Family Rafting 101: Risk Management


We want our kids to be safe, but we also want them to grow up loving the rivers and experiencing challenges. So, even though we could talk ourselves out of even leaving the house because of risks like bad drivers, ticks, lightning, bears, strangers, and E. coli, we bravely venture forth every day. Life and rivers will always be full of risks, but fear is a garbage emotion. Unless we want to live in a bubble-wrapped house. We have to face risk, whether on the river or off.

Before I started writing this, I talked to several other moms who come from a river guiding background. I wanted to hear what these decisions look like in their family, and how they manage risk. The answer that stood out to me the most came from a badass mom of two young boys: 

“I think managing risk on the river is the same as it is with backcountry skiing. It’s the choices you make before you start the trip which matters the most. You have to do the research, set your goals and know your deal breakers because in the moment, it’s impossible to make a clear-headed decision.”
– Amber 

Our family is a bit of an extreme example of risk management with three small kids, ages six, three and almost-two. Tempered by two parents with a very strong background in river-safety, here is a list of the questions we ask ourselves when deciding what trip works for us, and the (almost) certified, (practically) guaranteed, (not quite) fool-proof Risk Score System.

For today’s risk-management questionnaire, I’m going to use the not-so-hypothetical trip that we just canceled due to high water: A three-night float down Ruby Horsethief Canyon. I’ll ask the question, explain my thoughts, and give each answer a plus or minus point.

1. Who are my kids?
Besides being both the best and worst people I know, my children are also brave adventurers who love being on the raft but have no idea what to do with themselves in moving water. When they can actively self-rescue, grab a throw bag, or even just assume the whitewater swim position, my options will look a lot different.

We are actively training our six-year-old to roll over and stabilize with his arms, and just that skill alone will allow him to come on splashier trips. As it is, without a one-to-one parent ratio (which we only achieve if we leave one kid on shore with a bag of skittles for a few hours—kidding), if the boat went over, there are more littles to be rescued than there are adults to grab them

Risk Score: This starts us off with a big ol’ -3, one subtraction for every kid who can’t rescue themselves.

2. How comfortable am I on that stretch when the kids are not involved?
Reading beta from one of many Facebook groups is helpful in a lot of ways to get the lay of the land (or water), and pouring over a guide book is good, too. When we’re with our kids, however, we already bring along so many variables in our boat that I personally need to feel very confident about what is around every corner. Odds are, once we launch, I won’t even have a free hand to dig out the map for an hour or so.

Risk Score: For local stretches which I have rowed, literally, hundreds of times, or flatwater stretches which I’ve been on more than 20 (like Ruby) this adds a +1.

Camp on a previous Ruby Horsethief trip with kiddos and a seven-month pregnant Lindsay. Photo: Nan Campbell

3. How does the water level change the consequences of a swim?
At a score of -2 right now, this is a very serious question, even on a ‘homestretch.’

Fast, cold water completely changes risk assessment for my husband and me. For the trip in question, the estimated flows for our trip were going to be 30,000 CFS, which we have run before, but never with kids.

My kids are completely nuts, so even though there are no ‘rapids’ of any sort, the possibility of one of them falling out is very real. Maybe they were fighting for a snack or peering too far out of the boat while looking for mermaids, but it could happen on the flattest of flat water. Despite all our diligence, they could end up in the water, and within seconds, at that level flow, that kid would be floating twenty yards away from the boat, faster than I can row.

Risk Score: Zero hazards, but unacceptable consequences equals a -1. Back to -3.

4. Is my partner on board and experienced?
Once again, I am very blessed to be walking this path with a man who met the rivers in the same way I did. We were both adventure camp counselors/guides and got used to simultaneously managing risk and logistics on moving water before we ever had the chance to experience a relaxing day-float or party-barge style trip. We are on the same page about what risk looks like probably 98% of the time. That’s one of the biggest reasons I can take my kids on the river at all at this age while many prefer to wait.

Many boaters have spouses or partners who don’t have any experience on the rivers and view the unknown with understandable trepidation. Don’t push them. When you want your family to love the rivers, but your support person is anxious, never tell them ‘it’ll be fine, stop worrying,’ unless you want to build up resentment and see passive-aggressive behavior escalate quickly. Listen to their concerns, even if you don’t share them, and don’t make your vision of the perfect family float bigger than the needs of the people involved. Maybe you find a good compromise, and maybe you wait until next year.

Risk Score: My husband’s skill level, and my own give us two points, bringing us up to -1.

5. Do we have the right layers for the weather
Having little kids can make you into a fair-weather boater for a while and that’s okay. If you don’t have the full wetsuit or drysuit in the budget, that’s fine, and so you wait until you have sunshine and warmer temps. Kids get cold so much faster than most adults on the water. A short rain shower or one splashy wave can escalate a cool breeze rapidly. Cold kids are not only cranky but are in danger of hypothermia at temperatures that would only require most of us to put on a jacket.

Our family does love the shoulder seasons of spring and fall, and we have made an effort to beg, borrow, or steal—as in accidentally forget to return the borrowed goods—layering for our family to be able to take advantage of them, but that‘s often not the case, especially not for a first-of-the-season trip.

Risk Score: The weather for this trip looked terrible—historically chilly temperatures and lots of rain. Down to -2.

6. Are we the most experienced boaters in this group?
If the answer is ‘yes,’ this is actually a big red flag. If others in the group would not be able to skillfully assist in a rescue scenario, but instead are looking for our support the whole time, we just can’t do it. Again, right now, all of our resources are spent on maintaining our own family’s safety and comfort.

When the kids are older, this will likely change, but right now, realistically, I cannot even promise I will be able to toss a throw bag if rough water means hands-on for all our kids. That statement may sound harsh, but risk management involves an objective assessment of your own abilities without pretending that you might be able to do something you can’t.

Risk Score: The answer was yes for us, taking us back down to -3 again.

7. What does my gut tell me?
Gut instinct is never to be overlooked. Not because of peer pressure, or the fact that someone else told you it will be ok. Not because of some silly scoring system that a random Colorado boater made up.

No matter how many times we tell ourselves that we would never let that happen, if the image of your kid(s) swimming is one you cannot picture without getting sweaty palms and feeling like throwing up, then you shouldn’t have them on that stretch. In all honesty, I’m causing anxiety in myself as I write this, picturing my kids even on our local rivers at their current flows.

Risk Score: So my gut added a -695 to that -3, and the total was now a clear ‘Nope.’

What is so bad about going for a hike?
You know your family and what is best for them, and when you have taken the time to read all the way through a piece like this because you care about them that much, you will make the right decision. You don’t have to justify that choice to anyone.

Sometimes, whether through a detailed list of pros and cons, or just that gut feeling again, you have to cancel a trip and do something else. Maybe the consequence isn’t life and limb, but rather a life-long negative association with rafting. Better to step back from a trip and come back another time when everyone is ready.

Despite all our alleged years of experience, we are having a very slow start to our season because of water level, so we’ve had to come up with alternate activities—go have fun outside somewhere else! Hike trails, paddle lakes or reservoirs in the ducky, or hit the local splash pad or just go boating in your driveway.

Rivers are wild things, and natural consequences don’t listen to how much we think we deserve something. I seek advice from people who have floated there before me, and try to stay brutally honest with myself about what I want and what is actually best for my family. As a parent who loves the outdoors, it’s a daily task for me to choose what is the right balance between risks and adventure, and try to find our joy somewhere in between.

Editor’s Note: Read more about Lindsay and her boating family adventures on Down River Equipment’s blog, Down River Digest.