As the weather warms in the spring, river flows increase and a whole new world opens up for exploration. Rafting is an accessible adventure option that allows you to explore remote places from a unique perspective.
There is nothing better than looking up at huge canyon walls dwarfing your boat. You are able to get away from the crowds, bond with your small group, and really feel like you are one with nature, but without having to rough it too much.
There are many ways to venture into the boating world, from kayaks to stand-up paddleboards to rafts. There are guided trips and private trips and each type of boating has its own set of essential gear items. We’ll focus here on river rafting, but you can use it as a starting point for other kinds of river trips as well.
Day trips are a great way to get out with your friends and have some fun while not breaking the bank or having to take a week or more off of work. Rafting day trips, from exciting whitewater runs to mellow flatwater floats, usually don’t require a permit and can be a great activity for your next trip. My favorite spots for river mini-vacations include: Moab to run the Daily; Buena Vista, CO to run Brown’s Canyon or Numbers; Fayetteville, WV for the Gauley or the New; and the Snake River outside of Jackson Hole.
When you’re on the river without a guide, it is always a good idea to know your limits and be realistic about your own level of experience. You’ll need rely on your own abilities to read water and react appropriately if anything goes wrong. But with the added responsibility, you also gain a lot more freedom (e.g., enjoying a casual adult beverage with a canyon wall or the Tetons in the background). When stepping into the private boating realm you also have to start investing in your own gear. You are able to fine-tune your setup to increase your overall comfort and enjoyment. You will want to bring along the same items as you would on a guided trip, but there is some gear you’ll probably want to add to your collection as well.
When you are heading out on the river for a day trip with friends it is always a great idea to bring along some extra layers. You never know when that three-hour float could turn into a five- or six-hour adventure. A splash top, a warm synthetic layering piece like a Hydroskin, and a beanie are always great pieces of gear to have around. Keeping them, along with any other prized possessions, dry is key. A clear dry bag like the 20L SealLine Ecosee is great because you don’t have to dump all your stuff on the floor of the boat when you are trying to grab your camera. If a camera isn’t really your style, it is somewhat inevitable that your smartphone will come along for the ride. It didn’t happen if you didn’t ‘Gram it, right? Lifeproof makes some amazing waterproof phone cases that allow you to keep taking pictures or playing music without worry.
Once you venture out with your own crew, you will need to have your own PFD. The good news is, you get to wear a PFD that’s comfortable, fits well, and has the features you need. If you are kayaking you definitely want to find something with a lower cut under the arms, but make sure there is still sufficient flotation and rib protection. A Type III PFD is great for any whitewater adventure. I am a huge fan of everything Astral makes and they have great zipper-front and pullover options. With a PFD purchase, it is a great idea to add on a river knife like the NRS Co-Pilot. Safety should be first and foremost and if a boat flips and a limb gets caught in a rope, you want to be able to cut yourself free. Plus, knives are cool; just be sure it has a blunt tip so you don’t accidentally pop the boat.
Multi-day trips are hands-down my favorite type of river adventure. You are able to access some of the most remote places in the country while living the same luxury lifestyle you would car camping. Bacon for breakfast, delicious cocktails, sleeping pads that are actually comfortable, and costume wardrobes worthy of any music festival: what more could you want?
The most essential piece of gear to any multi-day trip is the overnight dry bag. You need to keep your sleeping bag and clothes dry while you float from camp to camp. The dry bag should be at least 60L (3660 cubic inches) to accommodate your essentials. The Watershed Colorado is my go-to bag for every trip; it fits your tent, sleeping bag, clothes, and any beach lounge attire you would need. If you prefer a bag with backpack straps, the SealLine Pro Pack 115 Dry Bag is a great option. Mine has lasted through three summers of boating and it is still in great condition.
Sometimes nights between the walls of river canyons can get pretty cold. When choosing a sleeping bag, you definitely want to go with a synthetic bag. When down gets wet, it loses its insulating properties whereas synthetic insulation will still keep you warm; synthetic insulation is also more durable, which helps since bags can take a beating on river trips. While it is a good idea to check local temperatures, I typically go with a 20-degree bag for all river trips during spring or summer.
There are few times when you can be far from civilization and not worry about the weight of your sleeping pad, and this is one of those times; multi-day river trips are basically car camping in the middle of nowhere. I am a side sleeper and if I have the option to go with a plush sleeping pad I definitely will. Paco Pads are definitely the go-to for river trips. They float, are durable and waterproof, and when you set them up right they can act as a seat for yourself and help keep the sun off your cooler at the same time. But if a Paco pad is not readily available, a campground-style sleeping pad like the Thermarest Luxury Map would be another great option to throw in your dry bag.
It is always a good idea to bring a tent, tarp, or bivy of some sort on a multi-day trip. You never know when the weather will change and your dreams of sleeping on the beach will turn into a nightmare. I prefer sleeping on the boat or the beach but if the weather goes bad I definitely recommend something like the Black Diamond Mega Light. The tarp design is easy to assemble, versatile for pretty much all situations, and if you slumber on your boat you can easily rig it as a shelter there as well.
Let’s just be honest here, no river trip is complete without cocktails. Whether it is a Bloody Mary in the morning or a gin and tonic in the evening, enjoying a tasty beverage in the wilderness is an experience that is second to none. You always want to avoid glass on the river, so it’s a good idea to pre-mix cocktails in Nalgene bottles or fill up your Platypus Platypreserve with your liquor of choice. Planning ahead can be difficult, but a number of experienced river folk generally figure on ten beers per day for a multi-day trip; there is nothing worse than running out of beers with a day or two left on the river. If you’re not crazy about the idea of hauling around all those cans, consider investing in a large-capacity growler — it will not only hold a lot of beer, but will keep it cold, too.
Guided raft trips are an amazing way to get your feet wet in the rafting world. You are able to experience the excitement of whitewater at the hands of an experienced guide. My first experience rafting was a guided trip on the Brown’s Canyon section of the Arkansas River in Colorado. This experience in my youth definitely planted the seed for my boating future.
The best thing about a guided trip is that most of the gear is provided for you. For insurance reasons, you are required to wear the PFD (personal flotation device, aka life jacket) that the rafting company provides. This means you will not need to purchase one. For colder weather, a wetsuit and/or a splash top usually will be provided. There are a few items that you should bring along that will make your day that much more enjoyable:
There is nothing worse than coming home with the dreaded sunglasses sunburn. Not only do you end up looking like a drunken raccoon, but you are also putting your health at risk. Sunscreen in the form of a stick is easy to transport, fits in a pocket, and won’t leak all over your stuff. I suggest the Kiss My Face Hot Spots stick since it is water resistant, and includes moisturizers like shea butter.
You can really wear any shoes on a river trip–but if you want to avoid swamp foot, a water-specific shoe is great. There are many options when it comes to water shoes and there are pros and cons to each type. You can go with the tried and true Chacos, get added toe protection from Keens, or go with a closed shoe like those from Astral. The most important feature is that the shoe is comfortable for you. I end up wearing my Chacos on summer hikes, not just boating outings.
Just as you want to protect your skin from the sun, you also want to make sure you don’t burn your eyes. The sun’s rays will be coming at you from all angles so you want to make sure you have a pair of sunglasses with a medium to large frame. Polarized sunglasses are a great option as they help to cut the glare coming off the water. And any time you are wearing sunglasses on the water, I definitely suggest a pair of Chums. I have lost my sunnies in the past when I’ve jumped in the water; Chums have helped me avoid that embarrassment and expense.
All packed up and ready to hit the river.