How to Stay Safe When White Water Rafting

Written by Ben Sack, 03.14.2019

Whitewater rafting is a great way to immerse yourself in nature while creating memories that you won’t soon forget. To make sure those memories are all ones you’ll want to repeat, it’s important to get to know the ins-and-outs of whitewater rafting.

One of the reasons whitewater rafting is so thrilling is this simple fact: you’re surging down a turbulent river full of rocks and swirling water that’s more powerful than you can imagine!

No matter if this is your first or 100th time riding the rapids, safety is hopefully one of your concerns. When you raft with Raft Echo, you can rest assured that your safety is our top priority. It’s important to understand, however, that with the sport of rafting comes inherent risks. Our raft guides undergo far more training than the state of Colorado mandates. Those qualifications, along with top-of-the-line equipment and stringent safety protocols, can minimize the risks associated with white water rafting, but part of your safety lies in your own hands.

We rely on our guests to provide us with good information, such as medical conditions and physical fitness level. It’s also important to be realistic – it’s easy to add a class IV rafting trip to your bucket list, but it’s quite another to actually fall into the river and endure a class IV rapid swim.

How Safe is Whitewater Rafting in Colorado?

If you’re planning your first whitewater rafting trip, you undoubtedly are wondering how safe…or how dangerous…it really is. This is a common question we hear when helping guests decide if rafting is right for them. In short, we make our trips as safe as we can, but we always prepare for the worst.

Picking the Right Trip

Not every rapid is suitable for all levels of rafters. When choosing the best trip for your group, you want to take a few factors into consideration:

  • Age
  • Fitness level
  • Experience level
  • Comfort level in the water

Not all beginning rafters are the same. Beginning rafters who are over 14, physically fit, and who have an adventurous side may want to take on rapids more challenging than those in the easiest sections of the river, while young kids or those who are a bit trepidatious about their first trip will prefer these relaxing sections.

What you’ll want to do is look at your group as a whole and pick the trip best suited for them. The last thing you want to do is get in over your heads and have someone not thoroughly enjoy themselves, or even worse, have a traumatic swim in the rapids.

paddle high five on trip through Royal Gorge

If you or anyone in your group has a medical condition, consult with a doctor so they can help you in determining if rafting is advised. Examples of medical conditions could include pregnancy, obesity, physical disabilities, developmental disabilities, heart conditions, respiratory conditions, or other conditions that could affect your health and safety while rafting. Also, bring any of these conditions to the attention of Echo Canyon when booking.

Fortunately, you can use the whitewater rapids classification system to determine the difficulty level of different trips. This system breaks rapids down into six categories based on their level of difficulty.

Rapids from class I-III are generally considered good for beginners, even those who are young or a bit more cautious when it comes to first-time adventures. For those looking for something that will pose more of a challenge, class III-IV rapids are ideal. Until you’re more experienced, you’ll want to avoid rapids at class V or above.

How Old Do You Have to Be to Go Rafting?

family fun on Bighorn Sheep CanyonAs a general rule, kids should be around 4 years old to go on a rafting trip with Raft Echo. Of course, size and personality play a role – not every 4-year-old will be ready to splash down a river, but most of them will! We offer beginning rafting trips for young kids and adults who are looking for more of a “lazy river” experience. Just give us a call if you’re not sure if your kiddos are ready for an exciting mountain adventure.

What Safety Equipment Does Raft Echo Provide?

When it comes to safety equipment, Raft Echo has everything that you need to float the river. To best prepare for a safe rafting trip, you’ll need top-of-the-line equipment, including:

  • Rafts
  • Paddles
  • Helmets
  • Life vests/personal floatation devices (PFD)
  • Wetsuits (depending on temperature)

Of course here at Echo Canyon, we use high quality rafting equipment, we double check your PFDs and helmets are fitting correctly, and we keep our focus on your safety. All of that is a given here at Raft Echo.

When it comes to what to wear, you may need a wetsuit to stay warm. This all depends on the time of year, but even on warm days, the water stays pretty chilly. If you have a wetsuit at home, bring it with you! Otherwise, we have wetsuits and water shoes available for rent at our rafting facility.

Do You Have Regular Training for River Guides?

River rescue skills while guide training with Echo CanyonThe most important part of safety is having well-trained rafting guides that truly care about your safety. At Raft Echo, our guides participate in the most rigorous training we know of in the state. On average our guides completes over twice the hours of training as is required by the state of Colorado. Additionally, during their training, not every guide will make it through. Our senior guides only allow those who are passionate and knowledgeable to make it all the way through to become raft guides.  

Each of our raft guides is trained in swift water rescue, First Aid and CPR, and Youth Protection Training. Thanks to this extensive training, our guides are better prepared to effectively and expeditiously deal with a whitewater emergency. While emergencies are not overly common, they can happen, and our guides are prepared to take action in any situation that may arise.

What Other Actions do You Take to Keep Us Safe and Comfortable?

One of the most important parts of safety is making sure that our rafters themselves (that’s you!) are prepared with proper equipment and training before hitting the river. A comprehensive safety briefing is delivered before each trip – no matter how many times you’ve rafted. We cover the ins and outs of rafting, and best safety protocols to follow should things go awry on the river. It’s imperative you listen and understand these instructions, and most importantly, that you play a role in your own rescue if the unexpected happens.

What do You do if Someone Falls Overboard?

First, let us promise you this: it’s not uncommon for someone to fall overboard on a raft trip. But we’ll follow up with this: These swims don’t very often happen on class I-II float trips, and when it does happen the rescues are usually pretty quick. Usually, everyone (including the person who fell out of the raft, or the  ‘swimmer’) is laughing about it by the next rapid!

It’s all about the swimmer’s attitude. Remain calm, remember the safety briefing, and act quickly to minimize your swim time. You’ll be wearing a helmet and personal floatation device, helping to keep you buyant.

Guides training at Echo CanyonAs every stretch of water is different, you’ll want to keep your safety briefing in mind and listen to what the raft guide yells at you to do, and do exactly that. More often than not, this will be dropping your paddle and swimming right back to your raft, or grabbing the extended paddle of your rafting guide and getting pulled back to the side of the raft.

If you’re far from the raft, you’ll either need to float on your back with your feet in front of you, swim to another raft, or swim to the shoreline. Be sure to listen to your raft guide, as they’ll instruct you on what’s best to do. If you are out of range of your guide’s shouted instructions, use your best judgement and swim to whatever is closest – your raft, another raft, or the shoreline.

Also keep in mind that other rafts along the river are your friends too, and you may end up being pulled into another raft.

Stay calm and listen, and you’ll leave with a story that you’ll tell others for years to come. But please, try your best to stay in the raft!

White Water Rafting With Raft Echo

At Raft Echo, we’ve been taking groups and families on trips down the Arkansas River for over 40 years, always with safety as our number one priority. We’re here to assist in helping you determine which trip, if any, might be best for your family or group. If you’re ready for an exciting trip full of memories that’ll last a lifetime, give us a call. We’ll help you plan the best trip for your group.

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About the Author

Ben Sack is the General Manager of Echo Canyon River Expeditions, Colorado's largest white water rafting outfitter. He's also a raft guide, a photographer, and he loves exploring Colorado and beyond with his wife and two boys.
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