What is snowpack and how does it affect rafting in Colorado?
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What is snowpack and how does it affect rafting in Colorado?

Ski Trip to Colorado

What is snowpack?

Snowpack forms from a series of snowfalls throughout the year. This causes layers to form in high altitude and cold weather areas. Snow pack has a direct correlation with tourism and travel in Colorado. In the winter, snowpack affects the skiing, snowboarding, and avalanche conditions. However, snowpack affects Colorado year around, and during the summer this can affect all your outdoor activities from whitewater rafting to camping.

Let us put it simply: a seasonal accumulation of slow-melting packed snow

winter snow shoe adventure

How does snowpack affect rafting

Snowpack starts to melt as the temperatures in Colorado increase. If we have been receiving snowpack since October and it does not start melting until April, that should give the rivers a lot supply of snow melt to keep them full throughout the summer. However, it is not that simple, because even if we have a really high snowpack (tons of snow) if it gets really warm really quickly then all that snow can melt and make a rivers full for jut a short amount of time, and even unrunnable.

Colorado Whitewater Rafting

We will try to put this simply too: you  want your snowpack to be just right, not to high to create high water (we are going to get to high water shortly), and not to low and in turn mean we do not have enough water in the rivers.

If Colorado experiences a drought during the winter that means rivers and streams will be lower and have a shorter season. With the lower water this means that the season for the rafters will be slower water and lower water levels.

Does low water mean safer rafting?

While lower water doesn’t necessarily mean easier white water, the lower water means that there will be different obstacles and challenges faced going down the river. Lower water can also make rivers unrunnable much earlier while higher water can make certain sections on the rivers unrunnable for safety concerns. The majority of white water rafting in Colorado is done mainly in between May and August with some rivers starting to run in April and some run into the fall season.

Colorado River Trips

How does high water affect rafting?

High water means that more cubic feet of water pass through any given point of the river at any time. The more water rushing through means the water will rise or just move at a very swift pace. High water can affect all rivers different. For example a wide river like the Colorado typically does not become unrunnable from high water, however sections of Clear Creek which is very narrow can be unrunnable.

2019 rafting season in Colorado

The Colorado snow pack was at a very high level in the 2019 season. The high snow pack is good for many different reasons in Colorado, but can also make it very dangerous. More snowpack is great for the ski areas, rivers and wildlife in general, however like I mentioned before high water is faster water and can create problems.

The rivers running higher make it a faster-paced trip which can make it easier for rafters to fall into that quick moving river. If you fall into the river, you have to act quick to get back into your boat or get to shore before heading into more rapids.

There can be risk involved in low water (hitting rocks) and high water (swift pressure pushing you down stream). Rafting is regulated to make sure boaters are not going out during extreme conditions or high or low water.

What else does it affect in Colorado/around the country

  • Wildfires: A high snowpack lessens the risk of wildfires. With the rivers and streams running at a higher level you will have the ability to camp without being under fire restrictions or bans.
  • Resorts: The high snowpack last year created amazing ski conditions at the resorts across the Colorado.
  • Back country skiing:  The back country can become more dangerous because high snowpack can create a higher number of avalanches. However, there is no causation between the two because of a number of factors can affect avalanches.  Last year, it happened to be high snow pack that caused slides that had been inactive  since the 1960s.

2019/2020 Snowpack

The 2019/2020 snow season started off pretty strong with a historic amount of snow in October. It did slow down throughout the month of November a little, but December brought in some good snow as well. Currently, we are at 116% snowpack this year in comparison to a 10 year median. We would say that is pretty good!

colorado whitewater rafting

Colorado is known for having a many different seasons throughout the year, sometimes in one day. I hope for a big snowpack for a high-water year and because of the benefits it brings to the local, state, and national economy. High water or low water (most likely and hopefully somewhere in between), we hope to see you out on the slopes and enjoying the river. Colorado has so much to offer, so plan your next Colorado vacation now.


If you still have some questions, check out our safety rafting video.