All kinds come to the river, and all kinds run it. River guides also run the gamut—you’ll find everything from shirtless old timers to clean-cut college kids in uniform T-shirts. Is one better than the other?
“It depends on what you’re looking for,” says Marian Allen, reservations manager at French Broad Outfitters.
Some clients are after a grittier, more authentic-feeling experience, and others demand a higher level of professionalism. No matter what you’re after, here are some things you should look for in any guiding service to ensure they take your safety, enjoyment and peace of mind seriously.
Read the reviews
“A lot of people will look for the cheapest option, but reviews will tell you if it’s cheap for a reason,” says Allen.
Scan Trip Adviser, Yelp and similar sources, and keep in mind your goals for the trip, suggests Steve Markel at OARS Rafting Vacations. Two thumbs up from a bachelor party doesn’t necessarily guarantee the family-friendly atmosphere you might be hoping for.
Keep your trip goal in mind
Are you an adventure junkie looking for a hit of adrenaline or a bird-watching buff with a relaxing float in mind? Every guide service has a different way of doing things, and excitement levels vary by river section. Check websites and call guides to find out what kind of rapids, wildlife sightings, side-trips, or views their trips might offer.
Check out the staff
“A good guide has to have people skills first and boating skills second,” says Markel. “Guides have to be able to interact well with a diverse range of people from all walks of life. Those who don’t burn out on the job pretty quickly.”
Find out how long an outfitter’s guides have been with the company. Those who have been around the block probably pass the people skills test.
Guides should also have basic first aid training. Bonus points for Wilderness First Responder certs. In Colorado, river guides need at least 50 hours of on-river training to work, but many companies go above and beyond, especially for tricky sections of river. Ask a company about the hours and qualifications they require.
Eyeball the equipment
Ask what kind of equipment the outfitter uses, and make sure the company inspects gear before every trip and has a reasonable turnover policy.
Keep in mind that replacement thresholds vary—a raft can survive 20 years of float fishing down the Colorado but might not make it more than four or five years down rocky sections of the Cache La Poudre River. Eyeball the gear before you get in to check for obvious lapses in maintenance.
Count your neighbors
Odds are, you’ll be sharing the raft with more than a few strangers, so it’s prudent to make sure there won’t be too many for the guide to handle. Ask about the average guide-to-guest ratio, and ballpark your upper limit at 1-to-8.
“If you have more than eight guests and don’t have a second guide, you should be asking questions,” says Markel.
Fortunately, 200 different outfitters call Colorado home, and unlike in many other states, Colorado requires each to operate under a set of regulations specific to river outfitters. Inter-industry policing, specific rules, and a wealth of experienced guides make it pretty hard to go wrong.