5 Steps to becoming a Raft Guide

So you want to be a “Raft Guide”… 

Was it a recent tour with Canadian Outback and our charming guides down the Elaho or Cheakamus river that inspired you? Or have you decided to chase your childhood dreams after watching Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom – hopefully with a bit more skill and intention?

When it comes to the whitewater community, I would consider myself more of “a member by association” than an active representative. While I have taken part in a number of whitewater expeditions, and I am learning to kayak, I do not currently possess the skills needed to safely get down the river on my own.

In 2019 I began working in the office at Canadian Outback Rafting, and have since been surrounded by friends and co-workers who identify as kayakers, rafters, and whitewater enthusiasts. It has been a goal of mine to enroll in the Canadian Outback Rafting guide school that occurs every May, but I unfortunately have yet to take advantage of this course. I hope that this coming year offers me the chance to partake in this exciting 10 day program. 

My passion for the outdoors and drive to explore more remote places, would benefit greatly from the ability to read whitewater, understand risk management and rescue techniques, and navigate a raft.  

It is clear that the hard skill set is a large portion of becoming a rafting guide, but I have also learned that there is a whole persona associated with it too. Prior to working among raft guides I was integrated in the Squamish climbing community, and while notably that crew of people shares their own quirks and stereotypes, the unique lifestyle of raft guides and kayakers was not one that I was at first accustomed to.

While the Canadian Outback Rafting Guide School can coach you through all the necessary river skills to prep and load a raft and successfully paddle class 1-4 rapids, what it will not teach you is how to amalgamate into the raft guide community and understand the unspoken language of dirtbagging. 

Luckily for you, these last 3 and half years of living among them has allowed me to study their behavior from directly within the community and has given me all the information on how to blend in seamlessly. See below the 5 steps to becoming a “Raft Guide”.

Step 1 ) Embrace the vagabond lifestyle 

Working full time as a Raft Guide often means “chasing summer” for work.  Many of the job opportunities will be seasonal and it’s not uncommon for guides to spend 3-6 months in each location. As guides become more experienced, they will either travel to new locations and seek out new opportunities, or cycle through a few of their favourite places to work. As a result, finding accommodations in these tourist destination towns can be difficult as the peak season rush hits, and short term housing is limited. 

Many of the guides turn to outfitting their vans and campers into their mobile living space. This multipurpose set up guarantees them transportation and housing for the price of one… as long as they’re mechanically sound.  The “Vanlife” set up easily allows them to make a quick exit after work and scout out new whitewater missions, with the ability to camp wherever they go. 

Another outcome of seasonal work is the close friendships these guides will create. The seasonal tourism industry has a way of creating family-like relationships. Days are spent working together, cooking together, and camping together. The short lived season means it’s important to work together to learn the ins and outs of each town. Guide gossip consists of where to find the best laundromat , the cheapest groceries, and which one of the “house dwelling friends” will accept a case of beer in exchange for a warm shower, access to wifi, and will store my few belongings until I am back next season. 

As guides assemble from all around the world, it can be a sad goodbye at the end of the season. Some will fly back home, and others on to their next seasonal gig.  But it sure is a happy reunion when they see each other again on the river, or have the opportunity to visit one another abroad. Traveling around the world becomes a lot easier when you have a private tour guide in each country. 

Step 2) Rock the appropriate attire

Next, you’re going to need to dress the part. Fortunately, this step does not require a huge budget or a closet overhaul. Actually, quite the opposite. The raft guide wardrobe consists of only a few items of clothing; a couple of stained shorts, your most recent staff uniform, a handful of “party shirts” (think Hawaiian Aloha shirt), Chacos, and your river accessories (sunglasses, hat, chums, and a waterproof watch). The entire contents of your duffle bag can be found at your local thrift store. 

When you wear the same few items of clothing everyday, getting ready in the morning is easy and your Chaco tan lines will become the standard for comparison of dirtbaggery. If anything gets a hole in it, and it will, you’ll need to learn how to sew on a patch, or discover the magic of aquaseal. 

While your day to day “going out” clothes aren’t going to cost you much, you sadly have not found the secret to financial freedom. Get your wallets out, as your paychecks are about to be spent on all the latest and best river gear. Drysuits, paddles, kayaks, pack rafts, river shoes, helmet, lifejacket, and of course a gopro to capture your most epic moments. 

Keeping these items dry may be challenging in your small available storage space, but get in good with the veterans in the field, and they will teach you the tips and tricks to a good side mirror clothes line. 

Step 3) Learn a few new professions – Barber, Mechanic, Professional tailgate cook

When you work everyday (because you love it), and are adventure seeking in between, you have very little time for real life chores. This is why you’ll find that most raft guides are skilled (or claim to be) barbers, mechanics, and jetboil chefs. 

Mullets, skullets, mohawks, and dreads – you’ll find all of these unique hairstyles tucked away under the helmets of our river guides. Self styled of course. These fun hair styles are an expression of their incredible personalities, as well as a way to avoid barber appointments. 

Mention your hair is getting long, or making you hot, and you’ll start a domino effect of late night volunteer clipper artists. These guides know how to trim a good side line. 

Car giving you trouble? Don’t waste your time with expensive mechanic bills. Raft guides have expert knowledge in vehicle maintenance featuring duct tape, zip ties, and WD40. They’ll pop the hood and have it fixed in no time, because when you’re driving a 1999 toyota sienna in the middle of a no service forestry road you’d better be able to get it started on your own. 

Life in the van means life without a full kitchen. Late afternoon missions and long summer days sometimes means you’re not getting off the river until 9pm, and on a hot summer’s day, your Coleman cooler can only do so much.  For this reason, the river guides have developed a special skill for making quick, yet delicious, and easy to store meals. Every meal can be turned into a Chef Boyardee special with enough experimenting. 

Step 4) Collect a memory bank of all the best stories, jokes, and puns

Getting your guests down the river safely is the most important part of being a raft guide, but also only one of the many responsibilities. Another important role is making sure your guests are being entertained along the way. Now, the actual river rapids themselves should take care of that, but long bus rides and flat water sections call for local nature interpretation and your best jokes and stories. Memorizing a good number of jokes and short stories is the best way to get your boat laughing and connecting with one another.  

Keeping your guests entertained on the river for a few hours is one thing, but part of being a raft guide is the comradery in outdoing your fellow colleagues with the best quips while you gather in the Walmart parking lot for the night. The great thing is, you’ll never get bored of telling the same jokes, and you’ll be sure to meet guests who are willing to share some of their funniest too.   

Step 5) Live your best life – be kind, be ambitious, and bring a level of stoke to all that you do! 

If there is something that seems to be universally known and commented on when it comes to river raft guides, it’s their positive energy and incredible enthusiasm for all that they do. They are a very inclusive, optimistic, and fun group of people, and their attitude towards life is contagious.  

I have yet to meet another group of people that is so keen to teach and support their peers in new activities. This river family always has each other’s back and strives to make everyday a fun and memorable one. 

There really must be something magical in the river water, because raft guides are eager to work all day, play all afternoon, and party all night, and do it all again the next day. 

My last 3 summers have been filled with long days, and fun nights, and I have lots of great memories to show for it. The raft guides may be a bit loud and a bit rambunctious, but they are also kind, friendly, caring, and hilarious. When the end of the season rolls around and the guides are on to their next adventure, my winters tend to be quieter. I reminisce of the days of rafting, bonfires, late night beers and tacos, and laundry and movie nights. Luckily for me, it is not too long before I get to see them again. 

Now that you have the 5 essential steps to becoming a Raft Guide it’s time to get yourself registered in a guide course, and start living the simple life.