To some, rafting with kids seems more like a scary nightmare than a fun family activity. Indeed, I just talked to the mother of a 3-year-old at the playground the other day who literally shivered at the thought. The thing is, her only rafting experience was hair-raising whitewater during one summer in Colorado. There are plenty of gentle, meandering flat-water floats in many areas, including Alaska. If you’re already familiar with boating, these floats are a perfect way to get outside and see your area from a new perspective. Best of all, you can introduce your kids to the start of many happy memories on the river. An added bonus is that you only have to be able to lug all your kid-stuff from the car to the boat, unlike a backpacking trip where you carry it the whole way (including all the toys and animals they just had to bring, but got tired of carrying 5 minutes down the trail).
So boating parents, if you’re not already doing it, don’t leave a hobby and love behind because of the age-old excuse: We can’t, we have kids. Bummed out parents, take heart! You can do something fun, and yes, even exciting with kids. You just need to know how to go about it. It’s not 100% peaceful and idyllic, and it’s not meant to be the adrenaline rush it used to be, but it has its own special rewards. Here are some things to think about when you are considering planning on going rafting with kids:
First and most important, know the kid(s). Does your child feel comfortable around the water? Are they okay with water splashing in their face? Even smaller, harmless rapids splash into the boat and bump the boat around sometimes. Will they find it fun and exciting, or threatening and scary? A rafting trip should not be the first time a child sees a large amount of water. Once you put on, you’re committed ’till the take-out. Also, is your child going to listen when they’re told to stop leaning so far over the edge of the boat (by their Mom, or their guide)? Kids need to respond at a moment’s notice if the boat is going to bump against a rock, or when you’re getting ready to beach the raft, or hit a rapid. Be sure, for everyone’s safety and especially theirs, that they respond to commands; in the boat, on the river bank and near campfires.
Secondly, know the river, or go with a competent guide who knows the river. Leave the kids at home for the scouting trips. You, or your guide should always know the river you’re planning on rafting with kids. Additionally, make sure that the trip leader has recently seen the stretch you are planning on floating. Rivers change all the time and if not a new flow, sometimes there’s a new strainer (fallen tree) from a recent surge in water level. You don’t want surprises on moving water.
Third, neither comfort nor safety should be sacrificed when selecting a PFD(personal flotation device). This goes without saying. If the unthinkable happens and your child falls in, you want a PFD that’s going to do its job. Child and youth life jackets should be Coast Guard approved, and come with a pillow in the back to help hold a child’s head up out of the water, and also feature a strap to go between the legs for extra security. PFDs also have weight limits; be sure you know yours. You want a PFD that is fully adjustable to snug, won’t slip off when it counts, but also doesn’t give them a constant wedgie and smash in their cheeks all afternoon.
Fourth, when choosing a float, take into consideration the child’s size and age in relation to the class of the river/level of risk. As with anything with our kids, we need to be a wise judge of whether they can handle it or not. “Handling it” doesn’t just mean, can we make it through intact? A scary experience is probably going to keep a kid from ever wanting to go rafting again. While just the right river might make them say, “That was awesome. Can we go again?!” Promoting a love of rivers and paddling ensures that the next generation will see the value in protecting our natural resources. Take into account the child’s attention span and ability to paddle as well. Paddling keeps a kid engaged, helps keep them warm, and in some cases is necessary to help the guide through a section of river. Younger kids may enjoy a shorter two or three-hour trip, while teens or older children might like a full day of rafting and fishing, or even an overnight trip. It all comes back to knowing your child. For rafting with younger kids, one adult to supervise each child is a safe and smart ratio.
Fifth, nothing is fun when they’re cold, tired and hungry (for you or them). As with any outdoor activity with kids, bring plenty of warm layers and for the river, a dry change of clothes. Sunny days can get cold awful quick once you get wet and hit the shady stretch of river. After plenty of splashing through wave trains, or even mudpie-making on the river bank, you and they will be so glad to have a dry change of clothes in the dry-bag for the final float to the take-out with the sun starting to go down. Raingear is always ideal, but even under that, clothes tend to get soggy after a day on the boat. Make sure there’s a dry place in the boat they can lay down when a long day on the water and the gentle rocking of the boat starts to lull them to sleep. There’s nothing more sad than a tired toddler with nowhere to lay. As for the snacks? Well, we all like to keep the hangry, manic monster-child at bay. Bring lots, or be sure of the food situation with your outfitter/guide.
Sixth, bring some fishing gear for them, too! Don’t underestimate a child’s interest (or ability!) in fishing. They may try a bit and get frustrated, or simply tire of it and move on to sand castles, but it’s always pretty special to watch the smallest one in the group excitedly get the biggest-or only-catch of the day, and to watch another exuberant fisherman come to life.
And finally, prepare for the worst, but hope for the best. Bring the snacks, the dry clothes, the bug dope and bug hats, the drinks and sunscreen, get a good-fitting and safe PFD, familiarize them with water and to listen to instructions and then…well, maybe they’ll still hate it and cry all the way back to the take-out. But they may love it, have discovered a new way to see the world and spend time outdoors, and they may just be the only one who catches a fish!