5 Ways to Save Your Skin on a River Trip

6 Min. Read
Grand Canyon rafting trip

The most epic skin aberration I have ever experienced from spending time on the river was during a winter Grand Canyon rafting trip. The combination of damp skin, extreme hot and cold temps, and micro detritus coating every surface imaginable, weathered my epidermis to shreds. The little bits of sediment and sand riddled throughout the Canyon’s nooks and crannies seemed to wear away at the tips of my fingers daily, eroding and cracking them into little mini canyons of their own.

But even if you’re not on a multi-week Canyon expedition, river trips can be rough on the skin. While part of me loves this reality, part of me wants to fight back and preserve what little collagen, pigment and unadulterated pores I might have remaining (especially on my face).  Here are some skin-preserving tips, tricks and product ideas that have been passed down to me from a long line of charred and crusty river folk.

How to Take Care of Your Skin on River Trips

How to Take Care of Your Skin on River Trips
1) Ultraviolet Protection

Protection from the sun should be a two-pronged approach. First, cover as much skin as you can. Light, breathable clothes like a long-sleeve UPF-rated sun shirt (preferably with a hood) and leggings, plus a hat and sunglasses offer basic protection. From there, you’ll want to lather on sunscreen. Non-toxic sunscreen brands like Thinksport (great for active people) are best. Choose brands with Zinc and that rub-on rather than aerosols.

Make sure to slather up the tops of feet, the back of your hands and lips, which are easy areas to forget. For lips, protect with an SPF-rich lip balm like Burt’s Bees or Carmex.

2) Hydrate and moisturize

Your first defense against dry skin and hair on the river is drinking lots of liquids. Water, or any electrolyte beverage like Gatorade, is ideal. Also keep in mind that alcohol and caffeine are diuretics that dehydrate you and can counter all of your hydration efforts.

Oil, lotions and serums applied directly to the hair and skin can help seal in moisture too. I like almond oil or a travel-size container of coconut oil (bonus that it smells so good). Another personal tip is to add a small amount of Sea Buckthorn Seed Oil to any oil you apply to your face. It contains all kinds of omegas, reduces inflammation and stimulates collagen growth. Aloe vera or shea butter-based hydrating applications at the beginning and end of the day will also make your skin happy on a river trip.

3) Salves and Balms

At the end of a long day of paddling, nothing feels nicer than rubbing a salve into all the scrapes and dry spots on your sun-soaked extremities. I like to do this right before bed when I am not going to touch anything else for the night and the salve can do its healing magic while I sleep. Badger Balm or Lucas Pawpaw Ointment are great options, or, keep an eye out at trading posts and mom and pop outdoor shops for local formulas. Rafters also turn to Super Salve and Aquaphor ointment for fast-action healing and repair.

Pro tip: Some people like to seal the salve in by gloving up. During my Grand Canyon trip, several crew members coated their hands (and feet) in Bag Balm at night and slept with cotton gloves on as a way to avoid severe skin cracking. I think there is a fine balance of taking care of yourself, but not fighting the elements too hard. But if you’re going to be out in the elements for an extended period, you may also find this routine helpful.

Sunscreen is an important part of taking care of your skin on a river trip
4) Relieve Chaffage

Spending a lot of time sitting on a boat (often in damp clothing) can sometimes cause unwelcome rubbing and take a toll on skin prone to chafing. Without sharing TMI, try Boudreaux’s Butt Paste for relief.

5) Keep Clean

Beyond basic hygiene, staying clean on the river is an important factor for skincare too. Don’t apply any oil, lotion or other formula unless your skin has been washed. I like to use body wipes at the end of the day in my tent and a small bottle of Dr. Bronner’s during the day on the river (after restroom use and before meals). I keep a small bottle of Dr. Bronner’s handy, hanging in a mesh bag at the bow of my boat. One note of caution, biodegradable soaps are not allowed on some rivers. Be sure to read regulations set out by river managers before using any kind of soap.

More Ways to Help Keep Your Skin Happy on the River

Skin care tips from the Ladies of the Whitewater Community

You definitely don’t need to stock up on a dozen different skincare products before your next river trip, but packing a few key items that will help keep your skin feeling good can be a game-changer. Here are a few additional recommendations from The Ladies of Whitewater Community Facebook group…

“Lotions, facial oils, and lip stuff from Tomboy Organic Skincare Co. It’s a woman-boater-owned business.”

“Face specific Oil of Olay Face Lotion with spf in my PFD pocket. On multi-day trips, a collapsible bucket, wash cloth, Cetaphil cream in a tub, and cotton socks. At bed, dip the feet in the bucket with water. Use a washcloth to remove dirt and sand. Lather with cream. Put on cotton socks. Same can be done with hands and cotton gloves if needed. Bucket doubles as a nearby pee bucket in the middle of the night, just rinse well in the morning!”

Flexitol Heel Balm is the absolute best for preventing and treating cracks on feet and hands, even deep bleeding cracks that nothing else will heal. The key is 25% urea which will slowly debride crack edges and allow it to heal. But if used prophylactically, your hands and feet will stay baby butt soft!”

Taking care of injured feet on a river trip

“My feet get a pumice stone DIY pedicure before I leave home. Other than that I don’t like to use much lotion, etc on the river – I feel like it is a dust/sand magnet that turns me into a walking sugared donut. Stay hydrated. Use clothing for sun protection when you can instead of applying sunscreen all over your body all day long.”

“I used Green Goo first aid ointment on my cracking hands on the last trip and it definitely helped. And during the day, a tiny tube of First Aid Beauty Ultra Repair Cream. I just wish I’d brought some spa gloves to sleep in to help keep the moisturizer close during the night. I still had some cracking, but I definitely wasn’t the worst off.”

Water Wipes – they’re hard to find, but totally worth it to not have all the chemicals in standard wipes. Especially helpful for sensitive skin. And Neosporin.”

Naked Bee, serious hand and foot cream for hands and feet. And be proactive from the very beginning of the river trip.”

Author’s note: When choosing products, try look for those that are non-toxic to humans and the environment. Biodegradable and Leave No Trace should be the standard, and if products are locally-made or produced by a river person, even better!

Photos: Josh Miller, Whit Richardson, James Kaiser, Justin Bailie


K.M. Collins

K.M. Collins is a geologist-gone writer. Covering everything outdoors and a spectrum of journalism, she operates her content and marketing company, Guerrilla Media Bend, from Central Oregon. Between whitewater paddle boarding, kayaking and rafting, she's a jack of all water trades.

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