The beginner's guide to rafting in Calgary

August 3, 2017

By Jillian Clark

Ask any born-and-raised Calgarian what their favourite summer activity is, and they'll probably say rafting (or floating, or paddling) on the Bow and Elbow rivers. While floating on the rivers is an extremely popular sunny day pastime, details on the how and where to get started are a little fuzzy. Here's your complete guide to rafting on the Bow and Elbow River. [Photo credit: iStock]

The beginner's guide to rafting in Calgary

Stuck without a paddle

If you don’t own a raft and accessories, there are a few places to find rentals. Lazy Day Raft Rentals rents rafts for four to 12 people, ranging from $55 to $125. Rates include paddles, pumps and safety kits, but life jackets are extra. They also offer a shuttle service to most parks upstream to customers for an extra charge. Find their shop at the Calgary Curling Club on Memorial Drive.

The Paddle Station sets paddlers off on their journeys at Shouldice Park and waves them ashore at St. Patrick’s Island. Follow the signs when nearing the finish line – floating past the exit point requires rescue near the Calgary Zoo (and tacks on an extra charge). The Paddle Station rents single and double kayaks and rafts for four to 12 people. All of the necessary safety equipment, a dry bag for valuables and lifejackets are included. An optional shuttle bus is also available.

Rafters will find similar rates at a few other rental shops, including Sports Rent, Rapid Rent Outlaw Sports and the University of Calgary Outdoor Centre. No need to worry if you’re not into paddling – the Elbow River’s calmer current makes lounging on floating tubes an option – like a natural lazy river!

Where to cast off and run ashore

Make sure you plan your route before you leave the house! The University of Calgary has a list of suggested paddling routes between Ghost Dam and Carsland Dam on either side of the city. The routes include distance, estimated float time, rapid reports and other risks to consider.

If you plan to raft the Bow River, start as far upstream as Bowness Park. Rafters can leave the river at a few spots along the way downstream, depending how long you want to be out in the sun for. Either plan to end your trip at Shouldice Park, Prince’s Island Park or St. Patrick’s Island. If you hit the Calgary Zoo, you’ve gone too far.

Unless you’re a seasoned paddler, exit the river before the rapids. Paddlers can choose to continue farther down the river, but the city advises you exit the river to walk around the rapids. After the rapids, it’s smooth sailing until Fish Creek Provincial Park.

If you’re hoping for more of a relaxing float than a paddle, choose the Elbow River. Floating tubes are safe to use on the Elbow, but not the Bow. Popular starting spots are at 4th Street SW and Elbow Drive, Sandy Beach or Stanley Park. Park your paddles as far as Fort Calgary or float for any distance in between these popular spots.

Captaining a seaworthy vessel

Rafting on the Bow seems like it’s fun and easy, but there is some common-sense gear to bring on board if you want to captain a seaworthy vessel, including life jackets, an extra paddle, a safety kit and a dry bag for valuables and electronics.  Most paddlers don’t think to wear proper footwear, but it comes in handy on the Bow’s rocky shoreline. And, if you don't want to be standing in swim trunks and lifejackets on the side of Memorial Drive while waiting for a taxi, make sure you bring your car keys.


Other places to get out there in and around Calgary:


Rules of the River

So you have your raft, your safety gear and your route mapped out. You’ve gathered your friends and have made it to your launch location. Now what? There are a few rules to keep in mind as you embark on your journey down the Bow.

  • Keep your eyes on the horizon for dangers ahead. That means other inflatables, poles, piers and fallen trees.
  • When paddling in a group, do not tie your rafts together.
  • Wear life jackets at all times, or face a $750 fine from the City of Calgary.
  • If you hear thunder, batten down the hatches and get out of the water.
  • Don't bring alcohol aboard your ship.

Shuttle services

Though shuttle services are only available for rental customers, there are other options for those who bring along their own water vessel. The easiest method is bringing two vehicles – one for cast off and the other at the end of your route. For river rafters with only one vehicle, Car2Go is a popular choice – park your vehicle at Point A, then find a Car2Go to bring everything back to Point B, or vice versa. If all else fails, plan your rafting route around public transit.

The Bow is an urban paddler’s perfect afternoon while the Elbow is a fun family outing floating down the river. Either way, you should get out and enjoy the natural mountain runoff we are lucky to have winding through our city. Which route will you choose?

The material on this website is provided for entertainment, informational and educational purposes only and should never act as a substitute to the advice of an applicable professional. Use of this website is subject to our terms of use and privacy policy.
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