Winter has almost released its grip on the mountains. The rivers will soon begin to release their bounty. That means river enthusiasts can begin to get ready for that fabled time of year: spring runoff! For many regions, spring runoff means high flows and sunny days. It also means cold water. Combine that with cooler air temperatures and the need to choose the appropriate attire for spring whitewater trips becomes an essential part of getting the most out of early season splash sessions.
Leave the Cotton at Home
The most important rule to remember about layering for spring river trips is no cotton, down to socks and underwear. Cotton is a negative insulator. This means it absorbs heat, cooling you further. Since the key at this time in the season is to avoid losing heat, cotton should be left at home.
Choose materials that will help insulate and keep the body warm even when wet. For that, look at wool or synthetic fabrics like polyester, capilene or fleece.
Another thing to remember is the body can cool down a lot easier than it can warm back up, so dressing for warmth on spring whitewater trips is key. Here’s how to do it right…
How to Layer for Spring River Trips
Wool or neoprene socks
These will keep your feet warm even when they’re soaked. Wool functions well while wet but can take on extra weight and takes longer to dry. Neoprene socks are an alternative. They keep a small layer of water against your skin which your body warms and the neoprene itself is insulating. Whichever option feels the most comfortable to you should be the one you go with. You may need to size your river shoes differently based on your sock choice.
No cotton here either. Quick-drying bathing suits are a personal favorite but any synthetic sportswear-themed undergarments will do the trick. The perk of sports bras or compression shorts is you may be more comfortable in these layers rather than your underwear, or birthday suit, when it’s time for those inevitable bathroom breaks.
For early spring days or rain-soaked adventures these are the layers that are going to be your primary insulating layer. They should be form fitting but not constricting. You’re going to be exerting yourself, even if you’re just the bow ornament and having the time of your life. For reference, think long underwear for winter. If you already own ski/snowboarding base layers, they will do the trick as long as they’re non-cotton. Big box retailers offer a variety of cheap options, or you can spring for state-of-the-art jawns from Immersion Research or Columbia Sportswear’s Omni heat line (these have heat-reflecting micro dots).
Water-repellent layer (Wetsuit)
The Farmer Jon/Farmer Jane wetsuits are a great option. They generally come in 3 mm thickness and go over your base layers. This will function as a water-repellent layer but also insulation and abrasion protection.
A backup layer
This can be a fleece pullover or sweater. My favorite is an old Patagonia pullover I found at Goodwill. It has a great pattern and it keeps me warm even when it’s soggy. I also carry a small puffy jacket or vest (with water-resistant down or synthetic down) in a drybag in case I get very cold. I can put this layer on during lunch breaks or if I have a true cold emergency.
Splash jacket or raincoat
For those really splashy (or windy/rainy days) on the water, a splash jacket helps keep you warmer longer by staying dry. A splash jacket is basically a pullover raincoat with a cinching wrist, waist and neck openings. In a pinch, a raincoat will do, but if you’re on a multi-day river trip I’d recommend bringing both. You’ll want that dry raincoat for hanging around camp or a side hike.
Personal Flotation Device (PFD)
Your PFD, or life jacket, acts as both a flotation device and an extra layer of insulation. You can wear it over all of your base layers, mid layers and wetsuit, but underneath your splash jacket. On colder days, however, you may prefer to wear it over your splash jacket.
Closed-toed shoes, please! When your feet get cold you may not notice all the rocks you bump getting in and out of the raft. Or kicking your feet into the thwarts in that fun rapid. Better to protect your toes, and if possible, add some ankle support too. Astral makes a variety of water shoes that offer many combinations and styles. I prefer the Rassler 2.0 a hiking-worthy whitewater shoe but for the less backcountry determined the brewer or loyak are always great options. Chaco, a longtime guide favorite, also makes several close-toed options that work well on river trips.
We lose a lot of heat out of our heads. Having a layer to don during breaks or if it’s really splashy is a great way to stay toasty. Pick a head cover sleek enough to fit under your helmet like a neoprene skull cap or hood. A wool cap will also work.
Other Considerations for Early Season River Trips
Most outfitter-provided helmets will generally be entry-level and have few insulating properties. If you’re frequently rafting or recreating on stretches of river that require helmets, investing in a whitewater-specific helmet could be a good call. Plus, many options offer a marked increase in insulation compared to generic rental helmets.
If you’re getting out early in spring there may still be snow on the ground. If the weather is close to freezing or the water is still near alpine temperatures, a drysuit may be a better option for the final layer. A drysuit is basically a water-resistant full body snowsuit. There are gaskets at the wrists, feet and neck that keep water out and a large waterproof zipper sealing the whole garment up. In that case you would skip the wetsuit and simply layer non-cotton layers underneath the drysuit.
Now that you’ve packed for success you’re ready for your spring river trip. Don’t forget to bring comfortable warm (non-cotton) clothes to leave at the takeout!
Photos: Layering for a spring river trip – Adam Edwards; Tuolumne River rafting – Justin Bailie; Rafting on the North Fork American – Hot Shot Imaging