What to wear whitewater rafting?

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I need to go whitewater rafting!

It is a cold brisk February day, but the sun is shining, and thoughts of hitting the river are running through my mind. I texted a few buddies to see who was with me, and one of them texted back, “What do I wear whitewater rafting?”

Whether it’s a commercial trip or an adventure with friends, what you wear while whitewater rafting can make or break your trip. Ensuring you have the right gear will set you up for a great trip on the water. Here are what I think about and consider must-haves on a typical Summer or late Spring whitewater rafting trip. At the bottom of this article, I also include a list of items to bring on cold-weather trips.


The time of year you’re whitewater rafting is the most critical factor when planning what you wear. Check the weather forecast for the entire day before planning what to wear. Sure, it may be sunny and warm when you start, but what will the weather be like at 5 pm near the take-out? Nothing is worse than shivering the last few hours of an otherwise great trip because you didn’t plan well. 

Sun protection: clothing and sunscreen

A young river guide on the Middle Fork was giving the pre-trip safety talk to a group at the boat launch, and he had this to say about the sun, “If you only remember one thing, remember this: Protect yourself from the death star.”

He was right on. Please take the sun seriously. Wear sunscreen, at least SPF 50. I also recommend you wear clothes that offer sun protection as well. 

One of my favorites is the NRS Varial Hoodie. I wear it on all my trips because it completely covers my upper body along with my head and face. It provides UPF 50 protection which complements my sunscreen well. 

What to wear whitewater rafting
My favorite article of clothing while whitewater rafting!

What to wear whitewater rafting: Top to bottom: Summer trip

When I plan to wear whitewater rafting, I like to think top to bottom. So let’s dive in!


Headgear is an essential piece of gear for whitewater rafting trips, and hats will help keep you cool and offer excellent sun protection. There are multiple types, but you want to consider how secure they are and how much sun protection they offer.

Sunhats are becoming more popular to use on the river because they offer excellent sun protection and have straps to secure on your head in the event of a flip. 

Ballcaps work great too, but I wouldn’t recommend mesh tops if you are bald like me! They keep the sun off your eyes quite well and are easy to dip into the water to cool down. 


A good set of polarized sunglasses are a must while whitewater rafting. Having the sun’s rays reflect off the water onto your eyes can leave long-lasting eye damage. My optometrist told me that Cataracts are a common ailment for river guides due to not wearing good polarized glasses. Don’t skimp here. 

You don’t need to buy the most expensive brand to get what you need. Instead, I look for the best eye protection and find sunglasses that completely cover your range of view. The more coverage, the better!

Until I needed prescriptions, I used to go to REI and find a decent pair of sunglasses that offered the most protection and went with those. They would last me a season or so, and that worked for me. Other times, I would get a good deal on a pair of Smiths or Raybans, but I found that they weren’t a massive upgrade in performance. 


Chums or any sunglasses retainer is a must for whitewater rafting trips. Many of my clients lost their glasses because they weren’t using retainers, and they are cheap insurance for your river trips. 


Raise your left hand and repeat after me, ” I will not wear cotton on whitewater rafting trips.” 

Cotton and whitewater do not mix. 

Because the weather changes throughout the day, I like to layer my clothing on the river. I only use fabrics made from Polyester, polyurethane, or nylon because they dry fast, wick water, and can help keep me warm as well. 


I can manage just wearing swimming trunks on most late-Spring or early-Summer trips. On occasion, I will throw in synthetic leggings to wear in the morning. However, I’m not particularly eager to do this because pulling over on the river to change into them can be problematic. I usually sacrifice a little comfort in the morning. An alternative is wearing wool socks to keep my feet warm in exchange for full leggings. 


Having suitable footwear is essential to consider for your whitewater rafting trip. In a pinch, tennis shoes will do, but I recommend purchasing footwear designed for the water. You want to find footwear that you can wade in, dry quickly, and won’t puncture a raft. 

I love Chacos because they are excellent to wade in and are great on the raft. However, I have a much more comprehensive footwear review here


Again, repeat after me, ” I will NOT go whitewater rafting without a PFD.” I hate reading news articles about drowning victims because usually the article will end with, “and they were not wearing a PFD.” Please, please, wear your PFD. 

Many manufacturers make great comfortable PFDs, and they are reasonably priced. 

You will need a Type V PFD for whitewater rafting trips, and there are many different designs to choose from. Look at this article for a detailed review of each kind. 

whitewater rafting: PFDs
Notice that everyone is wearing their PFD?


Along with what you should wear whitewater rafting, I would also recommend bringing along the following items:

  • Dry bag: A small 3 or 5 liter bag is perfect for storing your extra layers, car keys, and extra gear you bring on your trip. 
  • Snacks: I like to pack a couple of extra Clif bars just in case
  • First Aid: If you are on a Commerical trip, they will have a quality First Aid kit, but make sure you pack your own. Here is a link to one I would recommend. 
  • Waterproof phone case: This is a good idea if you love to take pictures. A few models enable you to use the phone while in the case. 
  • Water Bottle with Carabiner: Stay hydrated! Bring a water bottle and a carabiner to attach to the raft. 
  • Towel: This is optional, but I like to bring one to put on the seat of my truck for the ride home. 

Cold weather trip

Cold weather whitewater rafting trips are a lot of fun. The water levels are typically higher, the scenery is much different, and there is something about rafting in the cold that makes you feel pretty cool! However, what you wear becomes even more critical. 

Keep with the layering concept, and keep the sun in mind–it can still harm you in the Winter. 

In addition to layers I would recommend the following:

  • Drysuit: Drysuits keep water out entirely and are a must on rivers when flipping is possible. 
  • Splash jacket & pants: This is a good alternative to drysuits and will keep most water off you. However, if you think you are running rapids concerned about flipping, I would go with the drysuit. 
  • Gloves: It can be miserable when your hands are freezing, and you realize that you still have a few hours to go before you are at the take-out. Neoprene gloves are relatively inexpensive and can fit in your dry bag when you don’t need them. 
  • Beanie: Not only do you look cool, but they keep your head warm on those chilly days. I even wear them in the rain, and it seems to work fine for me. 
whitewater rafting
Got to look cool!

What to wear whitewater rafting! Get geared up!

Now that you know what to wear, whitewater rafting, get out there and hit a river! Book a commercial trip, explore a new river or float your favorite local runs. 

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