Self-Bailing Boats Versus Bucket Boats

Written by Ben Sack, 04.13.2020

Rafting group paddles through the Royal GorgeWhen shopping for a whitewater raft, there are two types of boats that you’ll need to decide between – self-bailing rafts and bucket rafts. Each raft has pros and cons that can make it more suitable for certain rivers.

In this article, we will help you understand the difference between these two types of rafts so you can choose the best one for your next adventure.

What’s the Difference Between Self-Bailing and Bucket Boats?

view of bottom of self-bailing raftWhen you go whitewater rafting, water is going to get inside of your boat. The difference between self-bailing and bucket rafts comes down to what happens once the water enters the raft.

Bucket rafts (also known as standard floor or conventional floor rafts) are constructed with a floor that is fully connected to the sides of the raft. As a result, water that splashes into the raft stays there until you remove it manually using a bucket.

Self-bailing rafts, as their name implies, bail the water out automatically. This is accomplished by having an inflatable bottom of around 4-5” thick. Draining holes are located along the top of the floor where the floor attaches to the boat’s perimeter – this floor is known as a self-bailing floor. Because water does not stay trapped inside the raft, rafters don’t need to do anything about water that splashes into the boat.

Which Style of Raft is Better?

The bucket raft was developed before the self-bailing raft. Because of this, people often assume that self-bailing rafts are superior to bucket rafts.

In reality, there are pros and cons to each type of construction. The best raft depends on the river you plan to explore, your budget, and your personal preference.  

Bucket Boats – Pros & Cons

standard floor raft
Image courtesy of Northwest River Supplies

Bucket boats can have an advantage when used in high volume rivers. The additional weight that comes from the water inside of the raft increases a boat’s stability, keeping the raft upright more easily.

Additionally, this style of raft is more affordable and lighter than self-bailing rafts, making it a better choice for some rafters.

But there are some downsides to the bucket boat. Because they get weighed down with water, they can be more sluggish to navigate and can therefore easily get stuck on rocks. They’re hard to maneuver through tight sections, and when you go through multiples rapids in a row, it requires a ton of manual work to get the water out.

Another downfall of the bucket boat is wet feet. Once water gets into the raft, it’s impossible to completely empty it until you’re out of the water. Wet feet can become uncomfortable when you spend a full day out on the water.

Generally, bucket boats are considered to be a good option only when there are very few challenging rapids. If you’ll be rafting Class I and Class II rapids and cost is a factor, a bucket boat might be the best option.

Self-Bailing Boats – Pros & Cons

top view of self-bailing raft
Image courtesy of Northwest River Supplies

Because self-bailing rafts float higher on the water and drain excess water, they do not get weighed down the same way that bucket rafts do. The result is a boat that’s much easier to maneuver, helping you avoid rocks and go from one raft to another quickly and easily.

When you reach calm sections on a self-bailing boat, all of the water will drain, so your feet won’t be soaking in water. This makes them more comfortable for longer rafting trips. Additionally, you don’t need to manually scoop water out.

The self-bailing boat is typically considered the best option for challenging whitewater and for long trips. However, this type of boat is more expensive and heavier than bucket boats.

Are You on the Market for a Raft?

Buying a new whitewater raft is a large investment. If you’re looking to buy a boat for you and your family or friends, check out our used gear page. Buying a used raft gives you more options at a reasonable price point.

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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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