by Melynda Harrison – We are bumping down a river, rafting with kids, on the border of Bosnia and Montenegro clad in wetsuits, PFDs (personal floatation devices or life jackets), and helmets. Our Balkan guide has our eight- and ten-year-old boys on either side of him, so he can keep them involved and safe. While our family owns a raft and floats down local rivers near our home in Montana, this is the boys’ first experience on whitewater—water moving fast over rocks and forming rapids.
Upon hitting a Class III rapid, we all dig in our paddles and move (mostly) in sync, powering the boat forward, while our guide maneuvers us through the tricky rock obstacles. At the end he makes sure we hit a wave sideways and drenches half the boat. Guides think that’s funny. So do kids.
Rafting with kids, whether exhilarating whitewater or a mellow, flat river, is an easy way for families of multiple ages, abilities, and motivations to spend time outside together. It requires expensive equipment and some know-how, but it can be a perfect combination of a backcountry experience with all your front country stuff.
Mild to exhilarating adventure teaches kids river rafting skills that transfer to other aspects of life, like paying attention to what’s in front of you, reading the river (both literally and metaphorically), and focusing on safety while having fun.
While all abilities can enjoy a raft trip, you oarsman or woman probably shouldn’t learn with kids on board. Find a class or learn from a friend before hitting the water with little ones. Or join a guided whitewater trip with a certified guide and a reputable company like Northern Outdoors.
Once you are comfortable paddling a raft, here’s the step by step to get you into the whitewater or on an overnight expedition with your family.
How to Choose the Perfect River for Rafting with Kids
The most important part of choosing a destination for your float is knowing your ability. Choose a section of river you are comfortable on. Adding kids to the mix means adding chaos.
With babies and toddlers, a river section without rapids, or with very small Class I rapids and riffles, is ideal. Elementary aged kids and older can probably handle Class II and III rapids. The important thing is that they will listen and follow directions, and they know what to do if they are ejected from the raft and end up in the river.
If you have spent any time on a river, you probably know the local rivers and permitting systems. If not, check with friends, join a paddling club, ask at your local outdoor store, or check American Whitewater’s site.
For an overnight rafting with kids trip, you’ll also need to know where you can camp. You need a spot that is both legal and accessible.
Safety First When Rafting with Kids
As I said above, don’t go out in a boat for the first time with your kids. You need to be a proficient whitewater rafter before throwing kids into the mix.
Check stream flows online with the USGS before heading out.
Everyone needs to wear a PFD when on the boat or playing in the river. Even good swimmers. Kids under the age of six or seven should wear a PFD in camp, too. Make sure you get comfortable PFDs that are specific to each person’s weight. It’s worth paying a little more to get a quality PFD with the right fit since they will be worn a lot. Take swimming lessons. The better the swimmer, the better they will handle a spill into the river.
Cold water can be a risk even on warm days. Have dry clothes, towels, and rain jackets in a dry bag. Kids get cold quickly in a boat since they aren’t moving around much.
The sun is also a risk. Cover up as much as possible with sun protective clothing, slather on sunscreen every two hours, and drink plenty of water. On a mellow float, you can set up a sun shade for kids to duck under.
Teach everyone on the boat what to do if someone falls out and practice those skills in a safe, flat section. Assume the swimmer’s position – feet downstream with toes poking out of the water and butt up. If it’s within reach, grab the rope on the side of the raft and float with the raft until someone can drag the swimmer back into the boat.
Bring a First Aid Kit in a dry bag and attach it to the boat.
Tips for Overnight Rafting Trips
Know where you are going to camp, have a back up campsite, and start early. If you miss your desired campsite or someone is already there, you want to have time to get to the backup site, which could be another hour down the river.
Plan to run fewer river miles than you can. Kids don’t want to sit in a boat for five hours; they want to get out and play in the shallows, roll in the mud, and throw rocks in the water.
Debbie Earl, a former raft guide who was excited to get her kids on the river says, “The first over night trip we took them on, I believe was the Smith River (Montana) when Justin was one and Devin was three. We were packed to the gills and had a portable crib tent set up on the front of the boat. We looked like the Beverly Hillbillies -but we had a blast and everyone survived.”
Setting up a crib with tent cover made it possible for Debbie’s kids to nap in the shade. Other people strap a covered stroller or car seat to their rafts, to provide a comfortable place for little kids. Of course, do not strap a child into the stroller or car seat and always have them in a weight-appropriate PFD. An adult should be within arm’s reach of the child.
Debbie and husband Jim, have taken their kids on many float trips since their Smith River Float, “Justin and Devin are six and eight-years-old now. Devin likes to row the boat and also likes to use my kayak and paddleboard. And Justin is starting too, as well.”
What to Pack for an Overnight Trip
Your usual camping gear stored in dry bags or a drybox. (tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, camp kitchen)
- A big cooler of food
- Water purifier
- A camp table and chairs are nice, but not necessary for a one night trip. A ground cloth or tarp comes in handy, too.
- First aid kit
- Sunshade – set it up in the boat and at camp
- Good water shoes and “camp slippers,” something dry to wear in camp
- An extra, extra set of clothes for little ones. They are going to be wet and dirty.
- Diapers, wipes, and a bucket with a lid to store used ones.
- Rain jacket and warm clothes
- Find a complete checklist here
Rafting with Kids, You Gotta Make it Fun
Floating down a river is fun in itself, right? Beautiful scenery, relaxing vibes. But, just imagine hours upon hours, rafting with kids. Kids get bored. When we float the Yellowstone River we do a few things to keep the kids entertained, without having to entertain them ourselves.
First bring another family or friend along. We often get four or five families, each with their own boat, and form a flotilla. The kids entertain each other, as do the adults. Additional adults can make camp chores go more quickly and can help corral kids.
- Hand out the weaponry – water guns and super soakers—and let them go after each other.
- Stop a few times on islands and riverbanks to land play
- Bring a variety of boats—rafts, kayaks, paddleboards, inner tubes. There is something really fun about changing up where they are riding.
- Get the kids involved. With supervision, they can learn to paddle the boat, set up camp, and read the river.
- Snacks, snacks, snacks. Pack tons of fruit and a hearty lunch. We have treats that only appear on river trips—potato chips and root beer.
On early trips, Debbie would bring games, books, and other entertainment for her kids, “but found I hardly used them as other things like skipping rocks, finding bones, and digging in the mud were much more appealing to them.” “I try and encourage them to row the boat, fish, skip rocks, tell jokes. But generally, with my kids, I find the less I am talking at them, the better.” Debbie said. “Maybe it’s laziness, maybe it’s giving them a chance to just be and ask questions on their own time, but I really don’t do much to make it fun – they tend to find it on their own. Oh – I do love a good mud fight. We find a great mud pit.”
Resources for Rafting with Kids
American Whitewater has information on rivers around the country and world including river flow, permit requirements, rapid classes, events, and more.
Disclaimer: It is the policy of Outdoor Families Magazine to disclose a financial partnership with a business or organization. Northern Outdoors provided financial sponsorship to Outdoor Families Magazine in exchange for content.
Melynda Harrison is contributing editor to Outdoor Families Magazine and writes for numerous publications including Big Sky Journal and Montana Parent. Her company YellowstoneTrips.com, specializing in Yellowstone travel. Currently, she is traveling through Europe with her family. Learn more at travelingmel.com, on YouTube, and Instagram.