Whitewater rafting and tubing in Cairns are at the same time similar and very different. If you don’t know much about these water-based activities, you may find it hard to decide which one is the best for you. As we were looking for things to do in Cairns other than going to the Reef, we tried both tubing and whitewater rafting, so our experience can help you!

River tubing in Cairns

Can you do both?

The activities are quite similar, so it may not be worth doing both if your time or budget is limited. But if you are looking for something to do in Cairns to fill up your extra time as we did, it was fun to join both activities. However, you will want to start with river tubing and then do rafting, not the other way around.

Why tubing may be better for you

While still providing some adrenaline in the rapids, tubing is a lot easier than rafting. Anyone can sit in the buoy and enjoy the ride down the river. It’s not tiring and although you may fall in one of the biggest rapids, it won’t be too intense. It’s a great introduction to fun, adventurous activities for those who are not used to it.

For us, it felt relaxing. I liked having my own raft and being in control of the pace.

Kids can also join the tubing adventure.

Why whitewater rafting may be better for you

If you’re looking to get out of your comfort zone and get a thrill, I recommend going whitewater rafting rather than river tubing. It’s a lot more intense.

Whitewater rafting on the Barron River

There are a few places near Cairns to go whitewater rafting, but the Barron River is by far the most popular one. This time, you will share the boat with a few other people. Everyone will have to work and paddle under the order of a guide so that the boat negotiates well the rapids.

It was not at all a relaxing experience. You don’t control the boat at all; the guide does. I had fun, but I also genuinely got scared a few times as we watched other boats going upside down before launching ours in the same rapid.

Whitewater rafting in the Tully River

Since they stopped releasing water during the day at the Tully Dam, the only option for whitewater rafting when we visited was at the lower end of the river. You will only be a couple of people per raft, so this time you’re in control. Out of the three tour options, it is my favourite. I can stop when I want, don’t receive orders, and still get thrills and adrenaline. This adventure is closer to Mission Beach than to Cairns. They didn’t offer a transfer from our accommodation (even from Mission Beach), so we had to skip it.

Whitewater rafting from the top of the Tully River should reopen soon. It’s a long day trip from Cairns (12 hrs), but you can relax and rest during the bus transfer. If you’re after thrilling sensations, it might be the best option for you.

Whitewater rafting in the Millstream River

While in Cairns, we joined friends to go down the Millstream River. It was my first experience of whitewater rafting, and it was really fun! Although it was more work to be by myself, I liked having full control of my boat. We went through a few nice rapids but also a relaxing time paddling in calm parts of the river. We were lucky to spot a few birds and even a platypus!

If you find a tour that can take you there, I recommend it!

How about canyoning?

If you’re looking for adventurous, challenging activities in Cairns, you’ll probably like canyoning. You’ll go down a river too, but without a raft. I’ve written a full blog article about it if you want to find out if it’s the right activity for you.

Equipment for river tubing and whitewater rafting

The good thing about water-based activities in Far North Queensland is that the water isn’t too cold, which limits the equipment you’ll need. The tour company will provide the raft and buoys and send you information about the gear you should bring. Don’t forget to bring:

  • enclosed shoes that can get wet – otherwise you’ll have to pay $5 to lend shoes that aren’t comfortable
  • a change of clothes – you don’t want to be all wet on the way back to Cairns as the bus aircon will be on
  • a waterproof action camera to fix on your helmet – for tubing, you can have a point-and-shoot camera, but for whitewater rafting, you will need your two hands to paddle. A photographer will also be there, but it won’t be free to get your whitewater rafting pics.
  • sunscreen or, even better, long sleeve shirt and long pants

Have you tried tubing or whitewater rafting in Cairns or elsewhere in Australia? Share your experience in the comments below!

Where you can go tubing and whitewater rafting in Cairns

You can get a transfer from Cairns to the tubing and Barron River whitewater rafting. Some people may feel unwell in a big bus taking narrow turns though.


Eloise is the creator and writer of MyFavouriteEscapes.com. She writes about her experiences exploring exotic destinations and finding hidden gems closer to home. Her goal is to share tips and stories to inspire and encourage others to go on their own adventures. She loves outdoor and nature-based activities like scuba diving, hiking, kayaking, and sailing. She grew up in France and has lived in England and Turkey before calling Australia home for the past decade. So let's get ready for another adventure!

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