Dear Rafters, Please Don’t Go on a River Trip Until You’ve Read This

8 Min. Read
A yellow raft in mid-flip on the Tuolumne River trip in California as guests fall into the river

11 Things You Should Know About River Trips

Everyone needs to go on a river trip at least once in their lifetime. And we’re not just talking a quick day trip either. Nope, for unplugged adventure at its best, you need to take it to the next level and experience the magic of a multi-day rafting trip. But, before you snap on your life jacket, hop on a raft and disappear into the wilderness for a few days, there are a few things you should know…

Man holding his breath while swimming in the river after falling out of a raft
An involuntary swimmer holds his breath between waves. | Photo: James Kaiser
1) You might fall out of the boat

Let’s just get this one out of the way since falling out of the boat is probably one of people’s biggest fears about rafting. And that’s totally OK.  If it does happen to you, chances are you’ll go for a quick swim and be pulled back into the boat after a refreshing, yet rowdy ride through a few rapids. Sometimes it’s a bit scary and it’s almost always humbling.  But usually, it’s not a big deal and you’ll have a really good story to share around the campfire for years to come.  Still, it’s important to keep in mind that a river trip is not a cruise, or a Disneyland ride for that matter, and it’s not for everyone. There are real risks and every participant has to be prepared mentally and physically before embarking on a river trip.

2) It’s not just about the rafting

If you think you’re going to be stuck on a boat all day, you’ve got it wrong, my friend. On a multi-day river trip, the whitewater is only a fraction of the fun. When you’re not on the water, which is typically about a third of the day, you’ll be discovering the other gems hidden within a river canyon. That might be a hike to a hidden waterfall or epic view, a soak in a hot spring or visit to an Puebloan granary. Or maybe it’s kicking back with your favorite book and beverage while your kids frolic on the beach without a care in the world. It’s your vacation and you can decide how you want to enjoy your downtime.

Hiking in Canyonlands on a Cataract Canyon rafting trip
Colorado River overlook from the Dolls House hike on a Cataract Canyon rafting trip. | Photo: James Kaiser
3) This is the backcountry at its best

It can be a real adventure just to get to a put-in for a river trip. Sometimes there’s a long drive in a bus on some pretty sketchy roads involved. Other times, you’ll fly in a tiny plane and land on a patch of gravel in the middle of nowhere. But that’s when you know you’re in for a treat. If you’re looking for true wilderness immersion, this is it. And guess what, there’s no backpack and freeze-dried food involved.

4) You might gain weight on a river trip

This is a “complaint” we’ve occasionally gotten (sorry, not sorry). You won’t go hungry on a river trip. The amount of food and beverages that can be packed in a raft will blow your mind.  For a little perspective, the crew for a 16-person Grand Canyon rafting trip brings 40 dozen eggs, 15 boxes of cereal, and 9 boxes of pancake mix, plus fresh fruit, bagels, oatmeal and coffee. And that’s just for breakfasts. You won’t believe the lunch and dinner spreads guides prepare. Hors d’oeuvres and happy hour aren’t skimped on either. If you have a particular drink of choice you can’t live without. Bring it. That bottle of whiskey you’ve been saving for a special occasion? Bring it…but maybe skip the glass and opt for a flask instead. You’ll surely make some new friends if you share.

Guides preparing dinner on a multi-day river trip on the Salmon River in Idaho
Guides preparing dinner on a multi-day river trip on the Salmon River in Idaho. | Photo: Jillian Lukiwski
5) Speaking of making new friends…

If nightmare scenarios have played out in your head about the kinds of people you might get stuck with on a multi-day river trip, consider this: If your idea of a vacation looks the same as theirs, don’t you already have something in common?  The people you’ll meet on the river may not be the normal folks you’d make friends with, but share a week of adventure, beach games, campfire stories and stargazing together, and there’s just no way around it. By the end of the trip, you’ll be asking each other which river trip you all should meet up on next year.

6) Flip-flops do not equal river shoes

Don’t be the person who rolls up to the put-in with flip flops on. You’ll hit the first rapid and that flimsy little sandal you thought was a worthy river shoe will end up as fish bait.  But beyond the right footwear, packing is a big deal. Outfitters don’t put together packing lists just for fun. They’ve been out in the elements for decades and know all the do’s and the don’ts of packing for a rafting trip. So take their expert advice and follow the provided packing lists, even if it means you’re bringing a rain jacket when it’s supposed to be 90 degrees and sunny all week. River guides will share theirs, but they’d rather not. Trust me on that one.

A boy kneeling in a river and using a bottle to pour water over his head
A boy gives himself a refreshing “river bath” on Oregon’s Rogue River. | Photo: Cindi Stephans
7) Nobody cares what you look like when you’re on the river

If there’s one thing that can be tossed aside when you’re on the river, it’s vanity. Nobody will care that you haven’t done your hair or makeup. Throw on a hat and a little face moisturizer and call it good. Also, nobody will care when you haven’t showered for a few days, because they haven’t either.  If this freaks you out, know that there are plenty of ways to stay clean on a river trip.

8) Going to the bathroom outside is part of the deal, but it’s not as bad as you think

Sorry, there aren’t usually bathrooms conveniently scattered throughout the wilderness. The good news is that you don’t have to use the old “dig a hole and bury it” method when you’re on a river trip. Instead, outfitters bring along a portable toilet affectionately referred to as the groover. Does it flush? No. But is it a discreet way to handle your business? Yup.  And if you happen to get caught with your pants down as another group of rafts floats by, just wave and smile. Chances are, you’ll never see those people again anyway.

Camping in a scenic canyon on an OARS river trip
An OARS group camps along the Main Salmon River in Idaho. | Photo: Jillian Lukiwski
9) It’s not really sleeping on the ground if you practically have a mattress beneath you

If you don’t camp, you shouldn’t rule out a river trip. Because if you did, you’d quite possibly be missing out on some of the best sleep you’ve ever had. How is this possible in a tent? Sprawled out on a luxurious 3-inch pad with the sound of a rushing river there to lull you to sleep.  Pure bliss.  If you are a camper, don’t miss out on ditching the tent altogether and sleeping under the stars. It doesn’t get any better than seeing the Milky Way from one of the most remote and darkest areas of the country.

10) You can bring your phone, but there won’t be any service

This used to be a no-brainer because you typically won’t find any cell service in a river canyon. These days, many of us use our smartphones as our cameras. So if you bring your phone to capture the moment, put it on airplane mode and make sure to protect it with a waterproof case.  Just know if you can’t go a day without checking email and messages, then a river trip may not be for you.  Or maybe it’s exactly what you need.

Wildfire smoke on Idaho's Lower Salmon River
Wildfire smoke on Idaho’s Lower Salmon River | Photo: Rob Aseltine
11) River trips are real adventures

It’s not unreasonable to want your vacation to be perfect, but when it comes to wilderness expeditions like river trips, nobody can guarantee what kind of experience you’ll have. Besides the misadventures that come with flipped boats and involuntary swims, remember that Mother Nature is always in charge. Depending on when you go, you may experience high water rafting conditions, low water conditions, or a late season monsoon. You could get snowed on, or have to deal with extreme heat. You might be rafting during wildfire season and encounter smoky conditions for the entire trip, or just for a day before the winds shift and blue skies return. We like to say that no two river trips are ever the same. And that’s exactly what makes it an adventure.

This article was originally published on 11/14/2016 and was last updated on 9/23/22

Cari Morgan heashot

Cari Morgan

Cari Morgan is the Content Marketing Manager for OARS. Since 2014, she has managed the company’s blog, The Eddy, and has been the primary “voice” behind the brand’s social media sphere.

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