28 May

White Water Rafting on the Tongariro River – The Ultimate Guide

Ultimate Guide to Rafting

This is the ultimate guide to white water rafting on the Tongariro River!

If you’ve never been white water rafting, and you’re not sure what it’s all about, then you’re in the right place!

White Water Rafting is fun and highly addictive.

If you’re in or around Taupō, then the only place you can experience white water rafting is on the mighty Tongariro River, where the water is often described as ‘pristine’

How pristine? The water is so clean you can drink it.

This guide will cover things like where to raft, what the different grades mean and why having a qualified guide is super important.


Let’s get started.

Firstly, where exactly is the Tongariro River?

The Tongariro runs from the central plateau in New Zealand’s North Island heading through the small township of Turangi before entering Lake Taupō, the largest lake in New Zealand.

It’s spring fed, meaning water comes from springs in the Tongariro National Park and Kaimanawa Ranges.

Fun Fact: The Tongaririo River is NZ’s most fished river, and is popular with anglers the world over for our trout – brown and rainbow.

When it comes to rafting, the township of Turangi is where you’ll need to get to.

Here are approximate drive times to Turangi.

  • Taupō: 45 minutes
  • Rotorua: 90 minutes
  • Auckland: 4 .5 hours
  • Wellington: 4 .5 hours
  • Napier: 2.5 hours
  • Tauranga: 2.5 hours
  • New Plymouth: 3.5 hours
  • Waitomo: 2 hours

If you’re driving from Taupō, it’s a very scenic 45 minute cruise from Taupō township.

Turangi has a population of about 3500 and many people base themselves here when they do the Tongariro Crossing or when skiing on Mt Ruapehu.

Turangi is our home, we love it, and since 1990, when we first started operating, we’ve taken over 230,000 people on rafting trips on the Tongariro!

When you do visit Turangi, there are plenty of other things to do as well – check out our list here.

So now you know where to go, you’ll want to know about the different ‘grades’ of rafting on the Tongariro.

Rafting grades

You may have heard of people referring to ‘Grade 3 White Water Rafting, and wondered what that actually means.

The last thing you want to do is raft on a grade that is unsuitable for you and your group.

Rafting grades refer to how fast the water is running and the type of rapids you’ll encounter.

The grading system was introduced by recreational kayakers and canoers and is recognised all over the world. When a river is run for the first time grades will be allocated according to the grading scale.

It’s also worth noting that different grades exist on different parts of the Tongariro. So even if you’re on a grade 2 or 3 experience, there will be parts of the river that are grade 1.

OK, now that we know what they are, lets describe what it’s like to raft each of the different grades.

Grade 1

This is slow moving water, with no obstacles. Grade 1 rafting is generally reserved for scenic trips, and while we don’t have a dedicated grade 1 rafting experience, there are parts of the river that could be classified as grade 1. This is often where we chill out for a bit, before making our way back into grade 2 or 3 sections of the river.

Grade 1 Rafting on the Tongariro
Grade 1 Rafting: No white water, just chill and enjoy the scenery.

Grade 2

More current than a grade 1 – now the water is running faster, and there are some obstacles in the water like rocks and boulders. There’s also some ‘woo-hoo!’ moments as the raft bounces up and down at times.

Right, this is more like it! This is a great entry point into rafting and our own grade 2 rafting experience is super popular with families because it’s perfect for kids aged 5 and over.

On the Tongariro grade 2 trip, you’re typically on the water for around 90 minutes, and importantly you’ll be with a qualified guide.

It’s one of the few activities in Taupō where the entire family can get involved – read more in our article that explains why rafting is the perfect family activity in Taupō.

Grade 2 Rafting on the Tongariro
Grade 2: Popular with Families and first timers aged 70+

It’s also a good way for older (70+) first time rafters to try their hand, before they try grade 3 rafting.

Speaking of which . . . .

Grade 3

Rapids on a grade 3 will be larger and there will be more in river features. The rapids also tend to be longer and more turbulent. This is our most popular white water rafting experience and is suitable for anyone over the age of 13.

Grade 3 is considered the first proper ‘white water’ grade. This means it’s awesome for first timers, but also great fun for people who have prior grade 3 experience.

It’s worth noting that the the goal of rafting is not to always seek higher grades. In fact lots of our guests have rafted grade 3 multiple times (often at different locations) but love it so much they keep coming back!

Grade 3 Rafting on the Tongariro
Grade 3: The most popular rafting experience – perfect for anyone aged 10 or above.

This is a great grade for first timers on the Tongariro – your guide will give you a full briefing before you enter the water. If you’re not sure if this is a suitable experience, reach out to our team and we’ll let you know.

The youngest we take on the Tongariro grade three is 13 years.

Grade 4

In grade 4, the rapids are steeper and longer.

The river features and obstacles in the river require a higher skill level to navigate.

Grade 4 white water rafting is possible on the Tongariro River just 3 times a year.  It’s super exciting and people often do this experience multiple times. Typically we first timers as well a rafters who have experienced grade 3 rafting with us, who then return for some grade 4 action – proof that white water rafting is addictive!

If you’re not sure if Grade 4 is suitable for you – give us a call to discuss.

Grade 4 Rafting on the Tongariro
Grade 4: Only available 3 times a year – but worth the wait!

Grade 5

Once again rapids are steeper and river features are more prominent. Hazards on the river are more likely.  While Grade 5 rafting is not available on the Tongariro, if you contact us, we know a few spots that you could try.

Grade 6

Usually considered un-runnable (and not available on the Tongariro) . . . . enough said!

What’s a rapid?

A rapid is any form of turbulent water in a river, and are found between smoother running parts of a river. The water can become shallower and as the water crashes over rocks or boulders you get white water. But don’t let talk of rocks put you off – it’s part of the fun and safety is a priority.

Rafting Safety

There is always an element of risk involved in rafting, just like with every adventure activity or trip to your local shops.

However we do what we can to minimise the risk. All our guides have the appropriate New Zealand qualification to guide here and New Zealand has some of the highest standards in the world for guides.

One common question we get asked is do you need to be able to swim – and you don’t. We provide you with a flotation vest and the wetsuit provides extra buoyancy. All you need to do is let the guide know when you get into the boat.

We will also provide you with a Personal Bouncy Device (PFD) vest and a helmet. This is standard for rafting trips around the world.

To learn about our white water rafting hazard and risk disclosure, click here.

Is the Tongariro cold?

The river is refreshing, but we provide you with all the necessary gear to keep you warm.

Thick wetsuits, fleeces, neoprene (a cosy synthetic fabric) booties, splash jackets and in winter we also supply 5mm neoprene socks, neoprene gloves, beanies and an extra fleece.

Speaking of winter – click here to read why tongariro rafting in winter is just as much fun as any other time (and better is some respects).

We have people jumping in the water to cool down because they are so warm!

But more importantly, what 99% of people find is that they don’t even have time to think about whether they are cold or not – their attention is on the river and the actual act of rafting in tandem with their fellow rafters and their guide.

Then they look around and see crystal clear water and unspoilt scenes of nature – rare blue ducks gliding by, and rainbow trout begging to be caught!

It’s for these reasons, rafting is also popular in winter – especially for visitors to Mt Ruapehu who find the ski fields closed due to poor conditions.

Rest assured if the weather is poor on the mountain it’s actually likely to be perfect on the river, as we are much lower in altitude.

In short, the cold is not an issue!

Where are the best north/south island locations to go rafting?

So while it would be easy for us to say the Tongariro is the best, the thing is that all rivers are different.

Rivers are kinda like the group of people you work, study or hang out with.

They have different characteristics, personality traits, not to mention a few quirky and weird habits 🙂

But the reality is, you need to experience the different rivers yourself before deciding which one is best for you.

The reasons why the Tongariro is our favourite though?

  • It’s proximity to civilisation – you’ll barely see other people or buildings on the Tongariro – large parts can’t even be accessed by foot, yet you are just 15 minutes from our base in the town of Turangi.
  • The wilderness aspect – look out for the large rainbow trout! You can even try a rafting fishing trip.
  • The pristine environment. The Tongariro River is spring fed and the water is drinkable.
  • The chance to see blue ducks (Whio) – an endangered species that we fell in love with.

There are plenty of places to raft in the south island. The west coast has some of the best whitewater in the world and the companies that operate there are true locals.

There is also great whitewater found near Christchurch on the Rangitata River and in Queenstown on the Shotover River

What’s the difference between rafting the Tongariro and other north island rivers (Kaituna etc)?

The Tongariro is quite different to other North Island rivers. It is what we call a low volume, technical river, which requires more involvement from the crew.

The grade three section has over 60 rapids along the 13km journey which means the rapids are very consistent. Yes, there are some calm pools but no super long stretches of flat water that you typically find on other rivers.

Watch the stuff.co.nz video of their Tongariro rafting experience.

We were fortunate to be featured on stuff.co.nz recently – check out the video they made of their blue duck rafting experience.

What qualifications do the guides have?

All our guides hold a minimum of a New Zealand Rafting Grade three award. There is a specific standard that has been set by Skills Active New Zealand (Qualification body), and the New Zealand River association. Every guide must pass this assessment before they are able to guide here and in New Zealand.

Rest assured we are fully certified to run rafting trips on the river.

But, while the qualifications are super important, it’s crucial to remember the guide is an integral part of your experience, you need them as much as they need you.

So having a friendly, supportive and down to earth local guide will make your rafting experience heaps better. Watch the video below, to get to know our head guide, Rene.

Ready to Raft?

Check our our rafting experiences.
Grade 3 – great for anyone over 13 years of age
Grade 2 – perfect for families with kids between 5 and 10
Blue Duck – get involved with the project along the way

See you on the water!