If you’ve never been white water rafting then planning your first trip can be very overwhelming. Especially if you are planning a trip with all beginners. There are so many questions to ask – is it dangerous? How hard is it? And of course, what to wear white water rafting?

The first time that I went rafting was in high school and I walked around in wet tennis shoes for hours afterwards. Fast-forward a few years and my then-boyfriend (now husband) talked me into going down the Gauley and New Rivers in West Virginia.

I was a bit more prepared on those trips and thankfully I was able to borrow some of the right gear. I’ve been rafting with my husband a few more times since then and have really gotten the hang of figuring out what to wear and what I need to pack.

So hopefully this is helpful for you if you are planning your own white water adventure!

Everything You Need to Wear White Water Rafting

What you should wear white water rafting depends on the time of year that you’re going and the river itself. For example, if you’re river rafting in the summer, you’ll be dressed a lot differently than if you were going in the fall or spring. Some crazy people even go in the winter but that’s a no from me.

The water temperature of some rivers is also incredibly cold even in the summer. For example, when you are rafting the Nantahala River the water temperature averages 45 degrees in the summer.

Like I said, it can be confusing to try and figure out what to wear. So I’ve put together a list of everything that you should consider when figuring out what to wear white water rafting!

Man and woman rafting the Nantahala River. What to wear white water rafting.
Rafting in a double duckie – also known as “divorce duckie” – on the Nantahala River

Bathing Suit

Whatever you do, please do not come in only your bathing suit. That is one good way to flash everybody.

Your bathing suit serves as a great base layer. You’ll want to wear it under another layer though and you’ll want one that won’t easily come untied. You don’t want to be in the middle of a rapid with your clothes falling off.

I’m not sure if people don’t realize that rafting does require a bit of work and some input from each person. Your guide won’t be the only one paddling for you. It’s especially hard work if you take a duckie or double duckie out. Those hold only yourself or one other person.

What I Love: Carve Reversible Top | Carve Swimsuit Bottoms

Water Shoes

Water shoes are also an important piece of equipment. You won’t want to wear tennis shoes or another pair of heavy shoes because they can hold every ounce of water that hits you during your white water rafting trip. The bottom of the raft also has holes in it so it will be full of water and your feet will sit in that the whole time.

If tennis shoes are all that you have then those will work, but they definitely won’t be the most comfortable thing. Instead, wear a pair of river booties/shoes or water sandals like Chacos that have a heel strap.

This way, they won’t fall off during your experience and they also won’t retain as much water as a close-toed pair of shoes. One thing is for sure: do not wear your favorite flip-flops especially ones without a heel-strap.

If you are wearing river shoes or if you do have to wear tennis shoes then make sure you bring a change of socks and shoes.

What I Love: Chaco Sandals

Helmet

Depending on the class of the river, your outfitter may or may not provide a helmet but I believe that they are always available if you request one. There is always a chance that you could fall out of the raft. If you are in Class I or II water then it isn’t as likely as if you are in Class III – V rapids.

When people fall out, it’s usually near the rockiest parts because that’s what causes the rapids. A helmet is the best way to protect yourself.

You can purchase your own helmet if you don’t like the idea of wearing one that someone else has had on their heads. However, the outfitters clean the gear well between each use.

If you decide to buy a helmet, I suggest visiting your local paddling store and trying some on. It’s very important to get the right fit!

Personal Floatation Device (PFD)

If you’re wondering what to wear white water rafting, you absolutely can’t skimp out on a personal flotation device or life jacket. This is another essential, like a helmet, that you’re welcome to purchase on your own if you’re picky.

Your outfitter will provide you with a PFD for safety purposes that you will be given before your excursion begins.

What I Love: NRS Ninja PFD

Group of people in a red raft going down the Pigeon River
Tyler is on the back left and I’m on the back right. We went rafting with Smoky Mountain Outdoors on the Pigeon River!

What to Wear Rafting in Summer

When it comes to white water rafting in the summer, there are a few things you’ll want to consider wearing since the weather will typically be a bit warmer.

Quick-Dry Shirt or Tank

These shirts come in clutch for so many outdoor activities. I wear mine when hiking, kayaking, and any other time when I know I’ll be out in the heat. They work so well for white water rafting though because even if you get wet, you’ll be dry after a half hour or so.

They are also just generally comfortable shirts. If you don’t have one, I would highly recommend buying a couple.

What I Love: The Landmark Project Shirt – There are multiple designs on REI’s site!

Quick-Dry Shorts

Similar to the quick-dry shirt, be sure also to purchase a pair of quick-dry shorts. You’ll be thankful once you get off the river and your shorts dry quicker than everyone elses. It’s uncomfortable sitting down in wet shorts.

One thing is for sure – you definitely don’t want to wear your jean shorts while white water rafting.

What I Love: Patagonia Barely Baggies

Wet Suit (Optional)

If you know that the water will be chilly, then you could wear a wet suit instead of t-shirt and shorts. If you are going in spring or fall then a wet suit is most likely the best option.

Most outfitters that run on colder rivers will either include a wet suit rental in the price or have them available for you to rent. They also have river booties to rent that go with your wet suit.

What I Love: NRS 3.0 Farmer Jane Wet Suit

What to Wear Rafting in Fall (or Spring)

In the fall, you will have to wear clothes that will keep you a bit warmer than if you are white water rafting in the summer. Below are some pieces that you should consider investing in for a successful trip.

Close-Toed River Shoes

For warmth, you should wear a pair of close-toed river shoes that are made from the same material as a wet suit. These are a lot like those water shoes you used to wear as a kid. As funny as they may look, you won’t regret wearing them because your feet will stay much warmer.

Again, if you don’t plan on white water rafting much then I recommend renting these.

What I Love: Astral Brewess 2.0

Splash Top

A splash top is another great piece of clothing to wear to stay warmer while rafting in the fall. They usually come in a variety of colors and will help to keep you dry from the splash of the water.

If you know the water will be cold and you happen to be rafting in the summer, you could also consider wearing one of these!

What I love: WindRider Paddling Spray Top

Synthetic Base Layer

Last but not least, you will want to invest in a synthetic base layer. If you’re rafting when it’s really cold then you’ll definitely want to get your own. It will help keep you much warmer out on the river.

What I Love: REI Lightweight Base Layer

Group in a blue raft in white water. What to wear white water rafting.
You can see everyone has their splash top and PFDs on!

What NOT to Wear White Water Rafting

Cotton

Cotton will absorb all that water and hold it hostage right there against your skin. You don’t want to wear anything cotton but especially if the weather or water is the least bit cold.

Flip-Flops

These will fly off in a heartbeat especially if you hit the water. You definitely don’t want to go down the river barefoot so make sure you wear shoes that can be secured on your feet.

Important Items

Don’t bring anything that you would be upset about getting broken or lost. There is always a chance of something falling out of the boat or being water damaged.

On our first trip down the Nantahala we thought our dry bag was keeping everything safe. Turns out there was a hole in it. Thank goodness we didn’t have anything in there that was super important.

Leave all of your important jewelry, wallet, and electronics in your locked car. Some outfitters also provide lockers for you to use.

What to Bring White Water Rafting

Dry Bag

A small dry bag is perfect for carrying the essentials along on the river. If for some reason you do need your wallet then this is where you can put it. On some rivers there are restaurants where you can stop for a bite to eat so you’ll need your money.

If you do take a dry bag just make sure there aren’t any holes or cracks in it. This will happen with older bags.

What I Love: Sea to Summit Lightweight Dry Bag (REI has multiple sizes)

Wallet/Credit Card

You gotta have a way to pay for the trip. If you didn’t pay in advance online then make sure you bring your wallet to the outfitters. You can either take it along on the river in a dry bag or leave it in your locked car.

You would be surprised how many people forget this.

Snacks

You will likely be hungry by the time you get off the river. I’m telling you, it’s a workout!

Bring snacks so once you get off the river you won’t be hangry. You can also bring a picnic lunch and enjoy it outside after your trip. Most rivers are out in beautiful areas of the country.

What I Love: CLIF Bars | Nature’s Bakery Fig Bars | Jack Links Beef Jerky

Carabiner

These have so many uses so you might as well bring some along. The most common us is to clip your dry-bag into the boat. If you take a guided trip, they usually have a carabiner that you can use. However, if it’s self-guided then you’ll want to bring your own.

What I Love: Black Diamond LiteWire

Dry Clothes

You don’t want to ride home in wet clothes. I’d guess you also don’t really want to wait on them to dry out after you’re done on the river so you might want to bring a change of clothes.

If you plan on hanging out at the outfitters for a while then that may not be a big deal. If you’re planning on driving home right after though then I would definitely bring clothes.

I may be the only one, but I also think that being in a cold, wet bathing suit is one of the most uncomfortable things ever.

Towel

You’ll want a way to dry off before you change into your clothes so don’t forget to bring a towel. Beach towels work best since they are so absorbent and you may have lots of water to wring out in your clothes.

What I Love: Turkish Beach Towel

Sunscreen

You can easily get sunburned out on the water! Make sure to pack your sunscreen and apply to your face, arms, and legs. You definitely don’t want to get burnt out there.

What I Love: Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Spray Sunscreen

Sunglasses

Personally, I don’t take sunglasses with me but some people do. If you decide to take your sunglasses then I recommend that you have a set of croakies to hold them on your head. I wouldn’t bring your favorite pair of glasses either.

What I Love: Ray-Ban Original Wayfarer (worn these for almost ten years)

Waterproof Camera/GoPro

So my husband says it’s bad luck to video your trip, but I would love to take a GoPro down the river. Make sure that it’s strapped on well though as you wouldn’t want to lose it. What an awesome way to capture the action!

What I Love: GoPro HERO9 Camera

sunset behind the trees on the Pigeon River
Had to include our sunset view while camping on the Pigeon River.

Recap: What to Wear White Water Rafting

Dressing appropriately for your white water rafting trip will make it so much more enjoyable. You don’t want to get soaking wet and be uncomfortable for the rest of the day. And you will get wet!

Hopefully, this post has helped you figure out exactly what to wear white water rafting and you’ll be prepared for your next trip.

What did you learn after your first white water rafting trip? Tell me in the comments below!

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