A Beginner’s Guide to River Rafting

During a trip to New Mexico, we were lucky enough to spend time with river guide, Alex Mager. As a seasonal guide, he led our river trip and gave us all the tips. From single-day trips to a week or more of paddling, read on to learn about the basics, the gear, the lingo, and some of the best river rafting spots in the West. 

The Advice

“You’ve got to follow all these rules, or else you're going to have a bad time.” –Alex Mager

  • Cut Your C’s, aka Cut Your Corners. On fast-moving water when you encounter a sharp turn, staying on the inside of the turn is key due to centripetal force (i.e. force moving towards the center of a circle). “When you're coming around a blind corner and you don't know what's around the other side–a tree, a rock, a big rapid–if you're on the inside, you'll have a lot more time to see that obstacle and get out of the way.”
  • Hit Your V’s. Whitewater rapids are typically formed by rocks underneath the surface of the water. If water is flowing over rocks, it’s unsafe to paddle directly over them because they create a big pocket of air underneath that could flip you over, but when the water flows between them, there will be a V-shaped channel. “If you've never run the river before and you don't know what's below, look for a smooth V shape, because that's a safe line to take.” 
  • T Up. Since the momentum of the waves push upriver, if you're going to break through those waves, you need to make sure that you're hitting them perpendicularly. “When you're going straight down the river and there's a big wave looking right at you, make sure you ‘tee up.’ If you hit it a little sideways, that wave will flip your boat.” 
  • Watch Your Downstream Oar. To put your momentum in the right direction on the river, you may need to dip your oars in the water for an extended period of time to turn the raft. But in shallow rivers especially, “It's easy to drop your downstream oar too low, and it can catch on the bottom and throw the oar out of the boat or seriously injure you.” Long story short, this tip is super important to remember when trying to redirect your raft to avoid injury.



Equally as important as these tips, is our collective duty to recreate responsibly and follow the guidelines for the rivers you rafting. Keep in mind that Leave No Trace guidelines for rafting in the desert differ from those for rafting in the mountains, so research your river on a website like recreation.gov ahead of time.


Essential River Rafting Gear 

Whether it’s hot and sunny or cold and drizzly, the right gear can make or break a long day on the river. Here are a few things river guides always have on them: 

  • Dry bag. Great for storing anything that you don’t want to get wet, like phones, maps, or layers.
  • Sunscreen. Yes, even on cloudy days! Other protective gear like hats, sunglasses, and sun shirts are smart, too.
  • An extra quick-dry layer. Especially if you’re camping overnight, an extra layer can make your evening a lot more pleasant. 
  • Water bottle. Hydration is key. Whether you’re out for a day or a week, it’s essential to carry ample drinking water at all times. Having a minimum of a half-gallon of water per person, per day is recommended.
  • Rain jacket. Get a packable one that doesn’t take up much space to help keep you dry and warm on day and overnight trips.  


The Lingo

Some river words are serious. Some are goofy. All are good to know when you’re spending time on the river.

  • Hole/wave: A feature in rapids caused by water flowing over a rock. They can be dangerous, so be cautious when approaching one. 
  • Surfing: Positioning the raft in the hole or wave to intentionally stay in the same spot on the river. (Again, hitting a hole unintentionally can be dangerous, so avoid doing this unless you’re with a seasoned rafter.) 
  • Rapids: A fast section of turbulent water typically caused by river rocks.
  • Eddy: A pocket of the river that moves upstream, which makes for a good place to pull over and hang out.
  • Party barge: When you tie two or more boats together and float down a chill section of river.
  • Booty beer: If you flip a raft as a guide, it’s custom to drink a beer out of your shoe as punishment.
  • Groover: Last, but certainly not least, this is the toilet on an overnight river trip —typically, just a big metal can. Proper waste disposal (including human waste) is key to recreating responsibly. 


Top River Rafting Spots in the West

There are a lot of options outside of Idaho and Utah, but here are some of Alex’s favorites from his time as a river guide. 

Middle Fork of the Salmon River in central Idaho
Main Salmon River in central Idaho 
Westwater Canyon on the Colorado River in southern Utah 
Gallatin River in southern Montana
Arkansas River in western Colorado


Caroline Maahs is a writer based in Salt Lake City, UT. Follow along on IG @carolinemaahs