Early Season River Rafting: Layering 101

5 Min. Read
A group of paddlers rafting the Merced River in the spring

I love early season river rafting. It’s what we, as rafters, wait for all winter long. We get excited knowing that as the snow begins to melt, nature is handing us our season pass to fun. Ask any guide what their favorite sound is – I can almost bet they’ll say it’s the roaring, rushing thunder of a raging river. This roar is the loudest in spring. It’s what fills the ears and hearts of those adventurers, those self-proclaimed “whitewater junkies,” with jubilation. It’s the sound we find intoxicating enough to trade the warm, luxurious comforts of everyday living for the frigid, unmatched exhilaration of rafting the runoff.

But, are we really making a trade? Is it possible to stay warm while being sluiced by waves cold enough to give you an ice cream headache? Absolutely. When it comes to whitewater rafting in cooler temps, it pays to take a tactical approach to layering.

How to Dress for a Spring Rafting Trip

A group of paddlers in yellow boats rafting the Merced River in the spring

LAYER #1: The Base Layer

When getting doused in spring runoff, you’ll want to keep warm and stay warm down to your core. This means skipping the cotton, including cotton blends. Yep, even the cotton undies. Instead, opt for underwear or a swimsuit made of synthetic material. Ladies, if you’re taking the swimsuit route, this is where a 2-piece can really come in handy. Trust me, you’ll want the option of pulling your layers up and down without having to expose yourself while using the “facili-trees” (if you catch my drift). Don’t want to bare it all in a bikini? No worries. Tankinis give you all the coverage with maximum functionality. If you skip the swimsuit and go with synthetic unmentionables, don’t forget to make sure your bra’s synthetic, too. (My favorite river skivvies: ExOfficio Give-N-Go Underwear.)

LAYER #2: Long Underwear

Choose something synthetic, or even wool or silk; again, no cotton. This optional layer becomes mandatory when the water or the weather is really cold (think early spring or a rainy day). For the most insulating power, this layer should fit closely to your skin, but not be so tight it interferes with circulation. This layer can be worn under just about everything, making it the MVP of my layering team. For the ultimate balance of quick-drying yet toasty, choose a set that’s mid-weight and made either of polyester or Capilene®.

A group of rafters in wetsuits preparing to raft the Merced River in the spring

LAYER #3: The Wetsuit

On early season trips, a wetsuit is awesome. This layer can be worn either with or without your long underwear. If you choose to go for the extra warmth of long undies, make sure you put your long underwear tops and bottoms on under your wetsuit. Afraid of looking silly in the wetsuit? You can always pull a pair of board shorts on over the top of your wetsuit. Because, after all, who doesn’t want to look good for the photos you’ll be showing off for years to come?

LAYER #4: Fleece Top

Oh, the heavenly, fluffy, warm comfort of fleece. I always bring a fleece top on the river. Why, you ask? Because there’s nothing else like it. A warm fleece can save the day. I wear my fleece over my long underwear and under my wetsuit while on the river. Sometimes, I just pack it in a dry bag and pull it on at lunch to give me that extra boost of warmth. After spending the morning getting drenched in bodaciously thrilling yet icy whitewater, a warm, dry fleece can be a game changer.

LAYER #5: Rain Gear

I know what you’re thinking: “I just checked the weather report and there is no way I’m going to need this stuff. There is a 0% chance of rain for the next two weeks.” Don’t be fooled into thinking you’re better off without this layer. When you see the words “rain gear,” train your mind to read: “splash gear” or “wind gear.” Here’s a pro tip: rain gear isn’t just for the rain. I wear my rain gear over all of my warm, dry under-layers to protect my precious warmth from the wind and water, even when there isn’t a cloud in the sky. When you’re choosing this gear, do yourself a favor and get something waterproof, not water resistant. Oh, and skip the cheap plastic ponchos; you’ll want something that’s as tough as you are. Get gear that snugs around your wrists and ankles. If you can find a raincoat with a hood, the back of your neck will thank you.

Insider tip: If you’re borrowing a wetsuit from us, it will generally come paired with a splash top. On our one-day trips, a splash top is a fine substitute for a rain jacket. On our multi-day trips, you’ll still want the rain jacket for camp.

Two men wearting wetsuits and helmets getting splashed in a whitewater rapid.

SOCKS: Don’t Neglect Your feet!

Comfortable feet will happily take you wherever you want to go; uncomfortable feet will just complain, no matter how much fun the rest of you wants to have. In cold weather, wool socks are amazing. I’m not kidding. Your feet are going to be wet all day long; wool socks will keep your feet toasty, even while soggy. Synthetic fleece socks and neoprene socks dry a little faster and can be nice too.

SHOES: Protect Those Toes

Stubbing your toe is no fun, neither is losing a flip flop to the river. Choose footwear that will really stay on your feet in swirling currents. Seriously, folks, flip flops won’t cut it. In cooler weather, neoprene wetsuit booties are great; though personally, I love wearing my retired running shoes as my river shoes. In warmer weather, performance-type sandals like Chacos worn with fleece, wool or neoprene socks can be comfortable, just make darn sure they have a strap on the back to keep your foot in your shoe. I’ve seen people lose their shorts to the current. Don’t think the river’s not powerful enough to nab your shoes.

The moral of the story is to dress in layers. Be smart and plan to get wet! Remember that synthetic fabrics dry faster than natural fabrics and cotton is always a no-no (save the cotton for camp, or when temps reach 95-degrees). And finally, when you’re packing up for your adventure, always keep in mind–if you don’t bring it, you can’t wear it.

Amanda Willis

Amanda knows that adventure, stories, and outstanding food and drink are best paired with the thrill of a new experience; it's no wonder she works for OARS. Amanda has been on more than 100 river trips throughout the United States and has floated more than 3,000 river miles.

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