Safety: WhiteWater

Table of Contents

Whitewater Safety

Whitewater safety is a topic that needs attention. Accidents happen. These accidents often result in two safety related stages of aid.

  • Rescue: Extricating/rescueing persons and recovery of boats & paddles.
  • First Aid: Taking care of wounds and injuries.

Getting injured or pinned in whitewater is a potentially dangerous situation and needs to be solved swiftly and effective. Over the years I have broken several ribs, damaged fingers, toes and what not. Some say injuries are inevitable when pushing limits, no matter how carefull you are.
The first step is to be prepared for these occasions, with both tools and knowledge.
Preparation starts by checking rescue- and first aid kits whilst your still able to replenish your necessities. Make sure you know how to use the kits. Practise your rescue techniques and know how to find things in your first aid kit. When you are ready to board, check for any known health issues within the group that can cause complications during the trip. Also check if all boats have adequate buoyancy blocks & air bags. (If not, consider not risking safety and injuries recovering that boat.) Last but not least, agree on signals to use in an emergency situation. Especially among those that aren’t in distress. (Like ‘stop, we have an emergency!’, ‘come and assist!’, ‘go to the other bank!’, et cetera.) Whilst on the water, both kits need to be easily accessible. Make sure kits are strategically located within the group. The most experienced paddlers are likely to be able to help first when things go wrong.

As a former (Rescue 3 Europe Whitewater (WRT-REC) and WRI Swiftwater) Rescue Technician, I had to seriously update my knowledge to comply with modern day standards, like the ‘Clean principle’. This means I have to update my gear as well. Underneath I’ll keep you posted on my progress, findings and tips. The “Clean Principle” tells us to be aware of any gear snag hazards, that could result in entrapment. Remember: Rope and swift water are and have always been a bad match.


Satellite Messenger / Personal Locator Beacon (PLB)

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The first item I pack (for personal ánd group safety) on every outdoor activity is my Satellite Messenger / Personal Locator Beacon (PLB). In the context of white water kayaking it’ll primarily be my PLB. The Zoleo satellite communicator, can send an SOS alert to activate Search & Rescue, with 24/7 emergency monitoring and dispatch included (provided by GEOS). Both the device and the app have a dedicated button for this.
Not to be used lightheartedly as it will result in the activation of a (helicopter) rescue team, guiding them to your location: When GEOS receives your SOS alert, they’ll know the GPS coordinates of your ZOLEO communicator. They’ll contact the appropriate emergency response authorities for your location, and reach out to the emergency contacts you designated when creating your ZOLEO account.
Using the ZOLEO App, you’ll also be able to message back and forth with GEOS to exchange updates, until your emergency situation has been resolved. Two-way SOS simply isn’t offered by one-way communicators, PLBs and EPIRBs. Even if you’re using the ZOLEO communicator on its own, without the app, you’ll get confirmation that your SOS message was received (via the LEDs on the device).
Most relative techspecs: weight: 150g, IP68 water-resistant to 1.5 m for 30 min, battery life: 200+ hours.

Besides that, the Zoleo will:

  • Send and receive messages anywhere over Wi-Fi, cellular and satellite, trying in the following order: Wi-Fi, cellular data, then over the Iridium satellite network, via the ZOLEO device. (Basically the least cost route for the message.)
  • Messaging is possible by SMS, email and app-to-app.
  • Send Check-in messages with one touch, to let others know you’re OK. Both the device and the app have a dedicated button for this. Your check-in message will be sent to your check-in contact(s). You can also include your GPS coordinates if desired.
  • Get DarkSky weather forecasts.
  • Share your GPS location with others, via messages. (The Zoleo doesn’t provide a following/tracking feature.)

Availability: European sales will kick of in April 2022, starting in the UK and Nordic countries.


Make certain you have the right kayak for the trip!
Check usability, security and strength of grab-handles (all kayaks should have these, preferably no rope loops!). Make sure that the kayak will float when full of water by adding adequate airbags. Check all screws, bolts, footrest and/or bulkhead. Ensure that your spray skirt has a pull-cord for release and is a tight fit.


Wear a CE-approved buoyancy aid when on or near the river, check its floatation and make sure it is in good condition and the correct fit. Ensure all buckles and zips are fastened. I use a Stohlquist Descent Rescue Vest (not sold in Europe….).
Check your PFD for loose straps! (You can tug your cowtail inside of the PFD.)

Cowtails/Towing tether

A cowtail is a very useful tool to recover a kayak ‘on the loose’, but only if you are able to run the river safely towing a water filled boat! Use the absolute minimum length required for towing and only use it with a release buckle system. If not in use: tug any slag underneath your PFD.
I use a 50cm (extending to 90cm), CE approved, tubular webbing with integrated bungee tether, fitted with a Petzl William carabiner (position-secured by a Petzl ‘String’ webbing protector). The 50cm tether fits snugly around my PFD, minimising the chance of entrapment. (image above)


Wear a CE1385 approved, fastened, kayaking helmet when on or near the river. Ensure it fits correctly and snug. It helps if the colour stands out on the river (unlike mine). I use a Shred Ready Halfcut Carbon Helmet and a Predator Lee Helmet.

Protective clothing

Wear and/or carry sufficient warm protective clothing for the trip. I always wear/carry a paddle jacket, neoprene shorts and rashguard shirt in summer. In winter I add a long john wetsuit, neoprene paddle jacket, a neoprene hat and pogies. A dry suit would be a great addition.
Wear footwear suitable for carrying your kayak up- and downhill or scouting the river. Footwear should be free of anything that could catch.

Throw bag

The way most brands configure their throwbags is not suitable for whitewater use. Throwbags should not have any loops or knots that can get snagged. Nor should they have any hardware attached that can injure swimmers. I prefer to carry two throwlines:

  • A Palm Lightning 18m/8,5 mm polypropylene kernmantle throwline, , ideal for quickly bagging swimmers. Small bag, quick deploy, right in front of my seat.

  • And a 9,5-10mm (better grip than 8mm), 20-25m throw line, containing a Spectra core. The Spectra core will increase the breaking strength from 9kN (polypropylene) to 16kN. This strength is needed for heavy lifting and moving big loads, like when unpinning a kayak. I store this behind my seat.

Unpin kit

Together with other rescue related items on this page, stowed in an 8 liter drybag, inside the kayak:

  • Four Locking carabiners
    Do NOT use carabiners with snagging noses.
    Green: a non-snagging nose. Red: a snagging nose.
  • Two Ultralight Pulleys and one Blocking Pulley
  • Three 120cm Webbing slings

Flip line

Flip lines can be used for many different kayaking purposes, the most common being as an anchor line to secure your boat, for a reach rescue and as a rescue anchor. I use a 4 meter webbing sling, with a Petzl William carabiner. Made from strong tubular nylon webbing‚ its two sewn end loops can be joined with a carabiner to make a continuous loop‚ or left apart as a 4 m straight sling. A flip line should be carried inside your PFD or stowed in your kayak, not around the waist, as this is dangerous and not ‘Clean’.


Knives are an essential piece of gear, especially when working with rope. Your knife needs to be easily accessible with one hand. It should cut rope easily (serrated blade) and not have a sharp point. Do not tether the knife as this is not ‘Clean’.
I use a NRS Co-Pilot Knife (that is small enough to fit my current PFD) and a Wichard Rescue Knife (which is slightly bigger and better cutting).

Spare paddle

At least one member of the group should carry a spare paddle. Any decent paddle will do, but mind the weight. I carry an rescued 4-piece old Robson (?) 197cm paddle, which I split myself. Kevlar Carbon blades and carbon shaft. Weight: 1008 g.

Emergency Shelter

My Lomo Emergency Storm Shelter is a 2-3 man ‘Bothy Bag’. It provides protection from the wind and rain, lightweight, easy to carry and can be pulled over 2-3 people to help keep the elements off them in an emergency. High-viz orange, PU-coated polyester, two large retro reflective patches reflecting, a viewing window and two clossable air-vent snorkels aid ventilation. Packs as small as 21cm x 10cm and weighs 360 grams.

First aid kit

My WhiteWater First Aid Kit is targeted to treat cuts, bleeding, broken limbs and pain.

Signalling gear

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Pyro signalsLaser signal

For every specific trip I decide whether to take Pyro signals with me. My Laser signal is always on me.

Cell phone and WalkieTalkie

My Baofeng UV-9R

In addition to my PLB, I carry my cell phone and, for communication within the group, a walkie talkie is a proper safety device.


For communicating on whitewater, when your voice isn’t strong enough. I use an Acme Tornado 2000 professional referee stadium whistle, which blows out any water easily and has loads of volume (up to 122 decibel).

Wood Saw

For clearing your way through a blocked river or freeing a trapped paddler. I use a Silky Pocket Boy, with 170/10 blade.

Gaffa/Duck tape

For al unforeseen repairs and whatnot.

Abilities and knowledge

  • All the gear above should be used by trained individuals. Follow a Swiftwater rescue course. Practice regularly and keep refreshing your knowledge!
  • Know the whitewater class you can handle and be prepared to portage rapids beyond this ability. If you are not sure, buddy up with an experienced group member.
    • Class I: Beginner
      Fast moving water with riffles and small waves.
    • Class II: Novice
      Straightforward rapids with wide, clear channels which are evident without scouting. Occasional manoeuvring may be required.
    • Class III: Intermediate
      Rapids with moderate, irregular waves which may be difficult to avoid. Complex manoeuvres in fast current and good boat control in tight passages or around ledges are often required.
    • Class IV: Advanced
      Intense, powerful but predictable rapids requiring precise boat handling in turbulent water. A strong Eskimo roll is highly recommended.
    • Class 5: Expert
      Extremely long, obstructed, or very violent rapids which expose a paddler to added risk.
    • Class VI:
      Extreme and Exploratory Rapids
      These runs have almost never been attempted and often exemplify the extremes of difficulty, unpredictability and danger.
  • Be prepared to self rescue, including whitewater swimming and a reliable Eskimo roll.
  • Know Basic Life Support and have a current first aid certificate.