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Whitewater Rowing Equipment

During our whitewater rowing schools the conversation often turns to boating gear. The right equipment looks good, is durable, and will set you up for success on the river. The wrong gear can create headaches and can be potentially dangerous. It’s also nice to purchase from rafting gear companies who are active members of the whitewater community.


The three main oar manufacturers are Saywer, Carlisle, and Cataract. I prefer Sawyer Oars since they are made in Oregon and have a thicker shaft.

Sawyer MX-G Oars with Dynelite Blades
Sawyer MX-G Oars with Dynelite Blades

Here are the oars I’d suggest considering:

  • Many boaters think the Sawyer SquareTop oars are the bee’s knees. The signature Squaretop wood handle looks cool and acts as a natural counterbalance. These oars were designed for driftboats and therefore have a lot of flex.
  • I use the Sawyer MXS with Dynelite blades since I prefer stiff oars. For extra stiffness and durability ask for the “full carbon wrap” upgrade. The detachable blades are nice so you can swap out blades and if you break your oar you only have to replace the blade or the shaft.
  • If you’re looking for a low cost Sawyer set up then consider their Polecat Oars and Duramax Blades.

Finally – don’t forget your spare oar!

Oar Attachments

Many people prefer the Sawyer Black Mamba Oar Locks because the look cool and have a wide range of motion. I personally prefer the Sawyer “A” Oar Locks are less expensive, strong, and easily adjustable.

Oars come in different diameters so if you purchase an oar lock that isn’t adjustable then make sure to check the diameter. Oar locks can break to so don’t forget a spare in your repair kit!

You might also want to consider pins and clips or other oar attachment methods. These are preferred by some for more difficult whitewater when you don’t have time to feather your oars and don’t want your oars to slide around.

Using Pins and Clips with Sawyer MX-G Oars
Using Pins and Clips with Sawyer MX-G Oars

There are some other options to consider out there but most people choose to use either oar locks or pins and clips. Read my blog post “Oar Locks vs Pins and Clips” to learn more.

Raft Frames

There are many different frames to choose from depending on what you’re looking to do.

DRL River Gypsies (Albany, OR): The guys from DRL make a great Lo-Pro breakdown frames for day trips. The owner Dusty is a long time boater and can help you put the right raft, frame, and oar package together.

Recretec (Albany, OR): Tim from Recretec has designed a great break down frame that has dry boxes and coolers that lock in. These frames are great if you’re mostly doing overnight trips.

Downriver (Wheat Ridge, CO): They’ve been making custom raft frames for 30 years. The owners are smart, innovative, super nice, and prolific boaters.

Pro Frames (Flagstaff, AZ): The company known for “painless privates” also manufactures and sells raft frames.

If you’re looking for a simple day frame for a raft I really like the NRS Longhorn Frame. Its really easy to adjust, simple, packs down small, and expandable. This is wonderful starter frame.

NRS Raft and Frame running Greenwall Rapid on the Illinois River
NRS Raft and Frame running Greenwall Rapid on the Illinois River

Cataraft Frames

Madcatr Frames: These are the Cadillacs of cataraft frames. They are designed by and welded by legendary cat boater Dave Nissen. If you can afford one and are willing to wait (the waiting list is over a year) then this should be your top choice.

Madcatr Frame on the Wind River
Madcatr Frame on the Wind River

DRL River Gypsies (Albany, OR): Along with raft frames they also make great cataraft frames. You can get a fully welded frame or a breakdown frame based on the NRS Lo-Pro system.

NRS (Moscow, ID): The big name in whitewater gear makes a modular system for both raft and cataraft frames. The designs are adequate for most boaters but they are bit heavier than others. Their modular frames are easy to ship and are almost always available so you can get these quickly.


There are a lot of other things you’ll need beyond a raft, frame, and oars.

Oar Tethers: If you use oar locks then you need to connect your oars to your frame so when they come of you don’t lose them. If you can tie a bowline then get some rope or 1/4″ webbing. If you can’t tie a bowline then consider an oar tether with a buckle.

Flip Lines: Your boat may flip and you need some sort of rope system to flip it back over. I suggest a ~10′ loop of webbing with a locking carabiner you wear around your waist. Madcatr Frames also make an innovative flip line for cat boats that are great for difficult rivers. I’d suggest avoiding the flip lines that are little bags of rope you tie on the side of your boat.

Throw Bags: Throw bags are your most important rescue tool and you want to find one that you can throw well. I really like the WWTC waist belt throw bags.

Raft Pump: If you have a raft you probably want a larger barrel pump. There are a few companies that make these but the 4″ Carlson Barrel Pump is the classic tried and true. K-Pump makes smaller and less expensive pumps which work great too.

Repair Kits: You need to have tools to repair every part of your boat, oars, and frame. Repair kits include channel locks, screwdrivers, spare oar lock, repair material, glue, and more.

Safety Kits: What you bring in your safety kit depends on the river difficultly, type of boats, and your level of safety training. Typical contents include static line, carabiners, prussics, and webbing (read my article about safety kits).

Originally Published: | Updated on | Categorized under: River Equipment

Post Author

Zachary Collier

As owner of Northwest Rafting Company, Zach Collier combines international guiding experience in places like Siberia, Bhutan, and Chile with a natural business acumen for systems and logistics. Whether he’s on big water or in the back office, Zach strives to ensure Northwest Rafting Company offers exceptional whitewater and wilderness experiences for guests and guides alike.

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