Planning a Rafting or Paddling Trip Could Be Summer’s Safest Pandemic Escape

COVID rafting
Courtesy Lakota Guides

As society works collectively to curb the spread of COVID-19, maybe there is something to all the clichés of this unprecedented moment, navigating “uncharted waters,” while “all in the same boat together.” The opportunity to launch a paddling or rafting trip could be one of this summer’s safer adventure outlets as pandemic restrictions slowly ease.

With overseas bucket-list travel off the books for the months ahead, turn your compass closer to home. A bevy of outfitters are waiting with open arms—and enhanced safety protocols—to get you in a boat. Whether it’s for a day-trip or a multi-day outing, just show up and let them do the rest. Instant social distance on the water will help worries from the past few months float away downstream.

“Everyone’s itching more than ever to get outdoors,” says Carl Borski of Eagle, Colorado’s Lakota Guides, one of countless outfitters adjusting their plans and ramping up precautions to accommodate ongoing restrictions while still offering a great experience. Borksi anticipates more guests oriented to road trips, “driving within a 12-hour radius.”

“Our outfitters truly believe that recreation is essential,” adds Bob Hamel, executive director of Arkansas River Outfitters Association. “There are some undeniable mental health benefits to getting outside and participating in nature. As Coloradans, we’re so lucky to have the best whitewater rafting destination in our backyard.”

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While he’s expecting lower numbers, Mike Wallisch, VP of operations for Alaska Travel Adventures, whose rafting and sea kayaking operations rely largely on cruise ship traffic, says the experience they offer is now more important than ever. “People are looking to get active outside,” he says. “And taking a raft or sea kayak trip with the family or close friends is a great way to do that.”

Outfitters across the country are relying on two key tenets of their offerings—reduced transmission risk outdoors and the relative ease of maintaining social distance on a river or other waterway—to sustain their businesses in the peak-visitation months ahead.

Borski says Lakota will likely be running more or less “private” trips this season, from shuttle service to river float, which are perfect for families or tight groups of friends. Other outfitters are also prepping accordingly. “All of our outfitter members are able to naturally offer safe spacing by grouping families and small groups to single boats,” says AROA president Mike Kissack.  “Providing a well-ventilated, outdoor experience for healthy recreation enthusiasts of all skill-levels.” Kissack adds that rafting experts are well suited to the task of identifying potential risks and creating solutions to mitigate them. “We’re looking forward to helping families get out on the river to reconnect with the outdoors,” he adds, “all while following recommended guidelines.”

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COVID rafting 2
While paddling in masks is not a requirement for rafting outfitters to operate, some are leaving the option open for wary guests eager to get back outside. Courtesy Lakota Guides

In Utah, Sheri Griffith Expeditions is already gearing up for its desert rafting trips to start June 1, offering a special family group discount for groups of eight to 12, with each trip chartered just for specific groups.

“We already have great sanitary measures in place, and we’re improving them,” states the outfitter, taking into account everything from pre-trip guest screenings and transportation to meal preparation and service. “We want our guests to stay healthy and have a wonderful time on the river, without extra worry. It’s a great sure cure for everyone’s pent-up cabin fever.” They expect guests to favor remote sections including their Cataract Canyon and Desolation Canyon rafting trips.

Things are similar in the Northwest, where outfitters like Northwest Rafting Co., which runs trips on Oregon’s Rogue, Illinois, Chetco and Owyhee rivers plus Idaho’s Middle Fork of the Salmon, also praise paddling’s benefits during this time of increased safety protocols.

“A wilderness river trip is a great way to get away while social distancing in fresh air,” says owner Zachary Collier. “And it’s easy since we’re in small groups on regulated rivers that limit group size. And we’ll be adding more boats to each trip so it’s easy to maintain separation. We’re seeing a lot of people signing up.”

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Utah floating
Josh Schutz / Shutterstock

While it foresees fewer bookings, paddling powerhouse OARS, which offers trips all over North American and around the globe, also feels its trips offer a perfect escape now.

“There’s already significant pent-up demand for the type of outdoor adventure experiences we offer, particularly in the U.S.,” says OARS Marketing Director Steve Markle. “Domestic travel will be the first to bounce back and we’re banking on the idea people will be taking road trips and staying closer to home as things open up.”

As such, OARS is making plans to follow various virus-safety protocols on all of its trips.

“We’re working closely with various outfitter associations and river managing agencies to develop a mitigation plan that follows CDC as well as state and local guidelines,” says Markle, adding that steps could include guide and guest screening, masks, gloves, physical distancing, and heightened attention to hand washing and sanitation. “All of these steps play a part in getting us back on the river.”

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As for distancing, he adds they’ll be getting creative.

“It’s achievable at camp, but we may need to limit our group size on rafts and in shuttle vehicles,” he says. “We may need to stick to one family or household unit per boat and on some rivers. One- and two-person inflatable kayaks and standup paddleboards are also an option.”

Still, as a rafting outfitter, he adds, OARS is well accustomed to handling things like hygiene. “Our procedures have long featured vigilant adherence to best practices for sanitation, disinfection of communal surfaces, and the availability of hand washing stations and hand sanitizer on every trip,” he says. “And our certified food managers adhere to strict guidelines for food prep and clean up. We’ll also be providing additional training for all guides and staff specific to COVID-19.”

As with the rivers they run, however, he admits it’s a constantly changing landscape. But the product they offer is especially appealing during today’s pandemic.

“We’re continually assessing the situation,” Markle says. “While it will likely be a dramatically different landscape, I think domestic travel, road trips, national park visits and guided adventures will all bounce back more quickly. Historically, in times of economic contraction, we’ve done fairly well due to the fact that 80 percent of our trips are domestic and relatively affordable. And we’re starting to see a bit of a surge in interest for trips later this summer.”

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Assuming people will be staying closer to home this year, Markle expects interest in the following trips out West to be high this summer:

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