Family Rafting 101: The Packing Breakdown


After our trip in March, Casey and I reflected on how we get ready for a trip like that. Three days/two nights is not the longest trip we’ve been on, but it still requires a lot of preparation. Through the years, we’ve created (and somewhat perfected) a lot of systems and tricks. These have been built up over years of trial and painful error, as well as very tight budgets. But these practices we rely on eliminate the need to talk through each packing decision for every trip and usually, for the most part, results in a (mostly) diaster-free raft trip—but not always.

The reality is that every family will have to work through the packing learning curve to some extent, but maybe we can make it a little easier for you by sharing what we’ve learned about packing for family river trips.

Four Things to Invest In
1. PFDs: Take time to find a brand of PFD that meets whitewater requirements in your area, fits very snugly but does not cause chafing. I cannot stress how important it is to find a PFD for your kids that does not rise up and rub their cheeks. After a long day on the water, just a little contact can cause a lot of skin irritation and discomfort for the rest of the trip.

2. River Shoes: Keen-style water shoes with lots of openings, but closed toes are ideal. Make sure they are broken in before going on the trip. Traditional water shoes fill up quickly with sand and are usually not very good quality. For muddy trips, or cold ones, good, slip-on, puddle boots are everything. I’m a big fan of the Oakiwear brand, personally, but there are a lot of good ones out there.

3. Shade: Big hats, long sleeves and some kind of on-the-boat/off-the-boat shade structure is essential, especially if you’re taking very young children or infants. The sun is exhausting for them, so if you aren’t ready for a Bimini, at least pick up a grocery-store brand patio umbrella and learn the icicle hitch knot to hold it in place. If you want to drop some more serious cash, pick up the NRS River Wing, and you will no longer be afraid of camps with ‘little or no shade.’

4. Garden trowels and good sand buckets: This play item is always worth it, and consider the ‘buy it once’ mentality instead of having to pick up a new series of plastic junk every season.

Things Not to Waste Your Money On
Your kids absolutely do not NEED any the following money-pit items: expensive sun-shirts and swimwear, disposable water bottles, Paco Pads, and down sleeping bags. They will either grow out of them, pee in them, sleep perpendicularly to them, or learn to not care about the environment (in no particular order).

Start Small
Plan a day float or simple overnight camping trip before launching on a multi-day river adventure. These kinds of easy-to-bail trips test your systems on the boat and in the tent to see where you might need to improve.

Okay, okay, we might have invested in the ‘expensive swimwear’…

Saving your Marriage, Part One
Don’t pack in the same place as your partner. Put someone on the boat with the gear, and someone in the house with everything else. Never have two people putting together the kitchen box. That is the stuff divorce is made of.

Add an Hour of Packing for Each Child
Somehow we are surprised by this every year. 

Bring More Pants
If potty-training is in the near future, in progress, or in living memory, bring more pants. In a new and challenging environment, it is very hard for a little person to listen to their body as carefully as they would in the security of their own home. Expect accidents and move on cheerfully.

On the Subject of Pants
Never put off packing your own gear until the last minute, or you will forget your own pants. It’s true, it happened to a very close friend of mine. Twice.

Pre-Trip Clean-Up
Do you remember when you were young and threw a house party and the boozie version of yourself was considerate enough to clean up the bottles and cans before going to bed? Do you remember how good that felt the next morning? If you’re having trouble motivating yourself to clean the kitchen BEFORE you leave, just consider that you’re doing a favor for a miserable, sick, exhausted human being who can barely feed themselves. That is who you will be when you get back from a multi-day rafting trip with your kids. Just like the good ol’ days.

Keep it Together
While on the trip, take care of your tent space, and raft space (if possible, see below) It is very easy to get stressed out by just walking into a tent that looks like a bomb went off at the local thrift store. Small, essential items are often lost if they don’t ‘live’ somewhere. So put everything somewhere, and teach your kids to do the same. Keeping a tidy tent and being in charge of their personal gear is a great way for them to learn responsibility.

Contained Feeding Unit for < 2 Years Old.
For your free-roaming toddlers, the time to pen them up is dinner time. Find a little foldable camp chair with a built-in tray, or just bring your booster/tray set up from home and strap it on the duffel pile. Trust me. Keeping their food in front of them, their fingers away from the stove, and crumbs on the kitchen mat will be good for them, for you, and the environment.

Love for the Shoulder Seasons
Take a chance on shoulder (fringe) seasons for your more popular float trips. Every time we have taken a fall or spring rafting trip, it has always been worth it. There is more side-canyon exploring and less beach play than in the warmer months, but having less heat and fewer crowds is a good way to roll with kids.

Saving your Marriage, Part Two
You will always forget something. And so will your partner. DO NOT KEEP SCORE.

Instant Hot Water
Always bring a Jet Boil and keep it near your tent. Whether for midnight bottles or morning hot chocolate when it’s too cold to go outside (at 5:30 AM) and breakfast is still a long way away, hot drinks for all are an absolute lifesaver.

Pre-cut Everything
Vegetables, fruit by the pound, even cheese. You will never have time to find the cutting board and safely manage a knife, so plan accordingly.

Pack Everything the Night Before
If you pack absolutely everything the night before, on the morning you leave, you will only have to pack another twenty items or so. Do not expect to get out the door on time unless you plan to be out the door a full hour before you need to.

All the Clothes
I have a system for managing all the clothes for three kids on any overnight trip, and honestly, I’m a little proud of it. You will need: (1) reusable grocery bag per child and (1) duffel style drybag for every two children.

First, have your kids help you pack their clothes for the trip into a reusable grocery bag. If it doesn’t all fit in a reusable grocery bag, you’re probably bringing too much. Making sure they help you is key. They need to know what they have available to them and take ownership of the choices. Their participation in this step also makes sure that all your arguments about what to wear happen in the comfort of your own home and not under the stress of getting off the beach for the day.

Once you’ve packed the grocery bags (don’t forget special blankets and snugglies!), place two of them in a dry bag. When you make camp, pull out each kid’s grocery bag, and bring them into the tent, leaving the drybag in the vestibule. Get out PJs or day clothes as needed.

Now for the good part: Once an item is unwearable/dirty, leave it loose in the drybag. Only ever return clean, wearable clothes to the grocery bag. This step helps to keep clean clothes clean, and makes choosing an outfit for the kiddos much easier, and you’re less like to brush against any unfortunate underwear.

It also simplifies laundry at the end of the trip. All you do is dump everything loose in the dry bag into the laundry (after sifting out the pound of sand, of course), and return unworn items to the drawer. 

Our two boys share a drybag, and Cady has her own, but along with the clothes, we put the extra diapers, blankies, books and pillows in there. 

Remember, packing is hard work, but it’s just hard work, and the reward is unforgettable memories with your family in the places you love best. Happy family boating!

Editor’s Note: Read more about Lindsay’s boating family on the Down River Digest.