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Rafting Resource Hub: A comprehensive guide to packing for river trips

by Brennan Patrick Gillis

Checklists and how-to guides for leading and packing for your own river trip

Welcome to CFI’s Rafting Resource Hub. This collection of resources is designed to give you the tools you need to successfully lead a private river trip with your family or friends.  

Planning your own river trip can be a challenging, daunting experience. This is your go to source for checklists, tips and tricks, and even some ideas about managing various group dynamics! 

In this guide, you will find information on all aspects of planning a multi-day river expedition for you and your family and friends. Read on, or click to jump straight to the following topic areas:

Trip Preparation

For the TL, the legwork begins far before you push off that boat ramp. Take some time leading up to your trip to do some planning.   

First, make sure to learn the rules of the riverway. These can be found on your permit, and on the website of the agency that manages your stretch of river. Sometimes you can collect firewood during certain seasons, sometimes you can’t. Sometimes campsites are assigned ahead of time, and sometimes they aren’t. Sometimes you can make fires, and sometimes fires are illegal. River runners know and follow the rules associated with their permit. They adhere to location-specific Leave No Trace principles, and they hold members of their group accountable for respecting the cultural and ecological histories of the riverway.

A good TL will make a general plan for the day, including where they may camp or hike. A great TL will have the knowledge to make strong decisions when their plan starts to break down, when their desired campsite is occupied, or when something else goes wrong.

No matter how you decide to go about building your trip, strong communication and planning leading up to your launch date will contribute to a smooth experience on the water.

Expedition Rig List

Take a look at our Expedition Rig List – it’s a great place to start. You’ll find a list of the essential pieces of gear when it comes to sending a multi-day river trip. It’s important to note that this list is only meant to serve as a guide. As Trip Leader, it’s your responsibility to ensure the group has the appropriate gear items for the expedition you’re leading. Take into account the duration, location, type of river you are planning on running, and time of year. Each of these factors influence the gear you should bring. Our list is meant to serve as a baseline, listing items that should serve universally across all multi-day river trips.  

Many hands make easy rigs! Effective leaders utilize their team.

Tips for effective leadership

As a TL, you are ultimately responsible for the success of your group. From thinking through shuttle logistics, daily itineraries, and food packing; leading a group of friends or family down the river can be a lot of work. Spending a few days in nature, unplugged from technology is an extreme privilege, and we recommend giving some thought to how you want to spend that time.

Start by brainstorming some desired outcomes of this trip. Do you want to do a lot of side hiking? Eat amazing riverside meals? Rappel some slot canyons? Shred some rapids? Throw some parties? Write poetry or do some oil painting? Bond with the group? All of these things can be done on a multi-day river trip, and asking your group what they hope to get out of the experience can help you plan. 

POV: you’ve got the guide stick and your friends are awaiting your command… *gulp!*

Once you have a sense of what some of your trip’s goals are, give some thought to how to arrange your shuttles, what food you may want to eat, or where you think your group may want to camp along the way.

You also don’t have to do all the work yourself. A good leader can delegate tasks to members of the expedition with related skills. Feel free to ask someone if they want to take on shuttle planning, or menu logistics. If someone is familiar with your stretch of river, consider asking them to create an emergency evacuation plan. Try to get a sense of which members of your group carry active certifications in areas like Search and Rescue, First Aid, and other relevant skills.

Trip Orientation

Trip Leaders have the privilege of inviting the members of their expedition into the world of a multi-day river trip. The trip orientation, or safety talk, is your opportunity to address the entire group, communicate essential safety information, and generally set the tone for your trip.

The orientation should cover basic river safety principles and outline best practices for reducing risk in the outdoors. Even if members of your team have spent time on the river, you may not know what safety concepts they have been taught. The trip orientation is your opportunity to establish standards for communication and action while on the river. Safety talks commonly include instruction on what happens if a passenger falls out, a boat flips, and which whistle or hand signals boaters can use to communicate.

whitewater academy MZ AE kitchen westwater
Those who argue that ‘hunger is the greatest seasoning’ are usually the same ones who forgot the salt.

Menu Planning

Some people say that the food is the most important part of any adventure! Rule #4 of Howard Tomb’s ‘Finer Points of Expedition Behavior’ is to learn to cook at least one thing right; “one expedition trick is so old that it is no longer amusing: on the first cooking assignment, the clever cook prepares a dish that resembles, say, Burnt Sock en le Sauce Toxique.”

Choosing the right trip menu that encourages simple, high quality meals, can have a huge effect on the success of your trip. 

A good trip menu should complement the trip in a way that aligns with the desired outcomes. A lengthy breakfast of pancakes, bacon and eggs, is suitable for a slower morning – maybe a layover – and a quick and easy dinner is perfect for your longest day of rowing. If you are planning out your trip’s menu, think about a meal plan that will support the goals of your group, and make sure your kitchen is packed accordingly. Oh, and don’t forget to include a few desserts now and then… you know…for morale.

Check out our suggestions for packing your own river kitchen.

Chores and Crews

On a river trip, stuff has to get done. Lots of stuff. And generally, people have to do the stuff that needs to get done. On an expedition with a combination of seasoned boaters and newbies, there can be an imbalance when it comes to the doing of the stuff. We recommend taking some time ahead of the trip to sort your group into a few different chore teams to make sure that camp runs smoothly and efficiently. It wise to divide your groups up so that they contain a healthy mix of experience. Oftentimes the people new to a river trip would like to help out, but they don’t know what the kitchen, dishwashing, or camp systems are. Encouraging a chore rotation empowers the new boaters to learn a new skill and contribute to the expedition.

“We’re gonna need a vacation after this vacation!”

Telling your friends what to do can be challenging and awkward, and it may seem easier just to let people hop in where they think they are needed. In a perfect word, people share work evenly, but new group dynamics are usually far from perfect, and adding a structure ensures that everyone is doing equal work while preventing a buildup of resentment. 

We recommend making crews campsite based, where a new rotation begins when a group lands at camp in the afternoon, and changes when the new campsite is reached the following day. Possible crews include: Cooking crew, dishwashing crew, and camp setup/groover crew. For longer expeditions, consider adding an off day into the rotation or including a vibes crew, responsible for making camp a truly special place to hang out. 

Establishing expectations for these crews at the beginning of the trip will go a long way toward making sure camp systems run smoothly.

Packing group gear

One of the duties of a Trip Leader is to make sure that your expedition has the necessary group safety items in the event of an incident. Some coordination is required so that you have what you need, without having doubles. When packing safety items like a pin kit, or a major first aid kit, knowing the skillsets and certifications of your group is essential to bringing appropriate gear. Our suggestions outline which level of training they are designed for, and you should make sure that you don’t bring gear or attempt rescue or first aid that is outside of your scope of practice.

…and when you reach camp and realize that your stove’s hoses are missing, well, “Run what you brung,” as they say.

First Aid Kits

“What about Second Aid?” – Pippin, during his recent WFR recertification course.

We recommend bringing a Major First Aid Kit as well as one or more Minor First Aid Kits. These two types of first aid kits are designed in tandem and have different uses from each other. The Major First Aid Kit should be packed in a durable, waterproof container like a rocket box, and be stocked with lifesaving equipment for medical emergencies in a backcountry setting. The Minor First Aid Kit is a smaller, portable first aid kit designed to be carried along on side hikes or activities where folks may not have quick access to the Major Kit.

These kits are designed for rescuers with an active Wilderness First Responder level certification. The WFR is a specific type of first aid training for backcountry settings. In a WFR class, you learn the skills to stabilize and evacuate patients to definitive front country medical care. If you are interested in recertifying your WFR, CFI hosts a Wilderness First Responder Recert Course through the Wilderness Medicine Institute.

Always bring and build kits that align with your scope of training.

Pin Kits

Sometimes we pin or perch our rafts on obstacles in moving water. Dealing with a pinned boat can be a time consuming, potentially risky part of any river trip. When a boat gets stuck, it is always best for the boat captain to work slowly and methodically to unpin themselves. They might try to bounce up and down, move their passengers around the boat, or otherwise redistribute weight. Generally, it is advised to progress from simple solutions, like bouncing and redistributing weight, through a series of increasingly complex solutions until the boat becomes unpinned.

If you have attended a Swiftwater Rescue Course, you may have learned about certain tools and techniques you can use to unpin a boat. Swiftwater Rescue Courses also teach essential communication, risk management, and technical skills needed when performing any river rescue operation.

This Pin Kit is designed to be used by someone with an active Swiftwater Rescue Certification. Using tools, like rope, or creating mechanical advantage systems, like a z-drag, may increase the riskiness of a rescue situation. Specific training is required to perform river rescues, and when building your kit, you should only include gear that you fully understand and have practiced with.

Patch and Tool Kits

A Patch Kit is used to make field repairs to your boat. Rafts are made with a few different types of rubber and plastic blends, and knowing your boat’s material is essential to building an effective patch kit.

A Tool Kit is a great item to add to your river trip. While you may not crack it open during every trip, these essentials can turn tricky backcountry problems into easy fixes. You should adapt this list based on your boat frame’s style and hardware.

Packing personal gear

A lot of mid-trip headache can be prevented by setting your crew up for success. Here is a checklist for packing personal gear that you can send around to the folks on your trip who may be less familiar with river systems and camping.

“Hey could I borrow your hand salve… and nail clippers… and uh, your toothbrush?”

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All PDFs and Checklists

View and download all the Checklists grouped into one PDF, or individually as needed.

Individual Checklists:

Expedition Rig List
River Kitchen Checklist
Minor First Aid Kit Checklist
Major First Aid Kit Checklist
Pin Kit Checklist
Patch and Repair Kit Checklist
Took Kit Checklist
Personal Packing Checklist

About the Author: Brennan Patrick Gillis

Brennan Patrick Gillis has always felt drawn toward the outdoors. After studying creative writing and geosciences at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, PA, he followed the call to work for the Appalachian Mountain Club in Maine’s 100 mile wilderness. He has taught for the YMCA, and for Slide Ranch, an educational farm north of San Francisco. Brennan has been guiding on the Colorado Plateau since 2018. These days, Brennan enjoys getting lost in canyons, looking at stars, and shaking desert sand out of his sleeping bag.