What to Watch Out for While Whitewater Rafting

Whitewater Rafting in West Virginia's Cheat River
Photo © by George E. Sayour

Whitewater rafting is one of the most exhilarating experiences in life. It is also a sport with inherent dangers. But as with skiing, zip lining, sky diving, and rock climbing, the decision whether to whitewater raft or not is about calculated risk. It is therefore important to know what risks to use in that calculation. The point of this article is not to asses the level of danger involved in whitewater rafting or determine if it is safe, but rather to highlight the dangers. Here are the top 5 dangers to watch out for when whitewater rafting.

Drowning is the #1 Danger of Whitewater Rafting

This first one is really a no brainer. Where there’s water involved the chance exists for drowning. Drowning can occur as a result of any of the other risks listed below. It is also a real risk of its own. Rafts flip over and people fall out of them. You will be wearing a pfd which provides flotation. But don’t be deceived, the force of the water is often greater than the buoyancy of the life jacket and when swimming in whitewater you will get sucked under. It is also important to know that if out of the raft while your guide will attempt to rescue you ultimately it is up to you and your swimming ability. If you are not a good swimmer and afraid of the water, drowning is a very real possibility.

Hypothermia is a Real Danger When Whitewater Rafting

Whitewater comes from snow melt, spring run off, and the bottom of reservoirs. It is therefore inherently cold. Whitewater rafting season is usually in the spring when air temperatures are also cold. So, while you will be wearing a wet suit or a dry suit, you will still feel the affects of the cold and should you end up in the water, this will be compounded. If getting cold is too much of a concern for you, it would be best to find a river that runs in the summer and do some warm weather whitewater rafting.

Overexertion is Often the Cause of Death in Rafting

Most people wouldn’t think that overexertion is a primary danger in whitewater rafting. The majority of deaths that occur while whitewater rafting is due to heart attacks and among people who are out of shape. In many of the whitewater rafting death cases the person is actually rescued but due to the exertion involved in swimming in whitewater and the rafters poor health the person suffers from a heart attack.

Smashing into Rocks

While death is the main danger feared in whitewater rafting, far more likely are injuries sustained from smashing, banging, brushing, and smacking up against rocks. These types of occurrences can actually happen while still in the raft. As rafts hit up against boulders and people get thrown about and into them. Also, watch out for those paddles swinging in the raft. Many people have suffered a bloody nose at the hands of their friends flailing paddles.

Getting Stuck In River Features

Besides just battling the waves and water and trying to swim to safety in the cold and all that goes into that, the most scary thing about swimming in whitewater is getting stuck in different river features. Swimmers can get stuck in holes, pinned on rocks, and caught in downed trees known as strainers. This is one of the most feared dangers while whitewater rafting because no matter how in shape a person is, if stuck in a river feature there is only so much time before you run out of breath.

Remember, the point of this article is not to scare you from rafting. Every year millions of people raft successfully and without incident. Its just good to know what to expect including the risks before you raft.