Multi-Day Whitewater Rafting Trips with Kids: Everything You Need to Know

Family Whitewater Rafting Trip

Thinking of taking your family on one of those adventure-of-a-lifetime multi-day whitewater rafting trips? Well, I finally pulled the trigger and did it this summer, so if you’re planning your first whitewater rafting trip with kids, here’s your chance to learn from my mistakes.

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For years I dreamed of a family whitewater rafting trip. Then I had kids, and I got mom anxiety (the kind where you imagine your kids dying at every turn), and I gave birth to kids who have anxiety, and I married a man who thinks rivers are for fishing, not high-adrenaline sports.

So my whitewater dreams were tabled, until one magical day a friend called and said, “My husband is guiding a 5-day 4-night commercial whitewater trip on the Main Fork of the Salmon River in July. Wanna come?”

And I said YES.

I was super excited for two weeks, then super panicky for two weeks. I was awake in the middle of the night trying to figure out if my 5-year-old was going to die on a Class III rapid, and using Reddit as my source of information (which I would not recommend). I bought a new tent and practiced sleeping in it one night in the backyard with the kids and prayed that would be adequate preparation.

Then the week of the trip arrived, and it was basically the best five days of our lives.

If you get the chance to take your kids on a multi-day whitewater rafting trip, I HIGHLY recommend you do it. But it’s best to be prepared.

From whether whitewater rafting with kids is dangerous to what you should pack, here’s what you need to know before planning a whitewater rafting trip with kids.

Main Fork of the Salmon River in Idaho
Rafting choppy waters down the Main Fork of the Salmon River in Idaho.

Is Whitewater Rafting With Kids Dangerous?

When you take a commercial whitewater rafting trip, you sign your life away on a legal form stating that you are aware that terrible things could happen. However, if you go with experienced guides (like I did) who know the river they are guiding, you should be in very good hands. The key is doing your research and making sure you choose a reputable and well-experienced company or guide. I felt very safe taking my kids ages 5 and 8 on the Main Fork of the Salmon River in July with the guide who literally wrote the book on it. (The minimum age for this trip on this river at this time of the year was 5).

There is always the risk of falling out of the raft on a rapid, and the most worrisome risk is hitting your head on a rock (for this reason, some trips require helmets). However, if you hold on to the raft through rapids and trust your kids to hold on well and listen to the guide, this is unlikely. And if you do fall out, you will be taught what to do in order to return safely to the raft.

Also, on a multi-day trip, you’ll spend precious few minutes a day rafting down heart-stopping rapids. Most of your time will be spent floating down a beautiful river, and in the summer you may be able to swim in it, too.

Whitewater has a  Class I-VI classification system. Class I is basically nothing; Class II requires basic paddling but is easy; Class III-IV have medium to large waves, drops, and require an experienced paddler to get you through them. Class V is very exciting and if you mess up, you could get seriously hurt. I’ve heard Class VI called “certain death” (but also some people think Class VI doesn’t exist).

Most trips that are willing to take kids will only involve Class II-III rapids, but older kids can manage Class IV with an appropriate guide.

Everyone on rafting trips should be wearing a life jacket so excellent swimming skills are not required.

The most important question regarding safety when whitewater rafting with kids is: are your kids willing and capable of following directions? And are you willing to take on the small risk associated with any exciting activity like this?

Multi-Day Whitewater Rafting Trip
The troops prepping the rafts for the day: this is a scene you’ll get used to on a multi-day whitewater rafting trip, and kids love to help the grown-ups. Especially the young, fun guides that they totally adore by the end of the trip.

What’s so Great About a Multi-Day Whitewater Rafting Trip?

Kids might be less trepidatious about a multi-day trip if they have already experienced whitewater rafting as a day trip — mine ALMOST refused to get out of the car at the boat ramp.  But my son also said that night, “I had no idea this would be so much fun!”

I can vouch for a multi-day whitewater rafting trip as an EXCELLENT family adventure vacation. Here’s what’s so great about it:

  • You don’t have to cook. Or wash dishes. The guides do that.
  • There’s no cell service. Or internet. Just good, old fashioned family fun. Swim, play games, read, talk, joke, sing.
  • A multi-day trip on a river will generally get you into wilderness that roads never reach — in our case, through the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness. If you have kids that like stars, let them stay up late enough to see them pepper the very, very dark skies of the wilderness.. 
  • You are basically backpacking without having to carry a backpack; the rafts carry your stuff. Depending on which company you go with, guides may set up tents for you, but on our trip everybody helped unload rafts and we set up our own tents. It was a good opportunity for kids to work communally in a group, doing what needs to be done so everyone can have a good night. 
Whitewater camping
Is there anything better than a happy kid and a tent by a river on a summer day? If you love this scene, you’ll love multi-day whitewater rafting trip.

What to Know Before Your Multi-Day Whitewater Rafting Trip

If you are rafting through a wilderness area, and your kids aren’t experienced in backpacking or leave-no-trace camping, it will be helpful to prepare them ahead of time.

All waste is carried out, including human waste. Your guides will explain this to you, but we used essentially a tiny port-a-potty. Depending your family, you may want to tell them this ahead of time — or not. After all, once they are out there and everyone is doing it, kids may just be fine; however, if you have children with bathroom issues, best to prepare ahead of time.

It’s also helpful to talk to them about how you want to leave the land EXACTLY the way you found it. No potato chip crumbs, no broken trees. My kids are used to clomping around through Washington state rainforest where a branch here or there is no big deal, so we had to revisit this discussion multiple times.

Make sure your kids are trained to help with the tent and take care of their own sleeping bags. Don’t ask why my kids don’t have these skills, just know that when you are doing this every night for four nights in a row, you’ll be wishing you trained your kids better.

Whitewater Rafting with Kids
Nighttime falls on camp on the banks of the Main Fork of the Salmon River.

What I Wish I Had Packed for my Multi-day Whitewater Rafting Trip with Kids

Our outfitter provided us a packing list appropriate for our trip, and yours will, too. However, here are some things I wish I had packed better, given the ages of the kids I was bringing along:

  • More snacks. Occasionally my kids did not love the provided dinner, and then they got snackier. Also, you’ll likely want to share with the people around you. I brought snacks, but I could have brought more, including a mix of healthier options and the candy my kids were always begging off of other people.
  • Insulated water bottles. I brought non-insulated Nalgene bottles and my water got really hot in the sun. I didn’t realize the guides would provide water kept cool in a cooler, and if I had insulated bottles, it would have stayed that way.
  • Activities for camp. I was trying to pack light, and I figured my kids could play with rocks and sand. Which they did. But other families brought brilliant things like watercolor paints and small games and a collapsible bucket, which kept the kids busy while we set up camp and waited for dinner.
  • Bedtime books. I brought one book each for my kids, since books are a critical part of our bedtime routine. My 5-year-old did not like the one I brought for him. It was an issue. Sleep is important. 
  • Extra battery packs. I wished I had an extra battery for my GoPro camera (you’ll wish you had one of those on this trip) and I also wished I had brought along an extra battery for my iPhone, since it is necessary to play a specific version of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star on it every night if I want my littlest kids to sleep. 
  • A waterproof iPhone case. I just put mine in a Ziplock bag. I should have made the small investment to get a waterproof phone case that would have allowed me to actually take pictures with it while rafting. 
  • Long-sleeved sun protection. In our little upper-left corner of the world, we sometimes forget just how fierce the sun can be. I was smart enough to bring hats, sunglasses, and sunscreen, but I wish I had long-sleeved sun shirts for all of us.