River raft guide
Photo credit: Morgan Sjogren

Gear for a Rafting Adventure: Camp on the River

Don’t just take a river trip — make the most of it! Remember these 10 items, and you’re sure to have an unforgettable adventure that’s both safe and comfortable.

Whether joining your friends or taking a commercial trip, there’s is nothing like floating down the blue lines on the map. River trips combine the best of car camping and backpacking. Your watercraft will haul a quantity and quality of gear (and food) that would be impossible to bring on foot into the backcountry.

And while you can get by with a combination of gear you already have, adding water to the mix stirs in the need for several essentials. Aside from the obvious camp essentials (headlamp, water filter, cook stove), consult this river-specific list before your next wild waterway adventure to ensure maximum fun and comfort.

Gear for River Trips

I spent 5 days rafting the Middle Fork of the Salmon River with ARTA guides, and tested gear from SealLine, Therm-a-Rest, MSR, and Pack Towel. The gear recommendations here highlight some of the products I used, but I also learned hacks that can work on any budget.

Dry Bags

SealLine Skylake dry bag

Keeping your gear dry is the most important consideration when packing for a river trip. A quality dry bag will block any water from soaking your stuff, even if the boat flips. The SealLine Skylake Day Pack allows you to keep gear you’ll use throughout the day — like snacks, sunblock, and hiking shoes — handy without worrying about it getting saturated or worse, thrown overboard.

Coming in spring 2020, SealLine’s new Pro Zip Duffel makes your stuff easily accessible while being fully immersible in water up to 30 minutes. It will have corrosion-resistant hardware, a waterproof zipper, and heavy-duty, PVC-free, waterproof materials. (Don’t forget submersible cases to protect your electronics.)


Black Diamond Hot Forge locking carabiner

While straps and dry boxes will tie down and stow larger items and gear essentials, having a locking carabiner on hand is an easy way to keep your day items, like a daypack and Platypus or Nalgene water bottle, handy while on the water without the risk of losing them overboard (even if the boat flips)!


Wet rafting layers
Photo credit: Morgan Sjogren

Staying warm and dry is critical even during warm months. Wearing a swimsuit as your base layer rules out any question of what to wear if it gets hot.

From there, layer yourself with quick-drying fabrics. Avoid cotton and opt for merino wool, Capilene, or fleece. Top it off with a wetsuit or drysuit (depending on your preference to feel the water or not).

For those not willing to spring for a full-on fancy river tuxedo, a dry top paired with waterproof rain pants will suffice during trips with pleasant weather and minimal splash zones.

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(Neoprene) Socks and Sandals

NRS neoprene socks

No one will call the fashion police on the river if you’re spotted wearing socks with sandals — make that neoprene socks and sandals (with heel straps).

Neoprene socks will help keep your feet warm even on chilly days as they get splashed and soaked. Wearing them with a sandal or water shoe with a heel strap will keep your feet protected.

The sock/sandal combo make take some getting used to. But it’s more versatile than bringing multiple pairs of shoes for day use ranging from warmer afternoons and day hikes off the boat.

Quick-Drying Towel

While staying dry on a river trip is nearly impossible, getting dry as soon as you’re off the boat is a key to getting and staying warm and comfortable. A PackTowl dries 70 percent faster than a normal towel, folds up tiny, and can double as your seat or sarong on sandy shorelines.

Sleeping Bag

Therm-a-Rest Questar Sleeping Bags Sale

Regardless of the weather and your attempts to keep gear dry, water is a reality on any river trip. With this in mind, opt for synthetic sleeping bags or down equipped with a water-resistant outer fabric to keep yourself as warm and dry as possible.

I used a Therm-a-Rest Questar, which uses Nikwax in its hydrophobic down fill to ensure you stay as warm and dry as possible in between river time.

Base Camp Tent

MSR Habitude tent
Photo credit: Morgan Sjogren

Because river rafting trips aren’t exactly fast-and-light missions, having a larger tent with standing room is a wonderful luxury. Privacy is scarce on river trips, and a roomier tent provides a nice refuge if you need your alone time.

Likewise, if it does rain, a larger tent like the MSR four-person Habitude tent (coming in spring 2020) has enough space for you to move your cooking space and camp chairs indoors so your party time is never jeopardized.

Eco-Friendly Sunblock

Auctiv sunblock

Reflection off the water can create nasty sunburns, but whatever you spread across your skin affects the water too.

Some substances in standard sunscreens are harmful to the plants and animals that call the river home. Do the river ecosystem a favor and select a chemical-free sunblock like Auctiv, which is zinc-based.

Booze Cruise

Happy hour is a highlight of every day on the river. Canned adult beverages eliminate the risk of broken glass that can wreak havoc on inflatable watercraft and bare feet.

Think beyond beer and opt for canned cocktails and ciders, like the new line from 10 Barrel Brewing Co., to ensure that everyone can join the party regardless of dietary restrictions. (They’re gluten-free!)

Safety First

Fishing with PFD
Photo credit: Morgan Sjogren

Last but most important of all, a personal flotation device (PFD) should be worn at all times on the river. Some models contain built-in pockets and knives, but all will help save your life should you find yourself overboard. REI has a huge selection of men’s, women’s, and kids’ PFDs — and even some for pets.

Bonus: Dress Like a River Rat

River raft guide clothes outfit

Every sport has its ingrained style trends, and river guides are a friendly, quirky, and stylish brood. A pair of colorful boardshorts, a wide-brimmed straw hat, an old button-up dress shirt, and a silver bracelet will help you fully immerse in the good tidings of river culture.

While the shorts and hat are essential items for your comfort, surely the bangles will add a touch of charm and good luck as your forge onward into the rapids ahead.