Rafting consists of four disciplines: sprint, head-to-head, slalom, and downriver. All four disciplines contribute to the final score.
Sprint competitions are short, fast competitions that force the athletes to generate speed quickly. In this discipline, teams go through the course one-by-one, not side-by-side, and it usually takes about two to three minutes to navigate. The sprint race is always done first in competition. The race counts for 10% of the total points.
Head-to-head is considered the most visually exciting of the disciplines, with two rafts racing side-by-side. The course must go through a rapid and is often short, taking about two to three minutes to complete. The raft who wins the sprint race is given lane choice. The head-to-head race counts for 20% of the total points and is an elimination round, meaning the winner of each heat will proceed to the next round, eventually leaving only two rafts in the final.
Slalom rafting requires a high level of technique in powerful rapids. The discipline consists of two runs, where the objective is to navigate a gated course in the shortest amount of time (similar to canoe slalom). Both runs happen on the same course and the best of the two runs is counted. The downstream gates are green and upstream gates are red. Gates must be navigated in the order that they appear, which is indicated by the numbered signs near the gate. Touching or moving a gate results in a penalty, which is added to the overall score. This race counts for 30% of the total score.
Downstream rafting is the main event and consists of paddling downstream with the current while navigating a pre-determined course in the shortest amount of time. The course often takes about an hour to complete and must be between 3,000m (about 1.8 miles) and 7000m (about 4 miles) long through rapids. No physical contact (paddle to paddle, paddle to person, etc.) is allowed, and a 10 second penalty is added to the final score if this occurs (multiple penalties can be added). It counts for 40% of the total score.
The first rafting competition took place on the Chuya River in Siberia in 1989, but in the following year, another race was organized on the Nantahala River in the United States.
In 2000, the International Rafting Federation (IRF) decided to hold the World Rafting Championships every two years and eliminate continental selection events in order to open the event to more nations, thus facilitating greater international development of the sport. Since 2013, all four age divisions of Open, Masters, U23, and U19 have competed together at the IRF World Rafting Championships (International Rafting Federation Contribution).