River Rafting Basics

We talk a lot about backpacking in the wilderness, hiking up mountains or car camping at trailheads. That is the sort of outdoorsy adventures we’re used to + we know them well. We hike along rivers, we trek over bridges + we stand at the base of waterfalls. But, what about the river itself? What about backpacking, via the river. River rafting, if you will. Yea, that! It’s a thing!

River rafting, especially on a “float trip” is very similar to car camping. Obviously the biggest difference is the big, inflatable raft you’re floating on + the road you’re traveling along is a watery conveyor belt.

So, how does one go about river rafting? It is actually quite similar to the good ol’ car camping trips we’ve grown accustomed to! With one exception — the raft you’re traveling aboard. This is the one catch that makes river rafting a bit more complicated than car camping. However, it turns out river lovers are quite eager to share a seat on their raft + show you the ropes!

On most river rafting trips you’ll end up working with a rafting company to help with the logistics + gear, even if you’re going with friends who have the basics. You’ll put into the river up stream, float/raft down the river, pull out at a designated camping spot, spend the night [or two, if you’re lucky with permits!] then put back into the river to continue down stream to an eventual pull out location. Many rafting companies also offer vehicle transports for a fee so your car + raft trailer will be waiting for you at the pull out location.

Let’s take a quick peek at exactly what you’ll need to get out on the river for your own rafting trip. You may not have the raft to get on the river yourself, but now you’ll be prepared to pack your bags + tag along should a friend offer up a spot on their river trip!

Planning + Permits

Outside the need for a raft, a big barrier to entry with river trips is the logistics. It’s not nearly as simple as tossing gear in your car + driving up a mountain road. Instead, you’ll need to figure out…

…what river you’re going to raft down
…where you’ll camp along the river
…what type of terrain you’ll encounter
…where you’ll put in on the river
…where you’ll pull out of the river
…how you’ll get the raft to/from the [very far apart] put in/pull out spots on the river

Not the mention the permits + other permissions required for the time you’ll spend on the river.

Yea, this is complicated! There is a lot that goes into river trips, so if a friend invites you along for the ride…thank them profusely, as they’ve probably already done all of this! As you won’t need to do most of this when you’re tagging along, we won’t address the details. Instead, ask your friend + treat them to dinner or brunch when you get back on solid ground!

Raft Essentials

There are also a handful of gear you’ll want to have, gear that is specific to the time you’ll spend aboard the raft. Most of this raft gear is designed to keep your “regular” gear dry + on board. You’ll also need equipment to manage bodily waste while on the river. Exciting, we know!

Dry Bags // There is a chance you already have one of these, but it’s probably not big enough. In our experience, you’ll want a dry bag that is at least 60-70+ liters [roughly large enough to crouch down into, if you want to use a scientific measurement!]. There are dry bags created specifically for rafting trips + it may be in your best interest to rent one from a rafting company [they usually offer transportation between your put in + pull out on the river as well]. A raft specific bag will have more straps, plenty of space + durability.

Ammo Cans // An ammo can or ammo box is exactly that — a can or box that is designed for ammunition. Ammunition needs to be kept dry + the containers are strong. These are great for smaller items you’ll want access to while you’re on the raft. Items such as your cell phone, extra layers, sunscreen, etc.

Personal Floatation Devices [PFD] // This is probably pretty obvious! You’re spending hours on a raft, on a river. Depending upon the river you’re on, there may be rough rapids. Wearing your PFD on a raft is like wearing a seatbelt in your car, do it. Just be sure the PFD you have meets the requirements of the river you’re on. If your going on a trip that requires permits [most do] you’ll find the PFD requirements on that permit.

Groover // As with canyoneering, rafting requires some creative removal of human waste. Enter the groover! This is another item you’ll probably want to rent from a rafting company [mostly because you’ll only ever use it on a river + they’ll clean it properly after the trip]. The groover is a metal box of sorts with a hole on top of it + this is where you’ll poop while you’re on the river! Poop only, no peeing! This rather odd rule is because of the need to safely + securely move the groover during the trip; less liquid = less sloshing. The groover will be placed somewhere around your camp with an epic view + if you’re lucky your rivermates will set up a “key” of sorts as a “door” for your poo perch!

Camping + Cooking Gear // This is where you can put your car camping skills to use! For the most part, you’ll be packing up your standard camping + cooking gear like you’re headed out on an epic car camping adventure. The rafts will carry all the weight, so no need to go ultra-light. Plan on packing along everything you’ll need to sleep in a tent, survive the weather + enjoy your free time at camp. You’ll also be able to set up a kitchen of sorts while you’re camping [especially if you get more than one night at any given camp site]. For your kitchen bring along a propane stove + the food you’ll need to make meals similar to what you’d make car camping or even in your own home. Again, the raft will carry all the weight so get creative + enjoy your meals!

On The River + At Your Camp

So, now that you’re all packed up…what are you going to do while you’re out on the river or hanging out in camp? All of the things! Seriously, the options are endless.

On the river you can soak up the sunshine, float along on a standup paddle board, jump in the river to cool off…anything, really. Just remember to keep someone on the raft so it doesn’t float off without you!

Once you get to camp, be a good adventure buddy + help set up camp before you run off the play. The fun begins when the rafts are unloaded + the kitchen is set up. Play yard games or card games. Settle into a hammock with a good book. Hike along trails near your campsite. Fly a kite. Paddle board up stream. Go crazy…have fun…enjoy your time outside!

Talked into a river trip yet?! Hopefully, they’re worth all the extra planning + packing! Find yourself some river buddies + go floating!

About the Author


Heidi Kumm

Heidi Kumm is a trail runner, world traveler, mountain climber, and all around adventure enthusiast. She is so stoked on adventure that she has made it her career as the owner of Adventure Feet First, a travel company that focuses on getting people outside to explore the world around them. Over the past years Heidi has spent months living abroad, volunteering around the world, living out of a van/car/truck, and finding new ways to explore on foot, by bike, or with a backpack. She has learned the ins and outs of self propelled exploration the hard way, so she's here to help us learn from her mistakes and to help us become more informed on how to make your own mistakes, safely.