The River Trip Passenger’s Guide to the Gear

Gear
Jake Castle

With high water having come and gone, the best way to get out and enjoy many rivers in the west is to pack up your rafts and head out for a couple of days of camping on the river! As a passenger who is new to the activity, you’ll discover that there is quite a bit that goes into this luxurious version of backpacking. Quite a bit… of new gear you will want to buy.

It’s a great life on the river. Photo from Jesse Brucato

Most of the gear for river trips is specialized and likely not something you already own for another activity. Chances are you already have a tent, sleeping bag, and decent outdoor clothing for camping, but you are going to need some good dry bags, a PFD, helmet and other basic river gear to make your first trip a success.

One thing that will immediately become apparent is that most of this gear isn’t cheap; there is a lot of gear out there, and making the right choice can be overwhelming if you don’t have someone pointing you in the right direction. I’ve used a lot of gear in my time as a river trip enthusiast and guide, and I hope that some of my tips + reviews will be helpful to you in navigating your gear choices as you invest in the items you need to be ready for your first trip.  

(You can also sign up for the CKSO loyalty program to win and earn savings. Click the EARN POINTS + GET STUFF bubble on ColoradoKayak.com to sign up.)

Dry Bags

You’ll want to pack an overnight bag and a personal bag for easy access.

The first thing you are likely going to be dropping some dough on is going to be dry bags. There is a staggering selection; from duffels, to roll tops, to Bill’s bags. Think of dry bags as an investment, and don’t go for the cheapest thing that will get the job done. There is no bigger bummer than when your stuff gets wet because your dry bag leaked. 

I recommend people who are new to expeditions invest in two dry bags, one large overnight bag, and one smaller personal bag. This should be all you need for trips up to about 10 days.

Overnight Bag

In my opinion, the best overnight bags are the ones that are built-to-last and user friendly. After owning many different styles of drybags, I’ve found that I prefer duffel-style bags, around 80 Liters to do the job.

What’s usually in my overnight bag?

Shawn McFarland packs for an upcoming river trip.
  • Sleeping Bag
  • Pillow
  • Tent (stakes and poles packed separately)
  • Puffy coat and other warm layers for camp
  • Costumes & Onesies
  • Personal Sand Mat

My Favorite Overnight Bags

  • Watershed Colorado Dry Duffel Bag
    • This dry bag is a great size for a duffel without being too big. Duffels tend to start to get awkwardly long and difficult to carry after about 80L. 
    • These bags practically last forever and feature surprisingly lightweight construction for their capacity.
    • The proprietary pinch-zip closure system is hands-down the best you can get. It’s so dependable that it is the dry bag of choice for the US Special Forces. It’s able to withstand hundreds of pounds of force without failing, so you never have to worry if your bag is on the bottom of the gear pile. 
  • NRS Heavy Duty 110L Bill’s Bag or NRS 110L Bill’s Bag 
    • Plain and simple, this thing is built like a battle tank and can schlep an incredible amount of weight up the beach to your campsite. 
    • Padded backpack straps make this bag convenient to carry over long distances, and keeps your hands free to carry other gear so you end up making less trips to back and forth to the beach.
    • The roll top feature of this bag means that there is little that can fail in terms of a closure system, and the seal is reinforced with four hook-and-loop cinch straps to keep your bag compact and secure. 
    • The base of this bag is several-layers thick to withstand being set down on sharp rocks with 60-80 pounds of gear inside. 

Stay Away From

  • Bags with zippers over about 50L.
    • If the zipper fails, especially on a large bag, you are in not the greatest situation on a river trip. There isn’t really much of a back-up plan and the zippers get defeated by small grains you can barely see, like the silt that is ever-present in the water on many desert river trips. A roll-top bag or roll-top duffel is going to be way more dependable. The only exception in my opinion is the Watershed closure system, because it can’t break like a zipper can.
  • Small Bill’s Bags 
    • I personally do not recommend the smaller 65L-sized Bill’s Bags. I have two of them and feel that they aren’t large enough to be heavy enough to justify the backpack straps, unless you’re using them to carry beer or something. Also, they are so narrow that you can’t get to what is in the bottom of them without dumping out the whole bag. If you are on the fence between getting a 110L or 65L, do yourself a favor and go for the larger bag and don’t pack it to capacity.

Personal Bag

When you’re on the river, your overnight bag will be packed away most of the day, so having a personal “day bag” that is small and convenient is important. This bag has the items you want to keep closer to you during the day, and it will help make sure that you have what you need if the weather changes. 

What’s usually in my day bag?

  • Rain Jacket / Splash Top
  • Dry snacks
  • Sunscreen
  • Insect repellent
  • Camera
  • Small Rechargeable Battery Bank
  • Headlamp
  • Warm Hat
  • Work Gloves

My Favorite Personal Bags

  • NRS Tuff Sack (Sizes 15L-25L)
    • The Tuff Sack is the economical choice for keeping your essentials dry and close by. The roll-top, buckle closure system makes this bag easy to clip to a D-ring or frame crossbar for quick access.
  • Watershed Ocoee & Watershed Goforth 
    • These small bags are perfect for dependable dry storage, whether you are on a small craft like an inflatable kayak, or hunkered down on the nose of an oar rig going through big rapids. The pinch closure system is the same across all of watershed’s drybags; it’s bomber and dependable. 
    • The Goforth is the Ocoee with an extra feature; it has an additional strap that allows it to be used as a waist pack. Some people might find this useful for bringing essential items along on side hikes, or for carrying gear over long distances and steep river banks where having your hands free is important for your safety.
  • NRS Hi-Roll Duffel – 35L
    • This bag splits the difference in cost between the other two options I mentioned. Duffel-style bags make it easier to find things since they have a wider opening, and the roll-top closure makes this bag fairly quick to access and seal, should a small rapid take you by surprise. 

Stay Away From

  • Clear Personal Bags
    • Crows and Ravens are very smart creatures and have become accustomed to seizing the opportunity to steal food, or what they think might be food, from river campsites. On runs like the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon, Crows are known to look through the clear drybags when your back is turned, and if they see anything shiny or something resembling food, they will peck holes in your drybag to get to it. 

Self-Inflating PVC Sleeping Pad

Stephanie Betley’s crew knows how to use Self-Inflating Pads!

These are most commonly referred to as “Paco Pads”, but there are many types. While you can get away with any sleeping pad on a river trip, there are a few reasons why a PVC-construction Self-Inflating pad is ideal for river trips. 

These pads are truly 100% Waterproof and made specifically for rafting. What they lack in packability they make up for with comfort, durability, and dependability. These things are so waterproof we actually use them to float around in flatwater like pool toys. 

The PVC that these are made out of is as durable and thick as the PVC used to construct rafts. They boast the best puncture resistance of any inflatable pad. You would literally need to camp on shards of glass for one of these to spring a leak.

My Favorite Sleeping Pads

  • AIRE Landing Pad 3” Thick, 24” Wide 
    • One feature that I like about these pads is the Summit II inflation valve. This valve is typically found on AIRE Tributary Inflatable Kayaks. It allows you to add a bit of air to your pad to top off with a raft pump, rather than having to blow it up with your mouth. The foam inner pad should do most of the work of inflation for you, though. 
    • I personally use a landing pad as the base for my backpacking inflatable pad. The combo of both is awesome insulation against cold ground in shoulder season camping, as well as added abrasion resistance for my more delicate backpacking pad. It’s the most comfortable night’s sleep you’ll get when sleeping on the ground. 
  • Jack’s Plastic Welding Silverback Paco Pad, 4” Thick
    • The Paco is the most imitated pad on the market, and the Silverback is the king of Pacos. While it carries a hefty price tag, people swear by the comfort that the inner foam provides and consider it far superior to other brands.

Pro Tip for Self-Inflating Pads

If camping with a tent, put the paco pads down first, then your tent over the top. That way the floor is protected from puncture and it’s padded to crawl around on. Also, the landing pads may be muddy or dirty from being on the boats all day, so setting them up underneath your tent keeps it outside. If you are only using these pads, bring a sheet or a tapestry to lay down on the tent floor before your sleeping bags. Tent floors tend to be dirty and throwing this down as a rug of sorts makes it easier to keep the tent clean. 

Personal Flotation Device (PFD)

Photo from Jesse Brucato

If you’re new to boating, you probably don’t have your own PFD. This is an essential piece of gear and again, one where there are like a hundred choices for. 

The best advice I can give is to get something that is comfortable, low profile, and functional, without being more than you need. 

My favorite PFDs for River Trips and Rafting

  • Astral YTV
    • This PFD is lightweight and very low profile. It doesn’t have the highest float rating, but it has enough for most boating activities. Its minimal design makes it nice to wear in hot weather and won’t make you sweat underneath it as much as other PFDs. 
Woman on river with helmet and PFD
Stephanie rocks the Astral Layla PFD and Shred Ready Zeta Helmet on river trips!
  • Astral Layla / Astral Ringo
    • These two PFDs are essentially the same design – the Layla is the Women’s style and the Ringo is the Men’s. 
    • Features include a six-panel flotation design that comfortably wraps around your body, providing superior flotation over many other low-profile designs.
    • These PFD’s also feature a stretch pocket in the front that keeps waterproof essentials nearby, as well as a convenient place to stick cans of all different shapes, depending on your beverage of choice! 
  • Kokatat Hustle
    • This low-profile vest brings Kokatat’s industry-leading quality to a sensible design that takes into consideration many of the conveniences and features that boaters from all crafts demand. This is a great PFD to own if rafting isn’t your only sport, as features like the large clamshell pocket in the front are geared more towards kayakers. 

Stay Away From

  • Type V “Rescue Vests.” These will run you at least another $100 vs a Type III design, and the extra features aren’t really beneficial to you unless you’ve taken swiftwater rescue and understand how to use them extra feature! 
  • Bulky PFDs. Be particular in selecting a low-profile design, as bulky PFDs can hinder your ability to climb back onto a craft if you take a swim (voluntarily or involuntarily)

Helmet

Along with a PFD, you’re probably going to need a helmet. Chances are, someone has a lender helmet or something that will work for that first trip, but a PFD and a Helmet are the two most basic items needed for all whitewater activities so you might as well shop for your own if you’re serious about getting into river sports. Having your own helmet means that it fits correctly & comfortably, and you aren’t stewing in someone else’s old sweat all day. 

On many river trips you will only throw your helmet on for the bigger rapids, but on others, the continuous gradient (slope) of the river means that you’re hitting rapids all day and you’ll be in your helmet pretty much the whole time you’re on the water. Examples of this include Idaho’s Middle Fork of the Salmon River, or Arizona’s Upper Salt River. 

Wearing a helmet in most cases isn’t a fashion statement. While many people buy helmets based on the way they look, I would recommend heading down to your local retailer and actually trying some on before pulling the trigger. Never buy a helmet sight-unseen, as each brand generally fits a different head shape. 

My Favorite Helmets for Rafting Trips

  • Shred Ready Zeta
    • The Zeta debuted in 2019 and comes in a variety of colors and sizes. The Zeta features a flat brim that provides excellent shade, as well as the latest HOG (“Hand Of God”) retention system that allows for fine-tuning of the rear-bracing area. 
    • Tends to fit average-shaped and average-sized heads best. 
  • Sweet Protection Strutter
    • The Strutter has been around for a long time, and recently received minor updates for 2020.
    • This helmet wears similar to the Shred Ready Zeta, but features a curved brim, rather than a flat one. Kayakers and small crafters have suggested that the curvature of the brim makes it less affected by water currents if you go in the water. There is a push-tab system that operates the rear adjustment on this helmet, allowing for a degree of fine-tuning, but not quite as much flexibility as the Zeta. 
    • It is important to note that Sweet Protection Helmets like the Strutter tend to fit people with smaller, narrower head shapes best.
  • WRSI Current
    • Re-designed for 2020, the WRSI Current is the best one out there if you have a big, round head. The Current features a suspension system that keeps the top of the helmet off your head, unlike the other two helmets I mentioned. This creates channels in the helmet that lead to the ventilation ports at the top. It’s a comfortable helmet for hot days, and features a smaller, but still functional brim. 
    • WRSI Helmets feature an interwoven strap system that pulls tighter around your chinstrap as the brim of the helmet is pushed upwards. This keeps the helmet where it should be if you end up with your head under water in turbulent water, and protects your forehead better than other helmets on the market.

Stay Away From

  • With helmets it’s important to buy a helmet that is what you need, without features you don’t. Outside of crazy people running big waterfalls, you won’t ever see someone on a raft with a full-face helmet, and it’s pretty rare to see a full-cut helmet either (helmets with rigid ear protection). Stick to half-cuts with a decent brim and you’ll thank yourself. 

Sun Protection Layers

All smiles in NRS Silkweight hoodies!

It should be pretty obvious that on a multi-day rafting trip, you’re going to be spending a lot of time on the boats in the sun, with little shade availability. Sunscreen starts to feel like it’s not doing anything and you’ll be miserable on some floats if you don’t have a good strategy for keeping cool and protected. There are a ton of options out there, but I am briefly going to touch on two great options.

Must-have Sun protection Layers

  • NRS Silkweight Long-Sleeve Hoodie (women’s linked)
    • I see more of these on the river in Colorado than any other piece of clothing. They are a basic, lightweight hoodie that breathes well and keeps you cool. Wearing a hood on a sunny hot day seems like the opposite of what you want to do, but giving this garment a quick soakdown with water makes it the perfect personal wilderness air conditioner, and the long cut and long sleeves keeps your skin covered well. In my opinion, there is no other logical choice for keeping cool when you can’t hide in the shade.
    • NRS has had this product out for a while, but this year both the Men’s and Women’s versions have a new design and pattern rashguard options!
  • NRS Silkweight Dress
    • This is the same product as the one I mentioned above, but for Women who are wearing bikinis or short swimsuit bottoms, this version of the garment better protects the parts of your legs that would normally be covered by boardshorts.

Water Shoes

The majority of injuries during river trips tend to happen in two places – Climbing on and off boats at camp, and while scouting rapids. Many of these injuries happen, in part, as a result of poor grip from poor footwear. Especially on trips with very rocky beaches and scrambly scouts, closed-toe water shoes are where it’s at. 

Favorite River Rafting Shoes

  • Astral Men’s Loyak / Women’s Loyak
    • These wear like a roomy climbing shoe and offer superior breathability and grip. The sole of this shoe tends to contour to the shape of rocks you are standing on, and is designed to be grippier-when-wet. The Astral Loyak vents heat and perspiration effectively, and dries very quickly.
  • Astral Brewer 2.0 /Brewess 2.0
    • These feel a lot like a skate shoe. The soles are thicker than the Loyak, and therefore you feel more comfortable when walking on more pointed rocks and rough gravel. Like the Loyak, these dry more quickly than you might think, and are comfortable enough to wear off the river after your run. 

Stay Away From

  • Open-toed Shoes, as well as Flip Flop Sandals. While you’ll see a lot of guides wearing sandals like Chacos, the truth is that you end up chipping your toenails, cutting your feet, and getting rocks in-between your shoe and foot all the time. They are great because they dry quickly, but that’s about it. If you really love your Chacos, save them for camp. 

Pro Tip

  • Water Shoes will fall apart sooner than you think. Regardless of price and perceived quality, materials are less durable when they are exposed to water over and over again. Adhesives and stitching is going to fail, expect to replace any pair of water shoes about once every two seasons if you use them heavily. 

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