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Safety Tips for Whitewater Rafting Trips

I grew up whitewater rafting and I have been informally trained as a river guide.

Is Whitewater Rafting Dangerous?

I enjoyed a wonderful childhood full of whitewater rafting trips. Both my father and big sister worked as river guides, and I have been informally trained as a river guide. Many people see whitewater rafting as a dangerous sport. It can be, but if you follow the basic safety tips outlined below, the most danger you'll encounter on your next river trip will probably be on the freeway! Do not dread the swim, it's all part of the fun.

Pre-trip Safety

To be perfectly honest, the most common injuries and maladies incurred during river trips happen OFF the river! Common conditions and injuries are dehydration, sunburns, and scrapes incurred after carelessly stumbling along a rocky riverside.

The best preventative measure for all of these problems is a simple dose of preparation and vigilance.

  • Apply sunscreen every couple of hours (but avoid your forehead so you do not sweat the stuff into your eyes and have trouble seeing, or on the back of your thighs, as this will make you more likely to slip off of your raft!).
  • Hydrate regularly.
  • Be careful when walking along the shore.
  • Be aware of the river around you—it has swift currents and can easily carry someone away should he or she slip in.
  • Keep a close eye on pets and children.
  • Also be sure to notify your river guide if you or anyone in your party is allergic to bee stings.

Such matters are best not left unsaid until inopportune moments.

Getting Started

Once you are in a raft and on the river, take some time to adjust. First, be sure to pay attention to your river guide and follow his or her directions closely. Learn and understand commands. Be prepared to paddle at will.

Also, be sure to hold your paddle properly—the T-grip of your paddle (the very end) should be in your hand at all times, lest it slip and knock out someone's tooth or give a fellow rafter a black eye.

Also, truly pull through the water instead of cutting in and slapping around. Effective paddling may take more energy in the beginning, but it ultimately means your guide will have to call for paddling less often, allowing you more time to enjoy the rapids and scenery.

Going Through Rapids

Rapids are certainly the most thrilling part of the river trip. There are six classes of rapids, ranging from barely perceptible (class 1) to quite deadly (class 6). Commercial rafters will not encounter rapids over class 5.

If you are rafting on rapids above class 3, you are advised to wear a helmet in addition to your lifejacket (or PFD, personal flotation device). Before going into a rapid (and certainly before getting on the river at all!) be sure that both are tightly affixed to your body.

Rapids are wild, but that doesn't mean you should hunker down in the centre of the raft and ignore your guide's paddling commands. It is often imperative that you paddle—just to prevent your boat from being severely damaged, flipped, and/or stuck on a rock!

Though the concept may run counter to your intuition, paddling also helps you stay in the raft. Digging a paddle deep into the water gives you support and pushes you inward. If you are cowering in the centre of the boat, you are more likely to be washed out by waves!

If you are highly averse to the idea of swimming a rapid, one extra precaution you can take is to wedge your foot under the tubes running across the centre of the raft. If you are in the very front of your raft, tuck your foot into the foot pocket. Generally speaking, the safest seat in a raft is right in front of the guide.

Should You Fall Out...

Don’t panic! Sometimes you swim. The cool thing is you get an added adventure. The bad thing is the water is a bit chilly. That’s it, really. So long as you’re smart about it, falling out of your raft is no big deal.

Look Around You

When you fall out, there will be a shock of cold, some bubbles, and then air. Look around you—chances are you’re right next to your raft, and you’ll get pulled back in mere seconds.

If you realize that you’re out of reach of the boat, no worries. Just make sure you’re behaving in a safe manner.

Lie on Your Back

First and foremost, do NOT stand up. Even if you are in shallow water, standing up is extremely dangerous, as you risk tripping and then being held down by the current. Not good. The best way to swim a rapid—possibly the only way in some cases, is to lie on your back, kind of like you’re reclining in an easy chair. Nice, huh? And much safer.

You can wave your arms and kick your feet to adjust your position as you move along.

Go With the Flow

Avoid branches and other debris along the shore. It may seem like a good idea to grab hold of them, but in all likelihood, they’ll grab hold of you and the situation could get a bit hairy.

For the most part, you simply need to let yourself float through the remainder of the rapid so you can be picked up by your party at the end. In other words, go with the flow. Literally.

Keep Your Eye on Your Guide

It is important, however, to keep your eye on your guide. If he or she wants you to swim to a particular area in the river, he or she will point in that direction, and you should swim there. Guides will not point at areas to which you ought not to swim.

Getting back into the boat is relatively straightforward. As I mentioned earlier, you’re most likely to surface next to your raft and get pulled right back in by the shoulders of your PFD. If you’re out of physical reach, a fellow rafter or your guide may extend the handle of their paddle to you and use it to pull you back in. Should you have your paddle with you still, you can extend it to your fellow rafters for the same purpose.

If You Can't Reach for Help

Sometimes it is too difficult to reach you via hand or paddle, and impossible for you to get back to the raft on your own. In these situations, throw bags are utilized. Throw bags are nothing more than a long coil of rope within a light bag. Your guide (or the guide of another boat) will hold on to the end of the rope and throw the bag in your direction. When it gets to you, don’t grab hold of the bag (chances are that there will still be several yards of rope left in the bag, so you’ll drift even further out). Rather hold onto the rope itself. The best way to hold onto the rope as you are pulled back to your raft is with one end over your shoulder, and your belly facing the sun. If you decide to face the raft as you’re being pulled in, chances are you’ll get a mouth full of water.

If You Surface in Darkness

One more note about falling out: if you happen to surface in darkness, it means you are under the boat. There are two possibilities here. In one scenario, your boat has flipped, and you’ll find yourself in a sort of dark cave. In the other, you have simply come up under your boat, and are floating against something soft and springy, with no air.

The first scenario is decidedly less daunting—there’s air, after all. This does not mean you are safe. Vacate the dark cave. It’s better to be able to see where you’re going and to let your guide see you.

The second scenario is far more alarming, being that you don’t have the benefit of air under a normally functioning raft. Should you find yourself in this position, simply begin to walk yourself in ONE direction with your hands. Before you know it, you’ll be out from under the boat. Do not change directions—you might end up going in circles. The seconds you spend under the boat may seem like hours, but that’s just your mind playing tricks on you. Don’t panic, just act.

All in all, falling out of the boat usually turns into the highlight of a rafter’s experience. It’s exciting, unique, and shocking. Aren’t those some of the very reasons why we go rafting in the first place? Yes! So do not dread the swim. It’s all part of the fun!

The Big Picture

To reiterate, you are probably in much more danger (statistically speaking) during your daily morning commute than you are on a river trip. As long as you keep your wits about you and behave in a safe manner, rafting can be a relatively safe (but extremely thrilling) activity.

I do hope you feel inspired to go rafting now; it is a wonderful adventure and a great way to enjoy the power and beauty of nature.


Easton Memmott on August 28, 2018:

I like that you mentioned that if you get thrown out of the raft you need to stay calm, and merely swim back to the raft. I am going on a river rafting trip this following week and I want to be sure that I am as prepared as I can possibly be so I can be safe. I will be sure to remember these tips while I am on my trip.

Simone Haruko Smith (author) from San Francisco on May 29, 2012:

I do hope you give it a go, ken blair. It's lots of fun!

ken blair on May 24, 2012:

I've never conquered it yet maybe I'm too afraid because I don't know how to swim even if I put on the vest. Just being pre-occupied with negative thoughts..the danger that it could give to anyone! But, I wanted to try it out one day. Just give me more time :)Thanks for the tips you've shared here.

Simone Haruko Smith (author) from San Francisco on September 24, 2010:

Thanks Peggy W!

And equealla- hey, you never know- you might like it!

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on September 23, 2010:

Have been on several rafting trip while on vacation with my mother and niece. The water fights between the rafts...going through the rapids...that and more have created great and fun memories to cherish. Would recommend it heartily! You have explained the precautions much as the good rafting guides do. Rating this useful.

equealla from Pretoria, South Africa on July 06, 2010:

Ha ha Perhaps I'll consider this when I am a bit older. Mark this spot with an X. Do not dare me too much....

Simone Haruko Smith (author) from San Francisco on July 06, 2010:

Whoah- well no WONDER you're not out to go rafting equealla! If I nearly died as a result of drowning, I probably wouldn't be the biggest water sports fan either.

If you do ever feel up to rafting someday though, just keep in mind that it's relatively safe- just so long as you take heed of those basic guidelines. It can be a lot of fun!

equealla from Pretoria, South Africa on July 06, 2010:

I have the greatest respect for people doing something crazy and exciting as this. But also I will timidly stand with my feet on solid ground. I drowned and died and was rescussitated. If I die again I want to do it different next time. Have some friends doing this. I am crazy with jealousy of the fun they are having. But they need someone to take the vehicle to the end of the line. Thus I am not useless because of my phobia.

Simone Haruko Smith (author) from San Francisco on July 06, 2010:

Sounds pretty unpleasant! I bet weirs are pretty hazardous in general- I'm glad there aren't any on the rivers I raft!

Stugod on July 06, 2010:

Not for me I an afraid as I nearly drowned some years ago, got stuck in a weir scared the crap out of me