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How qualified is your whitewater raft guide?

Written by Ben Sack, 03.18.2014

Have you ever climbed into a whitewater raft and wondered just how qualified your raft guide is to be doing their job? You’re probably not alone. It’s a common question for us to hear and it’s an answer all commercial rafting guests should understand.

Minimum requirements are set by Colorado Parks and Wildlife

You can rest assured that so long as you have chosen a rafting outfitter licensed by the state of Colorado your raft guide does have the bare minimum training required by the law. But what are the requirements? To start, guides must be certified in First Aid and CPR. Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) qualification regulations then require a minimum of 50 hours of on-river training using paddles, oars or whatever equipment the guide will be using on trips. Some of those on-river hours must be with a qualified instructor (yet another level of guide experience determined by CPW) on board the raft. In addition to these hours of training, a guide must also receive instruction on a variety of other topics, some of which include river hazards, river rescue, emergency procedures and maneuvering rafts and running rapids. And then of course they must have seen the section of river they will be guiding and they must pass a certification run with commercial guests and a guide instructor on board the raft.

Those minimum qualifications are minimal!

When you first got your driver’s license were you a great driver, or did you get better with experience? I’m sure we could all share a story or two about close calls as young drivers or that first ding in the bumper. It’s no different with guiding rafts. The truth is that every rafting outfitter is different because each outfitter has a different opinion on just how far we need to exceed the CPW minimum requirements.

To my knowledge, Echo Canyon has the longest guide training program in the state of Colorado. We don’t make it the longest program for bragging rights. We’ve set it up that way because we truly feel that you can’t just cover a training topic several times and check it off the list. To learn a skill and get good at it you need to practice… a lot. Our theory is that when the unexpected happens on a commercial trip your guide should be instinctively reacting to the situation rather than trying to remember that one day in training when we talked about how to deal with the situation. So we train, train and train some more; for 5 weeks. Most companies train a guide in 3 weeks and follow that up with a certification run. If a little extra training time makes for a better guide then we feel it’s well worth it. We think you will, too!

What does the mandated training NOT include?

A Colorado rafting trip is not just about the whitewater. Yes, we all love a big splash coming over the bow. Who doesn’t? But don’t you also want a personable guide who has knowledge of the local plants, animals, history, geology, local attractions, that hidden gem in the area only locals know about, as well as guest service training? You guessed it, none of that is required and most companies won’t take the time to invest in training their guides those skills that are so important. A well-rounded guide can make your fun rafting trip into an unforgettable outdoor experience that your kids will talk about for months or years.

What’s the take away?

While all Colorado river rafting outfitters must comply with the state minimum requirements, not all guides are the same. While it can be tough to navigate the numerous outfitter options out there, if you decide to look into other outfitters besides Echo Canyon I encourage you to select an established whitewater rafting outfitter and ask good questions prior to making you reservation. Several organizations that include reputable outfitters include the Arkansas River Outfitters Association and the Colorado River Outfitters Association.

Interested in becoming a raft guide with Echo Canyon?

Great! Being a guide is a challenging and rewarding job; sometimes it won’t feel like a job at all, while other times you will definitely earn your pay. Our Colorado raft guide training program begins May 19th, and we are currently accepting applications here.

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About the Author

Ben Sack is the General Manager of Echo Canyon River Expeditions, Colorado's largest white water rafting outfitter. He's also a raft guide, a photographer, and he loves exploring Colorado and beyond with his wife and two boys.
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