In 1842, the first whitewater rafting expedition was recorded by Lieutenant John Fremont of the U.S. Army along the Platte River. The boat used for this trip was an assembly of independently wrapped rubber tubes and a connected floor. Since then, whitewater rafting has undergone an evolution of boat design and materials, equipment and techniques. Today, whitewater rafting is both a popular recreation activity as well as a competitive sport with participants attempting to conquer whitewater in almost every country around the world.
Just about anyone can participate in whitewater rafting. However, age, physical condition and medical conditions are factors. In the case of a young child, there is the real possibility of being thrown from the raft which may result in serious injury. The equipment utilized in rafting will include a raft, paddles and personal flotation devices (PFDs). Depending on the length of the trip, other equipment may include camping gear, food and other essentials. There are a myriad of rivers that have become hot spots for rafting throughout the years. From the Nantahala River in North Carolina, to the rivers of West Virginia, to the mighty Colorado traveling through the Grand Canyon, there are many rivers that provide a wide range of experiences as well as challenges. Whitewater rafting may be enjoyed year round, but it is typically a warm-climate sport due to the inevitable contact with water. Many have discovered rafting and enjoy participating in the sport as a result of the combination of challenge, adrenaline rush and beautiful scenery.
Throughout the years, a classification system has been developed which is referred to as Water Class. This system is designed to inform rafters of the degree of difficulty which will be experienced along a particular stretch of whitewater. The classification system ranges from Class I through Class VI (or 6). The lower end of the scale is Class I, which indicates the rafter will experience small rough areas that will essentially require no maneuvering and may be attempted by individuals with little to no whitewater skill. At the opposite end of the classification system is Class VI which indicates that the rafter will encounter sections of water that are so dangerous that they may not be traveled without real possibility of danger. This type of water will contain large waves, huge rocks and hazards which pose the danger of damaging a raft beyond repair. There is also the likelihood of personal injury or even death. Throughout the years, however, the classification system has often been misinterpreted or misused. As originally intended, the system was designed to rate the difficulty of individual stretches, holes and other portions of the river. Many times, an entire stretch of river may be referred to as Class III with a Class IV rapid. Another consideration with the classification system is time of year and river level. During a hot dry spell, the water level may drop. During spring run off, the river level may dramatically rise. Due to these changing water levels, specific stretches of water may change from Class II at a low point to a Class V during runoff or near flood stage. The classification system is an excellent tool which should be given serious consideration when planning a whitewater trip.
Safety is an utmost concern with whitewater rafting. A fun-filled day can easily turn into a deadly situation if proper measures are not taken to help ensure participants' safety during the trip. The most important piece of safety equipment is the PFD. This most commonly takes the form of a life jacket. Participants must understand how to wear the jacket properly which involves ensuring that the jacket fits and is well secured. There will be certain hazards encountered during a whitewater trip which range from overhanging limbs to rapids to drop offs. Each hazard has the potential to dislodge a paddler from the boat. Prior to the trip, each participant should have basic instruction which provides the action necessary to navigate the hazards successfully. This may include position in the raft or a method of paddling. Finally, rafters should be instructed on dealing with possibility of entering the water. Basic techniques for handling a range of water situations ranging from deep flat water to rough whitewater should be explained as well as the proper technique for reentering the raft.