What to Wear
White Water Rafting

What to Wear for White Water Rafting

White water rafting trips demand a certain level of individual preparation whether you go for one day, or mulitple days. Lucky for you, many of the core items you'll need on a rafting trip are one and the same whether in a tropical climate like Costa Rica, or a desert climate of the southwest, or even in the mountains and tundra of Alaska and Canada. There are common factors on any white water rafting trip (ie. getting wet on the river, and being in the unpredictable outdoors) that make these core layer items a necessity no matter where you go. Obviously cooler climates and activities like canoeing vs. rafting will require more specific and specialized gear such as wetsuits, drysuits, or tall rubber boots. Some expeditions include cross-country hikes that require a day-pack and actual hiking boots instead of simple sandals. Check with your outfitter about these specific items; they will often rent these specialized items.

In this article you will learn:

  1. Why certain fabrics are better than others on the river
  2. How and why to dress and pack in layers on a white water rafting trip
  3. Get product recommendations (and links) per layer
  4. Tips on how and where to save money (when to skimp and when to spend).
    Disclosure about Amazon affiliate links:this page includes Amazon affiliate links to recommended products, which incur no extra cost to you. We appreciate you following these convenient links! If you have feedback on our recommendations, please let us know!

What to Wear White Water Rafting = Dressing in Layers

The key to all outdoor living is having the right gear to quickly get warm when you're too cold, and get cooled off when you get too warm! Sound complicated? It's not. In a word, how you should dress on a white water rafting trip is in "layers". It's a natural mindset to put on a jacket if you're cold, or take it off if you're too warm. The trick to knowing what to bring on a white water rafting trip really comes down to keeping it minimum sized enough to fit into the duffle bag on a multi-day expedition, or keeping it to just what you can wear on your body for a single day of rafting. We will cover the very best items to bring, why they are the best, how to wear them, and how to pack them for the trip and for the day - no matter which river you're rafting, or whichever climate you find yourself in!

The Right Fabrics & Materials Matter

Having the right kinds of fabrics can make a big difference in two things:

  1. Maintaining your body temperature
  2. Limiting bulk in the duffle bag

While it's generally understood that getting wet is an inevitability on a white water rafting trip, (and often the very purpose of a rafting trip), no one wants to be uncomfortable. The great news is that with modern day options available today, you can move beyond your comfort zone without ever being uncomfortable!

Space-age fabrics are designed to mimic the trick Mother Nature has been doing for eons with wool and goose-down: drying quickly, and staying warm while wet.

Man-made polyester fleece does what wool does in creating micro air pockets that retain body heat, plus the advantage of being lightweight when wet. Merino wool is an excellent "next-to-skin" layer that nature came up with all on her own. Goose-down feathers are also light weight and employ the same air pockets that trap body heat. The down side to goose down is that when wet, the air pockets collapse and become matted, losing their warmth. Each type of insulating material is good to have ready on the longer trips; fleece for potentially wet situations and goose down for warming up after getting too wet and cold. Goose down jackets pack small enough you may be able to pack both!

Staying dry in the first place is a good starting point for controlling body temperature, so a quality outer-layer (shell) is important. Chemically treated nylon or Gore-Tex outer layers are made to repel water, like water off a duck's back. Breathability of these outer shell fabrics become an issue not only in comfort, but in preventing moisture (sweat) from occurring, or escaping.

Cotton, a natural fiber, does exactly the opposite of these other materials: Cotton stays cool when wet. It works best as a natural air conditioner when a breeze blows through it.

Cre Nahanni Tatshenshini River Rafting Gallery 10

1. The Base Layer: Getting Dressed for a Day on the River

The base layer of clothing for a white water rafting trip will be the same whether you are going for just a one-day rafting trip, or dressing for the first day of a multi-day trip. Most items you'll need during the day will stay right on your body (hat, sunglasses, shirt, shorts, etc.). Even on just a day trip, a rain jacket is a smart addition for any day out in the weather. Tie this around your waist until you get to the boats, or bring your own small waterproof day bag in case the outfitter doesn't provide them. For day trips, most outfitters and guides will have a group dry-bag handy per raft for storing such items on the raft. On longer, multi-day whitewater rafting trips you will have access to all your personal duffle in camp, and during the day, a smaller personal dry-bag or "ammo can" to store your layers of clothing and/or needed items such as lip balm, sun lotion, medications, cameras, etc.

Understanding Hot/Cold on the River: Many rivers are "pool-drop rivers" where long calm stretches (pool) are interrupted with short bursts of rapids (drop). This means you'll be dry in the pool section of river (minus the occasional swim break, water fight, or rainstorm), and wet in the drop, and repeat as you go down the river through each pool and drop. This is a situation where wetsuits, for example, would not be recommended over dressing in layers.
Wetsuits on the river: There are some rivers, or times of year, where neoprene wetsuits are recommended by the outfitter. Wetsuits are meant for situations where one is constantly staying wet, with very few moments of drying out, or overheating between rapids ie. air temperature/time of year, rapids in quick succession, etc.). In such a case, the outfitter will typically provide them, or at least access to renting a wetsuit. Guide Tip: if you do find yourself wearing a wetsuit, it's recommended to wear your swim trunks (or boxers, etc.) over the wetsuit to prevent slipping around the raft like a wet sea lion! That's why the guides do it!

Quick-Dry Underwear

PROS = Quick-drying, wicking, odorless, stretchy and supportive but not crushing, built for comfort and support

CONS = Who the heck is David Archy and why do I want his name on my underwear? Hand wash recommended.

There are other brands with similar features and materials. One reviewer says this underwear is "The pinnacle of mankind's achievement". I thought the same thing when I first put these on - and I no longer cared that David Archy's name was on the waistband!

NOTE FOR WOMEN: Rather than one-piece swimwear, you will want two-piece options for convenience.

PACK: 2 pair is all you will need, even for a multi-day expedition. The idea is to alternate each day while the other pair dries and airs out.

Merino Wool & Long Underwear - Men's | Women's

PROS = Naturally soft, warm, wicks sweat away, regulates body temperature, resists odor

CONS = It only resists body odor, but still holds out longer than man-made Capilene, according to most reviews

When you know it will be a long, wet day with few breaks in the hot sunshine, you'll want to put long underwear on as your base layer. You may even wear it over the under layer briefs and bras so it can be removed when the afternoon heats up. As far as smell? There was an old saying that went around in the early days of river rafting, that "River rats never die, they just smell that way!" And that was before capilene underwear became the go-to synthetic for river rafters. Times are changing for the better, and it's something old this time that actually smells better! Merino wool wins.

PACK: *1 pair top/bottoms. *You may not even need this warmer layer on a mid-summer rafting trip, or a tropical location, for example. Check with your outfitter what is recommended for your trip, and time of year.

Shirts/Tops: Sun Hoodies Men's | Women's

PROS = Quick-dry materials, Ultimate UV protection with adjustable sleeves and hood, stays cool when wet

CONS = More expensive, can feel a little heavy when soaking wet

It may seem counter-intuitive when you think of wearing a hoody in the blazing hot sun... until you wear one! Then it totally makes sense! It wouldn't make sense without the silk-weight material that keeps the sun away (chemical-free UV protection is always the best kind!) and then simultaneously keeps you cool as the small pores in the fabric act as an air conditioner as the breeze blows through. It's pretty cool, and you'll feel cool wearing it in more ways than one. Shop around a little as these are becoming a little more popular. You may find knock-offs that work just as well.

PACK:1 Sun Hoody. Alternate a day of wearing the hoody with the UV collar/button shirts and you'll be satisfied for the whole trip!

Shirts/Tops: UV Guide Shirt Men's | Women's

PROS = Chest pockets are handy for lip balm, toothpicker, camera cards for hikes, etc., snap front makes easy ventilation, stretch material at shoulders is nice!

CONS = People will mistake you for a guide and ask you questions you don't know how to answer. (So you'll fit right in).

These new-age shirts come in many different styles and brands. They are practically everywhere, for good reason. NRS is the only one that paid attention when guides said they LOVE pearl-snaps rather than buttons. Also, NRS is the only brand (so far) that noticed that flexibility in the shoulder area is kind of a necessity.

PACK: 1 UV Button Up Guide Shirt

Shirts/Tops: Tee Shirt for Camp

In camp, you get a chance to get out of the "space suit" materials and into clothing that serves only one purpose: comfort. You've only got room in the duffle for one or maybe two of these tee shirts, so grab something that shows your personality and strikes up a conversation around the dinner circle. The Bigfoot Hide & Seek World Champion is ever popular...

PACK: 1or maybe 2. This doubles as your sleep shirt. No one will even care that you show up in it for breakfast too!

Shorts/Bottoms Men's | Women's

PROS = Quick-dry polyester, pockets where you expect them to be, drawstring waist combined with zipper and button fly.

CONS = Limited colors and style.

Save a buck or two and get shorts you can use anywhere else too! Seriously, for a while it came to swim trunks vs. board shorts and never any in-between. The choices were "swim trunks" with no fly and an awful mesh liner OR "board shorts" with no liner at all and a sewn-in waist size that never made sense to anyone but the ones they fit! Hybrid shorts man, it's the future.

PACK: 2 shorts to alternate each day while the other dries

2. The Insulating Layer

If you're choosing between a down-filled "puff" jacket and a micro-fleece jacket on the river, you might be served best by the fleece. It will work when wet better than down, if wet. If your down jacket packs small enough, you can bring it along as well for warming up in camp after (maybe) getting the fleece wet.

Even in the desert, in the middle of summer, you can experience a cold chill in the mornings or evenings to make you wish you had a nice jacket!

Down-filled Jacket Men's | Women's

PROS = Down is lightweight, warm and packable. Doubles as a pillow!

CONS = Can matte down and lose warmth if wet.

There are many brands and price ranges here. Some pack down very small while still retaining as much warmth as "puffier" looking varieties. Price range can make a difference here where proprietary innovations and features like staggered seams can make a difference.

PACK: 1 per person

Fleece Jacket Men's | Women's

PROS = Polar fleece stays warm and lightweight, even when wet

CONS = Not water resistant, and not always wind proof. Combine with outer shell in rain

Again, there are many brands and price ranges here. Some higher priced options are windproof, or offer water resistant shoulders, etc. Don't underestimate the price of a good quality zipper, or collars that feel soft when zipped against the chill.

PACK: 1 per person

3. The Outer Shell Layer: Rain Gear & Splash Jackets

Getting wet is part of white water rafting, obviously, but keeping the body heat in, and keeping the wind-chill off is essential to staying happy while you go splashing down the river. Even on a day trip, you may want that layer of splash protection to cut the chill from all-day splashes. Often a quality rain jacket is enough on its own (without the insulation layer) to keep you warm enough. Of course rain gear is also great in an actual rain storm too!

NOTE: Even in desert climates a good quality rain gear is recommended. River water can be very chilly and you can't assume you'll be able to dry off quickly even if it's topping 100 degrees.

PACK: 1 of the following options (per person)

Frogg Toggs - Economical

PROS = Does the job in a penny pinch. Best for standing in the rain. Better coverage and breathability than similar priced options.

CONS = Poor durability. Fabric seams tend to split. Not so great for sitting, moving, and active-wear situations. Looks cheap.

There are better options if you plan to have rain gear after the river trip - or have it really last more than a day on the river. NOT recommended for multi-day river expeditions, especially in cold weather where you really need to stay dry (ie. Alaska / Canada).

Columbia Pouration - Quality

PROS = Waterproof, breathable, trusted brand name that looks as good even after the river trip, lots of colorful options.

CONS = Not as good as Gore-Tex, but close! (The nylon fabric gets waterproof effect from a chemical treatment, rather than the fabric itself).

Columbia has been at this for years and they know what they are doing when it comes to weather protection. There are lots of similarly priced nylon jackets with chemical waterproof treatments out there. Columbia nails the middle-range price shoppers with proficiency, and consistently deliver quality and style. If you want a great wind-breaker/rain jacket that also looks great for the river and any other outdoor activity, then this will most definitely fit the bill! ALMOST recommended for multi-day river expeditions, but falls short of the protection and durability of something made of Gore-Tex.

Marmot Minimalist - Top Quality (Recommended for Multi-day Rafting Trips)

PROS = Gore-Tex (waterproof & breathable fabric), trusted brand name with no-nonsense mentality, colorful options, packs down nicely.

CONS = More expensive, but durability makes it really last for years, even with heavy use.

Marmot is as quality as it gets, and they are focused on making a specific set of clothing for a specific type os use. They don't have shops in the mall, or big advertising campaigns, or get political about one side or the other, they just make great gear that will last. If you are into any of that other stuff, you can pay about the same for about the same quality - as long as it's made of Gore-Tex! Some flashy brands slap an expensive logo/name brand on middle-of-the-road chemically treated nylon, so don't think that price alone is the mark of top quality.

NRS Splash Jacket - Top Quality (Specialty Use)

PROS = Neoprene "gasket" style neck and wrists keep water from rapids splashing where it shouldn't during rapids.

CONS = Not breathable (hot & sweaty), difficult to remove (no zipper), no hood makes this no good in a rainstorm!

Splash jackets and the accompanying pants you can get with them are superior for total waterproofness, but severely lacking in versatility. They specialize in keeping paddlers/kayakers dry as they run the rapids. Why would you want one then? If you know there will be rapids, and you know it will be cold that day (weather-wise) then you will be warm and dry inside and happy to be outside! Once the sun comes out and things heat up, you will too! The lack of hood and lack of zipper makes this specialty item less recommended for rain protection, or the occasional splash from interspersed rapids.

4. The Footwear Layer - A Very Important Step!

Don't forget the feet! There's a lot to say about the footwear layer.

Old-timers used anything from canvas deck shoes or converse, to flip-flops (what used to called "thongs") to good ol' cowboy boots when they ran rivers. Then along came a Grand Canyon river guide named who took Velcro watch bands to a pair of flips to prevent them from floating off his feet. Next thing we knew, a kind of waterproof sandal was born, named "Teva".

Since then a LOT of others waterproof sandal companies have come along with the rubber and the velcro and micro-buckles to follow where once only Teva had tread. Among the most popular you'll see on the river are Chaco, Keen, and other knockoffs.

A word about knockoffs and their acquainted quality: you generally get what you pay for when it comes to waterproof sandals. Yes, you can buy the cheap ones and maybe get lucky for 2 -11 days of hard river time, but we recommend buying two pair of the cheap ones to replace them when they blow-out. Because they will. Even the good ones blow out, but that's more of a fluke than a matter of fact, like with the cheap ones. And if you're buying two cheap pair of shoes, you may as well buy the one good pair and save that space and weight in your duffle!

So quality matters here, but now you've got to decide on style, footbed, rub-points, and traction control. The options below will allow room to discover, and recommendations provided may be all on the left foot with personal bias. But I've tried to listen to all input I've heard over the years! Some locations/outfitters recommend neoprene water booties or merino wool socks to be worn with your water sandals. It's a look somewhat "owned" by river rats, but practicality trumps style on the river every time!

Because feet matter so much, we recommend physically going to the local outdoor stores near you and trying these shoes on your actual feet. You can buy here if it's cheaper once you know your choice, or often an outdoor retailer will price match if you show them this page.

PACK: 2 of the following options (per person). One pair of shoes for the river, one for camp and/or backup in case one pair blows-out.

Chacos Men's | Women's

PROS = Superior arch support, continuous strap design means less stitching or glue break-points, color/design variety, Vibram sole traction is better than most. No velcro that can loosen when wet.

CONS = Requires a break-in period for strap rub points, and perhaps for the arch footbed. May be better options if wearing socks with sandals.

The Chacos linked here are the Z2 style with a loop over the big toe for security. This can be folded down if/when wearing the Z2 with wool socks or booties. The Z1 is your other option that does not include the big toe loop.

Teva Men's | Women's

PROS = Traction is good, straps are minimal-ish,

CONS = Requires a break-in period for strap rub points, and perhaps more bad rub points than Chaco. Velcro can come loose when wet. Can blow-out in anchor points.

Teva was the original, and turns out their original may be their best. There are lots of other varieties of Teva, but beware that just because they are Teva does not make all varieties appropriate for the river. Traction on some models is horrid, and the more straps the more rub points, the more anchor points, the more blow-outs.

Keen Men's | Women's

PROS = Gore-Tex (waterproof & breathable fabric), trusted brand name with no-nonsense mentality, colorful options, packs down nicely.

CONS = More expensive, but durability makes it really last for years, even with heavy use.

Marmot is as quality as it gets, and they are focused on making a specific set of clothing for a specific type os use. They don't have shops in the mall, or big advertising campaigns, or get political about one side or the other, they just make great gear that will last. If you are into any of that other stuff, you can pay about the same for about the same quality - as long as it's made of Gore-Tex! Some flashy brands slap an expensive logo/name brand on middle-of-the-road chemically treated nylon, so don't think that price alone is the mark of top quality.

Neoprene Water Booties or Merino Wool Socks

PROS = Warm when wet

CONS = Neoprene is difficult to place/remove, sole not thick enough for walking very far!

Many modern rafts have self-bailing floors that keep your feet more dry than when your feet sat in a bathtub of cold river water sloshing around.

Camp Shoes & Blow-out Backups

Around camp, your shoe needs are different than on the river or on a hike. It's smart to get a pair of flops, or crocs, (or whatever) that have a different strap pattern, or different rub spots than whatever you wear all day on the river. If a blow-out occurs with one pair or the other, it's nice to have shoes that can handle the river and not just camp dirt.