River Rafting Guide  What They Do

Just the Facts


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dotGuides lead trips down some of the most ferocious rivers in the world, using their expertise to guide people through treacherous waters. Rafting is popular in almost every part of the world, but many people believe North America has some of the world's best rivers for rafting -- and some of the best guides.

Claudia Vanwijk was a top whitewater kayaker for 10 years before she started guiding. "That's why it's my career as well. That's why I've made a business out of it. In general, that's how people get into rafting as a career -- they kayak or canoe whitewater as a hobby, as a sport," she says.

dotRafting guides do more than just lead rafts down a river. Before the trips start, they may be responsible for packing paddles, life vests, rafts, food, water and emergency supplies. They also train new paddlers and other guides, register visitors and drive buses to river launching sites.

On longer trips, some guides are responsible for cooking meals, setting up camp, cleaning and helping visitors with whatever they need. And at some companies, guides also take turns as unofficial trip photographer, capturing moments the visitors will cherish long after the trip ends.

Guide Bob Meister says that each guide contributes a unique skill to camp life. If you don't think you've got anything to add to the mix, think again.

"There's a couple new crewmembers this year, but everybody picks up a job," Meister says. "Like, somebody will be the meat person, cook the steaks and chicken and so forth. And if you don't have any expertise, then you set the table and you learn how to do something. You're taught."

dotGuides may encounter clients who, after bravely embarking on the adventure, develop an intense fear of the rapids. In cases like this, a guide must be prepared to counsel people through their fear. Strong communication skills and a tactful manner are essential in these situations.

"You wouldn't go into this work if you weren't a people person," says Vanwijk. "And even if things aren't going well for you personally, that's nobody else's problem."

dotRafting season typically runs from mid-May to September. Most guides are part-time workers, including many young college students. Rafting trips may last from two hours to a week.

"A lot of people work on ski slopes in the winter," says Meister. "It's mostly a young person's job."

dotA small percentage of guides earn full-time livings in the field. Those who do are often company owners. They may do double duty during slower seasons to help mail out catalogs, market new trips, maintain and repair equipment and train new employees. Some owners simply enjoy a winter's rest and live off the fruits of the rafting season.

Most of a seasonal guide's work is outdoors and trips take place in all kinds of weather. That can mean working in a wetsuit in the cooler weather and paddling in a rainstorm in summer. A standard rule of thumb in the guiding world is to remain positive through thick and thin.

dotIf you own a rafting business, you'll find yourself in an office during the off-season. During the winter months, a company owner will likely spend time in the office, making plans for the next big season.

dotMost guides are trained in lifesaving techniques and advanced swimming. Physical strength is important -- guides sometimes have to pull a stranded boater out of the water or hoist a raft onto shore.

dotDuring slow parts of a trip, guides become experts on the environment or local history, telling stories to keep the rafters interested.

dotBut the most crucial part of a guide's job comes when whitewater hits. Rapids are rated by a Roman numeral class system from I to VI. Most casual rafting trips avoid class V rapids as they pose great danger to the inexperienced. Class VI means impassable and in many places it's against the law to run these rapids.

Vanwijk says that taking people into rapids that they could never experience on their own is a total thrill, even for the guide. "Every day you get comments like, 'This was the most exciting day of my life,'" Vanwijk says.

A river may become so familiar to a guide that it begins to take on its own personality. Meister says he's guided one river about 300 times! Many rafting guides have even given rapids colorful nicknames -- Fluffy Bunny Rabbit, Eat Rocks, Dead Man's Curve, Mutilator, the Gauntlet and so on.

At a Glance

Lead people down whitewater rapids in inflatable boats

  • Most guides are part-time workers
  • Strong communication skills and a tactful manner are essential
  • Most states don't require formal exams for river guides, although many guides are registered with state agencies