Whitewater rafting safety tips that may save a Scout or Scouter’s life


Emergency Situation: You’re whitewater rafting down the Middle Fork of the Salmon River in Idaho when you approach a Class IV rapid. Midway through the rapid, you fall out and become separated from your craft. You’re wearing a helmet and PFD, but you need to act quickly before you’re seriously injured. What do you do?

You could try walking on water … but believe me, it doesn’t work. I’ve tried.

There are a number of dangers associated with going overboard in whitewater: drowning and bodily injury come to mind, but a third not-so-obvious one is hypothermia. Snowmelt raises river levels and creates Class III, IV, and V rapids. Thus, the water is going to be cold. Really cold. This makes it imperative that you get out as fast as possible, since hypothermia immediately saps your strength.

According to safety guidelines created by American Whitewater, a nonprofit dedicated to paddling and river conservation (americanwhitewater.org), don’t try to stand up in fast-moving water—at least until you know the water depth. There’s a good chance your foot will get caught in an underwater obstruction. Result: a broken ankle or worse. Instead, adopt the proper survival position: floating on your back, feet held high and pointed downriver.

Next, quickly evaluate 1) the position of the nearby crafts and 2) the depth of the water. Your chances of getting out unscathed are higher if you can get back to a boat—if it’s reachable.

Why bother trying to reach a boat?  First, it offers protection from rocks and other dangers. Second, people in the boat can see what’s ahead. Floating on your back, try to maneuver as close to the raft as you can, then grab a line. Stay on the upstream end of the boat to avoid being crushed against rocks.

But what if the boat is unreachable? Or upstream? This is where water depth comes into play. In shallow water with obstructed rapids, continue on your back, feeling the water depth with your hands. Scan downriver. Use your arms to maneuver to an area of smoother water before trying to stand, and then carefully walk out.

If the water is deep (more than two to three feet), you should not try to stand. In this situation, roll onto your stomach, look for eddies (water flowing opposite the river’s natural direction) or slack water, and then use them to swim to shore. Aggressively, eh?

Areas with undercut rock or strainers (partially submerged trees and branches) can be deadly to swimmers, so take care to avoid these when approaching the shore. If the shoreline looks dangerous or seems difficult to reach safely, continue downstream in the defensive swimming position (feet first) until you spot a safer escape route.

Be Prepared
Experts recommend that eyeglass wearers use a retaining strap and keep a spare pair in a protected pouch or pocket. Also, consider clipping a sheathed river knife (with a blunt tip) onto your PFD to use in case of rope entanglement.

Keep a length of coiled rope inside a throw bag mounted on a waist belt or strapped to your PFD. You can toss one end to a potential rescuer if need be.

And, if you can’t swim, don’t raft.

Josh Piven is co-author of the Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook series. Visit his Web site at joshpiven.net.


  1. In our area, we have the US National Whitewater Center, which gives the Scouts somewhat of a safe environment for practicing these techniques. To get them use to doing them, I asked the raft guide to dump the boys out to practice how to get back into the water, and safely bring everyone back into the raft.

    It is important that they practice first. While even white watering in a concrete jungle has its own dangers, there are folks planted at the danger spots to get folks out of the way of the next raft, and provide the best methods and safety standards that they can use down the road on the river.

    • Why not? It is a blast!
      We rafted the Arkansas River in Colorado on our way to Philmont in July. The air was warm but the water was frigid. One scouter and one scout washed out of one of the boats, the scout was pulled back into his boat, but the scouter got washed away from his boat so we had to line up with him and pull him out. We was a little shook up from the experience but no worse for wear. It was my first time and I am hooked like a large mouth bass.

  2. I like that you said that hypothermia was a risk that people don’t usually think about. It might be a good idea to ask a professional about the risks that are present when rafting before you actually go. If I was going rafting, I would want to get professional help getting ready.

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