RAFTING, KAYAKING and canoeing, like many outdoor "adventure" activities, are skill sports, and whether you are in skilled hands will affect the quality of your experience.

Usually, there are many choices. In the case of canoeing and kayaking, there are dozens of commercial clinics, as well as classes offered by county recreation departments and other public organizations and by local canoe clubs.

How, then, do you choose? The short answer is: Ask around. Word of mouth is your best source. For example, in preparing to raft the upper Youghiogheny, I asked paddlers, especially those familiar with the river, and others who are riverwise -- customers, guides and people who provide services to raft companies.

For river canoe and kayak lessons, the canoe club-sponsored classes, such as those run by Canoe Cruisers Association, are the bes bargain: good instruction with a price that can't be beat. The disadvantage here is that classes are sometimes large.

Of the commercial kayak and canoe clinics, the tops for whitewater is the Nantahala Outdoor Center in Bryson City, North Carolina (U.S. 19W, Box 41, Bryson City, NC 28713; 704/488-2175). Closer to home it's a mixed bag that changes often. In addition to word of mouth, you can ask the company offering the clinic for references from previous customers and other pertinent information.

Jesse Reynolds of the Outdoor School in Fairfax, former president of the Virginia Outdoor Education Association, and Bunny Johns, director of instruction at the Nantahala Outdoor Center, suggest asking the following questions before you place yourself in the hands of any outdoor instructor or guide:

* How long has the company been in business?

* Have instructors been certified by the Red Cross and/or the American Canoe Association?

* What kind and how much experience do instructors or guides have?

* Are they trained in CPR and first aid (especially important for arduous activities)?

* Is there a written safety policy that you can look at?

* Is there a systematic in-house training program?

* Does the company belong to a professional association such as an outdoor education association or, for rafters, the Eastern Professional Outfitters Association?

The answers to these questions should give you a basis for comparing companies.