Raingear? Check. Insulating layers and sun-protection shirts? Check and check. Water shoes? Yup. Hat, sunscreen, water bottle…yes, got those too!
Good work. You’ve worked through the essential list of what to bring on a rafting trip. Now all that’s left is to pack some key items that will take your experience to the next level. More than the basics, these additions to your kit will style out your float and make you feel like a professional guide, or at least the envy of the rest of your crew.
What to Bring Rafting: Gear Essentials That Will Take Your Trip to the Next Level
1) Light up the night
You’ll definitely want to pack a headlamp (bonus points if it has red-light mode). But these days there are more options than ever for adding some lights to your tent, group zone, or kitchen.
Snag a set of Big Agnes’ battery-powered mtnGlo Camping Lights and get creative with your campsite ambience. They’re designed for tents and they work great for adding soft, yet functional light to your sleeping quarters, but you can also drape them on pretty much anything for a fun, festive campsite.
If you want something more lantern-like, the MPOWERD line of Luci lights are pretty slick. They’re inflatable so they pack down easily. They’re fully solar powered so you don’t need batteries (7 hours of charge time in the sun gets you 12 hours of light on the medium setting). They’re waterproof, durable and they throw off a lot of light for their size. Starting around $20, they’re also fairly inexpensive. Higher-end models can even charge your phone or other USB device.
2) Comfy clothes
Despite advances in base layers (wool that’s not itchy, synthetics that don’t smell like a gym bag after 10 minutes of wear), there’s nothing better than sliding on something soft and comfy in camp at the end of a long day of paddling. And even though “cotton kills” may be the on-water slogan of river guides, when it comes to camp comfort, cotton is king.
It may seem too basic to mention but keeping a soft, cotton t-shirt reserved for evening lounging is a raft-trip power move. For cooler floats, I toss a long-sleeve cotton shirt into my pack. If there’s enough room, I’ll even bring my favorite hoodie.
A cotton sarong is another great multi-purpose addition to any river trip. Lightweight and supremely packable, it basically disappears into your kit…until you need it. Keep off the bugs, add a bit of sun protection, play superhero if you want, a sarong is as useful as it is packable. Still not convinced? There are a ton of ways to use a sarong on a rafting trip will make you a believer.
3) Something to read
Multi-day rafting trips have all sorts of down moments that are perfect for engaging with the written word. I’m partial to natural history type books about the area I’m paddling through, but historical or even fiction books set where you’re paddling can really add value to your experience too. I once discovered (and then frantically downloaded) a collection of free Jack London stories about Hawaii moments before our plane took off en route to Kaua’i. His story about lepers in the Kalalau Valley defending themselves from forced relocation to a colony on the island of Moloka’i added an entirely different perspective when I kayaked to that fabled spot. If you’re going to read on a device, though, be sure to bring some extra juice…
4) Portable power
Raft trips tend to take place in beautiful settings. You’ll probably want to take a lot of photos and videos. But without a source of power, your phone won’t last long. A small charging device can extend the life of your phone and other electronic equipment (like that Kindle you brought along for reading) without taking up much space in your bag. I’m a fan of Goal Zero’s Flip 24, but there are loads of other portable charger options out there. Also, take a moment to flip your phone to “airplane” or “low battery” mode, and make sure your screen brightness is as low as it can be to save as much precious power as possible.
5) A group surprise
Everyone wants to be a hero at least once in their life. But not everyone wants to dive into a frozen lake to rescue a wayward dog or run into a burning building. Thankfully, there’s a much easier route to hero status – the group surprise.
With just a little forethought and discretion, you can stash a special something into your bag that, when unveiled, will immediately make you a winner.
Signed up for a summer float with your family? Bring some squirt guns and bust ‘em out on day two. Break out this travel bocce set at camp, or bring along some waterproof cards and this cool lightweight, foldable cribbage board to start a winner-takes-all-the-chocolate tournament.
At the end of the day, you don’t have to spend loads of money on a surprise, you just have to be modestly organized: a sheet of paper and a pen are all you need for a super fun game of Salad Bowl. Whatever you bring, just be sure to keep it a secret until the big reveal!
6) Moisturizing cream
Years ago, my wife and I joined a crew on a five-day float on Montana’s Smith River. The mid-May weather was fickle; sunny and warm one day, snowy and cold the next. I have a lot of great memories from that trip, but one stands out: Kenny religiously rubbing moisturizing cream onto his feet each night.
When I teased him about his nightly ritual, he proudly declared it was the key to navigating a long season on rivers. It turned out that Kenny was a river guide, and I took note of his dedicated foot-care regimen.
The reality is that feet take a beating on raft trips. They’re wet one moment, airing out in Chacos the next, and then forced to trot across scalding sand without any protection at all. A quick nightly application of high-quality, natural moisturizing cream like Super Salve will help keep your dogs (not to mention other parts of your body that are exposed to the elements all day like your hands) from drying out, cracking, or worse. Worried about getting your sleeping bag covered in lotion? Bring an extra pair of socks so you can slip them onto your feet just before you retire for the night.
7) Earth-friendly cleanliness
Yes, there will be a hand washing station (though you should still toss a small bottle of hand sanitizer into your pack). And yes, you can always take a quick dip in the river to wash off the day’s grime. But bringing along an eco-friendly way to clean your face (and other parts I won’t mention here) can be a game changer on both short and long rafting trips.
The problem is that most makeup remover/cleansing towelettes are made from plastic, don’t biodegrade, and have alcohol and other harsh cleaning agents that dry out your skin. The good news is that there are some earth-friendly options.
Burt’s Bees has an entire line of eco-groovy towelettes made from cotton left over from the garment industry or we recommend several other brands as well. Even though these options are more earth-friendly than others, single-use anything is best used sparingly. My wife and I often share a towelette if we’re just wiping off our face after a long day.
None of these “luxury” items are all that expensive. They’re all pretty small and easy to bring on rafting trip, but guaranteed they will elevate your experience.
*An earlier version of this post first appeared on the blog in 2013 and was last updated April 2021.
Photos: Luci lights for camping; Mpowerd; Reading on the Rogue River – Cindi Stephan; Squirt gun fun on the Lower Klamath River – Gary Pearl; Rafting trip shower – Cindi Stephan