Without consulting Adventure Travel industry incident records for the past decade, I will go out on a limb and state that white water rafting - per capita - is probably the safest adventure travel you can undertake. Especially if you are wearing a life jacket - properly - and refrained from indulging in alcohol prior to your launch, or while on the water. During river guide training we like to note how 'forgiving' of mistakes a white water river can be.
But you do not want to count on it.
If Blanche Dubois wanted to depend upon the kindness of strangers, that was up to her, but we make sure our neophyte guides do not depend upon the forgiveness of rivers.
This morning I was asked about whether a back that 'flares up' now and then on an otherwise healthy person would preclude participation in a river rafting trip. Not ever having launched down a white water river with a balky back, I was uncertain how to answer. I noted to the inquirer that there is paddling involved, though on beginning white water rivers like the Wenatchee River, the paddling is not strenuous or constant. An inadvertent 'swim' is always a possibility and I let the person know that they would need to be capable of treading water, dog-paddling or the backstroke. Ideally, they are able to use a crawl stroke to assist in their rescue. I informed the potential customer that sitting on an inflatable raft for four hours might not be all that comfortable for an ailing back.
But the reason I mention the 'balky back' is because this is just one of dozens of factors which will influence how safe your river trip may be.
Outfitters and guides rely on guests to honestly assess their physical abilities and limitations before undertaking a river trip. Factors like weight, age, health, metabolism and your relationship with water. As a guest, when you contact a commercial outfitter, you need to be clear about these factors as they relate to yourself or your party.
If you are substantially overweight, the odds are you will be unable to clamber back into a raft should you find yourself in the river, and it will be difficult for the guide or other guests to haul you back on board as well. Large people should consider the easiest river trip - low water, Class I, II or very easy III - in order to get a feel for white water rafting. And never choose a river in the midst of spring run-off when they are moving faster than normal.
Kids, who are not old enough to comprehend exactly what they are signing on for, should only partake in mild white water river trips. Particularly groups of kids. Adult chaperones should always accompany kid's groups and enough of them to have - at minimum - one per raft.
Older folks need to clearly assess their abilities as well when selecting a suitable stretch of water. A river swollen with snow melt, even if it is an easier Class III run, might not be the best place for seniors who are more susceptible to extreme conditions.
The good news is that there is a wide variety of white water challenges available. Different stretches of the same river can offer widely varying river experiences. Different times of the year present rivers in drastically different 'moods'. The key for outfitters and guests alike is to honestly assess all of these factors before committing to the trip. It is a two-way street. The outfitter being forthright about the nature of a river, and the customer being equally candid about themselves and their group.
Of course there is an element of risk and danger with white water rafting, therein lies part of the appeal. Fortunately - under most circumstances - if safety standards are followed, life jackets are donned and alcohol eschewed, the odds are well in our favor for a positive outcome. But rather than relying on the 'forgiveness' factor to kick in, it would be best if we all took heed of the previously mentioned factors and chose our adventures accordingly.