How to Pack for Your First Overnight River Trip

Camping expert Olivia Whitehead shares some of the specific items you might want to bring on your next multi-day river trip.

Orange kayak sits on the bank of a river.

Photo by Brent Denys

There’s something magical about falling asleep to the sound of whitewater, dreaming about the next day’s rapids. A multi-day river trip is an incredible way to experience some of the most beautiful places the planet has to offer, and it’s a wonderful experience for anyone who loves the outdoors!

If you’re making the transition into multi-day trips though, the packing can be a bit intimidating. In addition to the normal overnight gear that you would bring backpacking (tents, sleeping bags, pads, and more), planning a multi-day river trip can require gear that’s unique to the sport as well. The best part though? The river does most of the work for you, so when you’re going on an overnight river trip you can pack much more than you would be able to carry on your back alone!

In this article, we’ll talk about some of the specific things you might want to bring on your multi-day river trip, but we won’t go into the safety items that you should already be bringing on day trips! It’s also important to note that each river has its own distinct regulations, and it’s important to double-check these before any trip.

A green boat travels down the river at a distance. The river flows between two steep hills.

The river carries your gear for you on a multi-day rafting trip. Photo by Brent Denys

River-Specific Clothing

In some ways, packing for a long river trip is similar to packing for a long backpacking trip. For both, you’ll want good non-cotton base layers and enough overall layers to be prepared if the weather gets cooler than expected. Depending on the climate and time of year, there are a few things that I like to bring on river trips that I wouldn’t need while backpacking.

The most important river-specific item you should pack is clothing that will keep you warm enough while actually boating. For a scorching July trip, this might not mean anything special. For a freezing January trip though, you’ll want to be as prepared as possible. Being prepared for your specific trip can look like almost any combination of neoprene, splash pants, a splash jacket, dry or semi-dry tops, or even a full drysuit.

Neoprene (or its more eco-friendly alternatives) is a wonderful on-the-water base layer for cooler trips. It does a great job of keeping you warm when it gets wet, and it can be worn in combination with some other items. For example, on chilly days when I know I’ll be paddling hard, I will sometimes wear neoprene pants with a dry top on top!

Splash pants and jackets are nice to have when the weather itself is hot, but the splashes are a bit too cold to be comfortable. These items are lightweight and give some protection, but they’re nowhere near being actually watertight.

The next step up, a dry or semi-dry top, does a lot more to keep the water off your body with latex or neoprene gaskets at your wrists and neck. Splashes won’t drip onto your other layers when you’re paddling or rowing, but you’ll probably get wet if you actually go for a swim!

Finally, a full drysuit is the best way to stay warm on a truly cold trip. With latex gaskets at your wrists and neck, as well as fully-enclosed drysuit “socks,” a good drysuit will keep everything but your hands and head completely dry. You can layer as much or as little as you like underneath your suit, and can even invest in something called a union suit (like a sleeker, more minimal onesie) to be as cozy as possible. On the coldest days, I’ve layered my union suit with a lightweight down layer and have been very happy with it! While they aren’t cheap, a drysuit can really change your entire boating experience!

Fire Pan

I think one of the biggest differences in backpacking versus multi-day river trips is the addition of a fire pan and fire blanket! When you’re backpacking, you would never think of bringing something as bulky as a typical fire pan, but they’re such a nice thing to have in the chilly evenings. Some of my favorite memories from past multi-day trips have nothing to do with the rapids themselves, but rather the nights spent telling stories and drinking warm drinks around the fire.

The most popular fire pans on the market are made by NRS, but other companies like BioLite are making some innovative, lighter-weight options to explore as well. Some models come with an included fire blanket to put underneath your pan, but that’s an important thing to check. Along with an actual fire pan and blanket, make sure that you bring something along to collect your ash in when you pack up in the morning too! Most of the popular rivers in the Western United States require that you pack away all of your ash throughout your trip.

Kitchen Gear

When it comes to river trips, you can bring much more kitchen gear than traditional backpacking trips too—no more living off dehydrated food and granola bars! Most boaters will bring a setup that includes a heavy-duty cooler, a two or four-burner camp stove, a dish-washing station, and a table of some kind to cook on. If you’re feeling fancy, you can even bring things like a dutch oven (for decadent baked mac and cheese or even desserts like cobbler) or a dish-drying rack.

A river kitchen setup is incredibly customizable, and there is a lot of room to build the system that works best for you and your group’s preferences. I’ve personally loved seeing how different boaters cook on multi-day trips, and I’ve adapted my kitchen after learning from others over the years!

A camper boils a kettle and prepares food on a folding table outside.

It’s fun to get creative with meals on multi-day river trips! Photo by Nathan Shipps

Waterproof Overnight Bags

Keeping your clothes and personal belongings dry is definitely more challenging when boating than backpacking. A wet sleeping bag can make or break a trip, so it’s important to have an overnight bag that won’t let you down! Overall, the most popular overnight bag for river trips is NRS’s classic Bill’s Bag. These heavy-duty bags are not only waterproof, but also have backpack straps to make them easier to carry on and off the boat. They come in a couple of different sizes, and they’re a great bag for entry-level boaters and professionals alike.

Another popular option (and my personal favorite) are duffle-style bags, the most popular of which are made by Watershed. These bags aren’t as convenient if you have to carry your gear for longer distances, but they are much easier to pack and organize because of their larger openings!

A rafter sits in a desert landscape surrounded by his colorful Bill’s Bags.

A rafter surrounded by his Bill’s Bags. Photo by Brent Denys

Waste Disposal

It might not be the most glamorous thing but on a river trip or not, everyone has to go to the bathroom. When you’re hiking, this is probably pretty basic—dig a deep hole in some places, pack away wag bags in others. When you’re on a multi-day river trip though, you have the space to get a little bit more luxurious by bringing a river toilet (usually called a groover)!

Groovers come in many different varieties, and a lot depends on your personal preference. I recommend going to your favorite gear site, typing in the word “groover,” and looking through the many options and price points. While they all basically do the same job, it’s great to find one that best fits your needs!

Entertainment

As mentioned earlier, one of the biggest perks of a multi-day river trip as opposed to a backpacking trip is the ability to simply bring more things. I love the ability to bring different games and activities to make downtime at camp that much more fun! Some of my favorite camp games include a glow in the dark Bocce ball set, spike ball, and koob (or kubb).

If you have a favorite sport, I suggest looking for a lightweight or more portable version of it and bringing it along!

A nighttime image of a campsite with clouds overhead and a campfire.

Photo by Brent Denys

All of this being said, the most important thing about any adventure is that you follow safety measures and have fun! The gear described above can do a lot to make your trip more comfortable (and maybe more enjoyable), but it is entirely possible to go “fast and light” on multi-day river trips as well.

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Written By
Olivia Whitehead
Olivia Whitehead
Camping & Hiking Expert
Hello! My name is Olivia, and I have five seasons of experience working as an overnight river guide on several different rivers in the Southwestern US. I also enjoy backpacking as often as possible, and I have been lucky enough to chase this sport everywhere from the Southeastern US to the Candian R...
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