Water Rescue: How to Help a Swimmer Back into the Raft

Whitewater rafting is one of the most exciting ways to experience the beauty of Colorado, and we want all of our guests to have a safe and enjoyable time. Before each Vail whitewater rafting trip, our guides meet with guests for a safety talk. Topics covered include rafting safety, in general, and specifics including paddling tips, self rescue, throw rope rescue, and more.

water rescue

As river class ratings ramp up, falling out of the raft becomes a possibility. In this case, we call a person in the river a swimmer. Guides will instruct all guests to shout out “Swimmer!” should anyone in the raft fall into the rapids. Everyone will then take swift action to help the swimmer get back into the raft. When a swimmer is in the river, it’s important to listen to your guide for further instructions, and then act swiftly in response.

Water Rescue: Helping a Whitewater Swimmer into a Raft

Likely instructions given before the trip and while on the river will include how to help a swimmer back into the raft in a few simple steps. Here’s how it works:

• If you remain in the raft, position yourself so that you’re in a stable position and not at risk of falling into the water.
• If a swimmer is within reach of the raft, carefully extend your paddle so that the swimmer can grab ahold of it, and pull the swimmer toward the raft.
• Once a swimmer reaches the raft and is trying to get back in, remove any paddles out of the way to prevent injury.
• Once the swimmer has both hands firmly gripping the raft’s chicken line, lean over to grab the shoulder straps of the swimmer’s life jacket.
• Use your entire body weight to pull the swimmer back into the raft at the same time he or she pulls up on the chicken line and kicks to help make the process easier.
• Once the swimmer is safely back into the raft, return to a seated position, and prepare to continue paddling at the guide’s commands.

If you happen to be the swimmer, here’s what you can do to get back into the safety of the raft:

• While in the river, try to hold onto your paddle so that you have it when you return the raft. Watch and listen for instructions from the guide.
• Swim aggressively toward the raft if the guide is instructing you to return to the raft, which is a likely scenario.
• As you near the raft, extend your paddle so that someone in the raft may use it to pull you in.
• Once you reach the raft, carefully hand your paddle to anyone in the boat, and grab onto the chicken line, the line of roping that goes around the sides of the raft.
• Once someone inside of the raft has a firm hold of your life jacket by both of its shoulder straps, kick actively against the water with your feet, and pull yourself up on the chicken line while being pulled in to help make it easier for the person helping.
• Once you’re safely back in the raft, return to a seated position, and listen to the guide for further instructions.

Rafting 101: Learn More

Timberline Tours focuses on Rafting 101 and Vail rafting safety topics because we want all of our guests to have the best—and safest—Vail rafting experience possible. Find out more here:

Whitewater Rafting Self-Rescue Techniques
Whitewater Rafting Throw Rope Rescue Techniques
How to Wear Life Jackets
Whitewater Rafting Safety
Common Paddling Commands
Vail Rafting Paddling Tips
River Rafting Class Ratings Explained
What to Wear Vail Rafting


Timberline Tours is the Vail-area’s premier whitewater rafting and backcountry jeep tours outfitter, also offering stand up paddle board (SUP) and duckie river trips on Colorado’s Eagle, Colorado, and Arkansas Rivers. All of our guided trips are open to Vail, Colorado visitors, locals, families, and corporate groups.

To book your Vail, Colorado adventure, call Timberline Tours at (970) 476-1414, or email us at info@timberlinetours.com.