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How to Whitewater Raft

Raft in White Water

Whitewater rafting is one of the great challenges against nature. It's the thrill of going headlong into a wall of powerful water and feeling your raft bend as you push through it, straight into the next exhilarating rapid. To make sure you're safe and prepared for a whitewater rafting holiday, we'll take you through the Do's and Don'ts.

  • Do

    1. LAUGH, SCREAM AND HAVE AN AMAZING TIME. Because whitewater rafting can be dangerous, this list contains a few heavy words of warning. But you need to know that at its core, whitewater rafting is about having an amazing time with Mother Nature. The thrill of the rapids will make you laugh, scream and talk about your experiences for the rest of your life.

      So enjoy it and prepare yourself for the ride of a lifetime!

    2. FIND OUT ABOUT THE RAPIDS. Not all rapids are equally life threatening, but they can be if you go into them without any knowledge of the river. This especially applies to those going on a private trip without a guide.

      The International Scale Of River Difficulty grades rapids according to six different classes that will give you a good idea of what you are dealing with - one being as gentle as a saucer of warm milk, six being the Great White Shark of river rapids. If you are taking the whole family on a whitewater rafting trip, you'll want to find something that suits them all.

      Take some time to find out how cold the water is, how fast the river moves and if there are any particularly nasty bends to watch out for (among other things). Above all else, your safety must be your highest priority. Doing a little bit of homework before your trip won't hurt you, but failing to do so definitely could.

    3. PACK THE CORRECT SAFETY GEAR. Anything from level three upwards requires you to wear a helmet at all times. It is a bit like skiing in winter, except you will be moving at pace down a long river that is lined with tree trunks, rocks and other boats. So you need to protect your most valuable possession - your brain.

      Life jackets are standard practice on all rapids. They might not be incredibly hip, but you'll look even sillier getting told off and made to walk home by the guide who catches you without one. Make sure you wear one that fits properly: Too loose and it will fall off; Too tight and it will make breathing difficult.

    4. WEAR APPROPRIATE FOOTWEAR. You will need to wear non-slip footwear that can get wet - this comes in handy when negotiating the rocks under you. They are sharp and slippery - a terrible combo when you are trying to get out of the freezing water. If you have a wetsuit, booties or neoprene gloves, bring them too. Not only will these keep you warm, they will protect you from rocks if you fall out.

    5. PAY ATTENTION TO YOUR GUIDE'S SAFETY BRIEF. Your guide will give you a safety speech before you set off. This is not like the one you've heard a thousand times before taking off in an airplane - you need to pay attention. There are several procedures to follow in the event of capsizing on the river. For example, if you fall overboard, it is better to float downstream feet first, to avoid knocking your head on any rocks. Some charter companies employ a buddy system, which you will need to follow in the event of raft tipping. If this happens, you will be so thankful you listened properly at the start.

    6. SLEEP WELL THE NIGHT BEFORE. The best way to start your whitewater rafting adventure is to make sure you are well rested and hydrated. This means getting enough sleep and not boozing the night before. You are going to need all your strength and your wits about you - as will your team mates, because this is not just a one-person activity. If you arrive feeling sluggish and hung over, you will become a safety hazard when the river gets rough. Ideally, you want to carbo-load the night before and get to bed early. And trust us, a cold beer will taste infinitely better after a day on the river if you feel like you've gotten the most out of your white water rafting trip.

    7. DRESS TO STAY WARM AND SAFE. The Zambezi River that cuts a border between Zimbabwe and Zambia is home to some of the best whitewater rapids on our planet. The average temperature in winter stays at around 27 degrees Celcius during the coldest part of the year. Strangely enough, the water at the rapids is so cold it will slap you in the face and take your breath away at the same time. It's not just the water temperature that gets you - it's the rush of being swept downstream.

      When dressing for a whitewater rafting trip, bear in mind that you will be getting wet. It's a bit like riding a mechanical bull through the water. You may fight well to hold on, but sooner or later everybody gets drenched. You are going to need to wear a bathing suit, a shirt that dries quickly beneath your life jacket and something warm to put on after you are finished. Make sure your clothing is neither too long, nor too tight. You've got to be comfortable enough to hang on and relaxed enough to swim if need be.

    8. BRING PRACTICAL SUPPLIES. Some practical things that are important to remember include a towel and a plastic bag for it (to keep it dry), water and energy drinks to stay hydrated (just because you are getting wet, it doesn't mean you are not sweating) and SUN SCREEN - your skin is exposed to harmful UV for the entire time, so make sure you cover it with decent sun block.

    9. BE HONEST WITH YOURSELF If you can't swim, you can't go. That's the first reality check you need to be aware of.

      If you are heading into some bigger rapids and you lose your nerve, do not give yourself a hard time about opting out. Your guides will gladly take you to the side of the gorge or river bed and have you walk down, rather than take you through the rapids in the wrong state of mind. It is supposed to be fun and thrilling, despite the danger. If you are not having fun anymore, rather sit out.

    10. GET THE CORRECT TRAVEL INSURANCE. Whitewater rafting is a dangerous activity, which is not covered by all travel insurance policies. Essential Travel's Grade One sports insurance will have you covered in rapids that are graded one to three.

      You need to be sure that you are covered before you even think about stepping into a rubber duck. It's not nice to think about things going wrong on the river, but if you are injured abroad the costs can be crippling - especially when you think that they could be avoided fairy easily.

Last Updated: April 2011