A Primer for New Boaters

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RIVER RAFTING FOR NEOPHYTES Original template provided by Andy Neff and the RRFW editorial crew.

If you’ve never been rafting on a multi—day river trip, here are some things you should know.

Contributors and Editors NOTE: This page is just an OVERVIEW, and if you have additional information to add or are just seeking additional information on these topic headers, please follow the page link to the appropriate page found elsewhere in this Wiki.

Expedition mentality

Because of the difficulty evacuating serious illnesses or injuries, your actions affect all of the people on your trip. Taking a bad risk can ruin the trip for everyone. The expedition mentality means minimizing poor judgment and working as a team. You can’t call 911 then wait 5 minutes for the ambulance to arrive. A helicopter evacuation can be hours, or if the weather is bad, even a day or two away.

For additional information and discussion, see Who Is Going to Go?

River Safety

The safest place on the river is in the boat. Stay in the boat. Let the boat hit the rock; don’t try to fend the boat off a rock. Don’t dive in the river. There is always a rock submerged right below where your head will enter the water.

If the boat flips or you fall out you are now swimming. You will most likely not like this. Get out of the water.

In swift moving shallow water near shore, swim feet first, arching your back to keep your arms, legs, and body near the surface. Backstroke or sidestroke to maneuver.

For additional discussion and information, see On The Water.


The river corridor is a sensitive ecosystem. This includes consideration for other travelers. Because the shoreline (especially particular campsites) is heavily used, we need to be scrupulous in handling our food and body waste. It’s easy to rationalize making exceptions for your convenience. Someone else may suffer for it. Pay attention to the orientation video and your experienced trip mates.

Bring a tent. It rains in the desert, but consider not putting it up every night. Take it to your camp so you have the option to set it up if the weather changes during the night. There are very few bugs; scorpions are more interested in the kitchen or each other than sleeping with you. Ditto rattlesnakes, mice, etc. You'll be ready much quicker in the morning, the stars will be much brighter and if you have never slept "out," this is the best and safest time. Two things to remember; don't unroll your sleeping bag until you get into it to guarantee no unwanted visitors and don't have any food in any of your gear around you to attract the critters that might be interested in food scraps.

For additional discussion and information, see The Resource.


This is something few people believe will happen to them until it does. The April and May wind really, really blows and seemingly from nowhere. The Monsoon winds, July through September, can also be amazingly strong. If you set up a tent with the intention of taking ONE step away from it then attach it to something first such as a handy rock or put a couple of heavy rocks inside it. Better yet, don't put it up until you're going to get into it. Tents with sleeping bags, paco pads, duffel bags AND ammo cans in them are even now at the bottom of the river. They can really fly and you cannot always leap across rock-strewn beaches to catch them. It's an amazing sight, and one you don't want to see, especially if it's your tent sailing off into the river! Ditto your life jacket. Bring a carabiner to attach your life jacket to something when you get to camp for the night, like a rope, boat, gear bag, or another jacket whenever you take it off.

For additional discussion and information, see Wind.


Everything you bring will end up in a raft, canoe or kayak. The larger your dunnage bag, the larger the hassle to handle it. Do you really need a t-shirt for every day of the week? Eight swimsuits? Three flashlights? Two cases of beer?

What do you really need on the boat during the day? Spray/rain jacket and pants, sunglasses, hat, sunscreen, water bottle (and carabiner to attach it to the boat). Optional - hiking boots and socks, camera (that's what your ammo can is for so it won't get squashed, put some of your medications in here too for easy access, and a book if you're not a hiker; in cooler weather, warm hat, gloves and sweater. You should be able to get all the things you'll need during the day in a small dry bag and ammo can. Don't forget a water bottle and carabiner to fasten it to your gear.

Count your wealth in the things you can do without. The fewer possessions you bring the less time you’ll spend dealing with them, and the more time everyone can spend enjoying the trip. Keep it together in your dunnage bag; don’t have a slew of small items cluttering the boat.

Keep in mind that boat owners have spent thousands of dollars to outfit their boats. Bring your own dunnage bag, life jacket, and drag bag. If you bring an ammo box, bring a cam strap to tie it down with. Wash the sand off dunnage, ammo cans, and your feet before placing them in the boat. Realize that not all boat owners like drag bags hanging off their boats all day, and some folks are still rowing boats that have to be bailed out. Keeping the mud and sand off your shoes keeps the mud and sand out of the bottom of the boat.

Ask, ask ask! Ask to help; Ask to learn how the boats are rigged. Your participation is welcome and needed. Boat owners have already put more effort into the trip before it started than everyone else will the whole time. If you don’t own a boat, look for extra work to do in the kitchen. Put yourself in charge of smashing cans or setting up the toilet. Ask, ask ask! You and your co-travlers should be willing and eager to teach teach teach.

For additional discussion and information, see At Camp and On The Water.


Consider setting up the kitchen close to the high water line, near the boats. That minimizes the effort of carrying gear up the beach and keeps whatever mess you might make easier to clean up. Consider the weather. You might need to set up or move your kitchen to shade, a wind free spot or rain free area under an overhang.

You may be cooking for up to 16 people. Wash your hands before you get to work in the kitchen. Bacteria breed quickly at desert temperatures. One person can make everyone sick in one meal. Make sure utensils, cutting boards, etc. are clean before preparing food.

Keep a tarp under the food prep and dish washing areas. Anything that ends up in the sand is food for the ants you complain are crawling up your leg. Strain everything caught on the tarps and put in the garbage.

Take the time to learn the kitchen system early in your trip and be consistent. If everything is returned to its original spot, you’ll be able to find it later. Pack the kitchen gear keeping in mind that anything can end up upside down.

Stoves use propane gas. The fitting on the tank has left-hand threads. No one remembers; that’s why the fitting looks round instead of hexagonal. The valve on top opens counterclockwise. Ask someone if you need some help getting this figured out. If you’re forcing something, it’s probably the wrong way. You might be eating all alone if you put the stove on the sand. Cleaning sand out of a gas stove is not fun and meals can be delayed if no heat is available. When filling metal pails for heating dishwater, don't set the wet pail in the sand, then move it up onto the stove. You guessed it, the pail will have picked up sand, and will drop the sand off onto the stove burner. Not a good idea.

The Park recommends doing your dishes in a multi-bucket system using river water: (1) cold soapy water, (2) hot soapy water, (3) hot rinse, (4) Clorox-treated rinse. Some trips will use three buckets: (1) cold water slop bucket, (2) hot soapy water, (3) Clorox-treated rinse. Chemical treatment requires contact time to work. Mix 1/4 cap-full Clorox in the last bucket before use. Air dry the dishes. A dish net hanging from a table works great for this. Strain all wash buckets into the river, then deposit the strained solids in the garbage. Use the Clorox water in the fourth bucket to rinse the other buckets.

Everything you partially consume becomes garbage. The best way to handle it is not to bring it. Eliminate excess packaging at home or at the Lee's Ferry put-in dumpster. Are you really going to eat all that tapioca pudding? Do you think that lettuce will keep until day twelve? Sure, you want large appetizing meals, but don’t overdo it. Obesity is a much greater peril than starvation on river trips.

You are the trash compactor. Some river trips separate burnable paper, aluminum cans, and steel cans. Crush aluminum cans and recycle separately. Wash out steel cans, remove both ends, and flatten before recycling or putting in the trash. Save a can for the mornings bacon grease to cool and congeal in, before putting in the trash. Some trips have all the garbage they generate in a day (Lunch, dinner and the following breakfast) fit in ONE rocket box. Others will use plastic compacter bags stored in rice bags.

For additional discussion and information, see The Kitchen and The Food Pack.


Remember, there isn’t any refrigeration besides what you bring. When the ice melts, there’s no more cooler. Don’t open a cooler unless you have to. Ice melts faster while you look. Try to open coolers in the shade, early morning or evening. Prep your cooler in the morning for that days lunch, that way you will know what you need for lunch and where it is. Some trips keep all the cooler stuff for each meal in one bag, then just grab the bag. Some people like a “vegetable cooler,” “dairy cooler,” etc. That means every cooler is opened every day. Some trips pack by “day 1—3,” “day 4—5,” etc. so that only one cooler is opened at a time. As a cooler is emptied of food, any ice left over goes into the next cooler. Boat rowers should drain coolers daily.

For additional discussion and information, see The Food Pack.

Drinking Water

You’ll be traveling through the desert. Be conscious of our drinking water. Don’t wash your hands with it. Most of Grand Canyon is no problem, but you’d rather have boiled river water for your coffee than Clorox—treated water to drink. Don’t drink untreated river or side canyon water. Certain springs are OK. When in doubt, treat it.

For additional discussion and information, see Where to Find Water and At Camp.

Human waste

Everything you carry in, except pee and strained liquid, you will carry out. Pee in the river or wet sand in the tidal fluctuation zone. If you don’t, someone else will either step in it or smell it later. National Park Service regulations require you to carry out your solid waste. That means careful handling.

When it’s your turn to set up the toilet, do it immediately after reaching camp. Set it up near the river for convenient peeing if possible. Bushes, boulders, and other natural screens are nice too. If you look around, you'll usually find the right spot.

The Park Service has mandated replacing the old “poop in a plastic bag" groover system with the use of a washable re-usable toilet system. This can be a welded plastic container (not a plastic bucket), welded aluminum box or military metal rocket box.

Don’t pee in the toilet. The liquid contributes to more gas being formed and occupies limited space. Don’t use the entire Sears catalog to wipe; toilet paper takes up more space we don’t have. When finished, squeeze some soap in your hand and wash in the river. Ladies, please, no plastic applicators in the groover. Bring small zip-lock bags and put those applicators in the zip-lock, then in the regular trash. Some ladies are comfortable doing without tampons completely. See www.thekeeper.com [1] for information on how they do that. This is a river appropriate alternative.

For additional discussion and information, see Trash and Poop and Solid Waste Management.


You bathe in the river, not in side streams and not up on the beach where it's private/out of the wind/warmer/convenient for the solar shower. Bathe with a friend if you need someone to hold a solar shower up, or use oars to make a tripod to hold the shower. Usually you can find a convenient area for privacy/shower stand in the tidal zone. The point is not to contaminate the beach with soap, biodegradable just means it will breakdown, not that it won't affect the sand and water born critters. The Park requests that no soap be used within 100 yards of any side stream, and no soap is to be used in any side stream.

For additional discussion and information, see At Camp.

Organizational Philosophy

What is the philosophy of your trip? Is this a trip where your meals are so elaborate that you’re washing dishes in the dark? Is this a trip where everyone competes to be the last one to breakfast every day and the last one to get their gear down to the boats?

Or, is this a trip where when you get to camp, everyone helps unload the rafts (all of them), then helps set up the kitchen first so the cooks can start cooking, and only then, heads off to set up their personal camp. Is everyone Looking for ways to help in camp so that everyone has more time to play during the day, thinking Dawn is the best part of the day, and you had better not sleep through it? There's no right or wrong answer here, just asking.

The trip is 16 to 25 days long or more. You can spend it drifting with the current, or taking long side hikes, or relaxing. Or you can spend it poorly organized, drunk every night, sleeping in every day, and rowing downstream to make up time. The choice is up to the collective karma, with tone-setting by the trip leader. The point is, to minimize on-river conflict, it's important that everyone has the same sheet music and can play the same song, all trip long, whatever the song may be.

For additional discussion and information, see Trip Philosophy

Click here to return to The Pre-Trip Planning page.