What to Wear White Water Rafting

What to Wear White Water Rafting

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  • Post last modified:September 17, 2021

Deciding what to wear on your white water rafting trip depends primarily upon the type of river trip and the time of year. Almost no matter where you are rafting it is best to show up with river attire for sun and cold. Even during the summer, a splashy day of rafting can turn cold when the sun goes behind some clouds. In this post we try to help you understand how to best use the items on your packing list and steer you towards some of our preferred gear options. We’ve broken down our list into essential items and later discuss additional options that can improve your experience.

River Rafting Essentials

There are essentials you will want to bring on any whitewater rafting trip. Key apparel includes protection for your feet, some sort of swim suit to wear on its own or under a wetsuit, and clothing for protection from the sun. Having the wrong clothes can be a safety concern. Rafting clothes need to protect you from the elements (sun, hot or cold) while not impeding swimming incase you find yourself in the river. Many outfitters provide wetsuits and splash jackets for colder trips.

List of Essential Clothes and Gear to Bring Rafting

  • shoes or sport sandals
  • bathing suit
  • sunscreen
  • sun hat
  • sun glasses with strap
  • long sleeve non-cotton shirt or sunhoodie
  • water bottle
  • waterproof jacket or splash jacket (colder trips)
  • thicker fleece top (colder trips)
  • wetsuit (colder trips)
  • change of clothes

Rafting River Shoes

Choosing the right river shoes requires considering numerous factors, so we’ve written an entire post on selecting rafting footwear. The synopsis is wear rafting shoes that protect your toes, dry quickly, secure well and have soft rubber soles. Save flip-flops and crocs for when you are off the water. Currently the most popular river footwear is old running sneakers followed by the Astral Brewer river shoe and Chaco river sandal.

light weight quick drying rafting shoe
Astral makes some of the best rafting shoes.

Bathing suits

Boardshorts work well for men and women. Ladies prefer a two-piece swim suit or board shorts and a sports bra to make going to the bathroom during the day easier. I’m a fan of long boardshorts that cover my knees. During spring trips it is nice to have a swimsuit that doesn’t bunch up under a wetsuit making it easy to put on your wetsuit. In this case lighter weight and shorter bottoms work best.

rafter hit by wave but properly clothed
Ready for Sun and Fun!

Sun Protective Clothing + Sunscreen

When rafting on hot sunny days in June, July and August the common places to burn include the head/face, feet, knees, arms and hands. While sunscreen helps with prevent sun burns, covering up works better. When rafting you are getting wet all day so sunscreen needs to be reapplied regularly which is difficult when you are wet. Here is what we wear on hot summer day of rafting.

Sunscreen for Rafting

Unless you cover your entire face you’ll need to use some sunscreen. The best sunscreens for the aquatic environment are ones that use non-nano zinc oxide. All other types seem to cause problems for coral and other aquatic animals. Avoid brining spray-on sunscreen on the river, everyone else on the trip does not enjoy breathing sunscreen into their lunges. Spray-on sunscreens also contain agents that have been shown to cause cancer in rats when inhaled.

Sun Hats

Wide brimmed hats are ideal for rafting trips without helmets. Yes they are dorky but dorky usually means works well! Be sure the hat has a good chin strap to keep it on in rapids and if you swim. A hat with a solid strap also helps keep sunglasses on your head.

If you are wearing a helmet on your rafting trip, a baseball cap works well. However, sometimes the hat bill can fall in front of your face when swimming. Test out your set-up to be sure you can swim with it. Also, use baseball caps without the little button on top if possible. They work best with helmets.

Floppy hats can be worn under helmets but baseball caps work best.

Sun Glasses with Retention Strap

Polarized sunglasses dramatically reduce glare off the water compared with regular sunglasses. Be sure to use a quality retention strap like croakies or chums. While chums seem to stay on sunglasses better, they stay wet much longer and end up rotting. Sunglass arms pull out of older croakies but they are lower profile and seem to last longer in the water enviroment.

UPF Buffs/Neck Gaiters

Neck Gaiters protect your neck and face well when the sun is lower on the horizon with rays bouncing off the water to sneak under your wide brimmed hat. Be sure to purchase a 50+ UPF rated neck gaiter. Warning, they can be hot and if you pull it up over your nose there is a good chance your breath will fog up your sunglasses. Overall it is a cheap piece of gear that can serve multiple purposes including holding hair out of your face and worth the cost and space.

Sun Hoodies – Best Shirt to Wear Whitewater Rafting

Potentially the most popular summer whitewater gear, sun hoodies allow you to stay cool when in the beating hot sun with their breathable material and superior body coverage. It is rare to see a Grand Canyon rafting guide not wearing one during the heat of the summer. Shirts typically have a thumb hole to help pull the sleeves over your hands. The hood covers much of what the buff covers when pulled over a baseball cap under a wide brim hat or a helmet.

The biggest problem is most sun hoodies are made with synthetics and get smelly quickly. Free Fly makes one out of bamboo that doesn’t stink as much but it is also not as durable. Watch out for sun hoodies that advertise 50+ UPF due to an applied coating (Columbia does this). In the river environment coatings don’t last long. Here is a cheap men’s sun hoodie and women’s hoodie options on amazon.

rafters dressed for sun with hoodie
Rafter on the right using a sun hoodie over his helmet.

Sun Gloves

If you are paddling or just hanging out on a raft it is nice to have something to protect your hands from the sun. A light weight pair of 50+ UPF gloves will do the trick. The palms on the gloves get beat up pretty quick but the backs of your hands will still be well protected.

finger tipless grey UPF rafting gloves

Knee & Thigh Sun Protection

The knees and lower thighs are common places to see turn red after a day of rafting. The two best options are wearing longer capris style shorts (they do have men’s capri options as well) or sun tights. Capris style shorts stay wet longer than regular shorts but are less annoying than wearing full length pants on the river. Sun tights dry quickly and seem to be growing in popularity. Some people wear shorts over them, others do not. The “man-pris” may not seem that cool but they are ideal for multi-day rafting trips in the middle of the summer.

What to Wear Cold Weather River Rafting

Rafting on a cold or splashy day can still be fun as long as you have the right gear. First we’ll look at splashy rafting days and then discuss what to wear while rafting on those colder spring (April, May) and fall (September, October) trips. Note that some outfitters provide wetsuits and splash jackets on colder trips so check your packing list to see what you are responsible for. Be sure to bring an extra set of clothes to change into after the trip.

Waterproof Outer Layer

For splashy trips with cold water it is nice to have a waterproof splash jacket with gusseted wrists and neck to keep the water out. A waterproof womens or mens rainjacket with sealed seams will also work pretty well and is usable in more situations after your trip. Waterproof mens or womens rain pants also keep rafters much warmer. Rain pants, if big enough, can also be worn over wetsuits dramatically improving comfort. If you raft often you’d probably be better off with some splash pants. For most summer time trips a rain jacket and a thin synthetic top will be more than enough for cool day of rafting.

Rainy Day Rafting

Thermal Layers

Under your rain suit or paddle suit you’ll want some long underwear insulation. Luckily, most sun hoodies are made with polyester and make good thin layering. Avoid cotton since it is better at cooling than keeping you warm. Pricier wool long underwear works similarly to polyester without being so stinky. On colder days it is nice to have a thicker fleece layer (womens or mens) to wear over a sunhoodie or long-underwear top. On the bottoms having some thin synthetic long-underwear (which can double as UPF tights under shorts) and a set of thicker fleece pants will keep most people comfortable. However, if you are wearing a wetsuit you will not want to wear the fleece pants.

What to Wear Under a Rafting Wetsuit

Wetsuits on mainly used on colder trips in the spring and fall. If required most outfitters will provide farmer-john & jane style rafting wetsuits which cover your legs and torso but not your arms. Many times outfitters also provide a splash jacket but you will still need something to wear under the jacket. Using a thin synthetic top under the wetsuit helps prevent irritation from the shoulder straps of the wetsuit. Avoid wearing shorts over your wetsuit, it adds significant drag when swimming rapids.

“Do I need a Wetsuit?”

A common question is “Do I need to wear a wetsuit?” Yes, on many rivers you are required to wear a wetsuit. Wetsuits help protect you from getting hypothermia if the weather and water are cold. They also provide additional padding for swims in rapids on rocky, treacherous rafting trips. I wear a wetsuit on Class V runs for this reason.

Surfing Wetsuits on River Trips

Surfing wetsuits also work well for rafting. In general I find 4/3 long sleeve wetsuit to be ideal for most colder trips. It is still nice to be able to wear a rain jacket over the top on cooler windy days. Also, some people have problems with rashes in the arm pits using older wetsuits so make sure you have a rash guard. Surfing booties however tend to have soles that are too thin to work well on rafting trips.

rafters wearing wetsuits and t-shirts
The classic combination of cotton t-shirts and farmer john wetsuits means they are probably wearing the wetsuits for padding or it isn’t too cold.

Staying as Warm as Possible in a Wetsuit

On the coldest days a thick fleece layer under the splash top and a wool or synthetic cap helps maintain core temperature. Wearing paddling pants or rain pants over the wetsuit significant reduces evaporative cooling and splash cooing from rapids. Finally river shoes with neoprene socks keep feet way warmer, be sure to tuck the tops of the socks inside your wetsuit bottoms.

I’ve known people that only had wool socks so they wore plastic bags over their socks inside their shoes and tucked into the legs of their wetsuit. This vapor barrier keep their feet much warmer. A pair of cheap dish washing gloves also are nice for keeping hands warmer without loosing too much dexterity. You can even wear thin knit gloves under the gloves.

What Not to Wear Whitewater Rafting

Below is a list of items that do not meet most rafting dress codes.

  • flip flops, crocs, cowboy boots, high heals, bare feet, heavy boots & shoes
  • cotton on cold days
  • jewelry, keys, cellphones, wallets, anything that can’t get wet or you’d be super bummed if you lost it. Fingers shrink in cold water and rings have been lost.
  • jeans, leather, cotton sweatshirts
  • tight and restrictive clothing making it hard to swim or paddle
  • scarfs or anything similar that could get caught on equipment creating an entrapment hazard
catarafters on cold day in drysuits
All smiles on a cold day in a drysuit!

Final Thoughts on Clothing for Rafting Trips

When packing your white water rafting attire plan for sun or rain. Even in the middle of the summer in the desert you can encounter a rain storm. Dress to swim, make sure your river clothes aren’t too baggy or restrictive in case you take a dunk. Ideally your shoes are light weight but secure to your feet. If you know the trip could be really cold and wet (like the Illinois River) or an early season guide school consider renting a drysuit.

Video: What to Wear Rafting under a Drysuit