River Rafting Tips for Your First Trip with Kids

Liana Moore Avatar

white water rafting the royal gorge
White water river rafting through the Royal Gorge Canyon in Colorado. Photo credit: Echo Canyon River Expeditions

From a day float trip to a multi-day river camping trip, river rafting is a fun way to spend time together as a family. Being in nature, disconnected from electronics and perhaps navigating some challenging situations can only help your family grow closer. But there are a few things to think about before you dive in. Read on for white water rafting tips for beginners.

Our family took our first day float trip as a family when our youngest was around five or six years old. Then last summer a friend called and invited us to tag along on a self-guided multi-day river camping trip on the San Juan River, putting in at Bluff, Utah. It was quite the adventure. Fears were conquered. Paddleboards were mastered. Confidence was built.

Here are our best white water rafting tips from which type of river raft trip to start with to what you need!

multi-day rafting camping trip on the San Juan River
A multi-day river rafting trip down the San Juan River in Utah. Photo credit: Liana Moore

What Type of Raft Trip Should Your Family Take

Rafting trips range from leisurely float trips to challenging white water rafting adventures to multi day camping float trips. Before you start your planning, ask yourself (and your family) some questions.

How old are your kids? Are your kids old and mature enough to help set up and break down a camp site? If not, it will be a lot of work for you to take a self-guided, multi-day river camping trip. But you could still consider a guided glamping river trip where the guides do a lot of the labor for you.

How experienced are your kids on a boat, raft, kayak or stand up paddleboard? What is your family’s rafting experience? What kind of rafting adventure are you up for?

For first-time rafters, easing into the rafting experience is the best way to go. Start with a family float trip with a recommended rafting outfitter or rafting guide on class I or class II rapids. Guides will provide everything you need, and make it a fun experience. This is a great way to get everyone comfortable on the river.

After a successful float trip, then go whitewater rafting, again with a rafting outfitter. Build up experience paddling and reading and navigating the river.

Once you’ve tackled some class III to V rapids then you might want to think about getting your own raft, or tagging along on a multi-day camping raft trip with an experienced friend.

white water rafting tips on the royal gorge
The author white water rafting through Royal Gorge Canyon in Colorado. Photo credit: Echo Canyon River Expeditions

Types of River Rafting Trips

A river float trip and white water rafting are quite different experiences. Younger kids aren’t even able to go on most whitewater river rafting trips with professional rafting outfitters. Class III to class V rapids can require both strength to paddle and an emotional maturity. The first thing to know about taking to the river is the difference between different rapid classes.

My husband and I just returned from whitewater rafting on the Royal Gorge in Colorado. We were expertly guided through the 1000 foot high walls on either side of the on the Arkansas River by Echo Canyon River Expeditions. This was quite the adrenaline inducing accomplishment for us both. The suggested starting age for this particular river trip is 14 years of age.

Each type of rafting trip will have its own joys and challenges. For example, a day float trip should be fun quality time out in nature with your family. A day whitewater rafting trip will get the adrenaline going and maybe even push you out of your comfort zone. When you’re ready, a multi-day camping float trip will definitely challenge your family and conquer some fears.

The first night of our camping float trip after we set up camp, my son told me he wanted to go home. Gently, I explained that there was only one way off the river and it wasn’t going to involve home anytime in the next day or two.

What to Bring on Your River Rafting Trip with Kids

Most important for rafting trips is to wear quick dry clothing and protect yourself and your family from the sun. So, wear a bathing suit, a swim shirt and slather sunscreen all over yourself. The sun is particularly strong on the water and it will hit areas of your body that you don’t always think about, such as your knees. Avoiding sunburns is always a goal while having fun on the river.

If you are going with a rafting outfitter they may provide a wetsuit (if needed), booties, a personal flotation device (PFD), also known as a life jacket and a helmet depending on the rapid class.

If you don’t want or need booties, be sure to wear water shoes that are strapped on. Flip flops are not advised.

Bring a water bottle. While you may not be able to get to it while paddling rapids, you will be glad to have it when you stop.

Be sure to bring cash to tip your guide. This is how they make their money. They work hard to keep you safe and make sure that your whole family has a great experience.

river rafting arkansas river
A trio of Echo Canyon rafts floats into past lush Arkansas River vegetation on the way into the Royal Gorge. Photo credit: Echo Canyon River Expeditions

What to Bring on a Camping Float Trip with Kids

A camping float trip is a whole different ballgame. For your first trip you should go through a rafting company. As a first timer, it would be quite difficult to plan, pack for and successfully navigate a multi-day camping river trip.

Some rivers require permits issued through lottery systems. Just to get a permit to take a river trip can take some serious planning, and sometimes luck too.

There’s pretty specific gear you would want to bring along. Think about how much you need to pack for a camping trip but fitting all of that onto a raft.

Meals need to be prepared in advance and packaged in a way that is easy to prepare. You need a cooler that can keep food and drinks cold for however many days you’ll be on the river. You may even need a portable toilet also known as a groover.

Of course you won’t want to forget a GoPro or some other type of waterproof camera, unless your guide company will be taking care of photography.

Rafting Adventure Safety Tips

If you go with a rafting guide they will give you a safety talk. They will also provide everything needed and let you know anything you should bring.

A life jacket or PFD is probably the single most important piece of equipment. It needs to fit so you won’t slip out.

If you take your own self guided camping trip then you will want to be sure to pack a first aid kit. This should include Benadryl or other allergy medication. That is the number one emergency that happens on camping raft trips.

Has your family taken a river rafting adventure? What type of trip? What white water rafting tips do you have? Tell us in the comments below!

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