Colorado white-water rafting is a fun and popular recreational sport in Colorado. But the drowning of two raft guide trainees last month, and the disappearance of a tourist into the Cache La Poudre River while inner-tubing on Sunday highlight the dangers of the rivers. But proper safety precautions may prevent accidents and general discomfort. Some safety preparations apply to white-water rafting in general; others are specific to Colorado’s high-altitude environment.
Many of the safety precautions regarding white-water rafting and weather assume that Colorado has typical weather patterns. Anyone who has spent a few years living in the state would advise against using the words “typical” and “Colorado weather” in the same sentence. Mid-summer snow, which can cause sudden drops in temperature, is not unusual. Polypropylene long underwear can keep you warm, even when your body gets wet. A neoprene wet suit also offers protection from cold weather and cold water. Dehydration can compromise your body’s temperature regulation, so drink plenty of water before you reach the river.
The Colorado rafting season usually begins in May and ends in September. Colorado rivers are filled by the snow melt from the surrounding mountains, which means the rivers are faster from mid-May to mid-June and the water is cold. During seasons of low precipitation, water levels may drop by late summer exposing the rivers’ rocky bottoms. This can present technical problems for inexperienced paddlers.
Visitors from sea level are often affected by Colorado’s high-altitude environment. Local oxygen may be 40 percent less dense, and 50 to 80 percent less humid. Headache, nausea, decreased energy levels and insomnia are common symptoms of altitude sickness. Altitude sickness may be avoided or diminished by spending a few days at a lower elevation, such as Denver or Boulder, before heading to the mountains.
Colorado’s high altitude also makes outdoor recreationists more susceptible to the sun’s ultraviolet rays. Even on cloudy days use waterproof SPF 30+ sunscreen on your face, and wear waterproof goggles.
Rapid Rating Identification
Colorado uses the international rapid rating scale, which corresponds to six levels of rafting proficiency. Staying within your skill level is the best safety precaution. Class I rafting is done in easy, still waters. Class I requires little or no skill. Class II rapids may have a few waves, as well as a few rocks. They require novice skills. Class III rapids are characterized by their medium-sized waves. A faster current and more regular waves occur in Class IV rapids. An even faster current and larger waves characterize Class V rapids. Class VI rapids have extremely fast currents and large waves. Class VI should only be attempted by professional rafters. Always raft with a professional guide, who can teach you the appropriate skills for the different rapid ratings.
People usually do not get lost on Colorado white-water rafting trips, but purchasing a Colorado Outdoor Recreation Search and Rescue Card is an important investment. The card costs $3 in 2010. It is not an insurance policy, but it provides funds for local search and rescue teams. You will still be charged for their services, but your card enables them to stay in business. Without proper funding for search and rescue operations, there could be a delay in any attempt to search for a person lost in the river or in the Colorado wilderness.