Bill's Safety Talk

Although every safety talk covers much the same material, each guide develops a personal version. The following is my safety talk, slightly condensed. It has evolved over the years as I’ve taken classes, discussed safety issues and listened to other guide’s safety talks. I recommend you hear as many safety talks as you can. If you are finished with your duties at put-in, go eavesdrop on another company’s talk. You’ll probably hear something new. Note: • = key words on cheat sheet

Gather all participants together in a comfortable spot away from distractions but in sight of the river. Have each participant and guide at the safety talk bring their life jacket. Distractions could be hot sun, other groups, etc. Good spots are under the bridge at Chili Bar or Camp Nine, under a tree off to the side at Lotus, etc. Introduce yourself and other guides who may be listening. Point out other guides who are around doing tie-down, etc)

Warning: (This part is important from a legal perspective. Don’t mess it up!) River rafting is a sport with some inherent risks. We have a lot of fun on the river, but this isn’t an amusement park ride. Accidents do happen. Boats get stuck, turn over and sometimes people swim rapids. Very, very occasionally someone may be injured. And despite all of the people who safely take river trips, there are infrequent fatalities. Now that I have your attention, if you feel now or at the end of this talk that you don't want to go rafting, you shouldn't. Caution is a sign of a thoughtful person. However, millions of people have had safe and enjoyable rafting trips, and you've already survived the most hazardous portion of any rafting trip: the drive here on the highway. Most of the time everything goes well. This talk is to tell you what to do when it doesn't. These are the things you need to know to save your life. Whenever you have a question, please stop me and ask it right away. Don’t try to remember it for the end. Remember, there are no stupid questions, only stupid answers.

First, you are responsible for your own safety and have a responsibility for making the whole trip safe. Don't be afraid to speak up if you think something is unsafe. It probably isn't, but you very well could be the one to point out a bad situation. Tell your guide. Don't be shy.

I'm going to use the terms 'raft' and 'boat' interchangeably. They both mean the rafts we've just blown up.

River Dangers

There are only a few common causes of injury on the river.

• Most people get hurt on the shore, walking around on sharp, slippery rocks. Wear good shoes and take care when you walk.

• The second most common injury is hitting someone with the handle of the paddle (demonstrate). You can eliminate this injury by always keeping your hand on the handle end of your paddle.

• A third common danger is a loose line. That's any rope, string, or piece of webbing that's over 12" long anywhere on the raft or on a person. People have been known to get tangled in a loose line; not a good thing if you’re under a raft. If you see such a hazard, tell your guide immediately.

Life jackets

Everyone put on your life jacket and be sure it's tight. How tight? So tight that you can barely take a deep breath; so tight that when you exhale fully, it will not slip off. (Check jacket tightness).

          Now tie up the loose tails so that they're not a safety hazard.

          Keep your life jacket on at all times that you're in the boat. If you need to take it off, do so only with your guide's permission.

          When you do take it off, at lunch for example, be sure to clip it securely to your boat so that it won't blow away.

          Don't sit on life jackets - it compresses them and they don't float anymore.

Body problems

          Cold: If you start to get cold, tell your guide. We'll stop the boat and get you into some warm clothing. Be aware of your fellow paddlers. If someone seems cold, tell the guide. If someone starts to have a hard time, shivering, etc. tell the guide. We carry emergency gear to deal with bad hypothermia. Drink lots of water. Dehydration decreases blood volume, interfering with heat transport, aggravating hypothermia.

          Heat: Drink lots of water. Dehydration decreases blood volume, interfering with heat transport, aggravating heat problems.

          Sun: Be sure to apply waterproof sunscreen liberally. Use lip protection too. Ask your guide where to stow sunscreen and chapstick in your boat.


If you fall out of the boat, you need to do four things at once: 1) don't panic; 2) hold on to your paddle - its useful when swimming, you'll need it when you get back into your boat, and it makes your arm longer; 3) get into the lounge chair position - on your back, feet downstream, heels slightly lower than your butt ; and 4) listen to your guide. (Demonstrate) If we can, without endangering the rest of the paddlers, we'll get you right back into the boat. However, if we're in the middle of a rapid, your guide might tell you to "Get away from the boat". In that case, stay well away from the boat so you don't get hit with a paddle as the rest of the paddlers get thru the rapid. You'll find you can swim to the left or right and miss rocks. Reach out and pull yourself to the side with your paddle. You should keep your knees bent so that they act as shock absorbers to push you off of rocks. Don't get right in front of the boat because you could be crushed between the raft and a rock. So while you're swimming be aware of the boat and the rocks.

If you've been swimming a while and are tired of it, you can always get out of the river. There are several kinds of safe places I'll describe. But first let me tell you what not to try.

          First never try to stand up in moving water. You could get your foot caught in a snag or between some rocks and the force of the river would push you and hold you face down under the surface

          Second avoid strainers - trees or brush with water flowing thru or over them. The force of the water on you, should you become pinned against a strainer is several hundred pounds. If the strainer catches you and then dips below the surface, you go down with it and you're stuck there. If you find you cannot avoid a strainer, turn over on your belly and swim as hard as you can toward it, scramble up it to get over it and as high out of the water as you can.

          There are several safe places to get out of the river. A beach is always the best because beaches only form where the water is calm. You can put your feet on the bottom in calm water. Another place with calm water is an eddy, a place where the river's current goes upstream. (point out in river) The last place you can get out of the river is on a rock in the middle, but it's very hard to go get someone in the middle of a river. Be aware that after you get your breath back and we've gotten a rescue boat downstream of you, you'll probably have to jump back in and swim to the raft.

          When you’re swimming, we might throw you a rope. If so, we'll try to hit you on the head with the throw bag. When you catch the rope, hold on to the rope, not the bag, roll over onto your back again and hold the rope to your chest with both hands. We'll pendulum you to shore.

          While swimming you might encounter several river phenomena other than rocks. There are several holes on this river, none of them big enough to keep you. A hole is formed by the river pouring over an obstruction such as a rock. As the current pours down, it pulls water up from downstream and in from the sides. If you get stuck, the hole will recirculate you a while, but will eventually spit you out. Just grab a breath when you can and be patient. Remember, don't panic.

          Another river feature you might swim thru, and one of the most enjoyable once you get the hang of it, is a set of tailwaves, also called standing waves or haystacks. Tailwaves are formed when a fast stream of water hits a slow moving section. The trick to swimming tailwaves is to breathe when you feel yourself falling, rather than at the top of the wave, because you go through the top rather than over it. It takes a little bit of practice, but once you do you'll enjoy the ride. *You’ll be given the opportunity to swim tail waves during this trip.

          Sometimes rafts turn over - we call that a 'flip' and you could end up under the boat. You'll know because it's dark! Sometimes you end up under the boat anyway, without a flip. In any event, take a split-second to guess which way is upstream and then reach up with your hands and push the boat off from on top of you, hand-over-hand. Once you’re out, go into your four basic swimming procedures.

          If you're in the boat and someone falls out, yell "SWIMMER!" to let the guide know. Then listen to the guide. She or he will tell you what to do next. Please don't jump into the water to help. Then we'd have TWO swimmers to deal with which is three or four times as hard. Even if your best friend appears to be in big trouble, let the guides who are trained take care of it. It's worthwhile to remember that 40% of drowning victims were well-intentioned rescuers!

          When it's time to get someone back into the raft the guide will designate one or two people to pull the swimmer in. Everyone else stay ready to paddle. Please only grab the swimmer by the shoulders of the life jacket, not their arms or head. Lift the swimmer into the boat using your legs not your back. Don't hurt yourself by lifting incorrectly. As a swimmer you choose whether you come into the boat face first or not. If you choose face first, be aware that there are paddles and other hard objects in the bottom, so protect your face.

          There is an instance where your quick reactions could prevent a swim or even worse consequences. Suppose your raft is floating down the river sideways, dodging rocks, and your guide sees a rock that can't be avoided. If the guide does nothing the boat will hit the rock. (Demonstrate:) The upstream side of a rock has a pillow of water from the water trying to flow over the rock. This pillow lifts the downstream, or 'high' side of the boat. At the same time, the upstream, or 'low' side drops and water starts to flow into the raft over the low side. If nothing is done, the force of the current will submerge the low side, plastering the boat against the rock in a 'wrap'. Wraps can take hours to undo. However, there's something we can do to try to prevent that. Just before the raft hits, your guide will call (shout) "HIGH SIDE!!!". That means that you and everyone else in your raft scrambles to the high, or rock, side. Put all your weight there. If someone near you doesn't react quickly, pull them along with you. When done in time, the high side move pushes down on the side that's rising while removing the weight on the side that's low. The raft stays horizontal and eventually floats off. Don't get out of the boat onto the rock. That will remove your weight from the high side and might strand you on the rock when the boat comes loose.


ICO trips are cooperative adventures. We all must work together or we won't get down the river.

          One way we cooperate is to have a set raft order so that we travel together and support each other. The last boat carries our emergency gear such as first aid kit, rescue equipment, patch kit, spare pump and emergency bag as well as carrying lunch.

          Another way is cooperation within rafts. The raft is predictable and controllable when everyone paddles together. When everyone paddles at will the boat is difficult to control and looks like a 'drunken spider'. Your guide should designate a lead paddler. Everyone's paddles should hit the water at the same time as the lead paddler. Also remember that the guide is only the rudder. The guide's job is to steer the raft. It's your job to be the motor, to make the raft move across the current. That cooperation is what gets us down the river.



Our boats are very strong and will take amazing punishment.

          You might be tempted to try to stop your boat from slamming into a rock by pushing off with your paddle. Stop and think, though: the boat and all the paddlers weighs over 750 pounds. Can you bench press that much? If you try you might break your paddle or get that paddle handle back in your face, or your neighbor's. Let the boat take the hit. Don't use your paddle to fend off.

          The boats not only are strong, they're virtually unsinkable because they've got six independent air chambers. If one rips, the others will keep us afloat.

          The rafts are tough, but are vulnerable to abrasion. That's why we don't drag them across rocks or sand. If you need to move a boat, get enough people to carry it. That's also why we ask you to wash off your feet before getting into a raft. If you’ve been sitting on the beach, wash off your butt, too. Sand in the boat will get into the corner where the floor meets the tube and will act like sandpaper, wearing thru the tube and causing a leak in a place that’s very hard to patch. Smokers should keep at least ten feet away from the rafts because a lit cigarette will easily burn a hole in a raft.

          *At lunch or other long stops, the sun will heat up the air in the rafts, increasing the pressure inside. Splashing the rafts with river water will cool them down and lower the pressure. Please don’t splash the rafts with sandy water!


Smokers should be extremely careful. The hills are bone dry so the fire danger is very high. I'd hate to be the one to cause a forest fire, and the person who does is, by law, responsible for the cost of putting it out. Be careful to break your matches in half - if it's cool enough to break, it won't start a fire - and to carefully put out your smokes and put the butt back into the pack. That way you won't litter.

          As a part of the Sierra Club, we're always careful to take care of the environment. A good rule is take only memories, leave only footprints. That means we try to leave every place we stop cleaner than when we arrived. If you see any litter, please pick it up and put it in your pocket. At lunch and in camp we'll have a garbage bag. Empty your pocket into the bag.

          That also means that we won't pollute the river. Human waste, soap and toothpaste all hurt the river. If you need to water a thirsty tree, be sure that tree is at least 100 feet from the river. If you want to wash up in camp, take your soap and water at least 100 feet from the river. *There are permanent portapotties at lunch and take-out.

          There are several nasty plants here. Poison oak is a three-leafed brushy plant that's extremely common. At lunch, ask your guide to point it out to you. First aid is extremely simple. What causes the irritation is the oil from the plant. The longer it stays on your skin, the more irritated the skin becomes. If you think you've touched some, all you have to do is wash off the oil in the river. Stinging nettles look soft and smooth, but are really covered with sharp spines that break off in your skin. The oxalic acid in the spines irritates. We carry baking soda in the first aid kit which will neutralize the acid. Rattle snakes live all over this area. If you discover a rattler, slowly back away, perhaps apologizing for trespassing in his living room as you leave.

          *The portapotty will be set up at the edge of camp with the toilet paper in a plastic bag to keep the rain out and soap and a bucket of water to wash your hands when you're done. Please only put solid waste in the portapotty. There are plenty of thirsty trees around when you need to pee. Because there's no door on the portapotty, we set up a signal at the edge of camp to let you know when it's occupied. Take the signal with you when you go to the portapotty and remember to bring and put it back when you return.

         *Side hikes are where most of our injuries occur. Be careful, only hike with groups of three or more and always with a guide. Take a first aid kit along. Don't roll boulders down the mountain - you never know if there's anyone below.

          Over 100,000 people raft this river every summer. In addition there are many more thousands of people with septic tanks living along the river. Don't drink the river water. Drink the water in the bottles that we provide. We’ve brought lots of good drinking water along.

Water Fights:

Water fights are wonderful fun when it's hot out but there are some people who don't like to get wet.

          Please be kind and respect these people. Throwing water on someone who doesn't want to get wet only makes you a bully. A few cautions will make sure no one gets hurt.

          *Don't use your paddle to water fight if the other person or boat is within a paddle's length of you. Don't hit the fellow paddlers in your boat with the bucket.

          No boarding another raft: jumping into a raft is an excellent way to get hurt.

          Never attack a boat that is with another group on the river.


• Tie a 2 foot long piece of string to your hat and glasses and the other end to your life jacket so you won’t loose them when you swim.

Now, do you have any more questions? Remember, you don’t have to go rafting today, so if you’d like to stay here, please let me know. Thank you for your attention.

† This will change when doing class IV or V rivers with bigger holes.

* This might change depending on the trip leader’s philosophy, the type of trip or the river we’re running. Check with the trip leader.