How to Stay Warm on a Rafting Trip

2 Min. Read
A pair of OARS guests gets splashed on the Middle Fork Salmon River rafting trip.
Rafters layered up for a day of rapids on an early-season Middle Fork Salmon trip. | Photo: Rob Aseltine

“Brrrrr,” I exhaled. I hunched over, trying to make myself small against the whipping wind. The sun hadn’t yet shown its face that day, and it was bitterly cold. We were rafting the Owyhee River in March. We’d dusted frost off our PFDs that morning.

“Plank time!” Casey ordered. Dutifully, I unfurled my body and began a plank across the bow of the boat. I can’t say how long I lasted before collapsing in a heap from my effort. Thirty-five seconds seems generous. By the time I finished my third round, I was both laughing and feeling warmer. 

To many, spring rafting trips can be intimidating. The weather is more varied, the temperatures more extreme. The days are shorter, the nights longer, and the water bigger. But those long nights make room for shared sunsets and time by the fire. The shorter days mean catching the sunrises and the sunsets. Plus, if you have a few tricks to stay warm, you can enjoy that big water but without all the misery. 

Here are a few tips to help you thrive on a cold weather multi-day river trip. Don’t worry, none of them require planking!

6 Tips for Staying Cozy on a Spring (or Fall) River Trip

A group of OARS guests and guides stand around a camp fire on a cold rafting trip
The right layers will help you stay warm on a rafting trip in cool weather. | Photo: Josh Miller

Warm and snug in your sleeping bag? Get up and move!

Getting out of your toasty sleeping bag in the morning can seem like an unappealing prospect. Especially when you can sense the cool, crisp air just outside your tent. But it’s worth it to get up and start moving your body. Early movement helps decrease the shock of cold morning temps. 

I always start my day by wrestling into warmer layers while still inside my sleeping bag. This serves two purposes: it makes me laugh, and it gets my blood flowing. When I finally unzip my sleeping bag, the outside air doesn’t feel quite so cold. Then I pack up my sleep kit. I like to stuff my sleeping bag and grapple with my dry bag before I get my coffee. That way, by the time I sit down with a steaming cup of joe, my heart has pumped and I’m already feeling warm.

Two women resting on a rock and talking
Keep a warm drink handy for sipping throughout the day. | Photo: Josh Miller

Take your thermos to go

Before you head out on the water, fill an insulated mug with hot tea, coffee, cocoa, or another favorite warm beverage to take with you on the raft, especially if you’re expecting a mellow morning on the river. Then savor your bevvy from the bow of the boat as you float past misty cliffs, take a swig to recover from a cold splash to the face, or enjoy it as you walk a woodsy trail to check out pictographs. Your body temperature and your mood will rise with every sip.  


Layer up! Then down and up again!

You should expect to get splashed on cool weather rafting trips, so proper layering is crucial to staying warm. I don’t bring cotton on the river. Instead, my base layers are wool, my midlayers are fleece, and my insulating layers are down. I have a set of warm clothes that are only for the on-water part of my day. If they get wet, that’s okay, because I have a set of layers that are just for off-water time.

When you get to camp, delayer and layer back up into those dry clothes right away. Sleeping in dry layers is super important to staying warm through the night. Sometimes we don’t realize we are working up a sweat just sitting by the fire, so don’t forget to save a pair of wool socks only for sleeping. I also like to stick my down jacket at the bottom of my sleeping bag to keep my toes extra warm on cold nights.

Looking down at a pair of cozy shoes on a rafting trip
Cozy shoes for camp are crucial on cooler spring rafting trips. | Photo: Rob Aseltine

Speaking of toes

Keeping your extremities warm on cold weather rafting trips is extremely important. It’s harder to warm up toes and fingers when they get cold, than to keep them warm, so be pre-emptive. Single use toe warmers don’t work very well on the water. Save those for camp, or consider purchasing reusable or rechargeable hand warmers.

On the water, I wear neoprene socks over my wool socks for extra warmth. I even have a pair of neoprene mittens for really chilly days. Neoprene socks and mittens are designed to keep you warm even when they’re wet.


Keep your head warm

You’ll also want to protect your neck and ears. Hats, headbands, and neck gaiters are all great options. My favorite is a merino wool buff. I wear this around my head, or I pull it up over my head to protect my ears as well. I love this layer because it helps keep the chilly wind off the back of my neck. Make sure whatever option you choose is thin, that way it will still fit underneath your helmet.


Time to boogie

Say you’ve layered up, you’ve sipped your tea, and you’re wearing all the right gear for cold weather rafting trips, but you’re still feeling chilled? It’s time to dance. My go-to is the pre-choreographed Boot Dance (sometimes called the Hypothermia Dance). It’s sure to get your heart pumping! But any kind of movement that brings you joy will do the trick: line dancing, beach sprints, paddle boating, squat-jumps or the funky-flamingo.

An evening by the campfire on a spring Owyhee trip. | Photo: Justin Bailie

After dancing (and planking) the way through the day, our group watched the golden layers of a stunning sunset fade away. We marveled at the beauty before we migrated to the fire. I wouldn’t have traded it for a hot day because nothing builds community like a cold weather rafting trip and a warm fire. 

Yes, there might be days when the sun doesn’t shine enough, and there might be days when the wind whips upstream bitterly. But when you’re rafting in chilly conditions, there will always be plenty of huddling together around the fire with good conversation. There will always be misty mornings and dramatic clouds. It all makes the moments of sunshine even sweeter and the shared experience even deeper. So no matter the weather, get out there and enjoy!

Portrait of Jasmine Wilheim on the river

Jasmine Wilhelm

Jasmine Wilhelm is a high school English teacher, photographer, and river guide. An Idaho native, she spends her summers guiding for OARS Dories Idaho and feels blessed to guide on the rivers she learned to boat on.

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