After a decade of chasing big waves and technical rivers, my raft-guide boyfriend and I tied the knot and had a baby. That baby grew into a mini river rat version of his adrenaline junkie father. Little Brax put on his first whitewater PFD at 18 months old and cruised the rippling kid-friendly milk run on the Arkansas River outside of Buena Vista.
Brax is six (going on 16) now and has since logged hundreds of river miles from Colorado to Montana to Idaho and California. Through the years, my husband Doug and I have been dealt a lot of parenting lessons on the river. We’ve flipped, swam, high-sided and high-fived our way through some tight and tough situations. And we’ve come out on the other side as a stronger family.
Here are 5 of our biggest rafting-with-kids takeaways:
1. Respect the river.
Ingrain that into their brains. This isn’t Disneyland. There’s no shut-off valve. Brax isn’t allowed anywhere near the raft or the river — even while building sand castles on shore — without his life jacket securely clipped. Know how to self-rescue if you fall in and swim rapids. Know how to pull someone back into the boat and how to throw and catch the rope bag. Research the rafting company you’re going with or, if you’re guiding your own boat, research water levels, potential hazards and river flows leading up to your trip.
2. Know your kid’s tolerance.
What’s your child’s adrenaline tolerance and swimming and paddling ability level? Are they going to lose it if an icy wave smacks them in the face? Or are they going to yee-haw and ask for more? You want them to go again some day, so start slow with mellow day floats and work your way up to bigger rapids and overnight trips. Go in the morning when your kids are fresh and you can dodge afternoon thunderstorms.
Brand new? The Upper Colorado River, Bighorn Sheep Canyon and the Yampa River are all great beginner Colorado rafting experiences for kids.
3. Over prepare.
Stuff that dry bag and cooler with everything: Snacks, long-sleeved UPF 50+ shirts, sunscreen (reapply every two hours and don’t forget the tops of their hands and feet), bug repellent, a big-brimmed sun hat for saving earlobes and necks, extra water (way more than you think you need) and snacks. Make sure they wear close-toed sandals that strap on. No flip-flops. Don’t forget warm dry clothes and a towel for when you get off the river.
Bring some small toys or binoculars — make a game of spotting eagles and otters. A relaxing unplugged sunbaked float might sound like heaven to you, but a boring nightmare to your 10-year-old.
And snacks. Did I mention snacks? Pack healthy fruits, nuts, beef jerky for long days with a treat thrown in (we’ve perfected the campfire s’moreo — it’s what it sounds like, s’mores with an Oreo cookie crammed in).
4. Bow to Mother Nature.
She has the final say on your day. Bring rain jackets for the afternoon. Wool socks for the morning. June is high-water season in Colorado and can be intimidating with its hefty chilly splashes and swift flows. August serves up smaller ripples and warmer waves.
Keep in mind that slower low water can be challenging, too. A three-hour mellow float becomes a six-hour slog when low water meets high wind. Be prepared to have naptime, lunchtime and even potty time on the raft. Shade umbrellas and towels to roll up as pillows help little ones squeeze in naps.
Can your kid handle 85-degree heat? Is he able to jump in and capably swim to cool off (if the river allows). Rent the kids wetsuits if it’s early season chilly water and you’re going with an outfitter. Always book ahead, rent ahead and know your trip — talk to the outfitter about the stretch you’re rafting and prep your kids on what to expect.
5. Soak it all in.
The beauty of rafting is that time slows down a little and allows you to disconnect from the world and reconnect with each other. Point out the bighorn sheep on the side of the mountain, bring along music that your kids like, play eye-spy and let them snap some photos. Don’t forget to pause and breathe it in, smile and hug your kids. River time reveals special pieces of our world that you just can’t see from a car window.