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Drift Boats and Rafts

Graphic of drift boater wearing a life jacket Graphic of rafters wearing life jackets 

Drift boating and rafting are popular activities on many of Oregon's whitewater rivers. Special hazards exist in these waters and fatal boating accidents are often due to inexperience, unfamiliarity with the waterway, or complacency. Moving water can quickly overwhelm even the strongest swimmers and Oregon's rivers are cold year-round. Drowning and hypothermia can happen quickly if you find yourself in the water unexpectedly. Know your skill level, wear a life jacket, and always be prepared to get wet!  

Important Knowledge and Skills

Drift boats, rafts, and other similar craft are designed for use in moving rivers, known as a swift-water environment. These rivers contain many hazards (aka, obstructions) not always present in other types of boating and require special knowledge, training, and practice to recognize.

Maneuvering boats in these circumstances can range from relatively easy in wide slow-moving water, to requiring extreme skill in heavier rapids and constricted areas. Safety is dependent on the preparation and sound decision-making of the boater.

Whether powering one of these craft with oars or a crew of paddlers, it is crucial to develop the knowledge and skill required before attempting waterways that are new to the boater.

If you are new to this sport and would like to learn how to do it safely, there are several ways to begin your journey:

  • Consider booking a trip with a local outfitter to experience the river with a professional guide. Ask questions, many are happy to help and love sharing their knowledge with others. They may also be able to direct you to other people and learning opportunities.
  • Some outfitters and other businesses offer river training programs, these can be expensive but are an excellent way to build river experience and skill.
  • Seek out local clubs and enthusiasts to learn from, these can often be reached through Facebook or other social media. It can also be worthwhile to visit a local paddle-centric shop and ask about boating groups there.
  • There are many great videos available online containing a wealth of information to help you learn about these activities. 

​This is a list of the equipment that is required by law to be carried onboard. It is not an exhaustive list of the safety equipment and gear that are often carried by a well-prepared boater. Proper education and training will help the boater to properly outfit their vessel.​

1. Wearable Life Jacket

Sailboats less than 16 feet in length and all paddlecraft (canoes, kayaks, stand up paddleboards, drift boats or rafts, etc.) need to carry a properly fitting US Coast Guard-approved wearable life jacket for each person on board and the life jacket must be readily accessible. All children 12 and younger are required to wear a life jacket. 

All boats 16 feet or greater in length must also carry one throwable cushion in addition to wearable life jackets for each passenger on board.
Image of a throwable cushion
All boaters operating in Class III or higher whitewater rapids must wear a properly fitting US Coast Guard life jacket. 

2. Sound Devices

A boat less than 39 feet 4 inches (or 12 meters) long, must carry a whistle or a compressed air horn.  It's easy to attach a whistle to a life jacket!  Both are required equipment. 

3. Navigation Lights

Required only when underway or at anchor between sunset and sunrise, and during periods of restricted visibility. ​

Life jacket image Whistle and flashlight are required to be carried in case of an emergency

If the raft or drift boat has a motor and it's intended to be used, the drift boat or raft needs to be titled and registered

​A Waterway Access Permit is required to be carried by the operator of a paddlecraft 10 feet and longer, including sailboats between 10'-11'11".

One permit per boat and the permits are transferrable to other paddlecraft. 

Children 13 and younger are not required to have a permit. 

Permits can be purchased through ODFW's eLicensing system and through the Marine Board's Boat Oregon Store

Purchasing options are: 

  • One week (valid for 7 consecutive days) for $5 (plus a $1.50 portal provider. ODFW also offers a one-week permit for $5 (plus a $2 transaction fee).  
  • One calendar year for $17 (plus a $1.50 portal provider fee). The permit expires on December 31 of the year purchased) and;
  • Two calendar years for $30 (plus a $1.50 portal provider fee). The permit expires on December 31 of the year after purchase). 

Failure to show the permit is a Class D violation with a $115 fine.

Boat measurement is based on the maximum length of the boat when measured along its longest axis.​

Waterway access permits can be displayed on a mobile device or printed and carried with the paddler on the water.​​

Launching a drift boat or Raft can look very different depending on where you are trying to boat. Some launches are located at traditional concrete boat ramps, some at improved or unimproved trails or embankments, and some are even near vertical slides where boats are lowered by rope.

Regardless of where you are launching, there are several general principles that should always be considered:

  • Be courteous of other boaters, limit your time on the ramp, and stage on one part of the boat ramp so that multiple groups can use it instead of spreading your gear everywhere. If you have a large trip with multiple boats and a single boat is waiting that could launch quickly, consider letting them go first. Courtesy goes a long way.
  • Be careful of vehicles and trailers in busy areas, water isn't the only hazard at a boat ramp.
  • Avoid launching in riparian zones or natural areas. This causes damage and harms the river ecosystem. Use developed boating access sites to keep the damage contained.
  • Secure your boat while you park the vehicle and trailer. It can be upsetting when it leaves without you.
  • Make sure you are proficient in using rope when using steep ramps. Make sure to wrap the rope around a post a few times to provide friction if not using a winch when lowering. A drift boat weighs several hundred pounds.
  • Move slowly and carefully when carrying boats over rough terrain to prevent accidents or injury. 
  • Do a final sweep of the shoreline before launching to check for anything left behind. It's your only chance.

​​Internationa Scale of River Difficulty -Permission to use by Paddling Magazine

A Modern Guide to Demystifying the Rapids Rating Scale -Article linked with permission from Paddling Magazine 

Whitewater Operations

Whitewater operations in a kayak, canoe, SUP, rubber raft, or drift boat take special skill and good physical conditioning. 

The following are important whitewater safety tips:

1. Wear a life jacket! The law requires all boaters to wear a life jacket in Class III rapids or higher (we recommend you wear it on all whitewater), and in areas where there are known obstructions.
2. Carry emergency equipment and have spare oars or paddles onboard.
3. Know the river, especially where rapids, falls or other hazards such as rocks and strainers are located. Always scout rapids from the shore beforehand.
4. Never boat alone.
5. Be prepared for cold water by dressing properly and wearing a life jacket.
6. Have a plan for what to do if you fall in, know how to float (feet facing downstream), and how to get yourself safely to shore. Whitewater publications are available in most public libraries. Use these books and guides when planning to boat these beautiful, but often dangerous waterways.

River Running

Learn how to read the river to determine the best line and how to maneuver for the safest run (see graphic below).

Low-head dams These structures are difficult to see and can trap paddlers. Consult a map of the river before your trip and know where dams are located. 

Always portage (carry) your boat around obstructions. 

Rapids:  When approaching rapids, go ashore well upstream and check them out before continuing (scout ahead). If you see dangerous conditions, portage around them if possible. 

Strainers:  These river obstructions allow water to flow through but block boats and could throw you overboard and damage or trap you and your boat. Strainers may include overhanging branches, logjams, or flooded islands. 

Learn the locations of reported obstructions with our interactive Obstructions Map, and even report what you see out there to help others stay safe. 

Learn more from American Whitewater and connect with local clubs.

Read the River
Maneuver your craft through the safest course (path). Example: Upstream "V's" indicate upstream objects or obstacles in the water and signal "danger." Downstream "V's" indicates a path past the objects. Keep your eyes on the horizon line and decide in advance whether you need to portage or scout. 

Infographic of differenty types of hazards to keep a sharp lookout for and know how to avoid.

Reversals/Hydraulics: Also known as holes or "keeper" holes. These are especially hard to escape around man-made dams. When water falls over an obstacle (boulders, etc.), it curls back on itself. This forms a strong upstream current that can hold a boat or swimmer.

Log jams: Stay away from them. They can damage or upset the boat if you maneuver too closely and can sweep paddles, oars, the boat, and even YOU under the jam. 

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