fabrics such as polypropylene or synthetic fleece. These fabrics will help keep you warm. Don’t wear cotton. No jeans, no cotton hoodies, when those get wet, they will just make you cold. I find the most useful item is a fleece top. Even if the weather is hot and sunny it’s a nice thing to have in case. Your guide should be happy to stash it in a dry bag in case you need it. I never hit the river without one.
Don’t wear jewelry/watches
Leave the expensive jewelry at home. Fingers can get cold which can cause them to shrink and rings may fall off. Anything you hold precious doesn’t belong on a river trip…except your loved ones! If you’re wearing sunglasses make sure you have a retainer strap!
Protect yourself from the sun
Sunscreen is a good idea for most people while on the river. A light synthetic sun shirt is a great way to protect yourself.
Wear appropriate footwear
The most common injuries on a river trip are foot injuries! Colorado terrain is not exactly forgiving for bare feet. You are required to wear a securely fitting shoe of some kind. Flip flops are not securely fitting since they do not have straps to hold them onto your foot. You can rent a pair of wetsuit booties from your outfitter, but an old pair of tennis shoes works fine, that’s what I wear. Since your feet will be in contact with the water, I highly recommend wearing a pair of wool socks as well.
Leave your car keys in the office
Lock everything in your vehicle and leave those keys with the office. If your keys go in the river they will not come back out, trust me.
If you have any questions about what to wear or what you can bring with you, please ask a guide before you get on the bus. We are here to help.
3. Listen to the safety orientation
Once you arrive at the put-in for the river, one of your guides will give all paddlers a safety orientation. We try to keep this talk entertaining, but we are required to cover some topics that may sound scary. While we are not aiming to make anyone nervous, we are trying to provide you with information on how you can help in the event you fall out of the boat or if your raft happens to tip over. Please help us out and have your kids listen up as well, we understand that it’s exciting to hit the river and there are lots of distractions however, we need everyone’s attention. A few topics we will cover…
- How your Personal Flotation Device works
- What to do in the event you fall out
- How to perform a “high side” maneuver
- Proper techniques to swimming a rapid
- What to do in the event your raft flips over
4. Paddle as a group
After your safety orientation you will meet your guide and they will begin teaching you how to paddle. If you have any questions after the demonstration, please ask us! Yes, your paddling does affect our success at navigating rapids, this is not an amusement park ride where your boat travels on a track. We rely on your participation as much as you rely on us! Working together and listening to your guide is more important than brute strength, rafting is a team sport.
5. Listen to your guide
As rafting guides, we spend countless hours training and practicing to hone our craft as river guides. We take great pride in our ability to share our “home” with you. We are here to make your trip as enjoyable and safe as possible. Please give us your attention, especially when approaching rapids. We will try to prep you for the maneuvers that we need to make for a successful run.
6. Unplug from stress before you get on the boat
I understand that traveling on vacation can be stressful. I’ve had plenty of travel plans go awry myself. The river is a place to let that stress go, however. So, leave that late shuttle, missed flight, bad dinner, stress on the shore where it belongs. You are on river-time now so relax and enjoy that time to be unplugged. No, there is no cell service, no social media, no work emails to answer. And no worries! I see folks all the time that bring their stress with them onto the raft, now’s your chance to let that go and let us worry about the details!
7. Try an overnight if possible
I find a lot of folks are trying to “fit it all in” on their vacation. While yes, there are many things to do and see in Colorado consider carving out a few days (or more) for an overnight or multi day trip. Personally, this is my favorite way to experience the true nature of the river. If you are uncertain about the camping, understand that most companies will outfit you with any gear you need, provide awesome riverside meals, and some great scenic spots to pitch your tent. I get asked all the time what I do for fun…and my answer is go on extended river trips.
8. Roll with the punches, remember you are on an adventure!
I’ll never forget one of my favorite trips down the Arkansas River. The day started out sunny and warm, but we got caught in one of the heaviest rainstorms I’ve seen. As the black clouds started to roll in instead of being nervous my guests started taking pictures. We made our way through the downpour and my guests were having a blast! Since they were properly dressed being cold wasn’t an issue. As we came around to the last rapid, Widowmaker, the sun peaked out and a cascade of water came running off the canyon wall…something I had never seen after hundreds of trips down that section. No, that weather event wasn’t planned nor easy to paddle through but since my guests were ready to take on the adventure, we had an epic day on the river.
Hopefully these tips with set you up for success on whatever trip you choose. Colorado offers some of the best whitewater rafting in the world and with a little planning and a sense of adventure you can enjoy it!