If you’ve never been white water rafting, it’s very important that you know what to wear before you go. Sure, you need to consider the outdoor ambient weather conditions, the classification of the rapids you’re going to paddle, and your own personal comfort. But what you might not know is that the single most important factor in choosing what to wear is something most beginners never think of, especially when it’s hot outside in the summer.
What to wear when white water rafting? When white water rafting, you should wear clothing that’s appropriate for the water temperature and not just the ambient weather outside. The clothing you choose, the materials they’re made out of, and fabrics that have the ability to shed water and keep you warm while wet are all important factors in choosing the right rafting wear. Beyond that, safety gear like a life vest, water helmet and water shoes are a must.
In general, you want clothing that dries quickly, and as I mentioned, keeps you warm even when it’s wet. This helps to avoid hypothermia and other temperature-related issues. (Hypothermia, especially on glacial runoff rivers, can happen even in hot summer months)
Below, we’ll break rafting wear down by season and discuss the specific differences between dressing for fall, winter, spring, and summer.
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Wearing Safety Gear While Rafting
Though this article is mainly geared toward types of clothing to wear while white water rafting, safety is your first concern in rafting. There are three very important pieces of safety gear that need to be stated as mandatory rafting gear:
- Life Vest – It’s simply essential that while on any river of any difficulty you wear your river rafting life vest at all times.
- Helmet – It should go without saying that hitting your head on a rock is a definite possibility when you’re river rafting. It’s easy protection to wear a white water rafting helmet. Dare I say, this is a “no-brainer”. (oh, that was bad)
- Water Shoes – This one’s not so intuitive, but getting in and out of the raft and using your feet to push yourself away from rocks should you fall into the river, all require you to have shoes that won’t fall off and that will float if somehow they do fall off.
We’ll go into detail on each of these, but in general here’s a quick list of what to wear on a whitewater rafting trip:
- Bathing suit
- Moisture-wicking quick dry shorts over bathing suit
- Synthetic or lightweight merino wool shirt for warmth
- Tennis shoes, wetsuit boots or sandals with straps (no open toe flip-flops)
- Thin hat with visor to shade the sun
- Sunglasses with a strap so they don’t fall off
- Don’t wear cotton clothing—cotton gets colder when it’s wet
Colder and/or Rainy Weather:
- Once again, no cotton
- Layer up for maximum warmth
- Thin and warm beanie-type hat
- Synthetic or wool socks
- Synthetic, quick-drying long sleeve shirt(s)
- Synthetic, quick-drying long underwear
- Outer layer of windproof and waterproof jacket
- Outer layer of windproof and waterproof pants
Let’s take a closer look at these—here’s the why…
What to Wear White Water Rafting in Summer
In the summertime, it can be extremely hot outside, with lots of exposure to the sun. And with the sun not only beating down on you, but bouncing back up from the surface of the water, you’ll want to be sure that you put on plenty of sunscreen to protect your skin from getting burned.
Hat with Visor
It’s also smart to wear a ball cap to shade your face from the sun. Other hats with brims are okay, but can fly off more easily if they don’t have a chin strap. Also, make sure your hat’s thin and if possible made from “Dry Fit” material as you’ll most likely have this hat on underneath your helmet mentioned above.
Sunglasses with Retaining Strap
Sunglasses are also a huge asset in the summertime. The sun not only beats down on you, but it also reflects off the surface of the water back up into your face. This can cause issues with your ability to see what you’re doing, in addition to causing damage to your eyes.
Be sure to have a really good pair of polarized sunglasses that wrap around your face. And have a strap like Chumz that go around your neck so they don’t fly off and get lost to the river.
Be sure to wear a swimsuit under your clothing. Alternatively, wear swim trunks or lightweight board shorts that can get wet and will dry quickly.
If you’re a woman, a two-piece swimsuit under board shorts and a dry wicking shirt is most comfortable. A one-piece bathing suit will make pitstops more difficult.
If wearing a two-piece bathing suit, be sure to choose one that will stay in place. There are lots of sporty two-piece bathing suits on the market that are cute and comfy. Look for one with thicker straps over the shoulders and hips to prevent slippage and wardrobe “malfunctions”.
If you want to read a funny horrific story about a white water wardrobe malfunction, my family’s river rafting trip on the Rogue River in Oregon will warn you of the dangers of inappropriate clothing on a rafting trip.
Best advice is to wear what’s comfortable and allows you to paddle all day without chafing your armpits or legs.
Some type of synthetic, moisture wicking shirt like a Dry Fit t-shirt or Merino wool t-shirt’s a great choice for getting wet, drying quickly, and still keeping you warm if the water’s cold.
Believe it or not, rafting shoes are one of the most important articles of clothing you can wear on a white water trip. It seems silly because you’ll be in a raft all day, but it’s true.
No Flip Flops
You definitely don’t want to wear split-toe flip flops or slides, but in warm weather, you also don’t want shoes that require socks.
Many beginner rafters choose a basic water shoe that can be purchased at any local big box store. The problem with these types of shoes is that they are overly flexible and soft. Even though they cover your foot completely unlike slides or flip flops, they can still slip off pretty easily.
Instead, opt for a shoe with a decent tread that will stay securely on your foot like a barefoot running shoe or a hiking sandal that secures to your foot. You don’t want super clunky shoes because they won’t fit under the foot strap on the raft.
Even in the summer, some rivers can get seriously cold. Depending on the likelihood that you’ll get drenched multiple times on a rafting trip, you may opt for a wetsuit to keep you warm even when you’re wet all day.
A “farmer john” wetsuit with no sleeves will protect most of your body and still allow you freedom of movement to paddle all day.
What to Wear White Water Rafting in Fall
Many of the basics listed above will apply no matter what season it is. You will always want a hat and sunglasses with a retaining strap, along with really good shoes. But depending on the time of year and the temperature of the water, you might want to choose different clothing.
For example, in the fall, you might choose to wear shoes that completely cover your feet, instead of a hiking sandal that leaves some skin exposed. This is a great idea to protect your skin from potentially colder weather. However, be sure to choose socks that are NOT cotton because it retains moisture and does not wick water away from your skin.
Best socks are thin water socks or lightweight wool. Careful though, because water socks are notorious for slipping off if you don’t wear a shoe over them.
Hat or Beanie
You may also choose a different hat. Rather than a ball cap, opt for a wool or micro fiber beanie or something a little warmer. Again, choose one that’s made of synthetic fabrics rather than cotton. You want it to keep your head warm, not wet! And make sure it’s thin enough to be worn underneath your helmet all day.
Long Pants or Wetsuit
A swimsuit is really optional in the autumn months because it’s not likely that you’ll be swimming unless you fall out of the raft. Instead, you should choose to wear clothing that’s a little bit heavier than what you would wear in the summer but still made of moisture-wicking fabric like wool or microfiber.
We recommend some long pants and long-sleeved shirts that will keep you warm, but not be so heavy that you’re uncomfortable.
And finally, depending on the outside temperature, time of day for your trip and the expected midday weather, you may want a lightweight, waterproof windbreaker-type jacket to keep you warm in the morning hours.
What to Wear White Water Rafting in Winter
In winter, it’s all about layering good, moisture wicking and heat-retaining rafting wear.
Winter can be the most difficult month to dress for rafting because you have to choose your clothing much more carefully. As we’ve already mentioned, absolutely NO COTTON! This is the most important thing to remember, especially if you’re rafting in the wintertime.
Cotton retains water and keeps it close to your skin. When your skin is cold and wet, you lose body heat faster than when your skin is dry. This is dangerous in the wintertime for a variety of reasons, namely the risk of hypothermia.
Layer on the Wool
We recommend that you wear multiple layers of synthetic or wool fabric for a winter rafting trip. Long underwear and long sleeve shirts or rash guards are great as a first layer. Be sure to choose fabrics that are designed to keep you warm while also wicking away moisture.
Over that base layer, choose another layer that is a bit heavier, but not so bulky that you can’t swim. Depending on how rough the rapids are, there’s always a chance that you will fall out of the raft and you need to be able to swim in whatever you’re wearing. We also recommend that your outer layer be water-resistant or waterproof if possible.
When choosing your shoes, be sure to choose ones that completely cover your feet. Just like in Fall, you want to wear socks that are NOT cotton. Put on no more than two layers of socks that are moisture-wicking, synthetic fabrics. This will help keep you warm and protect your skin but not be overly bulky.
What to Wear White Water Rafting in Spring
Spring is a beautiful time of year in many parts of the country but can be tricky when it comes to getting dressed for rafting. It’s not quite summer yet, so the water is probably still cold. But it’s not winter anymore, so you don’t need quite as many layers.
Many rafters choose to wear a wetsuit under their clothing in the Spring and other transitional times of the year. The water is likely to still be really cold in the Spring, so you want to protect yourself from it. But the weather is also likely to be a little warmer and you also don’t want to sweat to death!
Don’t Forget the Sunscreen
When it’s still chilly in the mornings, it’s easy to forget the sunscreen. Regardless of the season, and even if it’s going to be a bit cloudy out, when you’re on the river all day or even a few hours, you should always put sunscreen on any exposed skin.
White Water Rafting Wear Wrap Up
White water rafting is a fantastic adventure that we encourage you to try! But it’s easy to wear the wrong clothing, especially in the warm summer months.
Wear comfortable, moisture wicking clothing and well-maintained protective gear to make sure that you have a great time on the river and make it home safely.