Roller-coaster rapids, back flips off the boat, camping in the cool evening sand overnight rafting trips aren't just fun for kids. But the difference between a memorable family vacation and a soggy nightmare is simple: pick the trip that's most fun for all in your family. To do that, you need to consider much more than your child's age and swimming abilities. Instead, match your family's dynamic with a paddling style; while you may have your heart set on rafting, don't be afraid to consider sea kayaking and canoeing as well.
"You don't want to put kids, or even adults, in situations where they are going to be stressed," Gordon Black, a former director of safety education at the American Canoe Association, once told me. "Paddling trips are not bird-watching."
Thank goodness for that. While you may be specifically looking for rafting trips (and we'll get to some in a minute), consider a canoe trip if your children are younger than eight. The boats are better suited for fidgety kids, allowing them to hop in and out of the boat as much as they want, even mid-float. And if you were looking to get close to wildlife, particularly whales and sea otters, consider booking a sea-kayaking trip. But keep in mind that a kayak's narrow hull and low centergreat for tackling open wateralso mean your kids will be confined to a small cockpit, where they'll have to sit still and out of your reach for long stretches. Tandems are more stable and the best option for parent-child teams, but I wouldn't want to take a child younger than, say, 12 on a trip like that.
When considering rafting, ask yourself how well your kids follow directions. All adventure trips have risks and when it comes to rafting, kids must do exactly what a guide says, instantly. In a canyon of big rapids, miles from any hope of quick rescue, there's no room for attitude. Peter Grubb, who runs rafting company ROW, says age isn't as important as how much experience kids have being out in the wild and how well they pay attention. That said, be wary if your child weighs less than 60 pounds; the little tyke could go airborne after every bump. As for parents, consider taking a family-specific trip to save yourself from ending up with a group that will resent the fact that your kids are along for the ride. Some family-specific trips are often suitable for kids as young as five; age isn't the biggest decision maker. As Grubb says, it's okay as long as the kid listens well and is comfortable being outside.
So when and where to go? Record snowfalls this winter have left rivers swollen out west. For instance, the Lochsa River in Idaho hasn't reached the current levelssome 17,000 cubic feet of water per secondin more than a decade. Back east, in places like New York and Massachusetts, rivers are lower than normal. Neither means much by itself; it's a trade-off. With lower levels you have more rock-dodging to do; higher levels often mean colder water.
For a two-day trip, look into California's South Fork of the American River with American River Recreation (800.333.7238; www.arrafting.com; from $229 per person for two-day trips). With twice as much snow as last year in the surrounding Sierras, the river is currently running too high for family trips. But by mid-June the company will have special deals for parents and kids: for each paying adult, one kid between eight and 14 can go for half price on special dates. Typically the minimum age is eight, but wait until August when the river drops some and you'll likely have no problems getting on with a seven-year-old. Once you do, you'll float for two days and about 21 miles along the riverlocated about an hour east of Sacramentohitting Class III rapids like Troublemaker and Meatgrinder, camping at a private riverfront campground, and then bouncing along again the following day.
If you'd like to go longer than two days, ROW (800.451.6034; www.rowadventures.com) offers "Family Magic" trips for kids as young as five on the Salmon River in Idaho. Starting in Whitebird, you'll float the last 60 miles through canyons, over Class II and III rapids, and take hikes to historic Native American sites. At night you'll camp on the riverbanks, have kid-friendly meals (sorry, no caviar), and listen to stories around the campfire. Five-day trips start in mid-July for $1,295 for adults and $1,095 for kids under 16.
The Lower New River in West Virginia is another great spot for taking kids as young as six, while the Upper New is a little more rowdy but still great for families with kids between six and 12. Wildwater Expeditions (800.982.7238; www.wvaraft.com) has been around for nearly 40 years and friends who've worked there rave about going back. The company offers two-day rafting trips on the New starting at a very enticing $189 for mid-week departures. Not bad considering you'll have plenty of time to swim in calm pools between tackling easy rapids up to about Class II that flow past ghost towns. Come evening you'll camp by the river, eat steaks, and get ready to do it all again tomorrow.