Outforia Summary: Key Takeaways
- Proper gear, including appropriate layers and footwear, is essential for staying warm, safe, and comfortable during whitewater rafting trips.
- Dress for the water temperature, not just the air temperature, and avoid cotton clothing as it traps moisture and can make you cold.
- Footwear for rafting should have good sole traction and should not be loose-fitting or bulky. Options include old sneakers, water sandals with a strap, water shoes, or paddle wet shoes.
- Three main layers are involved in dressing for whitewater rafting: base (moisture-wicking), middle (insulating), and outer (protection) layers.
- Planning ahead, understanding your paddling skill level, and always wearing a life jacket (PFD) and helmet are crucial for a safe and enjoyable whitewater rafting experience. Bring essential items such as sunglasses with a retention strap, sunscreen, and a hat.
Whether you want to drift down a slow-moving river or have a thrilling adventure navigating rapids, whitewater rafting is a great way to enjoy scenic views and the great outdoors. You can enjoy this watersports activity in any season with friends or family.
There are some things you should know before you go, like what to wear whitewater rafting. Wearing proper gear can help keep you warm and safe, for one.
Just like camping or other outdoor adventures, whitewater rafting requires some essential gear to make your experience more enjoyable.
In this guide, we’ll give you some tips on what to wear whitewater rafting and other essentials you should bring along on your one-day or multi-day trip.
What is Whitewater Rafting?
If you’re a beginner rafting or looking into whitewater rafting but have never been, let’s go over what whitewater means.
Certain sections of a river can become more shallow. Steeper gradients in a river cause it to flow quicker. Rocks and other obstacles in the river become exposed in the shallow areas.
As the quick-running water splashes over the rocks, it creates air bubbles. These bubbles create the white water appearance.
White water is healthy for various insects and fishes that live in the water. The air bubbles create more dissolved oxygen, which promotes water quality.
The fast-moving whitewater rivers make for a fun, and slightly bumpy ride for rafters. When you hit the rapids, you can expect to have some water splashing on you.
What to Wear Whitewater Rafting
Proper gear is essential for whitewater rafting so you can stay warm and comfortable during your trips. Layers are everything. Whitewater rafting attire can depend on where you’re going rafting and the time of year.
Fall, winter, and early spring call for different whitewater rafting clothes than the summer.
One of the most basic tips to keep in mind when planning your whitewater rafting outfit is to dress for water temperature. Even though it might be a nice 70-80°Fahrenheit (21-27°C) outside, the water temperature can be much cooler.
A good rule of thumb is if the water temperature is below 70°F, you should have warmer layers. Dipping your hand in the water or the splashes that come up while rafting can help keep you cool even with layers.
There are three main layers involved when dressing for whitewater rafting, which include:
- Base layer – Wicking undergarments that absorb or draw sweat off the skin.
- Middle layer – Insulating layer to keep your body warm.
- Outer layer – Protection layer to keep you dry and sheltered from wind.
Any clothing made of cotton should be avoided. Cotton traps any moisture that it absorbs. This can make you cold. Even cotton at the base layer should be avoided.
You may only need your base layer and outer layer if water temperatures are warm enough. The middle insulating layer is most important if you’re whitewater rafting in colder regions or fall, winter, and spring.
Checking the water temperature of the river you plan to raft in before you visit can help you determine what type of layers are essential to keep you warm.
Your base layer should consist of wool or synthetic materials that are quick-drying. This can help keep you warm and less soggy if you get wet.
During the summer, you can opt for a bathing suit or quick-drying spandex. A quick-drying T-shirt is a good base layer top for warm water temperatures.
During the winter, warm wool socks and wool or synthetic underwear can keep you warm and wick sweat off.
For the sake of comfortability, you’ll want to find base layer clothing that doesn’t pinch or bunch up.
Some moisture-wicking synthetic fabrics that will help keep you dry and warm include:
Wool is a natural moisture-wicking fabric. These materials are designed to repel water through capillary action. This means that the fabric works to keep the sweat or water off your skin by moving it to the outer layers of your clothing.
The middle layer is especially important if you’re whitewater rafting in brisk weather. If it’s a little chilly outside, the water is probably cold. Not wearing insulating clothing can lead to hypothermia.
Middle layer options can include:
- Long moisture-wicking underwear (also known as long johns)
- Fleece or wool sweater or jacket
- Synthetic or wool leggings
If you’re whitewater rafting in the summer and the water temperature is above 70°F, you can opt for lighter middle layers.
Drysuits and wetsuits are another option for middle layers. These suits are more ideal for cold water temperatures. They’re technically a middle layer as they cover your undergarments.
Dry suits are designed to keep water out. They can be layered between your undergarments and insulating layer.
Wetsuits are slightly different. They actually keep a small amount of water in the suit. The heat you generate warms the water up, which keeps you insulated. If you don’t want to feel soggy, a dry suit might be a better option.
Your outer layers should be designed to protect you from water and wind. It’s also referred to as the shell layer. It acts as a first line of protection for keeping water out, especially if you’re going to be exposed to big splashes.
Examples of outer layer clothing can include:
- Paddle jacket
- Waterproof rain jacket
- Splash pants
- Rain or paddling pants
These clothing options are made to keep water out, even at the wrist, ankle, and neck openings. Paddle jackets usually have adjustable straps or closure points at the neck, wrists, and waist.
Waterproof rain jackets may not have as many adjustable features, but will still do the trick to keep most water out.
Splash pants are similar to paddle jackets for your legs. They usually have adjustable straps at the ankles and waist.
Rain or paddling pants help keep water out, but some may not have straps at the ankles.
Outer layers should be tight enough that they keep most water out, but loose enough for you to comfortably move.
If the water temperature is very warm, you may not need an outer layer to help keep you dry. Different river conditions can also affect the necessity of an outer layer. This can also apply to insulating layers.
Some clothing items to avoid overall when whitewater rafting include:
- Bulky or restrive jackets
- Anything made of cotton
Altogether, the base, middle, and outer layers work to keep you warm and as dry as possible. You should choose rafting outfits that are most comfortable to you while providing protection from the cold.
Now that we’ve got the layers sorted out, we can’t forget about shoes.
Whitewater rafting footwear is a little more lenient in terms of what you can wear. These are some general options:
- Old sneakers
- Water sandals with a strap
- Water shoes
- Paddle wet shoes
Old sneakers that you don’t mind getting wet will work just fine. Having a good sole with some traction can help if you’re immersed in water. If water temperatures are warm, you can opt for water sandals with a strap.
You don’t want your shoes falling off when you’re riding the rapids! So, nicely fitted sandals with straps or sneakers are best.
If you’re just starting out whitewater rafting, there’s no need to invest in paddle wet shoes if you have an old pair of sneakers or water shoes. However, they aren’t unreasonably priced. You can find a pair of paddle wet shoes for about $40-65.
If you don’t want to wear old sneakers or sandals, you can wear some water shoes made for getting wet.
Paddle wet shoes offer a bit more protection to keep your feet dry. They often extend higher up the ankle and have extra traction on the soles.
Shoes you don’t want to wear whitewater rafting include:
- Flip flops
- Loose-fitting shoes
- Bulky shoes or heavy boots
Flip flops won’t provide your feet with any protection, especially if you’re immersed in the water. Bulky shoes or heavy boots can restrict your movement.
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Why Proper Attire is Important
Proper attire and layering is especially important for rafting when water temperatures are cold. Lightweight rafting apparel is better for warm water temperatures.
Whitewater river temperatures can vary depending on the time of year and location.
For example, the Colorado River has an average year-round temperature of 50°F (10°C). Temperatures begin to drop below 50°F in the fall and below freezing in the winter.
The median temperature of the Shenandoah River in Millville, West Virginia can range from 30-50°F (-1 to 10°C) in February. During the summer, the Shenandoah River can be 60-90°F (15.5-32°C) between May and late August.
Wearing proper whitewater rafting layers and a personal flotation device (PFD) can help keep you safe from getting too cold.
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Things to Bring on Your Whitewater Rafting Trip
One of the most important things to bring on your whitewater rafting trip is a personal flotation device (PFD) and helmet.
A PFD or life jacket will help keep you afloat if you’re immersed in the water. Wearing a life jacket can significantly reduce the likelihood of drowning.
A helmet is also another essential item to bring and wear on your whitewater trip. It can not only protect you if you’re immersed in the water, but also while in the raft. It can protect your head from getting hit by a paddle if things get a little rough.
If you end up in the water, a helmet can reduce the likelihood of getting a head injury from bumping into a rock or other obstacles.
Other accessories to bring with you to protect you from the sun include:
- Sunglasses with retention strap
- Ball cap or sun hat
Sunscreen is a must to prevent sunburn. Even if you’re whitewater rafting in colder months, you can still get sunburn. Water-resistant sunscreen is best to be sure your sunscreen stays intact while you’re out on the river.
A retention strap can save your sunglasses or eyeglasses from going overboard when it gets bumpy. A ball cap or sun hat can provide extra protection for your face.
Non-essential Items and Storage
If you’re going whitewater rafting through an adventure or outdoor service, they may provide some of the essential gear.
Outdoor services typically provide helmets, personal flotation devices, rafting equipment, and sometimes wetsuits. You can usually find a list of gear they provide on their website.
Other helpful gear to bring along on your trip that isn’t essential can include:
- Waterproof bag or protective case
- Spare set of dry clothes for after the trip
- Headlamp with new batteries
- Pocket knife
- Spare eyeglasses or contacts
You can keep your electronics and other valuables in a protective case to keep them from getting wet. If possible, leaving your electronics in the car or a locker if one is provided is probably best.
After you’ve finished your trip, you’ll probably want to dry off and change into some new clothes. Packing a spare change of clothes and towel and putting them someplace where they’ll stay dry can help you be comfy once you’re done rafting.
If you wear eyeglasses or contacts, it’s recommended to bring a spare in case you lose them while rafting. A headlamp with batteries and a pocket knife are for safety purposes.
If you’re rafting with a service, it’s a good idea to check their rules and regulations for any items you may or may not bring.
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Classification and Levels of Rapids
Rapids are classified by severity. Rivers may have rapids that range from easy to navigate to extremely difficult.
It’s important to know what kind of rapids you’ll be encountering on your trip. It’s up to your own discretion of what rapid classifications you can handle.
Rapids are classified into six different levels on the International Scale of River Difficulty.
The six levels of rapids include:
- Class I – Good for beginners.
- Class II – Ideal for novice rafters with some paddling experience.
- Class III – Ideal for intermediate-level rafters who can make quick maneuvers when necessary.
- Class IV – Advanced rapids that require precise maneuvering.
- Class V – Ideal for expert rafters who can maintain stamina as rapids can go on for long distances.
- Class VI – Master-level rapids. Rarely attempted due to extreme difficulty and severe risk.
If you’re just getting into whitewater rafting, Class I rapids are the best option. Class I rapids have small waves. Obstructions are few and far between, which can be avoided with little paddle training.
Class II rapids are ideal for rafters with some rafting experience. Some maneuvering may be required. These rapids have medium-sized waves and occasional obstructions.
More difficult Class II rapids are labeled as Class II+ rapids.
Class III rapids are for intermediate or advanced rafters. These rapids can have irregular waves with obstructions that require maneuvering skills. Individuals should be trained in self-rescue procedures. Group rescue assistance may be needed if you end up in the water.
Class IV rapids are more advanced. These rapids are more intense, but advanced rafters may be able to predict the conditions. Precise paddling skills are essential to maneuver between rocks and large waves.
Self-rescue training is essential, but group assistance is typically needed for rescue. Risk of injury is higher at this level.
Class V rapids should only be attempted by expert-level rafters. These rapids can go on for long distances. Great physical health and proper equipment is essential.
The severity of Class V rapids can widely vary. Therefore this rapid class is split up into a multi-level scale. It includes Class 5.0, 5.1, and 5.2 rapids and so on.
Class 5.9 rapids are extremely difficult to navigate. Self and group rescue is very difficult.
Class VI rapids are very extreme and have rarely been attempted. Risk of injury, and even death, is very high at this level. Rapids are dangerous and unpredictable and rescue is often impossible. Just one slight error can have very severe consequences.
Where Can You Go Whitewater Rafting?
There are so many rivers with rapids in the US for all kinds of rafters. The American Whitewater organization provides a list of the number of rivers in each state.
You can also use the map provided to click on or search for a river to know how long it is and what type of rapid classes to expect. This is a great tool to use when planning your next whitewater rafting trip.
Some beginner Class I-II whitewater rivers you can explore in the US for a nice scenic float include:
- Snake River through Teton National Park, Wyoming (Class I-II)
- Roanoke River, Glenvar, Virginia (Class I)
- Big Coal River, Ashford, West Virginia (Class I)
- Big Creek River, Sam A. Baker State Park, Missouri (Class I-II)
- Green River, Utah (Class I)
- Skykomish River from Big Eddy Park to Monroe, Washington (Class I-II)
There’s also some beautiful rafting spots in other parts of the world. From beautiful glacier-fed rivers in Norway and Italy, to scenic canyons in Croatia.
Here are some of the top whitewater rafting destinations in Europe and Asia:
- Sjoa River, Norway (Class II-IV)
- Una River, Croatia (Class I-IV)
- Noce River, Italy (Class III-V)
- Pai River, Thailand (Class I-IV)
- Ranoyapo River, Indonesia (Class II-IV)
Weather conditions may cause river closures for rafting at certain times of the year. Areas that experience harsh winters may not be ideal for whitewater rafting due to closures.
Be sure to check for weather conditions, river regulations, and any possible closures before planning your trip.
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Whitewater Rafting Tips
If you’re familiar with rafting, you might be aware of some of these tips. Safety and responsibility always come first. At the end of the day, you should make responsible decisions while rafting to keep you and your group safe.
Here are some general guidelines and tips to help you have the most safe and enjoyable trip:
- Plan ahead
- Understand your paddling skill level
- Don’t plan a whitewater trip outside of your paddling capabilities
- Always wear your lifejacket or PFD and helmet
- Bring the proper attire and equipment for weather and rapid conditions
- Take a self-rescue training course
- Check for river regulations and closures
- Take note of hazardous obstacles, holes, and big drops on your rafting route
Planning ahead is essential for knowing what gear you need, being aware of the weather and river conditions, and ensuring everyone in your group is on the same page.
You should assess your paddling skill level and decide whether you’re capable of completing a trip. If you’re not familiar with rafting and maneuvering techniques, you should stay within Class I rapids.
Once you’ve built up some skills, you can move to Class II rapids. Advanced rafters can start exploring Class III rapids.
Researching the river you plan on rafting can help you understand where you might face some obstacles. Some rivers can start at Class I rapids but turn into a higher rapid level farther down.
Self-rescue training is a super helpful course that can help you be prepared if you’re immersed in the water.
Age restrictions can also apply to whitewater rafting. Once you get up to Class III rapids, this river difficulty level might be too much for children under 12 years of age. It’s not recommended for anyone under 16 years old to raft in Class IV rapids or higher.
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Whitewater Rafting FAQs
How cold is too cold for whitewater rafting?
As the seasons change, so do the rivers and water temperature. River temperatures in the US begin to drop below 50°F in the fall depending on the location.
This is the general mark where you start to get into the danger zone of hypothermia and cold shock if exposed to the water. Individuals more prone to hypothermia should avoid rafting in water below 50°F.
What’s the best time to go whitewater rafting?
The best time to go whitewater rafting is subjective, but most people might say spring or summer. As it gets hotter, being in the water might be more enjoyable.
If you want to enjoy scenic views of fall colors, you might enjoy rafting in the fall. Whitewater rafting areas are likely less crowded outside of summer in the off-season
Can I go whitewater rafting on my period?
Of course you can go whitewater rafting on your period! The pesky time of the month might discourage you from going, but there’s no reason you shouldn’t if you’re feeling well physically and mentally.
If you experience severe cramps, then you might not feel up to it. But if you’re feeling well and want to go rafting, then do it!
If you use tampons, it’s recommended to change it out as close to before you begin rafting as possible. Once you’ve finished your trip, you can change it again.
If you wear pads, be aware that it may get wet when rafting. Since they’re designed to be absorbent, then they’ll keep any water that may get under your layers. If you bring a waterproof protective case, you can store extra feminine hygiene products in there to keep them dry.
How do I keep my feet warm when rafting?
Your feet might be the first thing that gets soggy when rafting since water might splash into the raft.
To keep your feet warm, you can opt for wool socks. Wool is a moisture-wicking material, so this is one of the better options. Neoprene socks can also work in the same way to keep moisture out.