How do you survive a whitewater rafting accident?

How do you survive a whitewater rafting accident?

“Whitewater” by definition means turbulent water moving fast enough to create froth and appear white. It’s not something you would want to mess around with unprepared.

Whitewater rafting can be fatal for countless reasons if you’re not careful.

Incidents with the potential for serious injuries and fatalities include: getting stuck in the sieve between two boulders, being trapped underwater by fallen branches or debris, hitting your head, causing trauma and drowning, and being stuck in the swirling flow of a hydraulic.

First, let’s take a quick look at the type of injuries you can get from an unfortunate whitewater rafting accident. Then, I’ll explain the possible solutions to get you safely out of your jam.

What are the most common injuries in whitewater rafting?

Here are the most common injuries and accidents that could happen while whitewater rafting:

  1. Drowning:

Perhaps the most obvious one, drowning is the leading cause of death among whitewater rafters in the United States. Always wear your PFD for help and protection.

  1. Hypothermia:

The air temperature can get cold during the peak whitewater season, even when not inside the water. Layer up accordingly before entering the boat.

swimming in whitewater
  1. Cold Shock & Asphyxiation:

Some people inhale water due to cold shock and panic, which can fill their lungs with water unless you don’t panic.

  1. Getting injured from boulders:

Smashing into rocks and boulders might not lead to death, but you’ll get severe head trauma if you’re not careful. And at that speed, it could be a fatal blow.

  1. Injuries related to paddling:

There are two ways to get hurt from the paddle. First, when you hit a solid rock or ground while paddling. And second, when you accidentally get hit by someone else’s paddle.

  1. Overexertion:

Ask someone to take over if you’re too tired. Rafting beyond the limit can cause overexertion and is very dangerous for the rest of the crew.

How to survive whitewater rafting accidents?

Lesson one, respect the river and don’t underestimate the strength and unpredictability of a whitewater rapid.

  1. Paddle intensively to keep your balance and stay in the raft. Don’t stroke too fast, or you’ll not be in unison with the other paddlers.
  2. Never sit in a whitewater raft without wearing a PFD. Make sure it’s tightly strapped.
  3. Listen to your guide at all times. It’s good to ask questions and have strong opinions, but let them have the final say. They know the routes better.
  4. Also, hold on to the T-grip as tightly as possible, so you don’t lose the paddle.
  5. Do not panic if you fall into the water. Do not panic just yet.

What to do if you fall out of a whitewater raft?

First, try not to fall off. But if you do, the worst thing you could do to yourself is panic.

Don’t lose focus and try to grab the side of the boat or the rope while you’re falling. That’ll help you stay with the boat while the current goes downstream.

If you aren’t near the boat, assume the swimmer’s position immediately. The position will help you float and save you from the oddly shaped rocks at the bottom of the rapid. Sit down and pull your feet up straight in a reclining position such that your mouth/nose and toes are out of water.

Your legs should be pointing downstream with the head pushed slightly back to keep you stable while flowing with the water current.

Slowly paddle towards the boat while looking for rocks and boulders to avoid getting injured. It’ll be easy to grab on if you’re near the boat. If not, stay in the reclining position until you reach a calm area of the rapid.

10 Best White Water Rafting Spots in US: Beginner to Expert
Deerfield River | MIT

Remain focused and be aware of the boat’s position concerning yours. As soon as you reach a relatively calm riverbed, make an immediate decision – swim as fast as you can to the boat or the shore (whichever is closer).

Pro Tips: Engage your core and paddle from your legs. Paddling from arms can get you tired fairly quickly.

What are the chances of dying while whitewater rafting?

Your chances of dying while whitewater rafting are extremely slim. Per a report from 2019, 530 people died during whitewater rafting between 2007 and 2016. And there were about 700,000 active rafters in the US back in 2019.

Also, if you further look into 530 deaths, you’ll find out that some died from heart attacks and had underlying conditions that put them at risk from the get-go.

Whitewater rafting is dangerous, but you’ll be safe if you stay below class 2 and 3 rapids. And be experienced and highly prepared when you raft class 3 and above.

Is white river rafting safe?

Believe it or not, per recent statistics, whitewater rafting is safer than swimming and bicycling.

Whitewater rafting is not the safest sport, but it’s extremely safe if you know what you’re doing. The rafting difficulties are categorized into five rapids. So, you’ll have an injury-free and fun adventure if you don’t raft in a rapid class above your capabilities.

1. Can you drown while whitewater rafting?

You can drown while whitewater rafting if you’re not careful. The currents causing the water to appear white are fast and brutal if you fall off or the boat flips over. Even with the right safety vests, the possibility of drowning is high in whitewater.

Many unfortunate accidents like falling headfirst or hitting a boulder can compromise your equipment, so don’t underestimate the whitewater.

2. What is dry drowning, and how does it happen?

Dry drowning is when you accidentally inhale a big gulp of water due to a cold shock after immersion. Water fills the lungs, blocks the airway, and causes muscle spasms. It’s extremely rare compared to just drowning but quite fatal in whitewater rafting.

3. What is flush drowning?

“Flush drowning” is the official name for the most common cause of death during whitewater rafting. I use these terms vaguely because it’s unclear how exactly one “flush drowns.”

Don’t let your guard down, though; this mostly unexplained phenomenon is the deadliest obstacle to face when rafting. Let me explain the prevalent theory with context.

In whitewater, getting stuck in a place between two boulders or under a tree branch can drown you. But flush drowning is when you’re moving downstream, getting hit by waves, and dunking underwater. It allows water to enter your air duct and “drown” you by asphyxiation.

One detailed theory was published in a paper in 2020 by David Farstad and Matthew Luttrell. The theory did explain flush drowning to a certain point. Farstad and Luttrell focus on the four stages of cold water immersion syndrome – cold shock, loss of swimming abilities, hypothermia, and change in pressure when you’re taken out.

In whitewater, the first two are relevant. By the constant drawing, you’ll quickly experience cold shock, which can easily cause a gasp, letting the water enter your airway.

Next, blood will move to your core to preserve heat. And loss of blood in the limbs makes it hard to swim or hold on to something.

10 Best White Water Rafting Spots in US: Beginner to Expert

4. What is the hardest river to raft?

Terminator (Chile), Lava Falls and Big Drops (USA), Ghost Rider (Zambia), Bidwell (British Columbia), Godzilla (Ecuador), and God’s House (Nepal) are some of the hardest and most brutal and hardest rapids for whitewater rafting.

What should I wear for water rafting?

1. What to wear in summer?

During summer, you only need a half-sleeved t-shirt, shorts, and a wetsuit for your whitewater rafting trip. You can either wear river sandals or tennis shoes (preferable).

2. What to wear in winter?

During winter, you should wear a woolen cap, sweater, socks, a wetsuit, and tennis shoes for your whitewater rafting trip. You can also look at wool or fleece bottoms instead of shorts if it’s more comfortable in colder temperatures.

3. Important Tips

  • Don’t forget important stuff like your sunblock and paddle jacket. Both are going to protect you against dangerous obstacles.
  • Keep a pair of sunglasses with a UV protection filter.
  • Always have life jackets prepared and wear rafting helmets to protect from head trauma. Also, have a PFD (personal floating device) with yourself on the raft.
  • Learn how to manage layers in a rafting outfit – ensure the bottommost layers are quick-drying so you can quickly change when necessary. And don’t leave too much of your upper body exposed even when it’s cloudy.
  • Keep a change of clothes with you just in case.
  • Make sure the raft has a proper first-aid kit with all the necessities.
Jonathan Spaeth

I got into extreme sports about 20 years ago and am a die-hard adrenaline junkie. Just like in business, I choose my outdoor adventures based on how much they scare me. My goal is to share the lessons I've learned over the past couple of decades braving the unknown to encourage you to do the same.