There is an unspoken “guide uniform” that you’ll probably notice when you’re on a multi-day rafting trip. We all tend to wear similar clothing, and use the same gear both on the river, and at camp. This is, for the most part, because there is a consensus on what river trip necessities are the most comfortable and functional.
When I think about my go-to pieces of gear for rafting, they are the items that come with me on every trip of the season. They’re the things that literally never leave my bag except to get used or washed. Below, I asked several guide friends to reveal some of their gear essentials for a rafting trip.
Guides Share Their Must-Haves for the River
1) Wide-brimmed hat
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When you get out on the river you’ll probably realize that most river guides hide from the sun. Courtney Zink, who has guided in California, Washington and Oregon, says her must-have is a wide-brimmed hat. Sun protection is crucial, and having a hat that keeps your face covered, dries quickly, and is packable is key. In particular, she recommends the breathable Burton AK Tour Hat. Many other guides, including myself, choose to go for 360 degrees of protection. From Tula straw sun hats to packable options like those that Outdoor Research offers, the full protection can be really nice to have. Having a backup hat can also be pretty helpful when that rogue breeze decides that you and your hat are no longer on the same path through life.
2) Healing moisturizer
Sean Madden, a seasoned Washington guide and experienced canyon dweller, recommends bringing a good hand/face moisturizer. Constantly getting wet and then drying out in the hot sun is rough on your skin. He recommends any brand that soaks in fast so it doesn’t stay globbed on your hands forever, but not so fast that it doesn’t work. He uses Working Hands, and I’ve had good results using Super Salve. Super Salve will take a while to soak in so it’s best to put it on right before bed and let it sit overnight.
3) Sunscreen with zinc
On that same vein, packing a sunscreen that provides good protection and doesn’t anger your skin can be really important, especially if you have sensitive skin like me. I use a combination of rub-in zinc sunscreen from Thinksport, and a Babyganics zinc stick for my nose and cheeks. If you decide to go down the zinc product line, just know that everyone will be impressed by how protected you are from the sun because they will literally be able to see the sunscreen on your face. Wear it as a badge of pride. I certainly do.
4) Hooded sun shirt
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On the topic of sun protection, my personal go-to piece of clothing is a sun shirt. I bring multiple on each trip and wear them all day, every day. Keeping sunscreen on all day when I am constantly in and out of the water is almost impossible, but I don’t have to worry about it nearly as much when I’m wearing a sun shirt. They are comfortable and they can help provide much needed cool-down when wet, but dry quickly if you’re not in the mood to be chilly. Outdoor Research, Black Diamond and NRS all make good synthetic versions, but some guides lean toward cotton or bamboo versions, particularly for trips in desert climates like Cataract Canyon or Grand Canyon. I like the ones with hoods that protect the back of my neck, so I can hide from the sun even more.
5) Versatile synthetic layer
Shifting to more cold weather gear essentials for rafting trips, Emily Koehn, a Grand Canyon and Idaho rafting guide, recommends a versatile synthetic layer. She uses the Arc’teryx LT Atom Hoody as her go-to for everything. It’s durable, won’t lose warmth if it gets damp and holds up under extreme weather conditions. Patagonia makes the Nano-air jacket which is made of similar material and has many of the same features. Having a layer that will keep you warm even after getting wet can be really crucial to staying comfortable on rainy days…sometimes you just don’t quite get your rain jacket out quickly enough, and if it rains multiple days in a row, you’ll probably be wearing gear that didn’t fully dry from the day before.
6) Quality rain jacket
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On the topic of rain, Zach Miller, another Idaho guide, recommends a really good rain jacket (especially for spring trips). This essential piece of gear for rafting trips can also be used as a layer on cool or windy days, and can double as splash gear. Having a jacket that won’t soak through immediately and can provide some protection from the wind and rain is really important for maintaining body heat. Zach recommends any jacket with Gore-Tex: Arc’teryx, Black Diamond, Patagonia, etc. all have their own versions. If you know it’s going to rain on your trip, don’t skimp and get the cheap one! It’s worth the money, I promise.
Don’t feel like you have to run out and invest in a ton of new gear before your next river trip. Just remember, the key to success when packing for a rafting trip is bringing gear essentials that are functional and comfortable.
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Photos: Wide-brimmed sun hats – Rose Triolo; Grand Canyon rafting trip – Josh Miller; Guide in rain gear – Rose Triolo