Ten ‘Things’ For Family Rafting


First, you fell in love with the river. Then you met your special so-and-so on an overnight Westwater trip, and they pulled your ass out of the Room of Doom at 9:30 in the morning the next day. It was destiny.

Or maybe it all started with a blind date in college. Either way, you made a life together, had some wild adventures, and eventually decided to start a family.

Then things got complicated. And it’s been a while since you were at the put-in. Or maybe not, of course. Maybe you never missed a beat and were nursing your one-month old under a new bimini top while floating the Colorado.

But maybe the fact that you now need three diaper bags just for an afternoon at the park is intimidating enough to keep you away from the river because, let’s face it, kids are very, very gear intensive.

And you are very, very tired.

It’s true that the effort required to just get out the door can be daunting when you have kids of any age, but especially when they’re very small. Yet, we know that there’s no better place for them to grow and explore their world than on the rivers we love. So get back out there! You can do it! (Rah-rah-rah!)

After four years of rafting with (very) little ones, lots of trials and even more error, I have compiled a non-exhaustive list of must-haves for your next, or first, river adventure with the kiddos. If you can remember these ten things, you can style out your family on the water and be the envy of every other sleep-deprived, former dirt-bag parent out there.

Thing One: The PFD

Probably the biggest thing on this list. Choose wisely, and you will be rewarded with a happy, safe, confident child ready to explore the river. Choose poorly, and you will be introduced to everyone’s favorite pain in the ass—chafage! And possibly drowning.

The impact of a poorly fit PFD was a lesson I, fortunately, learned with other people’s kids. Working as a guide for a summer camp and as an instructor for Outward Bound for a few seasons showed me just how quickly the discomfort of chafed, dry skin can ruin an otherwise cheerful child’s experience.

So, to fit your progeny appropriately, first answer the question, can they actively swim in a current? Meaning, can they consciously roll over on their tummies and confidently doggy-paddle. If no, then you must choose a PFD with a floating head support and most of the floatation in the front. Then, how much do they weigh? Most kids’ PFDs are sized by weight—infant models are made for kids less than 30 pounds, child PFDs are for 30-50 pounds and youth vests from 50-90 pounds—kids who weigh more than 90 pounds will move up to x-small/small-sized adult lifejacket.

Look for the same ratings that you would for your own PFD—Type I or V. If at all possible, go for low-profile comfort with wide open sides below the arms. And then thank me later, because if the stars align and a boat nap is about to happen spontaneously but they can’t get comfortable because of a cumbersome life-jacket…sucks to be you.

All jokes aside, the straps on all PFDs will loosen once they are wet. Be sure to re-adjust and check both yours and your children’s jackets every time before entering the water or starting a major rapids section.

Thing Two: Shade 

There are two kinds of shade—boat shade and beach shade—and they’re both equally important to keeping a river baby happy.

Boat shade
A wide brim hat (we love Sunday brand!) with a chinstrap and long sleeve shirts that offer some UPF protection. Under the long sleeve add copious amounts of sunscreen. And another layer of sunscreen. Actually, just go ahead and dip them in a vat of it. No, seriously. Then shade the whole boat with either a jerry-rigged beach umbrella and creative knot-work, or the always respectable bimini. Do not skimp on the sun-protection. You have been warned. Lobsters make terrible children. 

Beach shade
I whole-heartedly recommend the NRS River Wing. Over the last thirteen years of desert rafting, I have attended many hour-long knot tying seminars, aka “Setting up the Tarp,” and of course, I enjoyed them immensely. But with kids, if we go more than five minutes without some kind of disaster, we are doing exceptionally well. So, sadly ain’t nobody got time for deciding where exactly to place the sand anchors and whether you need a trucker’s hitch or a friction knot. The NRS River Wing self-tensions and adjusts so quickly that you would be hard-pressed to find any beach where it couldn’t be set up all within that disaster-free time window.

Thing Three: Fun in the Sand

There are adult beach games like bocce and baggo that can easily be adapted for kiddos and I’ve seen draw-in-the-sand Pictionary entertain older kids long enough for you to enjoy one cocktail. Our favorite river-specific games are ammo-can balance tug-o-war, all you need are two ammo cans or equally sturdy coolers and a throwbag; flip that one boat with the least amout of rigging, grab a dish bucket and you instantly have a working waterslide; and life jacket sumo wrestling.

For littles, sand toys are great but can be cumbersome so, keep it simple: one large bucket with digging tools and maybe a dump truck for good measure. Buckets can double as boat defense in a water-fight. And I highly recommend a stand-up paddleboard for eddy hopping excursions—if you’re on any flat water sections—and makeshift diving boards. Fun is good, and it’s not like you were going to be able to lounge on the boat and relax anyway.

Thing Four: Captain’s Bags
Previously, this was your beloved rowing companion for beer storage and recycling. Now, it’s an absolute must-have for easy access to water bottles and sippy cups, the fleece layer after it warms up, the sunshirt before it warms up, an extra sunshirt and extra fleece, diapers, wipes, scent proof bag (more on that later), beloved toys, snack items, shoes, underwear, sunglasses, sunhats, and potentially anything else you can ad-lib into ‘Mooooooom, where’s my….?’ or ‘Honey, where the hell is the….?’ It also works great for disposing of said water bottles, snack items and scent proof bags.

Two are better than one. And while all of your hands will be engaged in keeping your kids from screaming or drowning, it’s not like you’ll be able to finish more than one beer every four hours anyway.

Caution: Captain’s bags must be cleaned out daily both for health and safety reasons. Five-day-old soggy cheese sticks are nobody’s friend.

Thing Five: Bug Netting

I know that you and your badass partner have probably survived swatting and cursing your way through the evening swarm, but give your kids a break. Learning to deal with that level of aggravation and irritation requires a frontal lobe more fully developed than a five year old, and a two year old doesn’t even know what’s happening to them. For less than twenty dollars, you can offer them a few square feet of solace to eat their dinner or use the groover. It packs down to less than the space of your rain jacket, and still allows the breeze in on a hot day.

Trust me when I say bug spray will not cut it for a few years. Little kids will get it in their eyes after rubbing them and many parents will avoid any spray involving harsh chemicals like DEET which are, sadly, the only things that actually prevents bites. And, true story, I’ve seen 100% DEET spray eat through a sleeping bag liner.

Thing Six: Face Paints and Superhero Capes

Let the kids get in on costume night without breaking your back having to get them in and immediately out of cumbersome costumes when they have to pee—again—and when they are all of a sudden over it. A selection of capes, face paints or masks allow for all the grown-up excitement of this after-sunset ritual with none of the frustration of trying to get a six year old out of a cowsuit in time for a Class IV groove.

Thing Seven: Doody-Solutions
Speaking of the groover, doody-solutions, are also known as wag-bags or scent-proof bags. There are daily emergencies in the parenting world, but on a whole other level is the sudden need to poop—right now—after floating one mile from camp with the groover buried on the lead boat which just passed out of sight. For those moments, it is prudent to carry between one and twelve wag-bags on your boat. A highly packable, portable and hygienic toilet-alternative, wag bags can usually be purchased at your friendly neighborhood backcountry gear store. (Or order them online and have them shipped to your front porch.)

And while you’re in the neighborhood…swing by the hunting section and pick up some scent-proof storage bags. If not for you, then for everyone downwind and for the hope of ever being invited on a permit again. Now, some of you might be saying, ‘We already have freezer-bags in the kitchen box, Lindsay,’ but I say you have never experienced the trash bag on day three of a San Juan float in mid-June after your two year old has been contributing—mulitple times—daily.

Thing Eight: Pre-Washed and Pre-Cut Fruit

This is a life-saver. By investing some time cutting and storing fruit—one large container per day—you will find yourself with an instant and healthy solution to 85% of on-boat whining. Freeze the grapes and blueberries for an extra cool treat, and don’t skimp on the watermelon and pineapple. Bananas are not your friend after the first day unless you have a lot of cooler space, store them whole but not directly on the ice. Remember, a whole apple is both food and entertainment for anywhere from ten to thirty minutes. And better yet, knowing the berry stashes along the way is like winning the lottery. Pitstops break up the monotony of flatwater; hiking and picking berries in the sun can make even the most rambunctious tot a little tired; and voila: ready-to-eat snacks.

Thing Nine: Tent with a Vestibule
Unless you enjoy the deep-tissue exfoliation which only comes with finding sand in your sleeping bag and all your clothes, you need a vestibule. A big one. How big? Enough room to de-sand/de-mud every foot attached to your children, pets or spouse and let wet clothes and shoes not get wetter overnight. I have a dream in which I own a Big Agnes Tensleep Station 6…but for the moment any three season with a full-fly will do.

Thing Ten: Paradigm Shift

This adventure you’re planning will not go off without a hitch. It will not be smooth sailing. And you will never have all your ducks in a row. But you will love every moment of it—after a few months, of course.

In all seriousness though, remember that you’re taking this journey with the people you love most in the world, and while your afternoons will involve less shit-shooting and sunset-watching relaxation in the sand, it will be worth it. So, for a while at least, go to the river without expecting to enjoy it the same way you used to. Instead, look around whenever you can and watch your children explore, strive and thrive, and love the messy, chaotic moment you are in.

Let me know your secrets for family boating in the comments below!