How To Become A White Water Rafting Guide

What do I need to do to become a raft guide?

This is a frequent question when you work in the rafting industry! The answer to that question will differ depending on who you ask and where in the world that person is from. However most of those answers will have many similarities.

The majority of guides in Canada will go through either a tourism college guiding course or a specific company’s guide school. In British Columbia at Canadian Outback Rafting we run a raft guide school teaching the basics to those wanting to work in the industry. Participating in our guide school or a similar program is the first step for the aspiring raft guide, but completing and passing the course is only the beginning.

Becoming a professional in the industry will take many months of additional training and experience before being truly ready to lead clients down the river under challenging conditions.

It took years for me to become a true professional in the industry. My training course gave me the basic knowledge of river safety and navigation. It also taught me such things as how to re-flip a raft when things went wrong and how to navigate around obstacles in the river. But this training took place on some of the easiest rafting rivers in Canada. At the end of the course, l was still very much like a new driver with a learner’s permit.

Raft guiding is one of the most unique types of guiding when you consider that the level of difficulty or class of river you can raft is not reliant on the experience of the client, but solely on the experience of the guide and their ability to control the boat. In most other guiding disciplines it is common to help the client improve on their abilities before increasing the level of difficulty of the activity. For example, when you compare it to something like skiing, you would not take a beginner skier onto black diamond runs their first day or even their first season on the hill. Whereas when guiding rafts, once you are a good enough guide, you can safely take people into Class 5 rapids on their first ever trip. That in itself was something that kept me coming back to rafting after exploring different types of guiding. I was able to push my skills in a way I never could in the other industries, all while still providing a quality trip for the client. In other disciplines I was often guiding on less challenging terrain to provide an experience suitable to the guests’ skills.

Getting to the level where you as a guide can lead class 4-5 rafting trips takes a lot of river time after the completion of your guide school program. I knew from very early on that I wanted to own my own rafting company one day so I worked to gain as much experience as I could as quickly as I could. Coming from North America where the majority of rafting only takes place during 4-5 months in the summer season, I knew that I needed to go elsewhere to improve my skills during the offseason. After starting out on the class 2 rivers of the Canadian Rockies, I moved down to Costa Rica for my first rafting season abroad. This was a real eye-opener as I quickly discovered how much work I needed to do to become a true pro in the industry.

From there I moved to the Sea-to-Sky area which became my working base for the summers while I spent the next 8 years working on some of the best rivers with some of the top rafting outfitters around the world. As I worked my way from Australia to New Zealand, then Europe and Africa, I slowly built up the ability and confidence to guide people down more and more challenging rivers. By my third or fourth year (my 6th or so season) I was working as a trip leader, which meant I was in charge of the team of guides working on a given trip. The added challenge and responsibility were something I really enjoyed.

A couple more years and I became the operations manager at Canadian Outback Adventures’ rafting division. Then last year, ten years since I first entered the industry, I was able to achieve my goal of owning a rafting company (Canadian Outback Rafting Company) located in Squamish in my home-base of the Sea-to-Sky area.

The rafting industry is a great one to work in, and for me guiding rafts is the best job in the world. The path I chose meant that I had to make many sacrifices along the way, and like any other job it has its positives and negatives, but I can honestly say that there is absolutely nowhere else I would rather be in life!

My journey was just one path of many in the industry. If you are interested in becoming a raft guide don’t be daunted by my story. I chose to follow the seasons and the rivers, and to put in the time because there was nowhere else I would have rather been than floating down the canyons and flood planes Mother Nature provided. A lot of those who get into rafting will only do it for a few seasons and don’t aspire to travel the world or become trip-leaders. Every guide will have a passion for the river that tends to stay with them forever, and you will still see the glint in the old guides’ eyes as they tell the story of their last big day out.

So really, to become a white-water rafting guide you have to start from the beginning and learn the fundamentals, and then you have to put in a lot of hard work on and off the river to gain hands-on experience to match your end goal, whether it’s being able to guide on any class river, or owning a rafting company of your own. In the end, you’ll be able to proudly say: “I’m a raft guide!”

Photo credit: Jil Baltes