Do-it-yourself rafting trips were once the domain of grizzled experts and knuckleheaded teens whose idea of safety was packing a Styrofoam beer cooler that doubled as emergency flotation. But recently, ordinary folks have been showing up at outfitters looking to rent their own boats, not just paddle one on a guide's command. Fueling the trend, manufacturers are rolling out smaller, more maneuverable, less expensive craft.
"It's no longer the lunatic fringe trying out a high-risk adventure sport," says Mark Singleton, executive director of Asheville, North Carolina-based American Whitewater. "It's families and individuals on vacation discovering they have the skills to navigate rivers themselves."
Go guideless and you're free to choose your river and route. You can stop as you please to take a break, hike around, or spend the night. And, best of all, you don't have to take orders from guides you suspect are hitting on your date (take it from a former professional boatman, they are). But before going solo you'll need the right gear, some sage pointers, and solid safety info. Take it slow, be careful, and before long you'll be both master and commander-and ready for the rougher stuff.
+ Captaining a raft through white water is an imperfect science that takes years to cultivate. Steepen your learning curve by contacting either the National Outdoor Leadership School (www.nols.edu) or Outward Bound (www.outwardbound.com) for first-rate instruction. And before you hit rougher water (Class III and above), take a three-day course in white-water rescue with Rescue 3 International ($295; www.rescue3.com).
+ Unlike climbing or mountain biking, when you come across something in a raft that's beyond your skill level, you can't just turn back the way you came. Start out on Class II rivers to get a feel for maneuvering your boat and, before you launch, do your research: Get a guidebook and ask local pros what's down below.
+ A raft has no brakes-and the river never stops-so always keep your eyes downstream and plan your moves in advance. In general, glassy waves are runnable, but if you plan to hit something white and frothy, you'd better know what it is first. At significant rapids, pull off the river and scout your route. Don't focus solely on the white water-study the speed and direction of the current above the rapid, so you'll enter where you want to.
+ Even in a small boat, you can't fight the current. Let it carry you. Devise a route through the obstacles, but be prepared with a plan B in case you miss your line at the top. And remember the old maxim, "If you screw up, square up!" That is, if you can't avoid a rock or a hole, hit it straight instead of sideways to reduce the chance of a flip or a wrap.
+ River rescue becomes exponentially more difficult when you are by yourself: Don't go it alone. You'll need extra hands to right a flipped boat or dislodge one that's stuck on a rock. Plus, many of the most scenic rivers are deep in the wilderness and out of cell phone range. Don't assume that someone else will come along and find you. Safety comes in numbers-and good company makes for a great paddle.
Be forewarned: Rafts aren't cheap. When you're ready to take the plunge, consider the Maravia Diablo ($3,818; www.maravia.com). A svelte 115 pounds, two people can heft it into the back of the car without winding up in traction. It's versatile, too: The 14-footer can hold seven paddlers, but two can maneuver it with ease. If you're going solo, invest in the AIRE Wildcat Cataraft ($2,040; www.aire.com), a 13-foot surfing machine that puts you as close to the water as you can get without falling in.
Stock your paddleboat with a quiver of Carlisle Standard Paddles ($21 each; www.carlislepaddles.com)-they're inexpensive, nearly indestructible, and they float. Rowers can travel in style with a set of handcrafted, solid ash Smokers Whitewater Oars ($216 each; www.paddlesandoars.com) or the durable Cataract SGG composite oars ($105 each; www.nrsweb.com).
The best recipe for packing a raft calls for equal parts Army surplus and vinyl. Stow any breakable items in either a 50 caliber ammo can ($5) or a 20-mm 'rocket box' ($12). Available at most Army-Navy surplus stores, both are darn near bombproof. For housing soft items, most Grand Canyon guides opt for the impenetrable Jack's Plastic Welding Outfitter Bag ($94; www.jpwinc.com). And the pros should know.
A good pump may be the most important item you stow on board. The Down River Barrel Pump ($165; www.downriverequip.com) is simple to use and easily taken apart to clean and lubricate. Other essentials include the folding two-burner Partner Steel Cook Stove ($239; www.partnersteel.com). Designed by and for river runners, it's tough enough to strap directly onto your raft but also fits inside a rocket box or the hatch of a kayak. Jack's Plastic Welding Paco Pad ($113) is a superthick, self-inflating, waterproof mattress that also works as a seat cushion, and if you are so inclined, a boogie board. And don't leave home without the Lotus Rio Grande life jacket ($99; www.lotusdesign.com); its trademark low-profile design limits chafing on a long day of paddling.
WYOMING: Late summer means warm water and gentle flows on the scenic Class II upper Snake River. Rent a raft from Snake River Kayak & Canoe ($70 a day; www.snakeriverkayak.com), which also offers a two-day class in river rescue ($195).
TEXAS: The Rio Grande winds gently through some of the Southwest's most spectacular canyon scenery. Get a feel on a half-day trip, then try four days in eye-popping Boquillas Canyon. Big Bend River Tours rents rafts ($100 a day; www.bigbendrivertours.com).
NORTH CAROLINA: The Nantahala Outdoor Center rents boats on the Class II and III Nantahala River ($20 per person a day) and offers a comprehensive customized daylong guiding course ($500; www.noc.com).