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Is Whitewater Rafting Safe? – An Objective Answer

If you ask me to describe whitewater rafting in one sentence, I’d say it’s a wild, wet, exciting, and memorable adventure. I think that pretty much summarizes what the sport is all about.

As all outdoor enthusiasts foray into nature to have a nice time, there’s nothing more desirable than returning home unscathed – without bruises or any other form of accident. The same applies to whitewater rafting.

Whitewater rafting is generally touted as a very dangerous sport. It’s possible you’ve come across news headlines like ‘ANOTHER White Water Rafting Fatality’ before where the media seems to be having a field day finger-pointing and sharing the blame.

But when responsible folks like yourself prepare properly and follow all safety tips, the sport becomes significantly safer and more fun than ever.

This article aims to determine how safe whitewater rafting is. I’m not going to tell you whether whitewater rafting is dangerous or safe. Instead, I’m going to provide cold, hard statistics about whitewater rafting accidents/deaths in the past. This will provide you with all you need to make up your own opinion about the safety of the sport. So here we go.

What Do Statistics Say?

There is the popular saying that numbers don’t lie and if one is to determine the safety of whitewater rafting, then one has to look into the number of accidents that have occurred in the past. Statistics available about whitewater accidents are majorly from commercial whitewater rafting which is available throughout the United States and other parts of the world.

Outfitters offer opportunities for people to participate in guided whitewater rafting by providing various outings which are usually based on previous customer experience, varying the length of the trip, the difficulty of whitewater, and access.

Generally, the risk associated with whitewater rafting varies with the level of whitewater, weather, the health of the participant, the experience of the guide, and other factors.

Research 1

A guided rafting accident research report on in 2006 and later updated in 2007 shows that the “incidence of commercially guided rafting fatalities is estimated to range from one death per 250,000 person visits to one death per 400,000 person visit days”. And according to America Outdoors, “the number of fatalities has ranged between six and ten per year for an estimated 2.5 million user days on guided trips.”

Also, about 25 – 30% of all the families that occurred on commercial raft trips yearly have been related to heart conditions or heart attacks.

Research 2

In 2013, original research was carried out by Aram Attarian, Ph.D., and Christos Siderelis, Ph.D. about the whitewater rafting injuries that occurred on commercial trips on the New and Gauley Rivers of West Virginia. The data was collected by compiling injuries and illnesses reported by river guides on standardized injury report forms developed by the West Virginia Whitewater Commission.

Commercial outfitters are required by law to fill the injury form whenever a guest reports an injury or illness when the guide is aware of an injury or accident that requires medical attention at a medical facility, and the injury or accident occurs during the duration of the trip, including the put-in (Attarian and Siderelis, 2013). Only 16 reports were omitted from the research because they involved guides and fatalities.

Analysis of the data showed that 205 guests were injured out of the 1,020,974 clients who participated in a commercial raft trip on the New and Gauley rivers. Weekends, peak months of the season (summer), and time of day (12:01 PM to 2:00 PM) saw a higher number of injuries.

Whisman and Hollenhorst also carried out an investigation into rafting accidents and deaths on 5 West Virginia rivers which included the New and Gauley rivers. From their research, they estimated an injury rate of 26.3 per 100,000 commercial rafters.

Research 3: A Much Older research

A study carried out by New Zealand researchers in 2002 analyzed morbidity data from whitewater rafting in the country between 1983 to 1995. Morbidity data for the period between 1983-1996 was also used.

Analysis of the data showed that out of an estimated 200,000 annual commercial whitewater rafters in New Zealand, there were 2.5 fatalities and 15.4 hospital visits.

Using The Statistics To Draw Conclusions

The statistics clearly show that the number of people reported injured compared to the number of people participating in whitewater rafting is very low. This shows that whitewater rafting, though considered an extreme sport, is a lot safer than many people are led to believe.

Whitewater rafting is not and can never be 100% safe but the chances of you becoming an accident statistic are very low especially if you follow safety rules religiously. Results from various pieces of research have shown that the face, alongside the musculoskeletal (fractures, sprains/strains, dislocations), or soft tissue (abrasions, contusions, lacerations) are the most common sites of injury.

This information is of immense value to a responsible rafter as he/she can plan beforehand by wearing helmets and attaching face protection to the helmets, position themselves in a way that prevents them from falling off the raft, modify ways to exit the raft, and so on. You’ll have to work with your guide on this and follow all their instructions.

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How To Stay Safe While Whitewater Rafting

While rafting is fun, the following gear will improve your safety and make your experience more enjoyable.

Always wear a PFD: Knowing how to swim isn’t a prerequisite for whitewater rafting. However, it is preferable if you are comfortable in the water. If you can’t swim, you should let your outfitter/guide know that.

Regardless of your swimming skill or experience, all rafters must wear a PFD. And you should never take off your PFD while on the water. Your guide is going to be very pissed at you and rightly so.

Wear a helmet: Most whitewater outfitters require all guests to wear a helmet. Rocks are common on the water and your outfitter would prefer you don’t pass out from smacking rocks with your head. The face is also one of the most common sites for rafting injuries and a helmet will go a long way in protecting you. If you can, wear face protection with your helmet. Make sure you also wear appropriate rafting shoes and adapted clothes.

Don’t panic if or when you fall out of the water: It’s not uncommon for rafters to fall out of the vessel into the water. If you find yourself in this situation, don’t panic. You are not going to drown. You’ll be plucked, fished, or hauled out of the water. Whichever word you prefer. Just grab on to the outside safety (OS) line and someone (or two if you are heavy) on the raft will pull you back in.

If the OS line isn’t within your reach, then you’ll be tossed a throw bag or offered a paddle to get back in. Ideally, help will come within the first few seconds of falling off the raft. But if help is delayed for whatever reason, still don’t panic. Assume the whitewater “swimming” position (with your feet up and pointing downstream) while keeping yourself busy by praying, singing a lullaby, cursing, or waiting patiently. Whichever works for you, buddy.

Always remember your T-grip: It’s important you hold your paddle properly – by holding the T-grip which is the part of your part that looks like a T – to avoid accidentally hitting other rafters on their heads with your paddle. Yes, they’ll be wearing a helmet but that’s no reason to have them smacked on the head.

Listen to your guide: The sole job of your guide is to keep you safe and make your experience enjoyable. But you have to listen to them to make this happen. Well-trained guides aren’t going to talk your ear off or give complex instructions. They keep everything short, simple, and straightforward. Just as you want, huh?

Sunscreen: Rafting is done majorly in the summer and need I remind you that the summer sun isn’t always your friend? You may find yourself with nasty sunburns after a day on the water. So take sunscreen with you and apply it.

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Choosing An Appropriate Rapid Level

The different classes of rapids mean you can go from a more gentle/serene rafting session to a more intense experience that will get your blood pumping. However, be honest with yourself about your physical limitations and choose a river appropriate to your level of fitness.

About 30% of rafting fatality is due to heart attack so you definitely don’t want to put any unnecessary stress on yourself. Below are the different classes of rapids and what you can expect from them.

Class I: The most gentle of all, class I rapids are made of flat moving water with occasional small waves. It’s easy to raft on this type of rapid as it requires little to no skill.

Class II: A step up from class I rapids but are still easy rapids. Here, the water moves faster and the waves are more powerful. However, it’s still easy to maneuver on these rapids.

Class III: Except for a moderately difficult rafting experience on class III rapids. Families and beginners will have a lot of fun on these rapids as they aren’t too difficult or too easy. You get lots of high, irregular waves coupled with rocks and eddies.

Class VI: Considerably more difficult than class III rapids, class IV rapids feature several obstacles and require precise maneuvering. If you are an adventure seeker, class IV will give you all the whitewater rafting adventure you could ever ask for.

Class V: Considered very difficult to maneuver due to the presence of long and violent raids as well as several obstructions. True action junkies and thrill seekers are going to have a field day on these rapids. Usually requires a very experienced guide.

Class VI: This class is for gods, demigods, monsters and not mere mortals. Believe me, you don’t want to get on class VI rapids as it features several threats that significantly increase the chances of injuries…or death.

Final Thoughts

Statistics show that the probability of you getting injured on a whitewater rafting trip is low. This risk can be further reduced by following all safety protocols and listening to your guides. Do read our 13 Rafting Tips for Beginners as well.

If you’re still skeptical about rafting, you can go for the most gentle experience (class I rapids) and work your way slowly up to class III or IV.

The fun and excitement rafting offers are incredible and you should seriously consider joining in the fun with all safety guidelines duly followed.

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