What to Wear White Water Rafting

There’s nothing comfortable about whitewater rafting.  You’re stuck wearing a bulky lifejacket with a plastic helmet on your head that never fits right, no matter how much you try to adjust it.  Then you have to perch your butt on a wet raft which your foot shoved in a crevice to hold on while you awkwardly lean forward to paddle.  Throw in frigid waters from snow melts in early spring or mountain rivers that never warm up and you can see why deciding what to wear white water rafting is crucial to actually having a good time.

what to wear whitewater rafting lifejacket and helmet
Geared up for the Gauley River, my favorite trip and one I’ve repeated several times

Thankfully, getting ready isn’t hard to do — as long as you know to show up with the right clothing.

The #1 Rule: Don’t Forget Sunscreen

Regardless of which river you’re rafting, what time of year, and what water temperatures to expect: everyone forgets sunscreen but you’ll really want it for a day on the water.  Get yourself a good sweat-proof, water-resistant sunscreen.

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I like Neutrogena “Wet Skin” sticks because they apply to wet skin and are a solid stick which makes carry-on packing a breeze.

Cold Rafters are Not Happy Rafters

Cotton is a rafter’s worst enemy.  Cotton doesn’t wick water from skin and takes a long time to dry, leaving you cold and clammy without any insulation.  On most rafting trips, that makes it a poor choice of clothing because if you get wet once (and surely you will), you’ll be wet for the entire rest of the trip.

On top of that, cotton can get heavy and unruly when wet — so if you have to swim, you’ll have lots of drag to fight against and a harder workout to get back to the raft.

Swimming in the James River (while whitewater rafting in Richmond, VA)
Swimming in the James River (while whitewater rafting in Richmond, VA)

Leave your cotton t-shirts and jeans at home!

Synthetic Materials are Your Best Bet

In general, synthetic materials are your best bet for what to wear white water rafting.  They dry quickly and many of them are built specifically to wick moisture away from your skin.

Although different fabrics have different advantages, the fit of your clothing should be your top priority: snug fits are best for super cold conditions (they trap body heat in) and looser fits are best for milder temperatures.

Any sort of synthetic material is a big advantage over cotton.  Nylon is cheap and easy to find and works especially well for warmer trips.  When the water’s cold, a specially designed technical fabric is worth the extra cost: brands like Under Armour and Columbia harness modern technology for performance and extra stretch.

You’ll be thankful for the right clothing if you ever fall out of the raft and into 42°F glacial-fed waters.  Just saying, it could happen 🙂

Your 4 Step Approach for What to Wear White Water Rafting

First Layer: Your Swimsuit (Maybe)

Unless it’s a river you’re purposely swimming in, swimsuits aren’t the best choice.  Men’s trunks are too loose to comfortably layer under wetsuits and ladies will regret wearing a one-piece as soon as you have to go to the bathroom.

Synthetic undies, like ExOfficio “Give-n-Go” (available for men and women) are durable, highly breathable, and dry unbelievably fast.  One pair is enough for your rafting trip and you’ll use them over and over for everything from biking trips to sticky jungle safaris.

Remember: there’s NO excuse to wear cotton undies!

base layers for what to wear white water rafting Second Layer: Clothing that Wicks Moisture Away

As you may have guessed, the biggest secret to staying warm is staying dry.  The wicking layer is to avoid ending up wet, clammy, and cold.

In warm weather, nylon shorts and a running shirt work great.

For cooler trips, try base layers like long underwear and Under Armour’s signature mock turtlenecks.

In super cold conditions, your outfitter may offer (or require) a wetsuit — this can be worn instead of or over your base layers, depending on just how cold it is.

north face fleece jacket layers Third Layer: Insulating Fabrics

The insulating layer is meant to trap heat in so you might not need it depending on the weather.

The easiest way to insulate is with fleece.  My favorite North Face fleece has held up well through dozens of washes.

If it’s cool but not outrageously cold, the magic combination is long underwear + fleece (but skip the wetsuit).

Soca River Rafting in the Julian Alps
Check out those splash jackets!
Final Layer: Protective, Waterproof Gear

Rain gear isn’t just for the rain.  A raincoat and waterproof pants will do their best to keep you dry from the splashes that are bound to happen.

Many rafting outfitters, especially those in cooler climates, have splash jackets and rain pants available to borrow.  If you already have a great rainjacket and rain pants, you’re better off packing your own for a perfect fit.

On hot, sunny days — skip this layer.  Unlike the other layers you’re wearing, raingear is typically the least breathable and thus most likely to make you overheat.

 Happy Feet are the Key to a Good Trip

When rafting, you 100% need shoes that will stay on your feet no matter what.  That means no flip flops, crocs, or any other slip-ons!  You’ll want something with a good enough sole that you can hike for brief portions of time to and from the riverbanks, often while carrying the raft itself or other gear.  A good water shoe pays for itself and can be used in the future for all sorts of other outdoor expeditions.

Spend the money on socks — something breathable and quick dry with a touch of padding for comfort.  I swear by Smartwool but any type of real wool or Merino wool should do.  Yes, they’re expensive, but on a $1000+ trip, a pair of $15 socks is worth its value.

I don’t like to recommend specific shoes because everyone’s fit and preferences are different.  I like lightweight water shoes that have plenty of openings to drain, but my husband prefers aquatic sneakers.

merrell water shoes white water rafting what to wear
Merrell water shoes, with rugged soles and holes for draining.

The $10 water shoes you buy at Wal-Mart might be OK for the beach, but they’re close to worthless when rafting.  You need something with more traction on the bottom.

I personally wear Merrells that have held up for years, so I haven’t had an excuse to test out other brands.  However, I own lots of other gear by Columbia and trust them as well.

Merrell Shop Mens | Shop Womens

Columbia Shop Mens | Shop Womens

Anything else?

Lots of rafters bring along baseball hats or sunglasses (with a strap) if it’s a sunny day.  I personally think these are more hassle than they’re worth.

Since a baseball hat goes under your helmet, you’re pretty much stuck with it the whole trip rather than having the option to take it off if it gets in your way.  And sunglasses quickly end up water spotted from splashes, adding an annoyance.  Obviously, if you NEED prescription glasses, that’s a different story altogether (if you can, I’d recommend contacts just for the day).

ANY OTHER QUESTIONS ON WHAT TO WEAR WHITE WATER RAFTING?

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Heads up: this post contains affiliate links.  If you buy something I’ve recommended, you won’t pay a penny more, but I’ll get a small commission which helps keeps the lights on here at sightDOING.  Thanks!

The perfect whitewater rafting outfit is dependent on the weather but every trip follows the same basic rules. Find the ideal white water trip packing list PLUS what *not* to wear and other tips for your river trip.
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5 thoughts on “What to Wear White Water Rafting”

  1. I love what you said about snug fits and how they are ideal for cold situations, like white water rafting. I think that river rafting is super fun because it can serve as a relaxing time spent with the family. My sister wants to take her family on a river trip, so I’ll be sure to help her find a reliable store that can provide all the necessary equipment.

  2. Jocelyn McDonald

    My family wants to go whitewater rafting on our next vacation, and your article had great advice for what we should wear on a trips like this like this. I liked how you said to consider synthetic material for our clothing, as it can dry quickly and wick moisture from the skin. Thanks; we’ll keep this mind when white water rafting.

  3. I like how the article explains that you want to make sure to wear a layer of clothing that will help to wick away moisture to help keep you dry and warm. My family is going to be going on a rafting tour and my kids get cold very easily and I want to make sure they stay comfortable so they can have fun. I will make sure they wear clothing that will wick away moisture to keep them warm.

    1. @Mia, I get cold easily too (as I type this, I’m literally sitting under a blanket even though it’s summer!). Moisture wicking makes a big difference.

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