Class I: (Easy) Moving water with small disturbances on the surface and a few small waves. There is little to no danger to swimmers.
Class II: (Novice/Beginner) Faster moving water with easily avoided rocks, holes, and waves. Danger to swimmers is still slight but care must be taken.
Class III: (Intermediate) Fast moving water containing various rocks, holes, currents, and waves that require skillful maneuvering to avoid. Swimmers could be at risk and may require help.
Class IV: (Advanced) Strong rapids, large waves, big holes, unpredictable currents, and dangerous obstructions requiring multiple maneuvers to get through or around. Swimmers are at risk and will require help to be rescued.
Class VI: (Unrunnable) Only a team of experts who carefully plan every aspect of this expedition would have hope of surviving these rivers and rapids.
Getting Kids on the River!
Ok, so now that we have classifications covered, let's get back to taking about taking kids rafting. Look above and think about what sounds fun, assuming you've never run a river before. If you say "Class IV or V"...think again! I have a friend who will never get in my raft because of a bad experience he had on his first river trip. His buddy suggested that they go on a commercial trip, and signed them up to run upper Gore Canyon on the Colorado River. Go here to read about Upper Gore Canyon. Ok...so needless to say, my friend had no idea what he was getting into and basically, the trip scared the sh*t out of him. Even though the commercial company did a great job, it was just too much for him. For my friend, a "Lazy River" Experience would have been much better!
I'll always remember my first time running the Eagle River in Colorado at high water. There is a run called Dowd Chute which is pictured above. It scared the crap out of me because it's the type of water that if you end up swimming, there aren't many places to "eddy out" (more on that later) so you could have a long and dangerous swim. This is personally the type of water that I would NEVER take my kiddos on. But that's just me and is not intended to criticize those who would.
So, don't make the assumption when someone says they are taking their kids rafting, that it necessarly involves some irresponsible decision. I've taken my 1 year old daughter and my 81 year old mother down the Colorado! A fun Class I to Class III trip can be done safely and with minimal risk!
Ok, now that we go that out of the way, let's discuss the difference between a "Commercial Trip" and a trip by "Private Boaters".
Commercial Rafting Trips
Starting it all on a commercial trip is a great idea!!! As it sounds, taking your family on a commercial trip involves hiring a company to float you down the river. There are many great rafting companies who are experianced, safe, and who take great care of thier customers. Be it day trips, or multi-day trips, commercial companies are geared towards fun and excitement. You can do everything from a half-day trip to a trip that involves river-side camping.
There are some great companies out there. Most day trips will involve paddle boats as it's fun to be part of the crew. River Runners on the Arkansas River in Colorado would be a good place for your family to start. Here's link to them: Bill Strong Denver suggests River Runners. River Runners is just one of many great commercial rafting companies. Do a search and find the best area and company for you and your family. Call them and tell them what your looking for. Again, I say start easy, see if your family likes it. Starting with something too scary just turns it into a situation where someone will "hate" rafting.
Types of Rafts
To keep things simple, let's discuss the two most common types of rafts...paddle rigs and oar rigs. A paddle rig looks the pic above. Everyone has a paddle and the "guide" or "captain" is in the back (Stern in boat-speak). The guide instructs the crew (after some practice) to go right, left, forward and has a lot of control from the back with his/her paddle as a rudder. It's great fun for families, particularly on day-trips. You'll usually get a little wet, and your kiddos will have a blast as they are part of the crew!
Here is a picture of an oar rig. As you can see it's a different set up with the "Captain" doing the work. You'll also see in this pic all the gear that can be loaded up...so you can use this for long "Multi-Day" trips. The longest trip I've done so far with my family is 6 days. We had all we needed for 6 days of great meals and luxury camping (I'm not sure my wife would agree with the term "luxury"...but it's pretty darn good). You can also give your kids paddles so they can feel like part of the crew, and sometime they can really help.
Ok, so here is where I need to be careful in not saying something that makes an inexperienced boater go out with the family and do a float on their own. If you've never rafted, PLEASE start with a commercial company or with a good friend who knows what they are doing! The above is a pic of what a typical private boater looks like. Tons of fun, tons of gear and smiling faces. The guy "in the seat" needs to know what he is doing (or she of course!!!!...there are plenty of great female rafters!)
Doesn't that look fun? So how do you get started? Well, you need to take your time, or spend "time in the seat" as we say so that you become competent in managing the raft. You NEVER want to get into water above your ability. In fact, you can find yourself in sticky situations in a run that's below your ability. I'll address more of this as I write...but just know that it takes time to get competent. It's very fun once you can comfortably run some moving water. I'll also address gear and other topics for beginners.
I'll be adding as much helpful information as I can as time allows. For now let me suggest this book Bill Strong Denver Suggested Rafting Book and add a few pics.
How's this for a nice kitchen!!!!
Lodore Canyon...my favorite family river trip!
Your Kids Can Kiss A Rock! Good Times!!!!