Not much beats getting into the flow of the river, on the water. Whether you’re steering a kayak, a canoe, or an inflatable raft, river trips ease you into a different kind of rhythm from the everyday hustle and bustle: the rhythm of the current, to be specific, an older and usually more intrinsically soothing one than traffic gridlocks and working-life tempos. (More intrinsically soothing even when Class IV rapids and cold, wet mornings are taken into account.)
We’re going to run through some river-running gear essentials in this post: a very basic river trip packing list that can help you start getting organized—and also, hopefully, get you revved up for on-the-water fun this summer!
River trips as a category cover a lot of territory: from solo kayaking odysseys to guided group rafting runs. What to pack for a river trip depends on where you’re going, what kind of craft you’re using, how many other and what kind of boats are in your party, and whether you’re going the independent route or working with an outfitter.
You may be floating with a guiding company that’s taking care of a lot of the essentials outside your own personal gear. Maybe you’re kayaking, but with the convenience of a support raft or two to transport a lot of the shared supplies and everyday essentials. Or you may be in a small party of paddlers where space is more at a premium.
Of course, the specifics of the water you’re taking to, and the season you’re taking to it in, also help dictate what you need to bring. Paddling a whitewater river in spring is different from a mostly flatwater stream in high summer. It goes without saying that the duration of your trip helps determine your packing list, too.
Mainly what we’ll cover here are some of the fundamentals for an individual paddler or rafter: an overview of some river trip essentials, especially (but not exclusively) focused on a lot of the things you’ll likely be handling yourself even on a guided float. We won’t even give dry bags their own section: It’s a given a lot of what follows will be stowed in these (which are often provided on outfitter-guided trips).
What you wear depends on the season, but remember to dress for all-weather conditions and for the temperature of the water you’re floating: An early-summer paddle may feature deliciously warm air temperatures, but that snowmelt-fed river is likely still ice-cold. Pack quick-drying garments, moisture-wicking and anti-odor fabrics, and protective outer layers such as rain or spray jackets and rain pants, fleece vests, or insulated jackets. Shorts or convertible pants are natural bottoms for warm-weather river-running. In some conditions and locations, drysuits, wetsuits, dry tops, and/or paddling gloves as well as long underwear may be warranted.
In balmy weather—and when river temperatures are also kindly—pack a swimsuit for taking a dip, which can also double as paddling/rafting wear depending on conditions.
You want lightweight, quick-drying footwear that nonetheless offers protection from sharp rocks and other river substrates when you’re hauling in crafts or portaging nasty rapids or logjams. Heavy-duty, rugged-tread sandals, specialized river shoes, or tennis shoes you don’t care too deeply about are all possibilities.
Flip-flops and other lightweight sandals don’t offer much when you’re actually running the river, but you’ll love their airy comfort at camp. For chillier conditions, camp booties are a welcome piece of kit.
Sun exposure’s a real concern on the river, and not just in clear, sunny weather. Bring along (and wear) water-resistant sunscreen of SPF 30 or higher, and don’t forget the SPF lip balm! Other forms of sun protection include wide-brimmed hats and sunglasses (with straps, naturally).
Any outdoor activity requires plenty of drinking water, and long days on the river are no exception. Also, make sure you have a water filter/purifier along on multi-day river trips.
Bring along backup food stores in case you’re out longer than expected, same as you would on a hiking/backpacking trek. And make sure the emergency provisions aren’t all concentrated in one member of your party’s boat.
It goes without saying you should be wearing an appropriate PFD, and it should have a whistle attached to it. Other safety/emergency essentials include whitewater helmets, patch kits for your boat, throw ropes, spare paddles, paddle floats, and a first-aid kit. Oh, and did we mention that don’t-leave-home-without-it duct tape?
Garbage bags can be handy for double-protecting especially important gear you’re storing in your dry bag. You also naturally want bags for the trash you generate (or find) along the way: Pack everything out, don’t burn garbage, and consider cleaning up the messy campsites of those who’ve come before you. Whether you find an empty water bottle or throwaway toothbrush, do your part to leave no trace.
Make sure your sleeping bag is securely stored in a dry bag, ideally with an inner bagging layer or two as well for double- or triple-lined security. Avoid down sleeping bags for river trips, and don’t forget the sleeping pad.
Depending on the capacity of your craft(s) and your personal preferences, you may opt for a tent or some kind of tarp shelter for riverside camping.
Make sure toiletries are kept in well-sealed bags. Moisturizing cream can be mighty helpful for hands chafed by paddles or oars, and insect repellant may be desirable for buggy conditions.
Bring along a headlamp and extra batteries for maneuvering around the campsite and dealing with potential after-hours emergencies.
Here are some other items a particular trip may warrant, or that a particular person may feel they want:
River runners in bear country will want to secure food and toiletries in bear canisters, also useful for protecting this stuff from raccoons, rodents, jays, and other pilferers.
Hanging out at the campsite on a river trip’s that much more pleasant with camp chairs, right?
Those of an angling persuasion (and the proper permits) might consider bringing the tackle along on a river-running trip, which can also help spice up the dinner plate.
Firepans are Leave No Trace-friendly ways to have a campfire in the river corridor, so long as current regulations permit one and there’s enough dead and downed wood in the broader radius of your campsite.
Here are a few miscellaneous tips on packing for a river trip:
We hope the above can provide some rough outline for what to pack for a river rafting trip—again, taking into account personal needs and preferences, the particular environmental demands of a certain river run, and the kind of trip you’re taking.
Finally, make sure you’ve got some crazy-packable, crazy-delicious Mountain House packets among your river supplies. From getting you fueled up for the day’s wildwater over breakfast to keeping you motivated in the afternoon with visions of campsite dinner, we’ve got you covered!