River Raft Guide Certifications: Rescue, First Aid, and IRF
Top commercial river companies want to hire top performing guides. And one of the best ways to demonstrate you are a top performer is whitewater credentials. On a side note, I advocate for private boaters to seek out these opportunities as well.
I believe everyone on the water has a responsibility to themselves, their boating crew and the other boating crews on the river to be knowledgeable on relevant and modern safety practices and to be able to command use of them when necessary. Below is a round-up of the credentials, plus some insider info which might help you decide which company and/or curriculum best suits your end goals.
What to know overall
- Look at lots of programs and read about what makes each unique
- Use your network. Ask on your favorite whitewater forum what programs people like and why. My favorite forum is Ladies of the Whitewater Community because it has a national draw and queries folks of all levels of experience.
- Just because a certification lasts a few years, doesn’t mean you can’t take the class again sooner. If you didn’t retain all the information you hoped to, sign up again.
- Volunteering as a teacher assistant or helper to an instructor can be a good way to see the curriculum for a second or third time. Ask around. See if you can be someone’s whitewater caddy.
Swiftwater and River Rescue
As a guide, one will run into many unpredictable situations. The river is a dynamic venue and never the same twice, passengers/guests included. In order to be prepared for anything the river environment may serve up, a strong knowledge of the principles of swiftwater rescue and the ability to execute them is critical. Many years ago, my first swiftwater rescue class was too fast paced. The instructor tried to cover too much and moved forward without confirming that most of the class understood what was covered. In addition, the instructor made several comments while teaching which felt unwelcoming to participants of diverse backgrounds. I wish I had done more research on instructors.
Pro tip: Find a river based "whitewater rescue"course designed for river runners instead of a land based "swiftwater rescue" course designed for first responders.
More recently, I received a River Rescue Certification from Sierra Rescue International. What I like about their program is that it is an international certification so theoretically, it qualifies participants to guide all over the world. Their two day programs are also compatible with the American Canoe Association Certification. They even offer a progression, the Professional River Rescue Certification (equivalent to an ACA level 5) track which allows the participant to be evaluated and tested on each topic. To prime yourself for these courses, check out their video series, Rescue for River Runners. Participants in courses take home a thick book full of curriculum and a quick reference manual that could fit in the large pocket on a Personal Flotation Device. My instructor was female, which I appreciated greatly.
In order to refine my skills I have assistant taught and enrolled as a student in many Nature Nicole Whitewater LLC courses, including two Swiftwater Rescue Classes. Nicole Smedegaard is a well respected trip leader and guide who has extensive experience leading safety at whitewater competitions and events. To see her in action is a treat and learning opportunity. She leads womens and co-ed ACA Level 4, two to three-day classes in swiftwater rescue as well as R2, Rowing and all sorts of boating courses. Smedegaard’s classes are accessible to many levels of learners, fun, inclusive and she teaches youth courses. Smedegaard is my all time favorite instructor.
Pro tip: Some guide companies hire a Swiftwater instructor to teach their entire team pre-season. Ask your company about this option. Northwest Rafting Company just released dates on their first ever Class III Safety & Rescue School. They cover a lot of ground on the topic including flip drills and scenarios with rotating student incident commanders.
Wilderness First Responder & Wilderness First Aid
What is Wilderness First Responder?
“Generally accepted practice guidelines come from the Wilderness Medical Society (WMS) and the National Association of EMS Physicians (NAEMSP). There are no universally accepted teaching standards or curriculum; however, Scope of Practice (SOP) guidelines have been established for Wilderness First Aid and Wilderness First Responder and are endorsed by the Wilderness Medical Society.”
It’s important for professional river guides to be equipped to treat injuries and illness in the wilderness and backcountry. The industry standard for fulfilling this training is participating in a 9-10 day Wilderness First Responder Course (WFR). If you are a little out of practice on your first aid, I highly recommend re-upping your Wilderness First Aid first. I did this with Survival Meds. Then, I would look into where and when NOLS is offering training. NOLS has a reputation as the best in the biz as far as WFRs go.
If NOLS isn’t offering a course in your area or on your favored timeline, there are many other equally accredited WFR programs. I went with Wilderness Medicine Training Center because they offered a course geographically near me and during the winter, which is often preferred timing for raft guides. What I love about their curriculum is it’s chock full of anatomy. As someone with no background in organic science, they did a great job offering background material. Check out their online store. I snagged excellent trauma scissors and medical flashcards that double as playing cards!
International Rafting Federation
Admittedly I haven't taken this course yet but it’s on the horizon for next year.
The International Rafting Federation is the world governing body of the sport of rafting. They offer guide, trip leader and instructor workshops. Northwest Rafting Company is the only outfitter I know of that hosts the IRF. Courses are intended for experienced river guides and whitewater professionals looking to increase their education. IRF certifications can be used for guiding, trip leading, and instructing whitewater around the world.