Priscilla Macy | 05.10.2018

Rivers exemplify many values, both intrinsic and tangible. Whether you want to paddle, fish, swim, float, sight-see, or simply spend time with friends and family by the water, rivers are an incredible place to spend time outside, and are natural resources that deserve continued protections.

One of the ways that we can protect these spaces is through special legal designations, such as the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968. October 2018 will mark the 50th anniversary of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, and in celebration of continuing protections for our rivers, we invite you to plan a visit to a river near you. Here are some of the basics you should know before hitting the water.

Choosing your type of river adventure

Each river has a different character: some are large, some small, some are mostly flat and calm, some have small rapids between sections of flat water, and some rivers are continuous and steep with difficult rapids and require special skill sets and equipment to navigate safely. No matter what type of adventure you choose, you can either spend the time and money to learn how to do it on your own by taking a class or joining a local paddling club, go with an experienced group, or hire a guide or outfitter to show you the way.


Drowning and hypothermia are real risks that anyone recreating on or near a river needs to understand. Hypothermia is most commonly thought of in conjunction with cold water and cold weather; however, hypothermia can strike even in moderately cool water if exposure is long enough and air temperatures aren't sufficiently warm. Look for they symptoms of hypothermia even on days when you wouldn't expect it to be a factor. Additionally, river currents, particularly in the spring when snow is melting, and many rivers are at higher water levels, and at colder temperatures than in the summer months, can completely overwhelm even the strongest of swimmers.  Make sure to know river conditions before you go, and to prepare accordingly. 

Any time you are in a body of water, you should wear appropriate safety equipment (see the gear list below), and follow relevant local laws and regulations. For example, in most states it is law that you must carry an approved PFD (Personal Floatation Device) and a signaling device such as a whistle when boating. In Oregon and many other states you must also have an AIS (Aquatic Invasive Species) tag for any watercraft over 10 feet long.

What to wear

  • Materials: Base layers keep you warm by insulating and by wicking sweat off of your skin. Synthetic fabrics and wool layers are good fabrics for both cold and hot weather. Common types of synthetic fabric include polyester, nylon, polypropylene, rayon, or a blend of fabrics. Cotton should only be worn in very hot conditions as it remains wet and cold for long periods of time, doesn't insulate well and does not move sweat or dampness from your skin.   
  • Fit: A wicking fabric has to be in direct contact with your skin to do its job, and insulation works better when clothing is closer to you skin, so choose layers that have a comfortable and snug fit for optimum performance. When you jump into a cool pool, the last thing you want is your pants floating downstream or your top falling off (ladies). Athletic and quick-drying synthetic material is most comfortable for both hiking and swimming, and there are many companies that make gear to fit well and perform for both hiking and swimming. If the water is cold, a pair of shorts with a neoprene lining can help take the edge off and keep your bottom half warm. A few brands that do well for ladies and guys alike include Immersion Research, NRS, Patagonia and Prana.
  • Outerwear: Depending on the climate, weather forecast, water temperature and how long you plan to be on or near the river, you may want to pack a few extra layers like a rain jacket, weatherproof pants or shorts, and thick socks. 
  • Footwear: Some attributes to look for in a good river shoe include non-slip rubber, ankle support, breathability, drainability, durability, and the ability to stay on your foot while swimming (high-top shoes are best). Chaco sandals are a long-time and popular choice for kayakers, SUP-ers, rafters and hikers and are most appropriate for warmer summer months. Wetsuit booties can work well, and are a low price alternative to other paddling shoes, but they tend to sacrifice grip and comfort on rougher terrain. A more robust shoe, like those that Astral Designs makes, might be a better choice for colder months and harsher environmental conditions.

Hiking and swimming along a river

Hiking alongside and swimming in a river is a simple and less gear-intensive way to enjoy a river. In addition to good footwear, make sure to have sun protection, clothing, layers and first aid supplies as needed and depending on the terrain and how remote your selected area is. It’s also convenient to bring a drybag on hikes where river crossings are involved to keep your gear secure and dry. Brands like Watershead, Fishpond, NRS, and Patagonia sell a variety of drybags

Flat water to mild whitewater paddling

Lakes, mellower rivers, and sections of rivers with slower water are a great way to become familiar with how to navigate a craft in water. Lakes are the easiest places to start, and then you can advance to flat water sections of rivers. Though some rivers may seem flat in sections, there is still a downstream current. If you plan to paddle downstream, you will need to plan a put-in and a take-out point before launching on your float; alternately, you can pick a section where you can manage paddling back upstream (against the current, and often called "attaining" a river) to return to your vehicle. Many sections of water have pre-determined put-ins and take-outs, so do your research beforehand by looking online and consulting guidebooks or having someone who is experienced with the route to show you.

    Whitewater paddling

    Whitewater can range from Class I to Class VI in difficulty. Though the class system of difficulty is widely interpreted, the International Scale of Difficulty is a good baseline: Class I water has moving current with some riffles, and Class V water should only be attempted by experts who are willing to accept considerable risk; by definition, Class VI whitewater has not yet been navigated.  

    Researching what section of river to paddle is not as daunting as it used to be.  There are many resources online and in print that give details about hazards, flow range, difficulty, driving directions, and put-ins and take-outs. Some guidebooks even let you know local spots to eat and grab a drink after paddling!

    If Outdoor Project doesn't have what you are looking for, American Whitewater is a great resource for finding information about sections of river to paddle. Check online to see if there is a local resource with specific knowledge about the body of water you will be boating. You can also look to your local paddling shop to see what printed guidebooks are available; these are nice to have in your car because many kayak runs are out of range for phone and internet service.

    A diversity of watercraft can be used to navigate rivers. Some of the more popular types of watercraft include flat water and whitewater canoes, sit-on-top kayaks, hardshell and inflatable kayaks, packrafts, stand-up paddleboards (SUP), rafts, drift boats, and dories.

    Gear list basics for whitewater boating

    • Dress for the water temperature, not for the air temperature.
    • Dress in layers, especially on the upper body (keep your core warm!).
    • Dress for sun protection (sunscreen or protective clothing layers).
    • No cotton; seek quick-drying fabrics instead (synthetic or wool).
    • Wear clothes that will be comfortable for long periods of sitting.
    • Wear clothing that allows you to move comfortably.
    • Wear insulating gear (wetsuit, drysuit, paddle jacket, drytop) any time the water temps are 60 degrees Fahrenheit or cooler. If the water temperature is above 60, consider insulating gear as you factor in the air temperature.
    • Though discretion can be used, it is recommended that you still wear your wetsuit or drysuit and insulating layers if the combined air and water temp is less than 120 degrees Fahrenheit. That said, anyone avoiding insulating layers when the water temperature is 49 degrees and the air temperature is 69 degrees has missed the point; it is always easier to remove layers if you become too warm than to add layers that you didn't bother bringing.


    A neoprene wetsuit is the minimum protection needed for colder weather conditions on the water. Neoprene insulates by holding a thin layer of water next to your skin where it is heated by your body. As soon as you are out of the water, the insulation ability of the wetsuit diminishes. For hot air temperatures and cold water, a sleeveless wetsuit (Farmer John or Jane styles) or wetsuits with shorts and short-sleeve tops are a good option. Another more versatile option is to purchase a neoprene long sleeve top and neoprene pants that can be used together or separately.

    While the wetsuit does the job of insulating without an additional base layer, having swimwear or a comfortable underlayer underneath it makes it more comfortable to remove your wetsuit without having to find a changing area. If you are wearing a sleeveless wetsuit, consider a quick-dry top to cover exposed areas of your arms. A long-sleeve base layer or rashguard top works for both warmth and sun protection. If extra warmth is needed, consider a thicker wetsuit or look into a drysuit. You can also add a splash top, drytop, or splash pants over the wetsuit, but make sure you can still move with ease and that the layers won't retain or keep water if you end up in the water and immersed (making it more difficult to swim).

    Drysuits, splash tops, and splash pants

    A drysuit is an outer layer for colder water (and air), and it is a safety necessity for cold, remote, or extended paddling trips. Drysuits are made of waterproof breathable material (such as Gore-Tex) and have watertight latex gaskets that keep you completely dry. Warmth is adjusted by wearing insulating layers under the drysuit. If you are heading in this direction, check out this advice on choosing the right drysuit.

    Dry tops and dry pants are good options if the weather is warmer and if you want more versatility. Dry tops are a good option for warmer weather kayaking on cold water. A dry pants and dry top combo is also good for rafting when you are not worried about swimming out of the boat and becoming cold. Immersion Research, NRS, Stohlquist, Kokatat, and many more brands make both drysuits and the separate dry tops and dry pants.

    Splash tops and splash pants are similar to dry tops and dry pants, but without watertight gaskets. This gear is often used for rafting trips and SUPing in mild to warmer weather conditions where you are not concerned about swimming or being in the water for prolonged periods of time.

    You can buy specific fleece, heavyweight or lightweight onesies for paddling, or you can just layer as you normally would for the temperature and put a drysuit over it. For colder conditions, you can add a thick fleece layer, or down vest or jacket (keeping your core warm is key). Make sure you can still freely move, and avoid overheating when selecting layers.

    Basic technical equipment list

    To learn more about what is appropriate to buy for your desired paddle craft, pay a visit to a local paddle shop, take an introductory class, join a paddling club, or ask experts for advice. Here is a basic list of the necessities for each craft, along with links to my personal favorite gear. This list is by no means exhaustive, but it is intended to be more of an overview of what equipment might be needed to get you on your way to becoming a whitewater paddler!

    Hardshell whitewater kayaking

    Whitewater rafting and inflatable kayaking

    All of the above basics (with the exception of the sprayskirt, you will also need to choose a different type of paddle-typically a longer one for IK-ing, and a t-grip style paddle for rafting, or Oars depending on your style of raft set-up).



    We hope that this provides foundational information to get you started planning your adventure on the river. There are many more flat water and whitewater paddling adventures on Outdoor Project, so look for an opportunity near you. Remember, this should only act as a guide and not a comprehensive manual to whitewater boating. Take a class, visit your local paddle shop, and ask experts in order to learn more about the many intricacies of each type of whitewater paddle sport.  

    See ya on the river!


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