Let’s go rafting! But now what to wear?
Whether you’re experienced or a first timer, knowing what to wear rafting is probably one of the most important questions on any whitewater vacation. After the excitement of booking and arranging logistics, then comes the “what to bring?” dilemma. Whitewater outfitters and companies will usually include a river packing list, often naming mandatory and optional items. But still, you may wonder, what is it that I really need?!
This blog post is meant to ease your qualms, and make your gear list a bit more straightforward. The bottom line is this: less is more, and a few high quality items mixed in with some stuff you don’t mind never seeing again after your rafting trip will probably do the trick.
By the way, before you keep reading, the author of this post is a seasoned whitewater guide, and has made plenty of packing mistakes herself, and still does! This is meant to merely be advice to help, not hinder. Regardless of what’s in your bag, you will have an awesome time because you’re on the river! And remember you can ask your new best friends for support on the trip — that is the beauty of forming a community with new people out there, we all help each other.
Rafting Wear 101
Here are my top guidelines to be properly outfitted for your trips. Most points apply to both what to wear on one-day and multi-day rafting trips. There are a few suggestions that will obviously be only for multi-day trips. I suggest that folks speak with their outfitters, as some of the gear may be provided. Also, these tips can clearly be adjusted for the length of multi-day trips and the amount of whitewater rapids you will be encountering. Obviously the shorter the trip, the less you need. You can also usually do some sort of “laundry” on the river if needed, but make sure to ask your guides about where soap should go and leave no trace protocol, whether in or out of the river, as that varies in different environments!
Clothing materials matter for safety and comfort
Cotton vs. Synthetics
- Know your fabrics. Remember this: it’s easier to cool down than it is to warm up. This concept also comes into safety considerations. Hypothermia and heat exhaustion are both extremely serious and sometimes common issues on whitewater rafting trips.
- Cotton keeps you cool, synthetics dry quicker and tend to be warmer. Sometimes you want a cotton shirt and sarong to purposely keep you wet or damp for body temperature regulation. On the flip side, sometimes cotton can be detrimental to your day. Leave your cotton socks at home. Pack a warm fleece jacket or a light puffy jacket for chilly mornings and nights.
- Synthetic fabrics such as polyester, wool, capilene or rayon are ideal because they dry faster and also keep you warm. A pair of long underwear is also necessary. I will say this: cotton at the end of the day is amazing and dry underwear is crucial for comfort at night. A pair of Carhartt or lightweight pants are also nice for evenings and mornings in camp.
What to Wear Rafting on Cold Days
- It’s good to be able to peel things off or add on as needed during the day. Your outfitter will let you know how to pack, but always keep a warm synthetic layer and raincoat in your day bag with other essential items.
- Protect yourself from the weather. That often means extra protection from the sun, especially on desert trips and rafting the Grand Canyon. A “buff” or bandanna is another great option, especially helpful now during COVID-19 days.
- Ideally you want comfort over anything else, so dress in what you will feel good and safe in, no matter what it may look like. Leave your ego at home. It seems that many rafters think it’s a good idea to wear swimwear under their clothing, and although that may be a good idea, just make sure it is comfortable for the entire day and also consider bathroom stops.
- Lastly, wearing only a bikini bottom on the raft is just not the best idea.
Clothing for Hot and Sunny Days
- Buy good sun hoodie or quick dry rafting shirt. This will protect you from the sun, and who doesn’t love a hood? They are also usually quick drying, and you’ll find another reason to wear it after your trip. A good pair of board or water shorts is also good, as well as a solid rain coat. These are items you will wear and use again and be really glad you spent a bit more on.
- Sunglasses. Eye protection from the sun is important. Polarized sunglasses are worth the extra money, and you will wear them again. You will be able to see more on the water, and this also can prevent headaches. That said, make sure you have some solid attachment to your shades for that unexpected swim in the river. We recommend “chums” or “croakies.” It may be worth bringing a good pair as well as a less expensive back up pair.
- Hats on the river are nice. Sometimes people show up with huge sun hats, or something more along what guides call the “beekeeper look,” (think khaki colored with all sorts of shade and neck flaps). Both are fine, but at minimum bring a baseball style hat. Also know that a rapid may blow it into the river and you may never see it again. So don’t bring your favorite one, and it’s not a bad idea to bring a back-up since they are fairly packable. Remember, hats are a way to show your personality and flair with function!
- Also, no matter how hot or cold your trip is, bring a warm beanie! Heat escapes our heads very quickly, and this is a small item that can make a big difference in your comfort. And if you never need to wear it, so what, it’s small. Look for synthetics, especially merino wool.
- **A note on helmets: if you are required to wear a helmet while running rapids, a baseball cap typically fits well under most helmets giving some protection from the sun.
- Water is life (and important). So invest in a good stainless steel or insulated water bottle. You will use this item again when traveling and maybe even help you drink more water everyday at home. Hydration is critical even on chilly trips, but also make sure you eat those salty snacks guides will offer you during the day!
Protect your feet. If your feet are unhappy, you will be unhappy, believe me on this one.
- There are tons of brands, but we recommend Chaco, Astral, or your old pair of running shoes is great for on the river.
- You will also want a change of shoes for camp. Depending on your activity level that may mean hiking boots, crocs, or flip flops, but many people love being able to put on dry socks and shoes at camp at the end of the day.
- I suggest bringing a pair of sturdy flip flops no matter what. They are flat and easy to pack and I guarantee you will wear them at some point.
- Remember that we are out there to unplug and disconnect, so leave the tech stuff at home. I’m willing to bet most others on your trip do not want to hear beeps and buzzes on the raft or in your tent at night.
- Don’t bring your phone unless it’s your only camera, but even then use it as a camera and not a phone. Don’t bring your Rolex. Be careful with your Kindle. Leave your valuables or special items at home.
Camp Clothing and Gear
- Go to the thrift store. It’s usually a fun outing, and you may find some good deals. Pick up a funky long sleeve river shirt or two for $5. You may even find some quick dry items such as shorts or a total steal of a great brand that has barely been used.We river folk love to have some solid style out there. Whether it’s your run of the mill Hawaiian shirt, or something more bold like a party dress, get ready to rock it.
- Sometimes guides will bring a costume bag, but it’s always good to be prepared for a dress up night on the river. That said, not every trip will do this, and there is never any obligation to partake. This should also not take up a ton of space in your bag!
Extras & Toiletries: headlamp, sarong, skin salve
- Bring a lightweight bag to separate your toiletries. Sunscreen is the obvious first topic for spending time living outside. I suggest avoiding the aerosol sprays — they end up going more into the air than on your skin, often smell strongly and are poor for the environment (and may irritate your fellow river runners). Instead check out Sierra Madre from the Super Salve Company. There are other good brands such as Alba or Badger but, find one that works for your body, and don’t forget to apply it to your neck, feet and hands.
- Another protip: digging for your toothbrush in the dark is not fun, but we’ve all done it. So bring a headlamp and extra batteries. This is a safety precaution for walking around camp at night or early morning. Get one that has a red or green light option so you will not attract as many moths and avoid blinding yourself and your friends with bright white light.
- Widdle your toiletries down to the essentials (you don’t need every face serum you may use at home) and buy travel sized stuff.
- Lotion is important. I highly recommend a salve for dry skin such as Super Salve (this is great to put on your hands at feet before bed).
- Packing items into smaller bags in general is a great idea, as it makes things easier to find. Guides often joke that dry bags are black holes. The item you’re looking to wear on day three is always on the bottom. So if you can sort camp clothes and river clothes for example, it may save you a headache. Also, don’t sweat it because I also guarantee there will be a moment on your trip that you want something that you can’t find in your bag. It’s part of it.
- Other extras to consider: a sarong! It’s lightweight. It’s a changing room. It’s sun protection. It’s a skirt, a scarf, a blanket, a pillow for your nap at lunch.
One final piece of advice…
- Don’t pee in your shorts. It’s not worth it. This does connect to packing because if you do this, your shorts will stink and you will get a “boater’s butt” rash. Listen to your guides, and remember “privacy is given” on the river!
And just like this list of tips about what to wear rafting, I probably forgot something. You probably will too. That’s okay, go with it, learn from hopefully not detrimental mistakes. Remember this too: a lot of hardships, especially when we are outside of our comfort zone have to do with our attitudes, outlooks and reactions. If you realize on day one you forgot something, don’t beat yourself up! Make a new friend, ask a guide and I’m willing to bet it will work out. And when in doubt, go sit by the river and everything will be okay.