Whitewater Rafting Death Statistics

It's safer than you think

Group of people white water rafting
 ozgurdonmaz / Getty Images

Accidental deaths from whitewater rafting and kayaking accidents become the focus of news stories in any given year when such deaths spike. In 2006, for example, CNN wrote an article stating that there were 25 whitewater rafting deaths in 12 states in the first eight months of that year, implying that perhaps these deaths were the result of lax regulation.

So just how dangerous is this sport?

Statistics Can Be Misleading

First of all, it must be acknowledged that tallying boating deaths from moving whitewater incidents is very hard to tally. While professional outfitters can and do keep very careful statistics of accidents, a great many accidents occur in the private sector, where statistics are hard to come by.

Simple changes in the sport can affect statistics, too. In the late 1990s, a huge growth spurt in whitewater sports came when whitewater kayaking became enormously popular. The associated spurt in deaths did not mean the sport had suddenly become more dangerous, but only that many more people were participating.

Finally, some years may see an unusually high number of deaths for environmental and weather reasons. A winter that sees heavy snowpack in the high mountains can lead to unusually high volume in mountain-fed streams and a corresponding increased number of accidents.

So just how does whitewater sporting compare to other forms of recreation when it comes to fatalities?

Deaths by Sport

Here are some widely accepted statistics compiled by American Whitewater researcher Laura Whitman in 1998.

Activity Fatalities per 100,000 Episodes
Scuba Diving 3.5
Climbing 3.2
Whitewater Kayaking 2.9
Recreational Swimming 2.6
Bicycling 1.6
Whitewater Boating/Rafting 0.86
Hunting 0.7
Skiing/Snowboarding 04

The conclusion from these statistics indicates that whitewater rafting is less dangerous than recreational bicycling, and even kayaking is only slightly more dangerous than recreational swimming.

Whitewater Deaths by Decade

Another common belief is that whitewater deaths have skyrocketed in recent years, leading some to call for much tighter regulation. Whitewater deaths reached a peak in 2011, with 77 reported deaths. Here are the statistics by decade.

  • 1977 to 1986: 48 deaths
  • 1987 to 1996: 219 deaths
  • 1997 to 2006: 453 deaths
  • 2007 to 2016: 530 deaths

While this would seem to indicate an upward trend, the estimated number of paddlers suggests that the sport is actually growing safer. It is estimated that there are 700,000 avid whitewater paddlers in the U.S. currently, while a mere 15 years ago the number was roughly 400,000. Yet decade-over decade deaths increased only marginally.

Commercial Whitewater Outfitters Offer Maximum Safety

Further, the majority of the whitewater rafting deaths occurred among individuals with their own rafts. American Whitewater reports that on average, there are only 6 to 10 whitewater rafting deaths for each 2.5 million user days on guided rafting trips. In other words, there is one death for every 250,000 to 400,000 "person visits" of whitewater rafting. Furthermore, about 30% of those deaths come from heart conditions or heart attacks. ​

Of course, there are other factors to consider, such as the classification of the river, the time of year, and the maturity of the rafter. But the reality is that far more people die each year in from lightning strikes than in commercially outfitted whitewater rafting trips. The old adage, "you'd be more likely to get hit by lightning," is indeed true here.

In a typical year, professional whitewater rafting guides see about as many deaths as occur in amusement park accidents—a fairly small handful. And for most of us, a whitewater raft trip is a lot more fun than a rickety roller coaster.

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