Top 10 Tips for Whitewater Rafting with Kids

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Admit that you’re taking your 10-month-old baby rafting and most people will look at you like that’s the craziest idea they’ve ever heard. And between the water and the wilderness, it can seem majorly daunting to pull off a DIY river trip with young children in tow. But with advance planning and basic expedition smarts, floating a remote stretch of river with your family is a hugely gratifying—and, yes, responsible—way to spend a few days this summer. 

Two years ago, when our older daughter, Pippa, was 10 months old, we rafted the San Juan River for five days from Mexican Hat to Clay Hills with another family and their two kids. This is a mellow, mostly Class II desert river through southeastern Utah’s remote canyon country, and despite some serious pre-trip jitters, the expedition went off without a hitch. Now that Pippa’s nearly three and her little sister, Maisy, is 10 months old, we’re going back to the San Juan later this month to run the same section. But even though we’ve done it before, with a baby the same age, I’m still having mini heart attacks almost daily, just thinking about taking two squirmy worms on muddy, moving water for nearly in a week in a canyon with no cell reception. Gulp.

So I was relieved to talk to Andy Corra, seasoned boater, fearless river dad, and owner of 4Corner Riversports in Durango, Colorado, who’s been rafting with his eight-year-old son Wiley since Wiley was four months old. Wiley made his whitewater debut on the mellow Ruby-Horsethief section of the Colorado and has since floated the San Juan and walked around some of the bigger drops in notoriously burly Cataract Canyon, so I figured if anyone could reassure me that I wasn’t completely out of my mind, it would be Andy. Sure enough, he was full of great, practical ideas about making multiday rafting adventures safe and fun for the whole family. (And no one’s called Child Protective Services on him yet!)

I’ll be posting updates and gear reviews from our upcoming San Juan expedition, but in the meantime, here are Andy’s top 10 pre-trip tips for keeping the little ones happy and out of harm’s way on the river this summer. Thanks, Andy!!

1. Pick the right river
If your crew includes infants and toddlers like ours does, stick to rivers rated Class II and under, and make sure you have one adult per child in each boat. The oarsman counts as an adult, except in Class II+ rapids, when he’ll need to focus on steering the raft, not corralling a wild child. If possible, time your trip so that you’re not on the river during peak run-off, check stream flows online with the USGS before you go, and don’t be afraid to walk around any rapids you don’t like the looks of.  Finally, at the risking of stating the way-obvious, make sure you’ve had experience organizing and running your own self-guided river trips before heading out with kids. The last thing you want to be doing is fumbling through rapids and setting up camp with a baby on board. Your group needs to be totally self-reliant, competent, and prepared. 

 2. Build a crash pad
Rig the raft so that there are flat, shady, dry places for kids to nap. Older kids can stretch out on a Paco pad placed on top of a camp table or cooler. For babies, strap a car seat onto a flat spot, but never strap the baby into the car seat in the event that the raft flips. Make sure an adult is within arm’s reach of any snoozing kid. In camp, portable cribs are great for containing crawling babies and toddlers. 

3. Teach whitewater smarts
Kids are never too young to learn basic water safety. Andy and his wife started getting Wiley comfortable in the water at their local pool when he was just a few months old. By the time our daughter Pippa was two, she’d learned to look downstream and sit down and hold onto someone when she saw whitewater or riffles ahead. When kids are three or four, you can follow Andy’s lead and teach them to practice floating next to the raft in their lifejackets in an eddy or other safe place in the river. Position yourself on the downstream side of the raft, with kids on the upstream side, and instruct them to scream as loudly as they can once they’re in the water. But just even if your little ones seem fearless around water, never overestimate their know-how or underestimate the power of moving water: Kids need to wear lifejackets at all times on the raft. 

4. Love the lifejacket
Kids need to wear their lifejackets all the time—on the boat and in camp—until they’re at least 6 or 7, so their PFD should be as comfortable as possible. You’ll want one that’s Coast Guard rated (not the flimsy kind that ties around the neck) and weight appropriate. For infants and toddlers, look for one with crotch straps, a grab loop, and padded head support. Be willing to spend a bit more time and money to find one that they like and fits well, lest they whine about wedgies the whole way downriver. Lay out the ground rules ahead of time and get your kid accustomed to wearing it well before you launch.

 5. Pack First Aid
A good first aid kit will be able to handle most medical situations on a river, including cuts and even breaks. “Allergic reactions are the biggest danger,” says Andy, “so you want to make sure you’ve got a good Benadryl set-up.” If you’re not sure if your kids have allergies, ask your pediatrician to prescribe an Epi-Pen just in case. Safety bonus: If you know any doctors, nurses, EMTs who’d be game for a river trip, invite them along! 

 6. Keep essentials handy
Andy rigs his raft so that all the dry bags are piled in the stern, leaving the bow for easy-access to a day bag stashed with essentials like warm/dry clothes, diapers, and the MVP of tantrum-tamers: snacks. He places a camp table over top of the day bag, and lashes it with two straps so that it opens like a hinge. The last thing you want to be doing when storm clouds roll in is digging through your camping gear looking for your kid’s rain shell. 

7. Don’t skimp on shade
Kit out your boat with umbrella(s) or a canvas bimini to minimize sun exposure. You’ll still need to slather your kids in sunscreen (and don’t forget to reapply often—oh joy!) but extra shade on the boat will mean more napping and less wrestling with little ones to keep their hats on.  

8. Limit your time on the river
While you may have been able to log long days and lots of river miles in your last life, kids get antsy fast. To avoid mutiny, Andy builds in extra days to his trips and makes sure they’re not on the raft for more than two hours at a time before breaking for snacks, lunch, swimming, or playing on sandbars. “Don’t expect to do a river as fast as you used to,” says Andy. Layover days allow for down time at camp, sandcastle contests, and leisurely side hikes.

 9. Pardon the poop
If you’ve got kids in diapers, bring a separate hard-shell container for storing dirties. Don’t stash them in your portable toilet, aka groover—you’ll run out of room—or a garbage bag (they’ll reek). Andy’s partial to screw-lid pickle barrels or old-fashioned ammo cans. You can get a five-gallon orange Homer bucket at Home Depot, with a lid, for less than $5.

 10. Bring extra hands
When it comes to containing the madness, single friends, backcountry nannies, teenage girls, or even grandparents can help keep your little boaters from running you ragged on the raft and off. Bonus: You may even have time to whip up a margarita while making dinner or actually read a page of that bestseller you brought. 

Got your own secrets for keeping kiddos safe and happy on rivers? Do tell….

— Katie Arnold 


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