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    Not much beats getting out onto the water and going with the flow of the river. 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: after all, the flow of the current is usually more intrinsically soothing than that of 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 basic river trip packing list that can help you start getting organized—and also get you revved up for on-the-water fun this summer!


    River trips can encompass a variety of activities, 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 others are in your party, and whether you’re going the independent route or working with an outfitter. What to bring also very much depends on the duration of the trip; is it a day trip or a week long river excursion?

    Loaded backpacks ready for a river trip adventure.
    Image by Pexels from Pixabay


    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 in the river or stream you're traveling on as well as the season you’re traveling in will also help dictate what you need to bring. Paddling a whitewater river in spring is different from a mostly flatwater stream in high summer. 

    Mainly what we’ll cover here are some of the fundamental items for an individual paddler or rafter to consider packing. These river trip essentials are ones you’ll likely be handling yourself even on a guided float. Here’s a quick river trip packing list to reference: 

    • Dry bags
    • Clothes
    • Swimwear
    • River shoes
    • Camp shoes
    • Sunscreen and sun protection items
    • Drinking water
    • Emergency food and lightweight meals
    • Safety and repair supplies
    • Trash bags
    • Sleeping bag
    • Tent 
    • Toiletries 
    • Head lamp 

    We go into detail on each of these items, plus a few bonus items, below.


    It’s pretty much a given that a lot of what follows in this list will be stowed in dry bags (which are often provided on outfitter-guided trips), so it’s number one on our list. Waterproof dry bags are essential for keeping your belongings safe on a river trip. They protect your gear from water damage, ensuring everything stays dry even if your boat tips over. 

    Using multiple dry bags will help you stay organized by categorizing items, making it easier to find what you need quickly. Most dry bags float, adding an extra layer of security for retrieving items if they fall overboard. 


    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 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 jackets 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 mild—pack swimwear 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 paddling through 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 your campsite. For chillier conditions, camp booties are a welcome piece of gear to bring along.


    Sun exposure is 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, sun protection shirts, 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 to bring a water filter/purifier along on multi-day river trips.


    Depending on the meal plan for your trip, freeze-dried meals make a great option to bring on a multi-day river trip. They are lightweight, easy to pack, quick to make, and most importantly, delicious! 

    You should also consider bringing along backup food sources 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.


    Make sure to always wear an appropriate personal flotation device (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, extra life jackets, duct tape, and a first-aid kit. 

    It’s also important to brush up on your river reading skills before the trip. 


    Garbage bags can be handy for double-protecting gear you’re storing in your dry bag that’s especially important. You also 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 throw away 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 or lotion can be mighty helpful for hands chafed by paddles or oars, and insect repellant may be desirable for buggy conditions. Don’t forget your toothbrush and toothpaste for overnight trips! 


    Bring along a headlamp and extra batteries for maneuvering around the campsite at night and dealing with potential after-hours emergencies.


    Here are some other items to consider bringing, depending on the nature of your tript:


    River runners in bear country will want to secure food and toiletries in bear canisters, which are also useful for protecting this stuff from raccoons, rodents, jays, and other pilferers.


    Hanging out at the campsite on a river trip is that much more pleasant with camp chairs, right? If you have room for lightweight chairs, pack them up!


    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 tips on packing for a river trip:

    • Never overload a boat. Consider your craft’s capacity and take into account the weight of all passengers to determine how much you can carry.
    • Using numerous smaller dry bags is often more efficient and protective than a few big ones. Label or color-code these bags based on contents to make retrieving items that much easier.
    • Use sealable plastic bags to protect smaller items and isolate supplies with leak potential, such as sunscreen.
    • Share common items such as camp stoves, water filters/purifiers, and the like to minimize bulk and weight.


    We hope the above can provide a good start on what to pack for your upcoming river rafting trip. Again, be sure to take into account personal needs and preferences, the particular environmental demands of a certain river run, the kind of trip you’re taking, and the duration.

    Finally, make sure you’ve got some easily-packable, crazy-delicious Mountain House pouches 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!

    Hero photo by Razvan Chisu on Unsplash

    Inspired for an Adventure? Check out Beef Stroganoff - Pouch and Beef Stew - Pouch