A Guides Guide to Boats
The roots of modern river rafts date back to the post-World War II surplus equipment sold across the country. Before rubber, river runners were using wooden boats with poor agility and little room for cargo or passengers. They were heavy, easy to break, and time-consuming to repair. To avoid these issues, Goodrich Rubber Company manufactured one of the first rubber rafts for whitewater in 1938 for use on a documentary film trip. The resulting footage from the trip inspired more individuals to experiment, and once they became cheap and abundant after the war, rubber rafts became king and wooden boats generally fell out of style.
The diversity in boat types on the river has never been greater than it is today, with almost all of them being made of rubber. Because every boat provides a different experience and their names are not always intuitive, here is a basic guide to the main types of water crafts you may see on the river.
The luxury cruise liner of the river, oar rafts are designed to carry as much gear as possible while leaving space for passengers to ride comfortably onboard. For seating and gear storage, oar rafts have wooden or aluminum frames strapped onto them, with the oars attached in the middle. These boats are sometimes confused with paddle boats, as the guts of both are the same, but the utility and experience of each could not be more different. On a paddle boat, everyone is participating, while oar rafts are powered by a single person utilizing two 9-10 ft. long oars positioned off of either side of the boat, allowing the passengers to relax, lay back, and enjoy the ride. A typical oar raft can carry 5-6 people and upwards of 1500 pounds!
For slow, flat-water stretches, there is no more relaxing way to travel downstream than riding along on an oar boat. Sharing stories and conversations, reading books, taking naps, or simply marveling at the scenery, the experience of the calm float offers something that is lost in activity. Due to the heavy weight of gear, food, and passengers, oar boats are difficult to flip and generally the safest way downstream, making them the most popular boats for multi-day trips.
A paddle boat is what most people picture travelling on when they imagine “whitewater rafting”. These rafts have elevated tubes that make up the sides with smaller tubes running width-wise across the floor. These smaller tubes are called “thwarts” and they act as seats or footholds for passengers. Paddle boats hold between 6-8 people and everybody has their own paddle, with one person (usually a river guide) sitting in the back. The passengers are responsible for creating and maintaining momentum, with the captain in the back doing all the steering and voice commands.
Paddle boats are a great way for people to participate and stay active. With strong paddlers, these boats are very maneuverable and lots of fun in the whitewater. If all 6-8 people are paddling hard, it’s easy to be the fastest boat on the water. However, they are not designed to carry any cargo, and because of how lightweight they are, it is much easier to flip over in a rapid. Also, paddling can be a tough workout, especially in flat water and fighting a headwind, which may scare away any willing participation. Ideal for day trips and active groups, paddle boats are rare for multi-day trips but may be available upon request. Holiday most commonly uses paddle boats on the Yampa River, Gates of Lodore, and Desolation Canyon trips.
Affectionately known as “duckies” for the characteristic way they appear to waddle downstream while following bigger boats (mama ducks), inflatable kayaks are a great source of freedom and autonomy on the river. Great for beginner and experienced paddlers alike, duckies are fun, stable, and easy to use while providing good exercise and the opportunity to explore the river on your own. It is common to see duckies on all stretches of water, but are not typically used in larger whitewater on commercial trips. Most kayaks are designed for one adult, but tandem duckies have become more popular in recent years. Holiday will bring duckies on most trips, when appropriate.
Stand up Paddle board (SUP)
The newest river craze is the stand up paddle board, or SUP. Despite being inflatable, these can be stiff as a surfboard and surprisingly stable. Manufacturers make many different shapes and sizes of SUPs, with the river designs being wider and thicker to better fare in whitewater. Another fun option to explore the river with autonomy, SUPs offer a unique workout and challenge to those seeking an active experience. The flat water of Cataract, Ruby/Horsethief Canyons, and Desolation Canyon are the most common sections of river that Holiday will bring SUPs.
Originally from the suburbs near Cleveland, Ohio, Justin made his way to Utah after graduating from Ohio University with a degree in exploring and having fun… If not on the river or in the kitchen, you’ll find him wandering the mountains, drinking coffee, or writing down words he hopes will come across as sensical.