The sun is shining, the snow has (mostly) melted and you’re headed out on the river for the day. But what to wear and pack? It’s important to prioritize comfort and safety when you choose what to wear whitewater rafting. Whether it’s a commercial trip or an easy float down the river with friends, opt for layers that keep you warm, dry and protected from the sun. You’ll also want sturdy water shoes that offer support for navigating rocky riverbeds, and to have good head protection and a Coast Guard-approved personal flotation device (PFD).
Whitewater Rafting Clothing Basics
Keep these tips in mind for both commercial and personal rafting trips.
Dress for the water: When it comes to watersports, experts recommend dressing for the water temperature rather than the air temperature. Being immersed in cold water can lead to serious conditions including lung or heart shock, drowning or hypothermia. If water temps are below 70° Fahrenheit, plan to wear a wetsuit or dry suit and booties. (Don’t sweat about feeling too warm because river water is close at hand to cool you off.) Commercial trips often provide wetsuits and booties: Call ahead and ask the outfitter if you aren’t sure.
Avoid cotton: Opt for clothing made from quick-drying synthetic or wool fabric. Look for materials like polyester, nylon or merino wool, which can help you maintain a comfortable core body temperature and stay warm even when you’re wet.
Always wear a personal flotation device (PFD): Have your life jacket on anytime you’re on the water. Even a little bit of slow-moving water can be dangerous, and the most treacherous places in a river are often the shallows. Put your PFD on and keep it on.
Opt for zippered pockets: Secure essential accessories like your keys, a whistle or credit card in a zippered pocket before pushing off. Trust us, it’s nearly impossible to find your stuff at the bottom of the river. Make sure you also place any important electronic items, like a phone or car fob, inside a waterproof case.
For commercial trips where essential items like a life jacket, helmet and wetsuit are likely to be included, focus on layers.
Layers: On the bottom, wear a bathing suit, board shorts or other quick-drying layer that won’t ride up or pinch under a wetsuit. Quick-drying water shorts are a great option for days when the water is warm enough that wetsuits aren’t necessary—that way, you’re not just wearing your bathing suit against the rubber of the raft. Lightweight, quick-drying pants or synthetic leggings are a good choice, too.
Protect your upper body from the sun, even when there’s cloud-cover. Consider a rashguard, which is stretchy and quick-drying, and may offer UPF sun protection. A water shirt has a lot of the same features without being as formfitting. That said, your favorite synthetic or wool base layer will work just fine, too.
On cold days, prioritize warm and wicking layers all the way down. Avoid cotton (not even underwear!).
- Footwear: The best shoes for rafting are ones that stay on your feet and can get wet. Choose water shoes, water sandals with a heel strap or an old pair of sneakers you don’t mind getting soaked. If it’s chilly, you can wear wool socks under your shoes or sandals.
- Headwear: Bring a paddling hat or a baseball cap. Make sure your ball cap can be cinched tight to keep it from getting washed overboard if a big wave crashes over the raft. Though you may be given a helmet, a cap visor offers added sun protection.
- Eyewear: Polarized sunglasses are a smart pick for a long day on the water since they help reduce reflection and glare coming off the river. Don’t forget a retention strap—one that floats and secures tightly to your shades is best.
- A change of clothes: You’re likely going to be soggy after you get off the river, so remember to bring a stash of dry clothes to change into. It’s fine to wear cotton once you’re warm and dry.
You’ll be responsible for more of your own gear when planning a trip with family or friends. In addition to the items listed for commercial rafting (see above), bring safety equipment and layers to match the weather conditions.
Remember: Safety is your responsibility. No internet article or video can replace proper instruction and experience—this article is intended solely as supplemental information. Be sure you’re practiced in proper techniques and safety requirements before you engage in any outdoor activity.
- PFD: Your personal flotation device is your most crucial piece of gear. Make sure yours is Coast Guard-approved, fits snugly and stays on. Read How to Choose PFDs for how to get a perfect fit.
- Helmet: A paddling helmet is essential for all whitewater adventures.
- Warm weather layers: For outings in water that’s 70° F or warmer, follow the commercial paddling advice: Wear a bathing suit or quick dry bottoms and a top layer that protects you from the sun. Also pack along an insulating mid layer and waterproof shell to help keep the water off—that way you’re prepared if the weather changes.
- Cold weather layers: For outings in water that’s cooler than 70° F, or when you inclement or variable weather is in the forecast, consider these additional items to help you stay warm and dry:
- Paddle jacket: A paddle jacket can help keep you warm on top. A waterproof, breathable rain jacket will work, too, but paddling-specific tops have gaskets to more effectively keep water out.
- Paddle gloves: Paddle gloves can help keep your extremities warm in cold water and cold, rainy conditions. And they offer the added benefit of helping to prevent blisters.
- Splash pants: The same is true for pants. You can wear any kind of rain pants, but splash pants made for being on the water are sealed at the ankles to help keep you dry. They’re a good choice for layering over shorts or leggings when the weather turns stormy.
- Wetsuit or dry suit: If you plan on adventuring in water that’s colder than 70° F, you’ll want a wetsuit or dry suit. A wetsuit traps a thin layer of water inside the suit. Your body then warms up that water, so you stay insulated but a bit soggy. Wetsuit booties do the same for your feet. Dry suits are waterproof suits sealed with gaskets at the neck, wrists and ankles. They’re made to keep water out; you typically wear insulating layers underneath. Dry suits generally cost more than wetsuits.
Make sure your trip has at least one first aid kit. To communicate in an emergency, especially in loud rapids, it’s helpful to have a whistle (some PFDs have them built-in). A dry bag lets you pack extra layers, hats (both winter and sun hat) and snacks. Also consider bringing along a waterproof case for your phone or camera. Finally, sunblock is a must on the river, where reflection off the water can scorch you in surprising places.
Article by Heather Hansman. Heather is an award-winning freelance writer, a former editor at Powder and Skiing magazines, and a semi-reformed ski bum. Her book, Downriver, about paddling the Green River and the future of water in the Western U.S., was published in March 2019. REI member since 2009.