“ANOTHER White Water Rafting Fatality” the media headlines scream! But really how risky is white water rafting?
If you see what the media is saying about accidents that happen while participating in adventurous activities, you’ll notice that a white water rafting fatality will make the headlines at some point. There invariably seems to be a good deal of sensationalism, finger pointing and apportioning of blame.
Is there some validity to what the media says? What danger is associated with rafting?
A Crooked path to Sourcing the Information
It never occurred to me before I began to write about this that I’d run into such difficulty locating statistics showing precisely how dangerous white water rafting is. I imagined that there would have been all sorts of studies, multiple sources and associated information.
I Was Wrong!
All the information I ended up sourcing came from either New Zealand or the USA. Even though both the United States and New Zealand have related statistics, their protocols for counting and recording mishaps are somewhat different.
For example, there is information that pertains to accidents per user days, while some additional information pertains to accidents per million activity hours and other information pertains to the number of accidents per participant.
To deal with that I just presumed that a typical rafting trip would last two or three hours.
Due to the likelihood of under-reporting because minor injuries are less likely to be reported, I considered the greater number of accidents in any range to be more typical.
For perspective, I used a benchmark of deaths and injuries for every 100,000 individuals. This is about the number of folks going white water rafting annually in New Zealand. Not much information is out there regarding the grade of rapid in which an accident happened.
Total injuries – For each 100,000 rafters, there were 106-179 recorded injuries. Fewer than 10 annually were considered significant injuries, that is injuries involving broken bones or worse. Approximately 50% of these happened outside the boat, while the other 50% took place in the raft itself (like being struck by an oar or impacted from another rafter).
Deaths – Using New Zealand information, since 1978 when white water rafting became commercialized, the number of rafting-related deaths annually has averaged one per 100,000 participants. This seemed to be in line with studies from other countries.
What Comparison Can We Make Between Rafting and Other Adventure Activities?
If it was difficult to compare different rafting statistics from different sources, then it is almost impossible to compare how risky is white water rafting compared to other adventure activities.
However, again using New Zealand figures as a base, then we find that the top activities associated with injury are riding horses, mountain biking, hiking/tramping, and surfing.
Comparing injury rates for those activities we see per 100,000 participants:
- Horseback riding – 2860
- Mountain biking – 1480
- Trekking – 760
- Surfing – 1110
I would not give too much credence to those figures, since we can’t tell the number of hours each person was participating in the activity, and whether it was for recreation of on a commercial tour. A person riding, walking or surfing recreationally may participate in that sport for hundreds of hours annually so we cannot create a valid comparison.
After All the Research how risky is white water rafting?
It is quite obvious that rafting cannot be considered totally “safe” (whatever “safe” means).
The likelihood of having a fatal rafting-related accident is 1 in 100,000; the likelihood of a rafting-related injury is approximately 1 in 558.
Clearly white water rafting is fairly safe for nearly all of the participants.
Ways to Stay Safe When You Go Rafting
If you do decide to go rafting, be sure to take these basic safety precautions. Such simple factors are:
Selecting the river grade that’s commensurate with your level of physical fitness. A higher grade is usually more demanding, even though more paddling might be necessary on a river with a lower grade. Find out more about the International grading system.
Pay attention to your guide’s instructions on the bank and on the river. Follow these instructions as much as you can.
Keep safety equipment, like helmets and life jackets, securely on while you are on the raft.
Rafting will never be certified as 100 percent safe. Don’t let that stop you from experiencing the thrill of white water, and the joy of exploring rivers.
In relation to rafting, as elsewhere, “when it bleeds, it leads” for those in the media. The facts simply do not back those headlines up. There is, in fact, very little likelihood of your getting injured.
The author of this article has been involved in the rafting industry in New Zealand since 1986. You can click here to get more information regarding New Zealand rafting.