Between the quiet beauty of floating and the irreplaceable adrenaline of whitewater, river trips attract millions of visitors every year. Whitewater rafting and kayaking offer a way to connect with wild places, build community, and move your body. However, there is a dark side to the sports we love.
As beautiful as it is, the river is also dangerous and unpredictable. No one is immune from the risks of whitewater, least of all private boaters. The American Whitewater Accident Database shows that accidents and fatalities are more likely on private river trips. In fact, in the past 30 years, private boaters have accounted for more than 80% of river fatalities.
According to Charlie Walbridge, database mastermind, “fifty deaths a year with hundreds of thousands of participants and millions of user days isn't so bad. We're trying to keep the numbers down.” Here are a few ways everyone can contribute and help keep the numbers down.
Wear Your PFD!
How frustrating and depressing that we even have to mention this, but the data doesn’t lie. Since 2000, 16% of private river fatality victims weren’t wearing a PFD. The victims often had a PFD or life jacket with them, but they weren’t wearing it! Having a PFD strapped to your paddleboard or clipped to the raft isn’t going to help.
A halfway-buckled or loosely-fitted PFD won’t help, either. Buckle every buckle and make sure your PFD fits correctly. It should be tight but not uncomfortable. Have someone pull on the shoulder straps. The PFD shouldn’t move past your earlobes. If you can’t tighten it down that far, it’s too big.
It should go without saying proper gear is essential to river safety. Make sure your PFD or life jacket is rated to float someone your size, and replace it when it shows signs of wear. Long story short, even in Class II rapids, even in flat water, Prevent F*cking Drowning and wear your PFD.
Take a Swiftwater Rescue Course
River rafting guides, firefighters, and search and rescue personnel are often required to maintain a Swiftwater Certification, and so should private boaters. Most courses are two to three days long and include hands-on lessons from certified instructors.
Throughout the course, instructors cover river terminology, hand signals, and whistle communication. More importantly, you will learn how to tie rescue knots, use a throw bag, the proper technique for swimming whitewater, and set up z-drags and other rescue systems.
The difference between a close call and a worst-case scenario is how quickly everyone reacts when things go wrong. Swiftwater Rescue training can give you the tools to stay calm and act quickly if you encounter a bad situation.
Follow River Etiquette
Most river etiquette is common sense. For example, check upstream before you push into the current, and try not to break up other groups. Conflicts arise most often at put-ins, take-outs, and shared lunch spots. Be organized and quick on the boat ramp so other groups can get through.
Some rivers are first come, first serve for lunch and camp spots, and others have a reservation system. Be aware of what system is in place. On a first come, first serve river, talk with other groups and be specific about where you plan to stay.
Commercial whitewater rafting guides sometimes act like they own the whole river system. They probably have another trip to get to. Always give faster groups the right of way. From Costa Rica to the Grand Canyon, river etiquette is about giving everyone space and being courteous.
Nothing is better than a cold beer (or two) on the river. However, being fall-out-of-your-camp chair drunk can lead to bad situations. Grand Canyon Rangers always remind river trips that falling into the river while intoxicated claims lives. They also share basic tips like if you plan to drink that much, party in your PFD. It’s fashionable and could save your life.
Drinking responsibly also means packing out beverage containers. River karma is real, and littering is a safety hazard. Throw your empties back in your cooler, in your PFD, or in your thwart bag. Whatever it takes to get them off the river.
Research the River
Know before you go. Don’t push off on a new river without doing some research. No matter how well you can read water, some rivers have trick features that look friendly but aren’t. American Whitewater is an excellent resource for river information.
You can also get river beta by calling local outfitters. No one knows a stretch of river better than the people that run it every day at various water levels. Outfitters and guides are more than happy to share information with private boaters, and they can tell you exactly where and where not to go in each rapid. Some guides are so eager to share their knowledge they’ll do so before you’ve even asked.
Commercial whitewater rafting trips can give you information and usually set safety for private groups. Talk to the trip leader to see if they’re comfortable with you following their lines while they keep an eye on you before you tag along.
Know Your Abilities and Limits
This applies to everyone, no matter how much experience you have. It takes some self-awareness and humility but knowing your limits is central to staying safe on the river.
Admittedly, pushing yourself is part of the fun of whitewater rafting and kayaking. If you think you’re ready for the next grade or water level, go with an experienced crew that knows the river and the conditions. Remember, there is no shame in scouting a rapid or walking around.
Never Go Alone
This is another piece of advice we wish we didn’t have to include. You don’t have to run in with a huge group, but having even one other person there can make all the difference in the world. A boating partner can get you out of a bad situation or activate an emergency response.
And don’t worry! Finding boating friends is easy. Facebook is full of river rafting and kayaking pages. There are groups for self-support kayaking, whitewater rafting, river boarding, and everything in between.
You can also meet people at the put-in. Chances are you can find a welcoming group going in the same direction you are. When asking to join, be clear about your abilities. You’ll have the most luck finding a group if you offer beverages and shuttle help.
Go to Guide School
The most skilled and trustworthy private boaters used to be guides. Professional guide school involves 50 hours of rigorous training, including reading water, rescue techniques, boat rigging, and first aid. If you don’t have that much time and wouldn’t spend that long with college students anyway, look into shorter options.
Whitewater rafting companies sometimes offer training courses for private boaters. This version of guide school covers much of what commercial guides have to know, like boat maneuvering, helpful tips for throw bagging, and swift water rescue. Even a week-long program will improve your whitewater skills and make you a safer, more-trustworthy rafter.
Keeping the Numbers Down
Whitewater rafting and kayaking have exploded in popularity, and for a good reason. The river can provide an escape from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. As these sports grow, so does the need for education and awareness.
If you’re going to hit the river without a guide, do so at your own risk. Follow basic rafting safety tips, like always wear your PFD, know your limits, and drink responsibly. We’re all out to have fun and be safe.
By: Megan Young McPartland