Editors Note: Due to Covid19 some of the information in this article may not meet current physical distancing guidelines. Please follow current guidelines given by the Department’s of Health. This article was written prior to the Covid19 pandemic. 

Whitewater Rafting with Kids

by Liz Dunham

I shared my basic rules for skiing with kids in the winter: 1. Keep it fun, 2. Ignore all complaining and whining before you are doing (said activity), 3. Include friends, 4. Make it work for your family. The same rules apply to whitewater rafting with kids. There is one especially important rule in water sports: Keep it safe (of course this rule applies to all activities). We started taking our daughter in our whitewater raft on easy, calm water when she was about 18 months old. Since then she has progressed to running class 3 rapids with us and loves the water and rafting. Here are some tips:

1. KEEP IT SAFE. Water safety is deserving of its own separate article, but I will highlight key points here. EVERYONE should have an appropriate life vest, or PFD (personal flotation device), on at all times. Even if you are a good swimmer, swimming in a river while holding your flailing kid is much more difficult without a life vest. Try it in a swimming pool sometime. This is non-negotiable when we take folks on the river – everyone has a PFD on and appropriately secured and fitted at all times. PFD’s for children are weight based, and generally should include a head rest and crotch strap until age 5 or so. I encourage you and your child to be comfortable in the water before going rafting. We took swimming lessons and would swim in calm water by the shore as well as at the local pool frequently before venturing out on the river. Our daughter practiced wearing her life vest in and out of the water, and we got her a special whistle that clips onto the zipper that she loves. Most obviously, know the river and have the skills you need. My husband and I are both experienced whitewater rafters and kayakers. I have worked in the past as a commercial river guide and he has participated in technical swift water rescues in class V whitewater. If you do not have significant experience to handle any unforeseen emergency, go with somebody who does and/or go with a commercial outfitter.

2. Keep it fun! You don’t need big rapids to have big adventure. Pull over on a beach for a picnic. Stop at an island to swim. See how many animals or birds you can count. Practice paddling and spinning the boat. On a hot day, flip the boat over and let everybody practice getting back in. We have a laminated local field guide that we sometimes take and see how many plants and animals we can spot.

3. Ignore all complaining before you are actually on the water. Kids hate waiting, and there is a lot of set up that needs to happen to safely pilot a boat downstream. We suit ours up in her PFD and let her play on the beach next to the ‘put-in’, but keep a close watch. Kids can get swept into current easily, so we never leave her unattended. Of course make sure you pack plenty of snacks, water, sun protection, and layers to stay warm and comfortable. A water gun or sand bucket and shovel can go a long way for entertainment.

4. Include friends. Our friends love getting the phone call that we have space in the boat! Just follow the rules above and it can be even more fun with other kids to share the experience. This also helps with shuttle, since for a rafting trip you need one car at the top, or put-in, and one car at the end, or take-out. You often need a discovery pass to park at these river access areas, and you will need to pay a small fee if you need to use the boat ramp at most parks.

5. Make it work for your family. If you don’t have the gear or experience, make friends with those that do. Many rafting companies offer discounts mid-week or for locals, so it is worth calling and asking. Practice swimming often before taking on recreational boating so everybody is comfortable in the water. Even on a hot day it can feel cold on the water. You can use base layers like you use for skiing or other activities to keep warm, and a rain coat and rain pants, or fleece pants, are good to pack as well.

Details, Details

How We Raft From Wenatchee With Kids:

When the river levels are favorable (not too high and not too low) we load up our Puma raft and head to the Wenatchee River. Generally we raft from April/May through July.

-For a nice float trip (Class 1-2 whitewater) we put in at the park in Cashmere (the take-out for the upper whitewater section). This has the added bonus of providing a playground as well as bathroom facilities, so it is very family friendly while we are getting our boat and gear unloaded and set up. We generally bring a cooler with a picnic we can enjoy on the river or at a beach.

-The easiest take-out is at Monitor, and has a nice small beach area also. This is a good lunch stop, and there is a nearby convenience store if you want to pick up some ice cream or cold drinks. We often stop at the Wenatchee River County Park for a riverside picnic, also, if we are continuing to Confluence Park.

-There are two take out options at Confluence Park as well. You can either row around to the boat ramp (this is very long and difficult in a whitewater raft at lower flow), or carry your boat from a small take out under the pedestrian bridge over to the parking area.

-We have discussed paddling all the way down to Pybus at high water but have not actually done this. One time at high flows we were able to float down to Walla Walla park. For a whitewater experience (Class 3-4) we start in Leavenworth or Peshastin. I would not do this stretch with young children or children who are not very comfortable swimming in water over their head. This stretch includes great scenery and respectable whitewater, culminating in Snowblind and Granny’s rapids right before Cashmere. We make sure to whoop and holler a lot as we splash through the waves.

Have fun and see you on the river!

Additional Resource:

American Whitewater Website (can provide river levels, information, and trip reports).

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