For years, I loved backpacking for getting into the wild. I started with the classic 60-pound pack, wore leather boots, carried multiple pots, and slept in a four-season tent. Those were hard-won wilderness trips where every time I’d take a break I’d feel as lucky to be back there as relieved to be off my feet.
Then, in 2005, I read Beyond Backpacking by Ray Jardine and joined the ultralight revolution. I cut my toothbrush in half, slept beneath a tarp, and cooked my meals on a stove I made from a Pepsi can. I thru-hiked the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) in running shoes with a backpack that weighed 13 pounds when fully loaded. The minimalist approach allowed me to go farther with less fatigue, but with its Ramen dinners, iodine drinking water, and mosquito-filled sleep, it was Spartan living.
Then I discovered rafting.
On my first multi-day rafting trip down the Colorado River I became obsessed with the cooler. It was hard for me to believe that after working up a sweat on the oars, deep in the wilderness, I could grab a frosty drink. The food options, too, were amazing. Fresh tomato, avocado, and lettuce on turkey sandwiches became the lunch routine, and we had grilled burgers for dinner. These were the meals I would literally dream about while backpacking.
As I went on more multi-day river trips, lured by the promise of the cooler, my entire idea of wilderness camping changed. One trip down the Rogue River we brought juniper firewood, reclining camp chairs, tables, and a shade tent. We played Ladder Ball on the beach and ate a freshly made peach cobbler for dessert. Some guided trips even offer beer and wine pairings with the meals, and the best part is the guides do all the cooking and cleaning. You just kick back and enjoy the experience.
At first I thought all this pampering would somehow offend my minimalist instincts, but boy was I wrong. With all my camp needs met, I finally had time to sneak off to fish until twilight when the trout really start feeding.
The food, drinks, and creature comforts are all good reasons to love river camping, but there’s also something satisfying about floating with all your gear. It has the same satisfaction of carrying it on your back, without the sore feet and shoulders. It’s also more fun. If you like swimming, fishing, cliff jumping, or the thrill of rapids then you’ll understand why rafts are the ultimate summer vehicle. Rivers were the original highways and explorers and pioneers have traveled them for a long time. Along the banks are the remnants of their past lives. Be it petroglyphs on a canyon wall or a homesteaders cabin in a pasture, there’s always something to discover.
Side hikes are one of my favorite parts of any rafting trip. It’s a chance to stretch your legs and get some exercise. The best part is that you don’t have all the weight on your back. With a light step, you can hike to the canyon rim for an awesome view, follow a tributary to a natural water slide, or go off in search of ancient ruins. After walking for a while, I usually yearn to return to the boat. While all river trips are different, the one thing I’ve come to appreciate is speed.
We used to joke on the PCT about hiker speed. When the world moves at a constant 3-4 mph, anything faster feels like a thrill. When we’d hop into a pickup bed for a ride into town, we’d burst out laughing with the wind blowing in our hair. The boat is like that, too. It’s a downright joy to climb into a raft or kayak and feel the current catch your boat and whisk you away.
There’s a lot to love about humping a backpack into the wilderness, but after your first river trip you’ll understand why rafting is a lot like backpacking, only better.