DIY White-Water Rafting

Ready to brave that river trip sans guide? Pay heed to these tips for first-time boat captains.

According to the latest report from the Colorado River Outfitters Association (, over half a million people go down Colorado rivers using a commercial operation each season. But an increasing number are also choosing to go it alone. Renting rafts or buying one to captain with friends has several benefits.  Aside from a flexible schedule that can accommodate optimal flow, the ability to go on longer, overnight trips with a guest list you’ve created yourself is a big motivator.  “What got me into it was the ability to do what I wanted with the people I wanted to do it with,” says Ron Shaw, who’s been self-guiding raft trips since 2003.

There’s a big jump from paddling with a guided tour to captaining your own DIY trip, though. Here are a few tips to consider for self-guided rafting.

Experience is Critical

“Knowing how to read the river, and to have respect for it is important,” emphasizes Shaw. This means being on the water for a few seasons and getting to know how it moves and what to watch out for. Go with commercial outfitters or tag along with other DIY trips to get a better sense of how to control a boat. Use forums and social media to find trips that need extra hands on deck. Joining up on a multiday trip with a few crusty river rats who’ll let you take the oars during flat parts is a great way to gain confidence.

Start Small

Coloradans benefit from many different rivers with sections and flow rates that are perfect for practice. Choose a float trip with Class I-II rapids, such as Pumphouse Canyon or Ruby-Horsethief Canyon on the Colorado River, or Lower Browns Canyon on the Arkansas River. Be sure to check current flow rates online and learn about each run using a guidebook like Colorado Rivers and Creeks, by Banks and Eckhardt, considered the Bible of Colorado rivers.

Know your Gear

When choosing a raft, you have a lot of different options, such as size and rigging. A paddle boat versus an oar rig or cataraft will depend on the type of trips you like to take and the rivers that you choose.  There are several different places to rent boats around the state, which will allow you to try out different set-ups. Compared to the time you’ll spend on the water, you’ll also spend a considerable amount of time off the water running shuttles and hauling gear from put-in to take-out. Logistics can be a frustrating learning process until you get it dialed in, but once you push off and out into the current, it will all be worth it.

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