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U.S. National Whitewater Center

Basic through advanced whitewater kayaking and rafting skills, instructor certification, and safety and rescue (SR) courses

American Canoe Association

Basic through advanced whitewater kayaking and rafting skills, instructor certification, and safety and rescue (SR) courses

Rescue 3 International

Specialized safety and rescue courses for both recreational and professional outdoor adventurers

American Whitewater Affiliate Clubs

Many local whitewater clubs offer classes in a variety of whitewater paddling sports

Check3GPS Readiness Quotient

Your supervisor may use the following checklist to determine if you have adequately addressed the risk factors for whitewater rafting or kayaking. If you can answer “yes” to all the questions below, you should be good to go!

 

1. Do you know how to swim?

 

2. Do you wear a proper lifejacket and head protection when whitewater rafting or kayaking?  

 

3. Will you be rafting/kayaking at a class level appropriate for your experience?   

 

4. Will there be an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) or other medically qualified individual(s) in the group?   

 

5. Does the guide or rafting/kayaking company provide proper training?   

 

6. Is the river guide/company licensed, insured, and reputable?   

 

7. Have you ensured that you have no medical problems limiting heavy physical activity?

 

8. Are you aware of any medical issues of others in your group?   

 

9. If you are going on an extended rafting/kayaking trip, have you arranged to check in with park authorities along the route?   

Top Hazards And How To Mitigate Them

1. RIDING RAPIDS THAT ARE RATED TOO HIGH FOR YOUR SKILL LEVEL

Mitigate: Know your skill level and make sure that the class rating of the river section you choose to run doesn’t exceed that level. “Your skills should be sufficient to stop or reach shore before reaching danger. Do not enter a rapid unless you are reasonably sure that you can run it safely or swim it without injury,” says the American Whitewater Safety Code. Be aware that ratings can change quickly if a river is rising. Consult other paddlers and local outfitters about the current status of the river.

2. HIGH WATER LEVEL/SPEED

Mitigate: As a river’s water level rises, so does its speed and power, increasing the difficulty of most rapids and complicating rescue efforts. Since a small rise in a wide, shallow section of the river will mean a much greater rise where the river narrows, don’t just judge the river level at put in. Use reliable gauge information throughout the ride, and anticipate that melting snowpack on a sunny day, hard rain, and upstream dam releases may greatly increase the flow. Before you go, it’s a good idea to check out current water levels for your river.

3. INADEQUATE SAFETY EQUIPMENT

Mitigate: Snug vest-type life jackets and properly fitted helmets are the top life-saving gear for any whitewater enthusiast. In addition, paddlers should wear the proper clothing for the weather and carry basic emergency items, including protective footwear, throw rope, knife, whistle, waterproof matches and cloth repair tape or full repair kit for runs on isolated rivers.

4. STRAINERS

Mitigate: Fast current can pin boats and their paddlers against a variety of obstacles known as strainers, including brush, fallen trees, bridge pilings, and undercut rocks. Such entrapment can occur in seemingly calm conditions of little or no whitewater. Research the hazards of the river you plan to run, and learn how to recognize strainers from afar so that you have time to steer your boat clear. If you can’t get around a strainer, throw your weight downstream towards it to allow the current to slide underneath the hull. Should you find yourself in the extremely precarious position of swimming into a strainer, first try to get around it. If that fails, propel yourself aggressively toward it, grab hold, and kick hard as you pull yourself up and over the obstacle.  

5. STRONG CURRENTS

Mitigate: River currents are often stronger than they look. Always wear your life vest fully zipped and/or buckled. You must be proficient in swimming both defensively (bobbing on your back, with knees up and pointing downstream) in fast-moving rapids, and offensively (on your stomach, pulling and kicking) when approaching a strainer or trying to reach shore. Never to stand up in moving water, because your foot can easily get stuck under a rock and pin you in place.

6. EXPOSURE TO COLD

Mitigate: Prolonged exposure to cold air and/or water can sap your physical strength and impair your decision-making skills. Sudden immersion is particularly dangerous due to the initial shock and subsequent rapid heat loss from the body. Wear a wetsuit or drysuit if the water temperature is below 50 degrees Fahrenheit. The next best option is wool or pile clothing under a waterproof shell. It’s always a good idea to carry waterproof matches and a change of clothing in a waterproof bag. Any cold-weather paddler experiencing uncontrollable shaking, loss of coordination, and/or difficulty speaking is likely hypothermic and needs assistance. 

Safe Whitewater Rafting: Top Tips From USRA President John Anicito

A commercial raft guide for almost two decades, John Anicito started raft racing in Colorado in 2001. He competed in his first National Championships in 2009.  Five years later, his team, The Ark Sharks, qualified for the World Rafting Championships (WRC) in Brazil. Shortly thereafter, he joined the 9Ball Raft Team, which competed in the WRC in Japan and Australia in 2017 and 2019, respectively. John is currently president of the United States Rafting Association, the national governing body for raft racing in the United States. Here are his top safety tips for whitewater rafters:  

1. ALWAYS WEAR THE PROPER GEAR

This includes personal floatation devices, helmets, and either wetsuits or drysuits, depending on the river and the time of year.

2. KNOW YOUR ABILITY LEVEL AND THAT OF THE CREW YOU WILL BE PADDLING WITH

Beginners should start with flat water or class 1 sections of the river to get used to the boat and then work their way up as they gain experience.

3. NEVER STAND UP IN MOVING WATER

This will help to avoid foot entrapment.

4. WHEN PADDLING A NEW RIVER, DO YOUR RESEARCH

Learn rapid names, get the scoop on any river hazards, and scout the big rapids before running them. 

5. CHECK THE WEATHER AND WATER FLOWS BEFORE PADDLING

National Weather Service has reliable weather data at https://www.weather.gov.

American Whitewater provides access to current river levels and difficulty ratings at https://www.americanwhitewater.org/content/River/search-form.

6. CARRY A FIRST AID KIT APPROPRIATE FOR THE TRIP YOU ARE GOING ON 

Associations & Websites

National nonprofit representing individual whitewater enthusiasts, river conservationists, and more than 100 local paddling club affiliates across America, advocating for the preservation and protection of whitewater rivers throughout the United States

National nonprofit dedicated to advocacy for America’s waterways through education, environmental stewardship, and activism

National nonprofit providing education and stewardship to support and protect paddling environments and sanctioning programs and events to promote paddlesport competition, exploration and recreation

Governing body for whitewater raft racing in the United States, promoting the sport of raft racing from the local to the national level

Free resource providing education, instruction, and information on all paddlesports