It's all about staying comfortable in the wilderness and being ready for anything. If you're planning to take a whitewater rafting trip with a commercial guide service, expect them to provide the specialized clothing items such as neoprene wetsuit, neoprene boots and helmet. They will also provide 'dry bags' in which to pack your personal gear and a waterproof container for your ID and other valueables. But you're responsible to bring proper clothing to wear around camp, and to hike, and it will be up to you to select clothing suitable for the conditions. Below are some suggestions to guide you and information about particularly desirable clothing for whitewater rafting trips, and some warnings about what not to wear.
Sure, bring your swim suit and shorts, but it's a fact, whitewater happens in mountains and canyons and by their topographic nature, these are places in which weather changes rapidly. Even the most glorious mid-summer weather forecast can still include surprise thunderstorms. A hot July day can end with a thunderstorm with hail and wind that cause temperatures to plunge in minutes, casting you back into winter-like conditions. And mountain storms can be exceptionally violent. We've witnessed a 'micro burst' and it was amazingly powerful, like a locomotive coming down the canyon, flattening trees and tearing our camp apart.
Seriously bad weather is not your only concern. Getting splashed in the bow of a raft can be fun in the sun, but not so much fun on an overcast day. And upstream winds can cause bow spray that can keep all raft passengers wet and chilly on an otherwise warm day. Strong upstream winds are a pretty common occurrence in river canyons. And of course, white water rivers are often cold, so any splash can be chilling.
If you're a woman, you probably want to bring two-piece swim suits if you expect to be wearing as swim suit. Two pieces allow more discrete dropping of your pants. Remember, to protect the environment, river runners pee in the river. Discretely sneaking off to hide behind the boat is a time-honored practice.
On every trip, bring clothes to keep yourself nice and warm in cold, rain, and wind. But don't bring too much gear. Remember all your personal gear must fit in the fairly limited space of a (mostly) waterproof 'dry bag'. Ideally, you would plan to wear virtually everything you've brought if it turns very cold. And cold-weather clothes don't do much good if they are buried deep down in the luggage when a storm comes up. On our boats, we keep everyone's 'storm clothes' and wetsuits in a special bag that's easy to get into when weather blows in.
A day at the beach is fun. A week on the river with limited shade can take its toll. So bring along serious sun protection. I mean protection beyond sunscreeen. Light-colored long sleeve shirts can be a lifesaver in the hot sun. And light-colored pants with zip-off legs are great for switching back and forth between long pants and shorts while on the river, both to shield against the sun and to warm up if the clouds come in.
Clothes that dry fast are a real blessing on white water rafting trips. Wool, while considered the traditional outdoor fabric because it keeps you somewhat warm when wet, is outdated because it doesn't dry out as fast as the modern high-tech fabrics. The new knit fabrics and fleece are better at both keeping you warm, and drying fast if they get wet. And of course they do a better job of keeping you warm when they do get wet. Where wool still excels is when standing close to the fire. So bring some wool pants if you just love to cozy up to the fire! And of course, be very careful sitting around a roaring fire in fleece or other synthetic pants!
Bring a top and bottom that are both waterproof and breathable. Think in terms of layers. I recommend you bring a fleece top and fleece pants. And more fleece - light fleece and heavy fleece. Fleece over fleece with a waterproof shell over the top is warm and dry in bad weather, and you can shed layers to control your temporature.
The gals I travel with appreciate having a wetsuit along on every trip. There's not a better setup when spending a rainy or gray day on the river than a 'farmer-john' or 'farmer-jane' wetsuit, with a fleece jacket and waterproof shell over it. And don't forget neoprene booties on your feet, inside your sandals or sneakers. Of course, in extreme conditions, and early spring rafting trips, the only garment that matters is a dry suit. But these are expensive, specialized pieces of equipment. If you're really into the sport of rafting, you'll be buying a drysuit at some point.
Ball caps are fine, but it's also nice to have a hat that shades your ears and the back of your neck. So broad-brim straw hats or cowboy hats are great to have on a river trip. Also, rafting retailers sell 'hat tethers' which are short pieces of cord with clips on both ends. To prevent loosing your hat to the wind, clip one end of the tether to the back of your hat and the other to your life jacket. A hat lost to the river on the first day of a river trip is a bummer. So it's nice to have that spare. Bring spare sunglasses, too.
Another recommendation is to bring a bandana to shield the back of the neck. There are commercial bandana-sponges available which, when soaked with water and applied around the neck help in keeping you cool in the hot sun.
Some rivers, especially in the southwest, have major-league bug seasons. These typically extend from late-May through July. Outdoor retailers like REI sell head nets, caps with built-in bug screens, and full body net suits. Bug repellant will go only so far. Sometimes you just need the specialized clothing.
In my opinion, sandals that use Velcro to connect the straps have no place on white water rafting trips. If you're thrown into the river, at the point where you need foot protection the most, to fend off rocks and logs, they can be pulled off your feet by the current. To be barefoot in fast current is a life threatening situation. And on the beach, sand can make the Velcro ineffective as a closure. Bring good quality river sandals that use buckles. This is really a matter of keeping you safe, not just warm weather comfort and style.
I strongly advise the use of felt-soled shoes or boots if you're rowing your own raft on very low water trips and very high water trips. Whenever the chances are great that you will be out of your boat, standing or pushing on wet rocks, felt soles are the ticket. They give incredible traction on wet surfaces. Also boots that protect your ankles can prevent some very painful pinch and abrasion situations and sprains when you're standing on a boulder-strewn river bed.
Flip-flops are a joy to have in camp, but like Velcro, they are dangerous to wear while aboard a moving raft. Your feet take a beating all day as they are constantly wet. Going barefoot at a beach camp is fun for awhile, but having some flip-flops to change to is great when your feet start feeling abused. And sometimes the beaches are just too hot to go without footwear.
Bring a pair of tennis or running shoes or broken-in walking shoes for camp footwear and side hikes. If your campsite is not sand, there is a high risk of stubbing toes and cutting your feet. Because your feet are constantly wet and then dry and wet again, sores don't seem to heal on a rafting trip. So any cut or scratch on your feet is just going to get worse each day. Take special care of your feet from the very first day. We take several rolls of waterproof rubber adhesive tape. It works far, far better than bandaids or regular adhesive tape. You can find it in the first aid section at your local drugstore (we find it at Target). Apply a strip at the first sign of any foot abrasion or nick.
Below are the lists of clothing and personal items that each member of our river trips bring. We reprint these lists for each participant as a reminder in the weeks before we leave home. A good way to use these lists is to copy and paste the lists into a Word document and print them out. Then make a small circle beside each item as you locate that item and put that item into the pile to go on the trip. The circle represents "located" status. Then later, on the day you actually pack to leave, put a checkmark in each circle as you pack that item into your bag to indicate "packed" status.
If you're going on a rafting vacation with a commercial guide service, the guide service will probably supply at least some of the following items. If you are going on a private trip, just add this list to the personal items above.