Hold tight: the world's best rafting rivers

Zip up your wetsuit, cinch your helmet: we bring you the biggest, baddest and raddest rivers for rafting the world over – and all guided commercially for your convenience.

Sun Kosi River, Nepal

Raft negotiating the 'Meatgrinder' rapid on Sun Kosi River. Image by Anders Blomqvist / Lonely Planet Images / Getty Images.

Originating near Mt Shishapangma in Tibet and carving its way through the Himalaya is the mighty Sun Kosi River (literally ‘River of Gold’). Draining eastern Nepal, its glacier-fed waters drop for just five months of the year, enough to make it raftable. And what a trip it is! The 273km from the put-in at Dolalghat to the take-out at Chatra Gorge are as exciting as rafting comes – big, bouncy white-water rapids, steep valleys, remote Nepalese mountain villages, superb campsites on white-sand beaches, and hot, sunny days with chilly nights. By the end you’ll agree that there’s more than one kind of gold.

The Sun Kosi is commercially rafted between September and January, after which the river triples in volume and becomes unrunnable. It takes up to 10 days to run the river.

Magpie River, Ontario, Canada

As your float plane splashes down in remote Magpie Lake amidst endless pine and spruce forests, you’ll know you are at the beginning of something special. What follows is an incredible journey down the Magpie River through granite-lined gorges filled with continuous grade-three and grade-four rapids. Nights are spent on rocky ledges or beaches beneath the spectacular show of the Northern Lights. And as you paddle, watch out for the wildlife: black bears, wolves, osprey and moose. Near the end of the trip you will reach the portage around Magpie Falls, followed by a final sting in the tail – the grade-five rapids just downstream.

August and September are the best months to raft the Magpie River. There is currently a battle to save it from being dammed, so run it while you still can.

Zambezi River, Zimbabwe/Zambia

Rafting on the Zambezi by Martijn Munneke. CC BY 2.0.

We hope you like getting wet. Below the mighty cascades of Victoria Falls on the Zambezi River – Africa’s fourth-longest river – lie the black-basalt-lined walls of Batoka Gorge, containing what many say is the best single day’s white-water rafting anywhere. Right from the get-go at Boiling Point, the treacherous names of the rapids don’t provide much comfort: the Washing Machine, the Devil’s Toilet Bowl, Oblivion...you’re probably catching the drift. More than half the rapids are grade five (grade sixers being impossible to run). Also, did we mention the crocodiles?

The best time to raft the Zambezi is during low water (July to mid-February).

Alsek River, USA/Canada

Flip your raft on the Alsek and you will redefine your concept of cold. Fed from the largest non-polar glacier basin in the world, the icy waters of the Alsek average about half a degree Celsius. That’s right, dry suits are mandatory. Apart from a unique and incredibly beautiful alpine environment, these mighty glaciers also provide lots and lots of water, and a superfast ride for rafters through 250km of pristine wilderness in the Kluane National Park. Bald eagles and grizzly bears abound – did we mention that the peak grizzly and rafting seasons coincide?

The best time of the year to raft the Alsek is in June. One section of the river is considered so deadly that it is portaged with a helicopter.

Middle Fork of the Salmon River, Idaho, USA

After copping a soaking while smashing through grade-three and grade-four rapids, what could be better than relaxing in hot springs at the end of the day? Cutting through the largest wilderness area in the Lower 48 is the Middle Fork of the Salmon River, the longest undammed river in the United States. The Middle Fork is the full package: a multitude of rapids that will keep your pulse racing, amazing wildlife, incredible fly fishing (said to be the best in the US), and, of course, those hot springs – there are six along the river.

The usual Middle Fork season is from May to September. Rafters are required to have a permit (not easy to get) and carry a porta potty.

Franklin River, Tasmania, Australia

Lifting a raft through Big Fall on the Franklin River. Image by Grant Dixon / Lonely Planet Images / Getty Images.

From the moment you slip into the dark, tannin-stained waters of the Franklin, the river holds you in its thrall, its ceaseless energy an ever-present companion through your days and nights, even your dreams. Moods change with the river; when it’s cold and rainy, everything’s miserable, when the river rises and the rapids are pumping, so is the adrenalin, and when you drift silently along in the sun beside a platypus, all is at peace. By the time you reach its confluence with the Gordon, it will be with more than a tinge of sadness.

The Franklin is best tackled during summer. Most people end their journey at Sir John Falls, taking a chartered yacht out to avoid the tedious paddle to Strahan.

Rio Futaleufú, Chile

The first thing that strikes you about the Rio Futaleufú is its colour, ranging from an almost unnaturally bright turquoise through to shades of teal, modulated by the minerals in this glacier-fed torrent carving through the Patagonian Andes. And while your days might be spent fighting through big, scary white water (up to grade five), the organisation that guides the Futaleufú, Earth River, has created camps of unprecedented luxury and imagination – with showers, flushing toilets, hot tubs and superb meals – so that you can relax at night in absolute style.

Earth River runs trips on the Rio Futaleufú every summer December–March.

Rio Cotahuasi, Peru

Nowhere is the expression ‘mountain high, river low’ better expressed than on the Rio Cotahuasi, which carves its way through the Cotahuasi Canyon – the world’s deepest canyon (3535m at its lowest point). Just getting to the put-in is epic. It involves a high-altitude, 12-hour drive and two-day mule trek. But, as it often is with the hardest things, the reward is prodigious: seven days of grade-four and grade-five rapids that will push you to your limit, beautiful, remote campsites, and unexplored pre-Inca ruins left from the Huari civilisation. Culture and adventure – what more could you want?

This is a trip for experienced rafters only. June and July are considered the best months to tackle the river.

Colorado River, Arizona, USA

Rafting on the Colorado River by Jim Kelly. CC BY 2.0.

Many would argue it can’t get much better than rafting the muddy brown waters of the Colorado. Indeed, what other river carves through the world’s most famous hole in the ground, the Grand Canyon? And if numbers are anything to go by, perhaps they are right – 22,000 people run the Grand Canyon section of the Colorado River each year. While you may not find solitude what you will find from the put-in at Lees Ferry is 42 exciting rapids, incredible vistas of geological formations up to half-a-billion years old, plus Native American ruins you can stop off and visit.

The rafting season is May to October and trips can last anywhere from one to 18 days. Private groups may have to wait up to ten years for a permit.

Noce River, Italy

Smashing through the icy, green waters of the Noce River on big waves, you’ll be left in no doubt you’re on Europe’s best rafting river. Fed by glacial melt, the Noce is in the Dolomites, an Alpine paradise in northern Italy, meandering through the remote and beautiful Val de Sole (Sun Valley). The river caters to all levels, but its most famous rapids are punishing grade-fivers that churn through the gorges of the Mostizzolo. Best of all, you are never too far from civilisation and that perfect short black.

The Noce is best paddled in summer, and is probably the most accessible of all the rivers listed here.