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Rafting has become highly specialized, with designs and equipment for different conditions, from calm water paddling to extreme whitewater rafting. There are some basic similarities in design and construction, however, which need to be considered in any raft you choose.

Choosing a Raft

Parts of a Raft

The tube is the air-filled “doughnut” which surrounds the raft. It is divided by baffles with multiple air chambers. This allows the raft to stay afloat if one panel is punctured. Some tubes have an inner “bladder” which can be removed and easily repaired in case of puncture.

The panels of the tube are glued together and the glue line is covered by a “seam”, or narrow fabric strip. Glued seams are adequate, but a stronger method of joining panels is “thermo-welding”. This method fuses the seams to the panels. An added benefit to this method is that it does not require the use of toxic glues or solvents.

Each chamber has a valve, which should be inspected for durability, ease of use and accessibility. Inside mounted valves are easy to access from inside the raft but can be blocked by gear in a loaded raft. Outside valves are vulnerable in the event of collision.

raft anatonomy

These are the cross-pieces which provide rigidity and act as a support to brace against. The thwart-to-tube binding system should be inspected for strength. Some thwarts are removable, and extra consideration should be given to the binding to tube.

Standard floors are glued to the tube. Some standard floors are “wrapped”, continuing upward around the outside of the tube for added strength. Self-bailing floors are buoyant floors which are higher than the water level. They should have a pressure-relief valve to protect the floor from damage due to over-inflation or hot, expanding air.

calm water rafting in an inflatable raft

whitewater rafting

You will need to decide whether you want to raft in calm water or ‘whitewater’, and how many people you want to carry.

Design Elements

Length and Width

Raft width is usually about half the length. Larger and wider rafts are more stable. Shorter rafts are more responsive and easier to turn, but can flip easier in challenging whitewater.

Tube Size

Bigger is better, with 15-16” tube diameter being the minimum. Tubes provide flotation, and also protect paddlers from incoming water.


The front and back sections of a raft can be flat, like the floor, or rise upwards. The “rise” helps lift the bow over the waves and provides a drier ride through rapids. Low-rise rafts are meant for calm water rafting.


Standard floors hold incoming water, making the raft sluggish and in need of bailing. This is less of a concern in calm-water rafting. Self-bailing floors perform well in whitewater, allowing the raft to remain light and easier to turn.

Buying a Used Raft

Well made rafts can last for many years, and good value can be had in a used raft. Here are some things to look for in a used raft:

Floor Condition

Some wear in the outer material is to be expected. Large patches of cloth from the inner layer showing through may indicate excessive wear.


Inflate each chamber separately and listen for leaks. Inspect seams to see if they’re intact.


Should open and close easily. Sit on the tube alongside the valve and listen for leaks coming from the valve.

UV Damage

Inspect material for faded or discolored areas which indicate UV damage. Too much UV damage results in material which is vulnerable to tearing, punctures and leaks.


Look carefully for fine cracks or breaks in the ring, and check the bonding of the ring to the raft tube.

Rafting Tips

  • Wear Clothing That Can Get Wet – Wetsuits and polypro is best. Cotton is not recommended because it gets cold when wet. Wool is better because it can be wet and still retain warmth. Rapid-dry clothing is best.
  • Wear Footgear – Barefoot feels great inside the raft, but you should be prepared to be walking on river bottom in case of a spill or when getting out of the raft at streamside. Sneakers and wetsuit booties are best. Gumboots are dangerous, as they will fill with water and impede a spilled rafter.
  • Life Jackets Should Fit Snugly – Children should have life jackets with collar flotation, ‘handle’ at the collar and crotch strap. This allows a floating child to be pulled back into the raft easily by the collar handle; the crotch strap ensures that the child will not slip out of the life jacket.
  • Color – Choose a bright color raft for safety.
  • Cameras – Gear has a way of being thrown around in a raft, or setting in a puddle of water on the raft floor. Disposable cameras are best for use while rafting. Even these should be in a ziploc or small watertight bag and kept in a pocket or fanny pack.

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