For those considering purchasing a whitewater raft, I’ve got only two words for you. Do it! Oh yes, how sweet the memory of my first whitewater raft. She was a beautiful army surplus model in faded yellow with a blue belly band. My brother Tracy and I did yard work all summer long to earn that inflatable bucket of adventure. It was life changing.

$47.50 for the raft and a million dollars worth of memories. 1975 – Age 12.

What should you consider for your purchase of a whitewater raft? Tracy and I considered this. Was it big enough for us both, could we afford it and where would we use it. You’ve got to remember that Tracy is and was my senior by 18 months and he was only 13 at the time. However, our rafting options were not limited as we had the ultimate adventure father, Phil Zoller. We paid $47.50 for that first raft. The last raft I purchased a few months ago cost north of $7K. Times have changed in those 48 years.

How do you decide which raft is best for you? Consider first what type of rafting you desire. Paddle raft? Expedition? Something in-between? Some rafts are a bit of hybrids and can do anything but the truth is that the raft is a specialized tool that is made for specific uses and situations. If you are going to focus on day trips on tight technical rivers then go for a smaller paddle raft. If overnight expedition rafting looks the most alluring to you then you’re going to want something north of 14 feet with a sweet rowing frame, cooler and dry boxes. You would’t but a Ford Ranger if you needed to haul a yard of gravel. You’d get the F350. You get the idea. Determine what kind of water you want to run and purchase a raft that fits the need.

Rafts of the same size, are not all the same. The smallest of details can make all the difference in your raft selection. Some rafts come with large tube diameters which are great for climbing huge waves. Smaller diameter lets you slice through waves and take a snout full of water. D-ring placement is crucial if you are expedition rafting but not near as important when paddle rafting. Adding foot cups is a great idea if you paddle raft, but not all that needed for expedition. Being satisfied with your raft purchase really comes down to the details. All of my rafts (some 30ish) are 100% custom spec’d for the rivers I guide on. The details make all the difference in the ride and handling.

10 years later – 1985 guiding on the White Salmon River

Learn to use your raft before you purchase. If you want to learn what type of raft you want, then jump into someones raft to see how it feels and works. Specifically get yourself into a river guide school for paddle rafting or a rowing clinic. In a few short days you will have a feel for it not to mention you can pick the brain of your trainer all day long. Renting a raft for a test drive is FUN! Find a river that has raft rentals and get your feet wet without putting out the big bucks first.

Learn how to rescue and not be the rescued. Taking a course that specializes in river rescue is a huge confidence builder. I remember my first SRT course with Rescue III International. In just three days I learned some creative ways to use ropes, paddles and even paddle buddies to assist in rescues. Not only did I obtain greater knowledge, my respect for the force of water was greatly amplified. Another great thing about taking a river course is that you meet like minded people and soon you’ve got a great group of river friends around you.

Whitewater in Oregon state
45 years after that first raft purchase racing my custom SOTAR raft at the Upper Clackamas Whitewater Festival in Oregon

Once you know what you want and have a little confidence in your skills, its time to make the purchase. Because I insist on customizing all of my rafts, I purchase from SOTAR rafts out of Merlin, Oregon. Their design team and I have worked together for a couple of decades as I’ve tweaked and twisted ideas. I’m not saying that buying a stock raft will be less than desirable. It’s not. I am really picky and have extremely specific needs for my use. You might even find a screaming good deal on a used raft as people make the big purchase and then after just a few trips they garage their gear. Please remember… a good deal is not good if its not the right raft for your needs.

With these few basics get on out there and kick a raft or two. Sign up for a River School and hit the rivers. Never hesitate to reach out to me if you have any questions at all. Good luck with your purchasing of a whitewater raft.

Oregon Whitewater Guide
Mark Zoller has been guiding whitewater rafting trips on the White Salmon and Klickitat Rivers since 1985. He lives in and loves the Columbia River Gorge