So You Want To Be A White Water Rafting Guide

Spring emerges…white water rafting is around the corner

Every spring smells like rafting. The breeze turns warm, flowers and trees are growing again, the snow is melting, filling the rivers, and the warm days of summer are just around the corner. For a white water rafting guide, every spring is filled with expectation and hope. For the experienced guide, spring brings memories of past seasons,  reunions with fellow white water rafting guides, high water excitement, and expectations and goals for another year of guiding. New guides are filled with nervous anticipation of training or their first commercial trips, and the excitement of starting a new career. Every spring is different but still the same in many ways.

After almost 30 years of springs working for a white water rafting company, what is it that draws me and others back to the river each year? Certainly can’t be the low pay, long hours and hard work. On the economic side, raft guides are one of the few jobs out there where you can find work in any type of economy. Rafting companies are always looking for guides that work hard, don’t complain, and take pride in their river skills. As you get more experience, you get more valuable and are able to earn more money as well as get more responsibility. Another benefit of being a guide is that the rafting industry has a wide range of companies with a huge diversity. There are small companies that focus on one river and custom trips, huge companies that have year-round opportunities, companies that focus on day trips, companies that focus on mult-day wilderness trips, and all kinds of companies in between. With a little exploring it’s usually possible to find a place that fits and you can call home or you can spend your career popping around from company to company and place to place.

Challenge and satisfaction

In addition to the favorable economics and company culture of being a raft guide, the job itself can be one of the most challenging and rewarding positions you’ll have in your life. Guiding rafts is both physically and mentally challenging. Most new guides are surprised at the amount of work they have to do when they are guiding. The change from watching someone guide and actually guiding is dramatic. Many folks think guiding is easy because their guide tells jokes and goofs around on the trip. What they miss is all the behind the scenes work the guides are doing to control the boat and subtly train their crew to help. Most good guides will have these kinds of skills so dialed that only another guide will notice the work they do.

Despite early struggles for most new guides, there are endless opportunities to work on improving your skills and beginning to shape your guide personality. Many guides go on to progress up the river difficulty scale and guide expert trips, others are content to stay on the same river for years and maximize their social interactions with customers. Others go on to start their own companies. For all, guiding can be a fulfilling career or it can be a brief summer fling that you look back on fondly.

For those that want to try their hand at guiding, many companies offer their own training to get you up to speed. Blue Sky generally does 8-10 days of training and have a high success rate for trainees. You can find out what companies operate on different rivers in Oregon at TravelOregon and TravelPortland.

If you do decide to train to be a white water guide, here are a few things that will help you succeed:

Be humbly confident

Learning to guide, you walk a fine line between ego and confidence. You want to be humble enough to accept mistakes and constructive criticism  but confident enough to take control of your boat. Too many new guides err on the side of being overly confident.

Take advantage of every opportunity to train

There is never enough time on the river during training so use every moment wisely. When you aren’t guiding, be guiding in your mind. Practice reading the river, critique your fellow trainees choices, ask questions, be engaged mentally as much as you can. Don’t be shy to get as much time guiding as possible.

Prepare for training

Do all you can to get in the best physical shape you can. Training is tiring and if you are in shape physically, it is easier to learn the mental aspects of guiding. I guarantee guiding is tougher than it looks so prepare before you start.

Be a team player

The most valuable employees are those that support the company and the rest of the guides without creating a lot of drama. Support your fellow guides by doing the little stuff that nobody notices. I bet the owner will notice.

Have fun, but not too much

We all guide in part because it is fun to be on the river. Enjoy your time on the river but always remember that your job is about creating a fun, safe and memorable experience for the people in your boat. You’ll have plenty of days on the river, sometimes your clients only raft once in their life. Allow them to make the most of it.

Be thankful for every day

I assure you that for most, your time as a white water rafting guide will be shorter than you ever thought. You don’t want to look back and think what could’ve been. Appreciate the cool job you have and make the most of it every day.


blue sky white water rafting guides
White water rafting Guides relaxing after a trip

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