Can I Go Rafting if I Can’t Swim?

Posted July 31, 2023 by Lenka Bostian

When it comes to adventure activities like whitewater rafting, one common question that arises time and time again is whether swimming skills are a prerequisite. The answer may surprise you: No, you do not need to know how to swim to go rafting! We have taken over 450,000 guests on California rivers since 1962 and not all of them have been able to swim. At All-Outdoors, we believe that everyone should have the opportunity to enjoy the excitement of rafting, regardless of their swimming ability. Let’s look into why and under what conditions even non-swimmers can participate in this exhilarating water sport.

Getting into the rafts on the South Fork.
Guests getting assigned to their rafts on the South Fork American River.

Choose the Right River Trip

Selecting an appropriate rafting trip based on your skill level is an important first step to having an amazing time on the water. Rafting rivers and their rapids are rated on a scale of difficulty that ranges from Class 1 (moving water) to Class 6 (unrunnable). Watch our video where we explain the different white water rafting levels, as well as what to expect from each category of rapid on your rafting trip. In general, floating on easy Class 1-2 water does not require any special training or swimming ability, provided the appropriate type and size of a personal flotation device (life jacket) is properly worn by each participant.

Class 3 difficulty is considered Beginner-Intermediate and it’s the rafting level that most people choose. While a trained guide is required to navigate a raft through Class 3 whitewater, swimming ability is typically not required by professional rafting companies. This assumes that the river is flowing at normal levels and the guide is aware of and comfortable with non-swimmers in their raft.

A family enjoying their day on and in the river.

Understand the Importance of Swimming Ability on More Advanced Rivers

It is important to understand why swimming ability becomes a more significant factor on higher difficulty levels (Intermediate-Advanced Class 4 and above) or during periods of increased river flows on Class 1-3 rivers. In such scenarios, there is a higher likelihood of unexpected situations that may require participants to actively swim if they fall out of the raft. The water is moving faster, is more turbulent, and breaks between rapids are shorter. The ability to swim is needed to avoid obstacles in the river, get to a calmer section, or to shore. Because of this, the majority of whitewater rafting outfitters will require their guests to be competent swimmers on Class 4 (and above) rivers or during higher flows associated with springtime rafting in a big snowpack year.

The ability to swim is required on more advanced rivers, such as the Middle Fork American (Class 4+ Tunnel Chute rapid shown)

Go with a Professional River Guide

When venturing into the world of whitewater rafting, it is imperative to not go on your own, especially if you cannot swim. Choosing a reputable outfitter like All-Outdoors is essential to maximize your enjoyment and minimize any risks. When you go on a guided river rafting trip, you will receive a comprehensive pre-trip briefing and all the necessary gear, including life jackets and helmets, to keep you a happy rafter throughout the adventure. Our professional guides are well-trained not only in whitewater navigation (more about Whitewater Rafting Paddle Commands) but also in handling various river conditions and potential emergencies. They will tell you how to stay in the raft, plus they are really fun and interesting individuals to spend time with!

Each rafting trip starts with an orientation where important information is shared with the guests.

The South Fork American: A Great Rafting River for Non-Swimmers

In California, one of the best rivers for non-swimmers is the South Fork American. This wonderful river is the most popular rafting venue in the Western United States. It provides an ideal balance of excitement and accessibility for individuals of all skill levels. The mellow Class 1-2 middle section snaking through the Coloma Valley is a favorite spot for private boaters on their kayaks, inner tubes, paddle boards, or other watercraft. This is also the stretch of the river where our Tom Sawyer Float Trips take place. These delightful trips are designed for families with children aged 5-7 years old and include the use of inflatable kayaks and lots of water play.

The Upper “Chili Bar” and the Lower “Gorge” sections of the South Fork up the ante with their exhilarating Class 3 rapids. Professional rafting companies make these whitewater thrills accessible to the public from April to October each year thanks to reliable water releases from upstream reservoirs. Unless the river is running at higher river flows, all are welcome to join, regardless of their swimming skill. South Fork’s long season, lively but approachable rapids, splashing waves, and classic California scenery make this the perfect whitewater destination.

The South Fork American River is appropriate for non-swimmers interested in rafting (Class 3 Troublemaker Rapid shown)

Conclusion With an Asterisk

Swimming ability does not have to deter you from experiencing the thrill of whitewater rafting (unless you are very afraid of water*). When you choose the right river, an appropriate time of year, and go with the pros, you certainly can enjoy an unforgettable rafting experience even if you can’t swim. Create lasting memories, embrace the beauty of nature, and let the excitement of whitewater rafting ignite your adventurous spirit.

*If you are a non-swimmer and the idea of being on the raft on moving water is not appealing at all, don’t let this informational post push you out of your comfort zone. Whitewater rafting is supposed to be first and foremost fun! If it doesn’t sound like fun to you, we encourage you to find joy in another outdoor activity. No hard feelings, we promise!

Author Bio

Lenka Bostian

Lenka started working for All-Outdoors in the summer of 2005 when she followed her heart from her native Czech Republic out to California. After graduating college in Prague, she packed up her degree in International Business and moved across the pond for good. She’s been part of the AO family ever since, wearing different hats along the way. Besides trail running, tennis, and traveling, Lenka enjoys rafting and camping on the South Fork with her hubby (former AO guide) and their twin boys.


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