Planning a Whitewater Rafting Family Vacation

“Whitewater rafting with a family?” you ask. Yes!

When people say they are going on a family vacation, thoughts of Disney, cruise ships, all-inclusive resorts, and the sunny beach typically come to mind. Never, at least for me, would “whitewater rafting” have been associated with “family vacation.” Rafting, I assumed, was reserved for college students and a bachelor party weekend. These were the people that went rafting, young adults, thrill-seekers, people that lived on the edge and were strong enough to swim through strong currents should they get tossed from the boat. But rafting on a family vacation? Putting kids on a boat and sending them into the rapids? Never!

That was before we actually tried it during our end-of-the-summer vacation. Since we took our kids down river – and lived to tell about it – “whitewater rafting” and “family vacation” seem like an obvious pairing.

white water rafting family
My family all suited up for whitewater rafting.

We live in Maine, and when I look around at the tourists that come here with their families, I see them flock to places like Kennebunkport, Old Orchard Beach, Camden, and Acadia National Park. In other words – the coast. Maine is known for its rocky (and beautiful) coastline. We have many islands, lighthouses, puffins, and lobsters! I wouldn’t knock anyone for planning a vacation on Maine’s coast, but there is a whole other side of Maine that many tourists don’t see – Maine’s North Woods. There you can escape the crowds and surround yourself with Maine’s many mountains, forests, lakes, and… rivers! There you can hike, explore, fish, and… raft!

When we were looking at vacation ideas that might capture the interest of our tween/teens, we looked north, and that is when whitewater rafting caught our attention. Having never been whitewater rafting myself, the idea of piling our four kids into a raft and plunging into the rapids seemed risky. Risky, I knew, would get our kids’ attention, but it also drew parental concern.

Would a whitewater rafting family vacation be too adventurous?

After much deliberation, we took the plunge (no pun intended), and reserved our spots on the Kennebec river. In the end, it turned out to be a brilliant idea. There were many laughs, big smiles, great pictures, and memorable moments. The entire family enjoyed the trip, and I would now recommend any family visiting Maine to consider whitewater rafting. If it’s something you’re considering, let our experience help guide your way, starting with the most obvious question…

Is whitewater rafting safe for kids?

My wife wrote an article on rafting safety with kids after our trip. Her piece covers the subject in much greater detail, but from my view, the answer is yes. Here is why. For Northern Outdoors anyway, they’re not going to let your kids on the boat in the first place if they don’t think it’s a good idea. Our trip took us down the Kennebec River (one of three rivers Northern Outdoors leads trips on), and the minimum age was ten and up. Our youngest was a ten-year-old, a small ten-year-old who is not a terribly strong swimmer.

We expressed our concern with the lead guide. He took the time to talk with our son directly, asking him how he felt, whether he thought he could do it, etcetera. The guide offered an option to pick him up part way down the river after the more aggressive rapids were over, but it was prefaced with a “he’ll miss the best parts.” We opted to put him in the boat for the entire trip, which is what he wanted in the first place.

Quite comically, once we were on the raft, it was our thirteen-year-old who was the most nervous. It was an excited nervous, however, the type that safely pushed her self-imposed boundaries and left her feeling impressed with herself and, like the rest of the kids, asking to go again – “on a bigger river!” They will have to wait for that, however. Northern Outdoors’ age limit on the Penobscot and Dead Rivers start at fourteen.

So the answer is yes, while there are risks associated with whitewater rafting (as with anything), rafting is far safer than most people would expect. For a more complete description of safety, however, read my wife’s post.

family white water rafting
Family photo just as we hit the rapids. Fun!

What are the costs for whitewater rafting?

Asking how much whitewater rafting costs is a bit like asking how much a car costs. It depends. What days of the week are you looking at? Do you need to rent accessories? Where are you staying during your trip?

We booked our trip mid-week, which is when Northern Outdoors offers half-off pricing for anyone under eighteen. For a family of four kids, this was a big savings! Frankly, mid-week is also a better time for families to hit the river. Weekends tend to attract the young adult crowd, which is fine, but mid-week not only offers the family discount but a less-busy experience. So if your objective is to save money while having a more relaxed atmosphere, go mid-week.

Another way to save on your costs is to bring whatever accessories you need. We didn’t quite know what to expect, so not everyone brought shoes for the water. I wore my Tevas, but the rest of the family had to rent suitable footwear. Bring your own water shoes (or old sneakers) and you won’t have to rent footwear.

whitewater footwear
Northern Outdoors’ fashionable whitewater footwear on display.

The same goes for whatever you are wearing. It depends on what time of the year you go, but some of us we were wearing cotton t-shirts (not recommended). The ladies in the group ended up renting splash jackets to help stay dry. These could have been avoided by wearing an appropriate synthetic top. Wet suits were also available for rent, but those are generally unnecessary mid-summer.

Lastly, for the four of us wearing glasses, we had to buy eyeglass retainers (the cord that attaches to your glasses and wraps behind your head). Northern Outdoors sold these right in their lodge at standard pricing, so that was an easy fix, and we now own them for our next trip!

The rentals are all reasonably priced, so if you don’t have the appropriate equipment, or find you forgot something at home, there is no need to worry. Still, if you are cost-conscious, you can plan ahead and save money.

Visit the Northern Outdoors rafting page for specific information on pricing.

Note: Northern Outdoors staff are not only good at guiding people down the river, but they are also good cooks! The cost of rafting includes a very tasty lunch cooked fresh on the riverbank. They also accommodated our son’s peanut allergy!

rafting guides cooking lunch
Northern Outdoors rafting guides are also great chefs! Lunch is included with every trip.

What should your family expect when rafting?

Northern Outdoors guides go through the rules of rafting, and rule number one is – rafting is fun! Your family should expect to have a good time. The fun does not begin (or end) with the most intense rapids. The guides make sure your fun begins not on the river, but from the very beginning of the safety lesson. They deliver what would otherwise be dull information in a fun, entertaining, and engaging way, all the while maintaining a high standard of professionalism. They laugh and crack jokes, but are sure to deliver the important information. It was clear that they loved their jobs.

The rapids deliver the fun on their own, but in-between the rapids, when the river becomes a bit more calm, rafters are encouraged to jump off the side of the boat and float for a while, or to use one of the inflatable kayaks picked up at lunch. If floating directly in the water doesn’t interest you, simply sitting back and enjoying Maine’s natural beauty is enough to make anyone happy. These are rivers in Maine’s northern woods after all. You will not see shorelines dotted with camps and people. You will see trees, birds, and an occasional whitewater kayaker.

After the trip, staff work behind-the-scenes to create a video and photo compilation of the day’s trip while you rest for a moment in the restaurant/brewpub or in the hot tub. Then the guides deliver the entertaining video/photo presentation, where everyone can laugh at their own facial expressions when hitting key points on the river.

What kind of family accommodations are there?

If you are booking a rafting trip down the Kennebec with Northern Outdoors, they offer a wide variety of accommodations to fit any budget. We opted for one of the North Woods Cabins, which gave us plenty of room. Each kid had his/her own room while my wife and I slept in the loft. We had dinner one night in the lodge, but we were otherwise able to bring food to cook right in the cabin.

Family alternatives to the North Woods Cabins include the lower-priced Timberdoodle Condo, lodgominiums, lodge rooms, and the most budget-friendly option, the Kennebec River Campground directly across the street. The campground not only offers the traditional tent and RV sites, but also cabin tents! Staying at the campground still gives you access to the pool and hot tub behind the lodge.

If cost is your primary concern, go rafting mid-week, bring all of the river gear you might need, stay at the campground, and pack your own food. You will not find a better family vacation fun-to-cost ratio than that!

northern outdoors cabin rentals
We stayed in the cabin on the left, but there are many different choices for lodging.

What can you do besides rafting?

If you are making the drive to The Forks for rafting (situated right on the beautiful Old Canada Road), you would be doing yourself a disservice if you stayed for just one day. Our kids were content to just lounge around the pool and hot tub, but there are many other options available. You can rent ATVs, hike to Moxie Falls, float down the river in kayaks, fish the river, drive the logging roads looking for moose, or countless other outdoor activities. There is so much to do in the area, that you could plan a vacation there and never raft at all!

family pyramid rafting
Final picture after a successful family rafting trip.

If you live in Maine, give your family the experience of rafting down one of Maine’s iconic rivers.

If you’re visiting Maine on vacation, you will be missing out on the “other” Maine that fewer tourists see if you restrict yourselves to Maine’s coast. Do something different. See northern Maine. Go rafting!


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