raft whitewater

River Rafting for Kids?

What age can kids go river rafting?  Truly I won’t put set age limits on who can or cannot raft because the reality is that fixed age numbers do not qualify nor disqualify a person. Here is what I have found to be true over my past 39 years of guiding whitewater rafting in Oregon and Washington on some of the best Wild & Scenic rivers we have. We take kids as young as six and seven just about every day throughout the summer. Now, I do consider that to be on the very young side but some kids are so excited about the idea of rafting that they do absolutely fine. Did you notice I said “excited about the idea of whitewater rafting”? The kids generally do not truly comprehend all of what they will be doing but we’ve found that if they are just simply excited about it, they do fantastic.

What skills should the kids have?

How much power do you think an 8 year-old kiddo can produce to paddle a whitewater raft through a set of great rapids? Answer: Zero! And we don’t expect the participation of the kids to make a difference in negotiating whitewater. Often times the kids prefer to not paddle at all or maybe to not paddle at the beginning of the trip. Their job is to hang on and yell “yahoo” at all of the appropriate places. We take everyone though a brief and straightforward instruction on how to raft prior to the trip so the kiddos receive and have knowledge of how to handle themselves regardless of their strength. For those kids that choose to paddle, their guide will make sure they are well set and that they start with learning good form.

whitewater stevenson sandwich

Great trips for the kids

On the White Salmon River (located just north of Hood River, Oregon in the Columbia River Gorge) there are two really good trips that kids love. The Middle Gorge of the White Salmon and the Middle/Lower Combination of the White Salmon. On each of these trips you will find lots and lots of great whitewater with a river route that is so consistent and predictable that we can run it day after day with great results time after time. Our Upper Gorge of the White Salmon River trip is very high adventure and suggested for “strong teens and adventuresome adults”. It is not a place for the little ones. On the Upper Gorge we need everyone to be a high participation paddler. The reality is that the Upper Gorge will scare most kiddos and a bunch of adults as well.

rafting hood river

How safe can we keep a kid?

Kids are easier to keep safe on a whitewater rafting trip than adults and by a long shot. Kids are so compact and light weight that they just seem to stay in the raft and even in the rare instance that a kiddo pops out of the raft they float so high that its super easy to grab ahold of them and get them right back into the raft.


My greatest rafting joy is taking families down the river, especially if there are three generations in one raft. When I have the families in the raft I’m doing far more than showing them a great splashy fast ride down the river, I’m watching them grow closer as a family. Long after they exit my raft they will be saying “remember that rafting trip we did together?” and they will revel in telling their stories to one another. I once was asked by personal finance guru Dave Ramsey why I thought I had the very best job in the world. My answer to Dave was “I’m in the business of making people smile”. And that is how it is with kids, old people (like me) and everyone in-between. Smiles with memories for everyone!

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