What to Wear White Water Rafting

By Meg Jernigan; Updated August 11, 2017

Clever clothing solutions for shooting the rapids

What to Wear White Water Rafting

Alone or with a guided group, white water rafters bounce in a rubber boat along the waves created by rushing water, steering around boulders in the middle of a river and maybe tumbling into icy water. Clothing choices can make the difference between an exciting trip down a river and a chilly, soggy ride.

Must-have gear for a white water trip

Footwear: There’s no doubt that shoes are going to get wet on a rafting trip, even if you don’t go overboard. River, or water, shoes come in myriad styles and colors. A sandal style should strap snugly around the ankle so it can’t slip off. If you don’t mind that they get wet and dirty, sneakers will do. In the winter, polypropylene or neoprene booties keep feet warm and dry. Leave the flip-flops at home.

Clothing: Wear clothing that dries quickly, breathes well and wicks away perspiration. Experts recommend nylon and polyester over cotton, which takes a long time to dry. This rule holds true for underwear. Some outfitters rent wet suits and splash tops, a jacket that protects from wind and water. Consider renting one or both for cold-weather rafting.

A dry bag: A dry bag protects things like cameras and phones from the water. Add a cap and jacket in case the day turns chilly, and toss in anything else that needs to remain dry. For a multi-day white water trip, buy an overnight dry bag for clothes and a sleeping bag.

Things to leave at home

Jewelry: Other than a water-resistant watch, jewelry is the least useful thing to wear while white water rafting. Rings, anklets, chains and bracelets can snag or slip off and disappear into the water. Check fitness trackers for water resistance.

Anything you couldn’t bear to lose: Before packing backpacks or luggage, lay out everything chosen to take on the adventure. Leave anything dear – lucky socks, favorite ball cap – at home. Those lucky socks can’t be replaced, and you can buy an inexpensive ball cap along the way.

Seasonal considerations

Exposure to the sun is a given on a white water trip, unless it's raining. Keep in mind that up to 80 percent of the sun’s ultraviolet rays reach the earth on cloudy days, so you’ll need protection even if it’s not sunny. Wear sunscreen and lip balm, and use a strap to keep sunglasses on your head rather than in the water.

Sunproof clothing protects from UVA and UVB rays. Read the label before buying to determine the clothing’s SPF rating, as you would with sunscreen, and buy protective clothing that’s breathable and quick-drying.

Gloves aren’t a necessity in most weather, but when the water is frigid, you’ll be glad you have them. Make sure they’re a tight fit, dry rapidly and are quickly removable if they snag on something.

Packing tips for the trip

Pack light for camping at your outfitter’s campground. You’ll need only the basics, clothing-wise. River shoes, basic toiletries and a change of clothes should do for a one-day rafting trip. Pack toiletries in plastic zip-close bags along with any medications you take.

If the trip involves driving to a white water destination and staying at a lodge or hotel, pack wrinkle-resistant clothing for evenings or day trips into town.

Consider packing older clothing that you may be about to donate to your local thrift shop. If it gets damaged, you can toss it or donate it at your destination before replacing it with something new.

More tips for a relaxed trip

Your outfitter should provide a life vest and helmet. If they don’t, consider using a different company for your white water trip. But, if you frequently paddle on your own and have a trusty helmet rated for white water, bring it along. It will probably be more comfortable, and the straps and fit will be more familiar.

Limit the number of layers of clothing you wear. It may seem the best way to stay warm, or you may think it’ll be great to strip things off as they get wet, but this isn’t the case. Too many layers restrict circulation and may slow you down if you go overboard and need to swim to shore.

About the Author

Meg Jernigan