HAZARDS, SAFETY GEAR & RESOURCES
Written by Neil Egsgard of Surf Anywhere and the Alberta RSA
Done properly, river surfing can be low risk and one of the best parts of life. Done improperly you can die. Rivers and whitewater have dangers much different than oceans but with repercussions just as severe. For your safety and the safety of those with you, inform yourself about river dangers and standard safety precautions.
With knowledge in hand take time and review the wave, the water, the run-out and any visible or submerged dangers. Figure out how you're going to enter the wave and where you will go when you bail. Whenever possible surf with people who know the location. Rivers are far more powerful than us and a mistake can result in serious injury or death.
You are responsible for your own safety and making your own decisions about risks and to minimize them. The following information is not complete and there is no way to completely eliminate risk. Educate yourself and make appropriate decisions for yourself.
Your safety is your responsibility.
Common River Surfing Dangers
Leash & Rope Entanglement
Entanglement is when something that cannot move downstream wraps around your body. Examples are ankles leashes caught on rocks or ropes
When the leash or rope because tight it forces you to the bottom of the river.
The force is so strong you cannot release yourself
Leashes and ropes have killed river surfers and resulted in many near misses
By Neil Egsgard of Surf Anywhere and the Alberta River Surfing Association
Pinning is when you are caught between something upstream and an stationary object downstream. An example is your board upstream pinning you to a boulder or bridge piling.
The force of the water is so strong that you are not able to free yourself
Pinning has killed river surfers
Foot and leg entrapment
Entrapment is when a body part gets caught between rocks or other debris in the river
Even a slow moving river can easily overpower a strong person
If your limbs or body get caught the force of the river can easily hold you underwater
Strainers are anything in the river that allows water to pass through but not you. Examples are tree branches and log jams.
The force of the water is so strong that you are not able to get off of the strainer
Impact with river bottom
Alberta rivers and many other wave locations are very shallow. The fast water needed to form a wave makes the river shallower then slow water.
If you go deep after exiting a wave you can strike the bottom hard enough to break bones or equipment
New river surfers or tired / sloppy experienced river surfers regularly hit themselves on the bottom resulting in bruises, torn wetsuits, cracked boards and broken fins
Striking from boards and fins
Boards striking the head can cause bruising or concussions. Fins striking the head can cause large cuts.
Boards and their fins can move very quickly when surfers fall or are trying difficult maneuvers.
When a surfer falls out of control the board can be launched into the line up. If the surfer is wearing a leash, the board can spring back at the surfer.
Exposure is when the body starts to fail due to temperature and weather. The river can quickly lower your core body temperature and it takes a while to build that temperature back up.
Alberta rivers are cold all year round. Even wearing a wetsuit you can become dangerously cold which makes you more likely to make mistakes both mentally and physically.
Some symptoms of cold exposure are slurring of words, slowness of thought, numbness, difficulty moving your body and uncontrollable shaking
Changing River Levels
Changing river levels can hide or reveal river dangers.
A section of river that is safe at one river level may be very dangerous at other river levels.
High water carries debris and pollution through the waves. Especially the first high water of the season and whenever the water reaches a high point for that year.
Rain water carries the pollution from city streets, the manure and fertilizers from fields and everything else into river and through the wave
Logs, trees and other debris can float through waves and can be very hard to spot. This is especially dangerous during high water when the river water is dirty and there is more debris.
Logs can float just beneath the surface until they reach the wave. When going through the wave, logs can shoot into the air and strike a surfer.
During winter surfing, ice chunks are common occurrences and are often nearly invisible
Upstream river users
Other river users coming from upstream may not have enough control to stop before the wave or avoid the wave and can unintentionally run over surfers.
Surfer’s Ear is the closing of the ear canal due to repeated exposure to cold water.
When cold water enters the ear canal it causes the bone to grow. Over a few years of regular exposure the ear canal can become completely sealed and require surgery.
You can prevent Surfer’s Ear by wearing ear plugs
- By Neil Egsgard of Surf Anywhere and the Alberta River Surfing Association
River Surfing Equipment
There are a few keys pieces of river surfing gear. Always make sure you gear is functioning properly before using it and that you know how to use the gear.
Surf boards are what allows you to surf. On the safety side they keep you on the surface, allow you to move faster through the river and protects you from impacts.
On the Surface: Being on a board keeps you away from the dangerous bottom of the river. The bottom of the river can break bones when you hit it and can catch your body causing the river to force you to the bottom. The board also helps you stay on the surface when the river is filled with air bubbles after a wave or drop.
Faster through the river: Being on a board helps you avoid dangerous parts of the river because you maneuver better paddling a surfboard then swimming. You are higher out of the water and can spot dangers a little sooner. When you see the dangers it is easier for your to paddle around them or get safely to shore.
Impact Protection: Being on a board puts something between you and hard objects. If you are going through a shallow part of a river or over a drop, the board can hit a rock or a tree instead of your body
When starting river surfing or trying a new wave, foam boards are recommended. Foam boards can take a lot more abuse than hard shell boards.
Properly used leashes keep you close to your board and close to all the benefits of a surfboard. If you fall and lose your board or your board slips from under you, you can easily catch it again. Improperly used leashes are the most dangerous and lethal factor in river surfing. Leashes always pose a risk but the benefits of being close to your surfboard can make it worthwhile. You have to assess your abilities and the situation and make the best decision for your safety.
These are two good leash options:
No Leash: Don’t wear a leash unless you must. Leashes are killing surfers.
Waist Leash with Quick Release: This leash is attached to a belt around your waist. If the leash does get caught you are able to release the belt with either hand and you are free.
These are some other common leash options that can be good but also can become very dangerous:
Knee Leash with Quick Release Pin: This leash is attached near the knee and typically above the calf. There is a handle where the leash connects to the leg than can be pulled to separate the leash from the ankle strap. The handle pulls out a pin at the leash to ankle strap connectionYour leash can become entrapped such that you are unable to reach the pin and release yourself.
Leg Leash that breaks at the leg connection point: This leash will break where is connects to the leg under a moderate amount of force. These are often created by replacing the ankle pin with zip ties. These leashes can break when you don’t want them to break. The broken zip ties create plastic trash in our rivers.
These are some bad leash options that have killed river surfers:
Ankle leash: This is the standard ocean surfing leash. If the leash gets caught underwater you are pulled to the bottom of the river and you are unable to release the leash.
Ropes: This is a rope tied between you and your board and has the same problem as an ankle leash except they may have no release mechanism at all.
PFD / Life Jacket / Impact Vest / Floatation Vest
PFD means personal floatation device. PFDs and these other jackets make you float a lot more. Floating more keeps you away from the dangerous river bottom and helps you stay on the surface. PFDs also protect your core from hitting rocks or trees or other obstructions. If you are unconscious or an able to swim, PFDs can keep you a float and may keep you alive.
These are the two primary ways the river takes you underwater and how PFDs help.
Air Bubbles: Downstream of waves or drops the water becomes filled with air bubbles. The air mixed with water means you float less and will sink under the surface. If there are enough air bubbles you won’t be able to stay above water by swimming. The PFD can keep you on the surface when you would otherwise be under water.
Currents: Downstream of waves or near fast water or narrow areas or in other dangers areas the river can have currents that pull you under the water. Even in a small river the currents can be far stronger than you can swim and will pull you under. These currents can trap you underwater. The currents can be strong enough to easily pull down large surf boards with surfers wearing PFDs. The PFDs help prevent you from going really deep and help you get to the surface faster.
In you are unable to swim a PFD will keep you afloat. Only certified PFDs / lifejackets in good condition and properly worn have enough buoyancy to keep you afloat without any swimming. Impact vests and non certified PFDs WILL NOT keep you afloat without swimming. Three ways you are made unable to swim are:
- Being unconscious
- Getting to cold and your muscles not working
- Suffering an injury that prevents you from swimming
Wetsuits provide three key safety functions:
Keeps you warm in the water: The wetsuit traps a layer of water between the wetsuit and your body. Your body warms the water and the combination of the warm water layer and the wetsuit material dramatically slows the loss of body heat. Holes in wetsuits, lack of boots / hood / gloves and improperly fitting wetsuits will reduce the effectiveness of the wetsuit.
Keeps you on the surface: Even a thin wetsuit provides a lot of floatation which helps keep you away from the dangerous bottom.
Impact protection: Wetsuits absorb the impact of rocks and trees and other objects and protect against cuts. Wetsuit boots are very good at protecting your feet when walking on rocks or city trash.
Helmets usage is a personal choice. Using a helmet is welcomed and respected by the river surfing community. Helmets are typically worn by:
Beginners not yet comfortable with the river environment
Surfers visiting new and unfamiliar waves
Surfers riding heavy boards like NSP or Standup Paddle Boards
Surfers attempting more advanced maneuvers and unable to execute controlled wipeouts
Other scenarios where the surfer wants the added confidence and protection
There is a lot of good additional information on river safety. Please refer to the links below:
River Surfing Accident and Incident Database: This is a public list of all river surfing accidents and near misses from around the world. The database was created by and is maintained by Surf Anywhere.
The three killers of river surfers are:
Ankle Leash entanglements
Tow rope entanglements
10 River Surfing Safety Tips from Can I Surf That
American Whitewater Association Accident Database: This is a public list of all whitewater accidents in the United States
Safety Code of American Whitewater: A whitewater safety document by the American Whitewater Association
Riverbreak Magazine Safety Content: Articles and other content on river surfing safety from the river surfing magazine Riverbreak.