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10 Tips for the First Time Whitewater Rafter

1. Don’t over pack

Everyone over packs. I’ve done hundreds of whitewater rafting trips and I’ve over packed for almost every one. I’ve come off river trips with unopened 12 packs of soda, flashlights I never turned on, and shorts I never wore. As guilty as I am, first time rafters are in a different league. Trust me; you’ll only use a quarter of the stuff you brought. Throw it out before you have to haul it up the beach into camp every night. You won’t need a fourth pair of jeans or a second pair of sneakers. That third hoodie? That fifth t-shirt? Your “backup” hydration system? Leave it home.

2. Unplug.

People bring too many electronics. Don’t be one of them. Cell phones won’t work and nature sounds better than your iTunes collection. Pack that stuff away and forget it. Listen to the wind, the water, and the wildlife. Have a conversation. See satellites and the Milky Way in the night sky. River trips reboot your brain with fresh air and excitement. A Colorado River rafting trip can be profound and intimate, but only if you let it. Consider limiting or banning electronics for kids while on the trip. Bring a book instead – and don’t feel guilty if you don’t finish it.

3. Use your camera.

Sure, I argue against electronics on a river trip, but everyone should bring a camera and use it. Be sure to bring spare batteries and memory (or film if you prefer). As a guide I’ve seen many people arrive in camp the second night with dead batteries and full memory cards. I’ve heard people argue over whether or not to take a photo simply because they didn’t want to drain the battery. Bring a camera, bring memory and batteries, and fill them up. As a side note, a GoPro is not what I’m talking about. If you insist on bringing a GoPro, Be aware I can’t stop the raft in the middle of a rapid to wait while you change batteries, alter the mount location, and shoot some “B” roll. Before you ask, no, we can’t “do it again.” Shoot the scenery and the people in
camp. Remember the rapids.


4. Bring a journal.

A camera is great at recording visual moments but terrible at recording thoughts. The remote wilderness of a rafting trip is a superb place to reconnect with reflections and feelings that go unnoticed in everyday life. Every evening I take a few minutes to write down where we’re camping, what we did during the day, and some of the thoughts I’ve had during the trip. After twenty years, these writings are priceless to me.

5. Ditch the fancy duds.

You were going to order three new shirts that have some techno-i-Xtreme coating that repels sand and sweat and smells new on day five, right? Forget it. Know what guides wear? Thrift store dress shirts. They have long sleeves and a collar to fight off summer sun and they’re cotton so they stay wet and cool a good, long time. They also cost about 4 bucks. After they get worn out – ripped and torn on a hike in Grand Canyon, or mud-stained and red in Cataract Canyon – we just throw them away and get more.

6. Skip the tent.

Everyone wants to sleep in a tent. Why? Guides will never understand this. A tent in the desert is stifling. You’ll sleep better in the open. The stars are beautiful. The night sky in Grand Canyon or Cataract Canyon is bigger and better than all the cats and unicorns on the internet combined. Don’t block it out by setting up a tent for no reason. Enjoy the fresh air. If it’s cold or raining, well, okay, set up the tent. But just this once.


7. Be prepared to lose anything you bring.

I won’t take anything I cherish on a river trip. If I can’t lose it over the side of the raft without crying, I don’t want it on my raft trip. Losing a camera is expensive, but heirloom jewelry or sentimental items are irreplaceable. Leave them home.

8. Listen to your guide. Seriously.

We tell you to drink water all day and to wear sunscreen. Do both. The first sign of dehydration is a slight headache and irritability. Nobody wants you to be irritable, and you don’t want to be stuck on a raft with other irritable people. The happiest people on the river are ones that didn’t get sunburned in the first twenty minutes. If you want to be happy on day four, wear sunscreen on day one. Also, if we tell you not to jump off something, don’t. We all know someone who got hurt doing exactly what you’re thinking about.


9. You still over packed.

Those last few things you can’t decide on? The third headlamp? The items in your bag you probably won’t need but maybe you will? You won’t. Take them out.  

10. Relax.

Really, seriously, honestly relax. It’s why you hired a great company with an experienced guide for this vacation. We have plenty of food. We’re going to hike a little, run some fun rapids take in some unforgettable scenery. I’ll worry about the rest. Pull down your hat, lean back, and take a nap in the sand if you like. I’ll wake up when it’s time to eat, or maybe, if you want, when the sun hits the cliff just right for a photo.

Choose Your Trip Now

Quinn Hall

Quinn began guiding with Western in the early 2000's and prefers rain over wind any day of the year. He is an Environmental Consultant and also an avid photographer.

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