How to Stay in a White Water Raft (Panic Primer)


How to Not Fall Out White Water Rafting

Imagine, you’re whitewater rafting down a rushing river. You’re bounced back and forth, excitement overtakes you, and you almost fall out of the raft. Can you avoid falling out of the raft though? What can you do to stay in a white water raft?

How to stay in a white water raft? To stay in a white water raft, make sure that you are properly seated with your rear on the outer tube and feet tucked into the foot cups or tube. Most importantly, remember the commands your river guide teaches you, and perform them as your guide calls them out. 

White water rafting is fun and adventurous. Just make sure you know how to stay in the raft!  If you do fall off though, there are certain procedures you should follow to stay safe. 

Affiliate Notification: Paddle Camp is reader-supported. Some of the links below are affiliate links, which means we will earn a commission on the products or services you purchase using the links.

How do you stay in the raft when white water rafting?

Staying in the white water raft comes down to two major factors: making sure you are seated correctly and listening to what your guide says and performing their commands as quickly as possible. 

Here are the steps to properly sit in the white water raft:

  • Sit your butt on the outer tube, slightly in front of a cross tube. 
  • Place your outside leg under the tube directly in front of you. If you are at the front, use the foot cups instead.
  • Nestle your inner leg against the cross tube to give you support, although it will not tuck under the tube like your outer foot will. 
  • Paddle hard! Paddling hard will help keep you stable and in the boat.

This is often called a “tripod position” in the white water rafting world.

If you are a visual learner, here is a video from American Adventure Expeditions that shows you how to sit in the raft.

Know the Terms and Listen to Your Guide

Before you go out rafting, any reputable white water rafting company should give you a quick lesson on how to be safe on the river. In that lesson, they should give you a rundown on some commands to listen for.

These commands will help you stay safe and in the raft. So, why not get ahead of the game and learn some of these common phrases now?   (Note: terminology may slightly differ from company to company).

First, there are padding commands:

  • Forward Paddle:  You will need to be in a tripod position and place most weight on your feet. Paddle strong and in motion with the other members of your boat. Make sure that you get the whole paddle blade in the water.
  • Back Paddle: Lean forward and have the paddle shaft on your hip with your inner arm extended, holding the T-grip. The blade of the paddle, before the stroke, is out of the water behind you. Then, drop the paddle blade in the water and move your body backward pulling the T grip, pushing the paddle blade forward. 
  • Turns: If you hear right turn, anyone on the right side of the boat should back paddle. People on the left forward paddle. It is just the opposite for a left turn.
  • Stop: Remove the paddles from the water and stop paddling.

Some commands help balance the raft:

  • Get Down: Get off the edge of the raft and sit on the inside, while holding the paddle with both hands. It gets the weight off the edge which makes the boat more stable for large rapids.
  • Back on The Job: This is just the command to get back on the normal paddle position
  • High Side: This commend tells you to put more weight on one side of the raft. This is to help avoid obstacles such as rocks.

So, to avoid going in the water, remember to sit correctly and follow instructions. Although following this is not a guarantee that you won’t fall out, you will minimize that risk.

What to do If You Fall Out of a White Water Raft

Even when people follow all these instructions, they still sometimes fall out of the raft. Don’t feel bad if you fall out. The waters you are on are pretty intense, and even the best rafters fall out sometimes.

If you do fall into the rapids, there are some steps that you can take to remain safe:

  • Stay calm. Panicking will make you disorientated and cause you to make mistakes. Instead, stay calm, get your bearings, and focus on getting back into the raft.
  • Never stand in the rapids. If you stand up, your feet could get caught in a rock, resulting in a foot entrapment. This could cause you to be pushed down into the water, unable to resurface. 
  • If you come out of the water next to the raft, grab onto the raft or the safety rope that is around it (if they have one). Face toward the raft when someone comes to pull you in. This makes it easier to kick yourself back up into the raft. You will also be able to see the person pulling you in which allows you to work with them as they pull you back into the raft.
  • When you fall in, and as you are being lifted, immediately raise your legs toward the surface of the water, with your toes above the surface. 

The riverbed has rocks that your leg could smash against and crevices your foot could get stuck in. If you forget everything else, make sure you keep both your NOSE and TOES out of the water. By keeping those out of the water and your PFD on, very few bad accidents happen. 

Sometimes, you may be swept away from the raft. If that happens, remember to remain calm and follow these steps, and any other ones that your guide may teach you:

  • Again, raise your legs so your toes are out of the water. Lay on your back, with your face above the surface, and point your legs downstream. Also, put your arms to the side. 

Facing downriver allows you to see what is ahead. Having your arms to the side allows you to slow yourself and maneuver in the water away from obstacles. 

  • Pay attention to where the raft is. If you are close enough, watch for someone handing you a paddle to pull you in. If you are within 75 feet, watch for someone throwing you the rescue rope. When it is thrown, grab the rope, not the bag, and put it over your shoulder. As you are pulled in, face away from the raft and stay on your back so you don’t get a face full of water.
  • If you are more than 75 feet from the raft, do not worry.  The rapids will calm down eventually. When it is calm, flip on your stomach and swim to shore. If it gets rough again, flip on your back again and wait for it to calm down. If there is a long stretch of calm water, then you can swim to shore on your back too. Only stand up when you are in very shallow water. Then, go onshore and wait for rescuers to come for you.

Falling in the water may be a scary experience, but you should be safe as long as you follow these instructions and any others that your guide may give you.

Other Safety Tips

There are other safety tips that you should know before you head out on your whitewater adventure.

  • Make sure your helmet fits well and covers your forehead. Also, do not take it off when you are on the water.
  • The same goes for your life jacket. Make sure it fits well and all straps, including the ‘gut buster’, located at the very bottom of the jacket, is clipped. 
  • Always hold the “T” grip on your paddle. This prevents others from being hit by the end of your paddle. 
  • Know how to help others if they fall off the boat. The best way to pull someone in is to hold them by the shoulders of their lifejacket, straighten your arms, and fall back into the boat, pulling them into the raft and on top of you.
  • Staying hydrated is vital so that you don’t get sick from dehydration. Yep, dehydration can even happen on the water.
  • Notify your group leader of any medical conditions you have before going out. 
  • Unless you are experienced and have others to go out with, only raft with a group run by a reputable rafting company.
  • If you are experienced enough to go out without a guide, have people go with you. This will make it much more fun and a lot safer.
  • Also, tell others (people who are not going with you) where you are going, the route you are planning, and where you are going to end the trip. That way, they know where to look if you get lost or injured.

How to Stay in a Whitewater Raft Summary

White Water rafting is a great adventure to take with friends, family, or even strangers. No one wants to fall in though!  So, knowing how to stay in by having the correct sitting position and following instructions is vital. 

Also, if you fall off the raft, remember to stay calm and follow the procedures to get back in. If you can’t get back in, then remember to float downriver with your legs above the water, feet first, and arms to the side. Get to shore and wait for the rescuers.

Most important though, remember to have fun and make the most of your rafting adventure!

Steve W

I'm Steve, the research and technology workhorse behind Paddle Camp. I do tons of research on all our family's paddling gear before I buy or recommend anything. I grew up canoeing with my dad and brother. A few years ago I bought paddle boards for my daughters, myself, and my wife. Ever since then, we plan most of our vacations around kayaking, canoeing, or paddle boarding.

Recent Content