What's the attraction?
Rafting is an egalitarian activity. Time isn't an issue: options range in length from half-day tasters to multi-week expeditions. Fitness isn't all-important either: if you chose the right trip, the current and your helmsman will do most of the hard work for you.
Plus people of all ages can try it; specialist tour operator Water By Nature (01226 740 444; waterbynature.com) has guided rafters aged from four up to 74 – the system of grading rivers I (trickle) to VI (terrifying) makes it easy to judge the dangers before you start. On many rafting holidays, you don't even need to be able to swim. And it's a lot of fun, too.
Scotland is home to the UK's wildest rivers. The River Tay in Perthshire is the only course that can be rafted year round (though it gets ferocious in winter). Splash (01887 829706; rafting.co.uk) runs half-day trips on the Tay from £40 per person, negotiating the 10km stretch from Aberfeldy – a good introduction for beginners – before battling the Grandtully rapids, the longest and feistiest on the river.
If you'd prefer a gentler introduction, the Lee Valley White Water Centre (08456 770 606; visitleevalley.org.uk) in Hertfordshire – where Team GB took gold and silver during the Olympics – offers hour-long rafting experiences for £49pp.
Following the twists and churns of the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon is a classic raft ride. To do it independently requires joining a long waiting list. However, Trek America's eight-day trip (0844 576 1400; trekamerica.co.uk) cuts out the hassle. Run Class IV rapids, hike and swim and camp out. The trip operates April-September and costs £1,639, excluding flights.
Wild in a quite different way, paddling the Zambezi means facing hippos and crocs as well as white water, with names such as "Devil's Toilet Bowl". Zambezi Rafting (01226 740400; zambezirafting.com) runs trips August-November; four-day trips cost from £1,095, excluding flights.
"The Franklin River is more than a rafting trip – it's a complete immersion in the wilderness," says Chris Buyx of Tasmanian Expeditions. "When the Franklin was saved from damming [in 1983], it preserved the last great wilderness river: its entire length is pristine, free from development and human intervention." World Expeditions' nine-day Franklin River Rafting tour (020-8545 9030; worldexpeditions.com) makes the most of it, using the waterway to slice through the heart of Tasmania, encountering temperate rainforest, sheer gorges and Grade III+ rapids but no other people. The trip runs from November to April and costs from £1,750pp, excluding flights.
Raft in style
Many trips involve basic tents and few facilities, part of the appeal for some. But if you want some luxury, try Water By Nature's nine-day Rio Futaleufu trip (01226 740444; waterbynature.com). Based at a river camp in Chilean Patagonia, you can spend days riding peak-flanked torrents before retreating each night to a cosy cabin to drink fine local wine. The trips operate from December to March and cost from £1,795 excluding flights.
Similarly, Audley Travel (01993 838638; audleytravel.com) offers one-day rafting on the Pacuare River as an optional extra on its Costa Rica itineraries. Fourteen-day trips start at £2,750pp including flights from London.
The River Kitkajoki rushes through Finland's Oulanka National Park via a deep canyon. Responsible Travel (01273 600030; responsible travel.com) sells an eight-day summer activity holiday in Finland, which is a good way to tackle it. The trip, which runs from May to September, combines rafting several sections with stays in cosy cabins. The cost is £379 per person, excluding flights.
Or try Spain, which has a range of good rafting rivers; the best are in the Pyré*ées, but you can also stick your oar in from Asturias to the Tajo River, just east of Madrid. Paddle in Spain (00 34 682 173225; paddleinspain.com) arranges country-wide excursions. Half-day trips cost from €40pp.
Rafting with extras
Multi-activity trips let you try rafting alongside other activities. Explore's Stella Blackwell says they're "particularly popular with families". The company's 15-day Thailand River Kwai and Jungle Adventure (0844 499 0901; explore.co.uk; next departure 30 March, 2013) is designed for families with teens, and includes bamboo rafting and bike rides. The price starts at £1,749 per adult, £1,569 per child, including flights.
KE Adventure's High Adventure Nepal trip (01768 773966; keadventure.com; next departure 15 December) is a wild two-day ride on the Kosi River with a week's trek. The 16-day trip costs from £1,695pp, including flights.
UK rafting centres
Nottingham National Water Sports Centre (0115 982 1212; nwscnotts.com) has huge volumes of white water; three/four runs down the 3,700m course cost £35pp. A two-hour raft session at the Cardiff International White Water costs £50pp (029- 2082 9970; ciww.com) while the Tees Barrage International White Water Centre (01642 678000; tbiwwc.com) offers raft-ride slots for the same price. At Canolfan Tryweryn, North Wales (01678 521083; ukrafting.co.uk), the river creates racy rapids; two hours costs £60pp. Northamptonshire's Nene White Water Centre (01604 634040; nenewhite watercentre.co.uk), the UK's first artificially pumped course, runs two hours for £45pp.
Who said that?
"There's nothing, absolutely nothing, half so much worth doing as simply messing around in boats." Kenneth Grahame, author
"Who hears the rippling of rivers will not utterly despair of anything." Henry David Thoreau, author & philosopher
"I don't blame you for being scared – not one bit. Nobody with good sense ain't scared of whitewater." Humphrey Bogart, from 'The African Queen'
"Rafting combines adrenalin-fuelled excitement in the outdoors with a real sense of team work. Anyone can try: the main Olympic Competition Standard Course here at Lee Valley is open to ages 14-plus; people need confidence in open water but no previous experience. You just need to trust your raft guide and be prepared to get very wet!" Paskell Blackwell, assistant manager of Lee Valley White Water Centre and Captain of the GB Rafting Team