How to Pack for a Whitewater Rafting Trip

Know the do's and don'ts of packing for a whitewater rafting trip with this handy primer by camping and hiking expert, Alex Dolan.

Photo by Alex Dolan
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Whitewater rafting is THE BEST activity to pair with a camping trip. It enables you to explore remote canyons, deep gorges, and wide valleys. With the river guiding the way, it’s pretty hard to get lost, which gives you more time to focus on riding whitewater rapids, and looking up at your surroundings from a perspective completely unique to the experience. At night you spend your time at the best campsites along the river.

One of the biggest advantages of raft camping is that the amount of weight you can bring with you is limited only to what will fit in a raft. Anything that you don’t want to get wet will need to be secured in a dry bag. If you have a 14 ft boat or larger, you can pack in a lot of dry bags full of gear!

People raft down a river
Burying a raft in boulder drop on the Skykomish River in Washington. Photo by Alex Dolan

What to bring with you on the water

All of your camping gear will be packed away in dry bags and relatively out of reach until the end of the day, so you’ll need to consider the necessities for the rafting portion of the tip. What to wear will largely depend on the weather conditions and the water temperature of the specific river you are on. For example, rivers that are glacier fed will require more exposure protection than rain fed rivers. But in late summer with temperatures above 80 degrees F, very little exposure gear is necessary.

Most outfitters will provide the necessary essentials, but you may be embarking on a noncommercial river adventure of your own. Either way, here is what you’ll need for a day on the river:

  • PFD: Your Personal Flotation Device (not to be confused with a PDF)
  • Helmet (depending of the difficulty of the rapids)
  • Wetsuit: Necessary in cold water or cold weather. On more intense river trips, a wetsuit may be important for padding and protection from rocks that your body could encounter during an unintentional swim in the river.
  • Footwear: Some outfitters will supply neoprene booties. While neoprene will keep your feet warm, these booties are usually pretty flimsy and aren't great for walking over rocks or wooded trails. If you don't have a pair of river shoes or sandals with a heel strap that will stay on your feet, a pair of old tennis shoes that you don't mind getting wet and dirty will get the job done pretty well. If you are concerned about your feet getting cold, buying your own neoprene socks is your best option. Avoid wearing flip flops on the river since they have a tendency to float away if you end up in the water.
  • Splash jacket (only necessary in cold weather)
  • Bathing suit / Clothes that can get wet (non cotton): Wear a bathing suit underneath your wetsuit if one is required. Do not wear any cotton clothing on the river. Cotton is a very poor insulator and will actually pull heat away from your body when it gets wet. Lycra will be fast drying. Wool and fleece will provide insulation even when wet.
  • Extra layer: If you are especially concerned about getting cold, bring along a fleece layer to wear underneath your outer exposure protection.
  • Sun Protection: This could be a long sleeve shirt or sunscreen if you are on a river with warm water and sunny skies. I always recommend zinc-based sunscreens since they are better for the environment.
People raft through white water rapids
Big thrills on the Skykomish River in Washington. Photo by Alex Dolan

What not to bring

Don't bring anything with you on a day trip that you do not want to lose or get wet. This includes jewelry, cell phones (yours may be waterproof, but does it float?), and even sunglasses. Even if your sunglasses are attached to a tether around your neck, the river can be very unforgiving when it takes personal items. In my experience, the river has very expensive taste. A nice pair or Ray Bans or Oakleys are almost sure to get lost, while a cheap pair of sunglasses from the gift shop that you don't mind losing are much more likely to make it through the trip.

Two rainbows over a plateau and a river
Getting ready to embark on an epic trip through Westwater Canyon, Utah on the Colorado River. Photo by Alex Dolan

Assuming the risk that they may get lost, here is a list of additional personal items that you may want to bring along

  • Water bottle: On a hot day or a longer trip this may be a good thing to have. An outfitter will also bring along a cooler of drinking water, depending on the trip.
  • Lip balm
  • Waterproof camera: Taking photos is a great way to commemorate the amazing experience, but don't be surprised when your guide yells at you to "put down the camera and paddle!"
  • Cheap pair of sunglasses
  • At the end of the day you can shed your wet river clothes, hang them up to dry, and start unpacking your drybags to set up camp. Draw straws to determine who will get to set up and break down the camp toilet (aka the groover). Remember to pack it in, pack it out!

Here is what you should pack in your dry bag for the camping portion of the trip

Your raft camping set up is pretty much identical to a car camping setup. Weight won’t be an issue so don't worry if you don’t have an ultralight backpacking tent and sleeping bag.

  • Warm dry clothes for camp: Even in warm climates with warm river water, nights can really cool down next to the water. Make sure you have a nice fuzzy layer to bundle up in. Again weight isn’t an issue, so bring an extra layer just in case.
  • Tent
  • Sleeping Bag
  • Camp stove & cooking utensils: Since you will probably be on this trip with some good friends or family, go ahead and coordinate some great meals to make and enjoy together around the fire.
A woman cooks food using a camp cooker

So, are you ready to go down the river? Multi-day rafting trips have resulted in some of my most rewarding and unforgettable experiences. I recommend them to anyone who loves the outdoors and especially to those who love the water.

Where is your next river trip taking you? What did you think of this list? Do you think I left anything out? Click on my expert profile below to live chat with me directly about any questions, comments, concerns, or confession you may have!

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Written By
I have years of experience planning and executing multi day river trips for up to twenty customers at a time and countless summer nights living out of my Honda Element, moving from river to river, living wherever the water is flowing. I have also toured the San Juan Islands via kayak, and circumnavi...

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