Our family loves multi-day river rafting trips for the same reason we love any type of outdoor vacation: We get a chance to escape the daily routine, evade technology and screens for a few days, and bathe ourselves in nature. And unlike many vacations as parents, we don’t arrive back home more exhausted than when we left. A river rafting trip truly does relax and restore us.
If you’ve never taken a rafting trip, it can be hard to know where to start. Certainly, if you’re experienced rafters with your own gear, knowledge of the rapids and a permit in hand, you can raft without an outfitter — but we find it much safer, more relaxing and more enjoyable to sit back and chill on the river with a guide. Ciao Bambino’s preferred rafting outfitter (which the Family Vacation Advisor team can help you book) is, in my opinion, the most professional and most environmentally conscious option in the U.S. for families. They offer literally hundreds of trips on more than 20 rivers in half a dozen states and multiple countries; use the tips below to help focus the decision-making process.
Rafting Trips with Kids: What to Consider
If You’re Used to the Outdoors
Our family regularly sleeps in the wilderness, navigates trails, swims in wild rivers and camps outdoors. Therefore, we’re quite comfortable pitching a tent, heeding nature’s call in the woods, and the like. If your family is like ours, you may want to opt for a longer river rafting trip with five to six nights out. Longer trips, such as those offered on the Rogue River in Southern Oregon, the Salmon River in Idaho, and of course, the mack daddy of them all, the Colorado River, allow families to truly immerse themselves in the experience before being yanked back to reality.
If You Have Teens or Young Adults Who Crave Freedom and Adventure
Pick a trip that offers multiple activities and multiple modes of transportation on the water. For instance, when we rafted the Main Salmon River, our outfitter combined river time with extensive side trips hiking to slot canyons and even hot springs, and we could choose between rafts, wooden dories, personal inflatable kayaks and paddle boards. This allowed our teens to have free rein, manning their own boats.
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If You Have Young Kids and/or Are Uncomfortable Camping
Start small and short. Pick a trip of two nights out, such as a kayak adventure on Jackson Lake in the Tetons, or a shorter-duration Klamath River trip in Northern California or Southern Oregon. Either option allows for kids as young as six, has gentler water and is just long enough for you to feel out whether such a trip is right for your family.
If You Dislike Cold Water and Rainy Weather
Steer clear of shoulder-season trips, which entice families with lower rates but are more likely to involve inclement weather. Pick rivers in hot, dry environments, like the Green River at Gates of Ladore or the Yampa in Dinosaur National Monument. You’ll enjoy sandy beaches at night and dry weather most of the time, allowing for outdoor sleeping under the stars and quick drying after each swim. Remember the sunscreen and plenty of sunshade protection!
If You Want to Tack a River Trip Onto a National Park Vacation
Our preferred outfitter offers several rafting trips that pair perfectly with longer national-park road trips, such as a Jackson Lake kayak trip in Grand Teton National Park (mentioned above) or Tuolumne River rafting just outside Yosemite National Park in California. These trips are shorter in length — there’s even a day trip option in California — which makes them affordable to combine with a longer vacation.
No matter which river rafting trip you pick, take care to note the dates each trip is available (it varies by river) and the minimum age, which sometimes changes in spring and fall as water depths change. I always recommend calling whichever river rafting operator you decide to patronize, and asking for recommendations directly. Need help choosing and booking the perfect river adventure? Send a request to the CB staff.
Editor’s Note: Photos by Amy Whitley.