What to Pack for a Grand Canyon Rafting Trip

grand canyon packing

When I signed up to take a seven-day, 187-mile motorized rafting trip with Arizona River Runners in May, I was both excited and apprehensive. What in the world do you pack for a seven-day rafting trip that can fit into a single 24″ x 12″ x 12″ duffel bag? And, perhaps more importantly, what don’t you pack?

The 16 commercial companies that offer Grand Canyon rafting trips on the Colorado River. They are all seasoned at working in this environment, and they provide detailed packing lists of what to bring on such a trip. When I started packing, I followed the list sent to me by ARR almost to a tee, and I’m glad I did so. There were people on my trip who did not, many of whom thought they knew better than one of these companies about what would keep them dry, warm and comfortable.

Keep in mind that once you’re on the river, there’s no going back. Rafting the Grand Canyon is a multi-day affair, and you’re stuck with what you’ve brought and got once your boat pushes off from shore. The importance of packing correctly can not be understated.

Now that I’ve been there and back, here are five items I believe you absolutely must pack for rafting the Colorado River and five things you can leave at home.

5 THINGS TO PACK FOR A GRAND CANYON RAFTING TRIP

1. Neoprene socks. They are bulky and I’m not sure when I’ll ever use them again, but my neoprene socks kept my feet impressively dry and definitely warmer than they would have been without them. The Colorado River is cold—only 50F degrees—and you will be drenched by the rapids for hours upon hours every day. Neoprene socks did wonders for me, and those people who didn’t have them on my trip said they wish they had invested in a pair.

I had two different pairs with me: The HydroSkin G3 socks by NRS and the Serius Innovation Neosock. The Hydroskin socks were a bit bulkier than the Serius brand, but both did an outstanding job in keeping me dry and warm.

2. Gloves. I had three pairs of gloves with me, and I wore them all. One was a pair of SilverTip merino wool gloves that served in a similar manner as the neoprene socks on our coldest and wettest days. Though I didn’t wear them every day, I was glad I packed them.

The second pair was a fingerless pair of cycling gloves with padded palms that I wore the vast majority of time. They did wonders for keeping my hands from being cut up from boat ropes and helping unload the raft, and they also kept my hands from being sunburned. I threw them in at the last minute, and I’m really glad I did so.

Finally, I had a pair of those cheap stretchy gloves, which I wore during cool evenings and at night. Hands take a beating from the weather on the river, so every night before going to bed I put a healthy layer of hand cream on, then put the gloves on, which helped keep my hands from becoming too dry and cracked.

3. Brimmed hat. I’m not normally a fan of the wide-brimmed hat, but there is minimal protection from the sun in the canyon and I was all for avoiding sunburn. I kept my hat on all day, every day for sun protection. It also did double duty by hiding a head of hair that wasn’t washed for a week.

The Columbia hat I wore was very similar to this one, though this isn’t the exact hat. I imagine that any brimmed hat with a retention strap would work well.

And, a quick note on that unwashed hair: For the ladies, a French braid goes a long way in keeping greasy hair at bay. I’m also a big fan of a high-quality, UV-reinforced buff to hide nasty hair. I brought one buff and wore it as a headband, hat and/or scarf on almost a daily basis.

4. Rain gear. One of the pieces of gear that rafting companies say is required is a full rain suit and for good reason. Do not skimp on rain gear, and don’t be shy about putting it on. It’s toasty out in the direct sunlight, but covering up with a rain suit before the bigger rapids can make a big difference in prolonged comfort for the rest of the day. It’s also worth mentioning here that layers in general are a good idea. I often wore a compression shirt followed by a long-sleeved wool shirt with a fleece on top of that, all finished off with a rain jacket. I felt bulky, but I was warm and dry.

I was so glad that I bought the Marmot Precip jacket for the top half of my rain gear. I often wore this over a fleece jacket, which helped me stay extra warm. For my rain pants, I used the Marmot Precip pants, which were a great choice as well.

5. Baby wipes. Some folks on my trip were brave enough to dive into the river a few times during the week to bathe. Not me. Instead, I took a thorough baby wipe bath when the blowing sand wasn’t too brutal. I wiped down my face every morning, afternoon and night and just felt better about staying clean. Though rafting companies have a sophisticated hand washing system, fresh water should be used conservatively, so this was a good way to wash without the water waste.

5 THINGS TO AVOID PACKING FOR A GRAND CANYON RAFTING TRIP

In addition to these five items that I absolutely believe should be packed for a Colorado rafting trip, there are five things people may tempted to bring that might as well stay home.

1. Sarong. I know, I know… It goes against my list of must-pack items, but on this trip, it really wasn’t worth taking. On the first day, I tried to use a sarong to cover up while I was changing clothes. Within a couple days, however, I was over it, changing when I needed to however and whenever necessary. Everyone on the trip is literally in the same boat as you, and vanity really does lose it’s appeal. I didn’t get cold at night, so I didn’t need it as an extra blanket, and I never had another good use for the one I packed.

2. Hiking shoes. I had already packed a pair of Keens sandals to wear on the river and Teva sandals to wear with socks at camp at night, so I debated long and hard about whether to throw in a pair of Merrell hiker shoes for excursions up side canyons. At the last minute, I decided to take them, and they were the biggest waste of space and weight I packed. I wore them into the canyon and then back out, but I didn’t put them on a single time during the entire week of the trip. I found that any opportunity that would have been appropriate for hiking shoes could easily be done in hiking socks and Keens.

3. Sunglasses retention strap. The packing list provided by Arizona River Runners included a retention strap for sunglasses. I packed one then promptly lost it before ever getting on the river, but it turned out I never needed it in the first place. I suppose if you’re wearing prescription sunglasses or your boat flips in a rapid, this might come in handy, but with my brimmed hat and rain jacket hood covering my ears, I felt like my sunglasses were secure. Also, though we bounced up and down riding through the rapids, I always felt safely intact with our motorized raft.

4. Smartphone. I left my smartphone at home, and I’m glad I did. Some people packed them for the camera feature, but I was more than happy packing a camera instead. Sand and water pose a definite threat to smartphones and batteries won’t last too long. Most importantly, though, is the fact that the smartphone is more than just a camera. It is a digital connection to the outside world, and while no services are available in the canyon, having that kind of access in hand makes it very hard to truly disconnect while rafting the Colorado River.

5. Solar charger. A few folks on my trip packed solar chargers for charging camera batteries and cell phones. I used my camera extensively on the river but never had a problem with the battery. I had two fully charged batteries with me, and Arizona River Rafters has a system that allows each guest to recharge a battery once, which I never used. With those two options available to me, there would have been no reason to have a solar charger. Instead of something bulky like a charger, I’d recommend people simply pack a few fully charged, reliable batteries because they’re much smaller.

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20 Responses to “What to Pack for a Grand Canyon Rafting Trip”

  1. Gray Cargill

    Good, practical info to have, JoAnna, thanks! One question: How did you keep your camera dry? That would be a bigger concern for me than keeping a cell phone dry. And what kind of camera did you pack?

    Reply
    • JoAnna

      Great question, Gray. I took my DSLR – I wasn’t going to skimp on good photos so I took my good camera. I used the Aquapac waterproof camera case, which I used more for storage purposes and to keep water and sand off and out of my camera. The real concern for cameras really is sand and not water, and it was a challenge to keep my camera cleaned, but this case did a great job with protecting my gear from the elements. I didn’t take any photos with my camera in this casing, but I could have if I’d been so inclined.

      Reply
      • Joan McKeough

        Hi there,
        Were you worried about your camera being damaged day to day. Did you keep it in your day bag? What is the risk of it getting crushed, stepped on etc while on the raft. I am tying to decide weather to take a my DSLR camera or my point and shoot?

        Thanks Joan

        Reply
        • JoAnna

          Hi Joan ~ Thanks for getting in touch. I hope you found this post helpful. Regarding taking my DSLR camera, the truth is that, if I did it again, I probably wouldn’t take it. I wasn’t really concerned about it getting crushed or stepped on, but I spent a lot of time taking it out of and putting it back in its water-proof case, which then went in my day bag. Besides water damage, the real concern was sand, and we had some incredibly blustery days on the river. The only reason I took mine is because I was shooting photos for a magazine story. Unless you’re a legitimate photographer with that as your main purpose of rafting, I would suggest taking a point-and-shoot instead.

          Reply
  2. Ronny

    Raft guides are some of the most chilled out people on earth, so it must have been a great trip. I’ll likely be doing a multi-day trip like this in my future, so this post is very useful … thanks!

    Reply
    • JoAnna

      Raft guides are *so* chill, which makes these kinds of trips so much fun! I’m glad you found the packing information helpful. Safe travels!

      Reply
  3. Patsy

    You mentioned layers – compression shirt + other layers – but you didn’t mention, say, long underwear. I ask because it’s mentioned in the packing list suggestions for ARR. We’re going mid-Sept. I’m torn. I don’t HAVE long underwear. Was just thinking I’d wear long zip-off pants + rain pants if it’s cold. (Top layers are easier to pull together).

    Suggestions? long under wear: yes or no?

    Reply
    • JoAnna

      Hi Patsy! So happy to hear you are going to be rafting with ARR this year. You’re going to have a blast! Regarding long underwear, if it was me, I would pack it for a few reasons: 1. I tend to be a colder person, and I would likely wear it. 2. September will be a bit cooler than the summer months. That’s not to say it will be *cold* but you don’t have the advantage of the scorching summer sun on your side. 3. If you have it, you can choose to put it on if you need it. But if you don’t have it and you really want it, you’re out of luck. I wore Under Armour when I rafted in May and was very happy to have it.

      Reply
      • Patsy

        Thanks for your answer, JoAnna – not to be a pest,but there’s such a variety of Under Armour out there to choose from . Can I ask what you bought? I see specific long underwear (UA Base 3) but that’s for extreme cold. Then there are the myriad of other variations…not sure what I need. Sept 12-20…

        Reply
        • JoAnna

          I checked the Under Armour website to try to locate the gear I have, but I bought it so long ago that it doesn’t look like they have the exact stuff I own anymore. Nonetheless, what I have is similar to the Cold Gear leggings and long sleeve shirt. I personally look for something with sweat-wicking technology, so that my core stays warm and pulls moisture away from my body. A good layer like this should keep you warm if it’s cold but not overheat you if it’s warm.

          Reply
  4. James Bergman

    You are probably right, that you shouldn’t bring hiking boots out on the river rafting trip, but I am still surprised you only used them twice. I think I might have used them much more. Probably because I don’t have any good hiking sandals. For me it would probably be a good idea to bring the shoes and leave my sandals at home.

    Reply
    • JoAnna

      Hi James! If you think hiking boots is the way to go, then you absolutely should do it. Always do what is right for you. I was sharing what my experience was, just in case it could help anyone.

      Reply
      • James Bergman

        I get that, and I do appreciate it. I often tend to overpack for these kinds of trips. So, it is good to think about what I should and shouldn’t bring.

        Reply
        • JoAnna

          I’m excited to hear about how your trip goes. Please let us know how your packing choices play out when you return. Enjoy!

          Reply
  5. Jill Dickson

    JoAnna, I am going in late April on a motorised rafting trip. I was wondering how important you think it is to have a closed in toe (Keen sandals) for side walks and the raft. would Teva sandals be sufficient or not?

    Reply
    • JoAnna

      The water will be very cold in April. I highly recommend covering as much of your body as possible, and that includes having close-toed shoes. It’s not required, of course, but I do recommend that versus Teva sandals.

      Reply
      • Jill Dickson

        Thank you JoAnna. I have another question please. did you wear your neoprene socks while hiking?or did you use different socks?

        Reply
        • JoAnna

          We didn’t do too much hiking on our trip. The furthest we walked was perhaps half a mile or so. I can’t remember 100% what I did, but I believe I just walked in my Neoprene socks. That said, I had both a pair of sandals and a pair of Keens with me, and I actually think I probably just wore the sandals when we hiked. I did have one other pair of socks with me in addition to the Neoprene socks, which I wore at night.

          Reply
  6. Toni Brantley

    Would frog togg rainwear be good for a July raft tri

    Reply
    • JoAnna

      I am not familiar with that brand. Rain gear needs to be able to withstand cold temperatures, wind and water.

      Reply

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