Tips and Tricks to Rafting in the Grand Canyon

There are some definite tricks to staying comfortable and happy on rafting trips through the Grand Canyon. Here are a few I learned on my trip.
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Relaxing while rafting on the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. Photo by Whit Richardson

Relaxing while rafting on the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. Photo by Whit Richardson

The email said to bring lots of lotion and sunscreen. Our skin, we were warned, would be trashed by the combination of sun, water and sand that would be ubiquitous in the Grand Canyon.

Now, day four on the river, I smiled ruefully down at my feet, remembering those words of advice. My skin was angry and red, raw from rubbing against my sandal straps. Lotion wasn't much good at this point.

There are some definite tricks to staying comfortable and happy on rafting trips through the Grand Canyon. Here are a few I learned on my trip in the fall of 2009.

Do protect your skin. Lotions, sunscreen, bag balm or Vaseline are essential, but only go so far in preventing the ravages of sun, heat, water and sand. For your feet, what you really need to do is wear dry shoes and socks when hiking. Don't look to your guides for inspiration. Their feet are toughened by months on the river, so just because they choose to walk to Thunder Falls in their flip flops doesn't mean it's a good idea for you to do so. Keep your feet as dry as you can. When you get into camp, take off your river shoes and allow your feet to air out. If you have a pair of neoprene socks, you can wear those under your sandals when you are hiking or in the raft. You may look like a geek, but the neoprene will keep your sandpaper-like sandal straps away from your delicate skin.

As for the rest of your body, keep slathering on the sunscreen! Better yet, wear a long-sleeved loose-fitting cotton shirt. White or other light colors are best, even if they end up rather brown at the end of the trip. You can douse your shirt in water to keep cool and the full cover works better than sunscreen in preventing burns. Wide-brimmed hats are also essential. Make sure your hat, and your sunglasses, are attached to you with a strap, otherwise, you are likely to lose them in the first rapid you encounter.

What to Wear

You don't need much on a Grand Canyon trip: a couple of t-shirts and one or two pairs of nylon shorts, one pair of long pants, one fleece sweater or jacket, one or maybe two bathing suits, rain gear, toiletries, a book, sunhat, a small towel, and a few miscellaneous items. Think about bringing clothing that dries quickly, is loose and comfortable, and doesn't show dirt, because regardless of how often you jump in the river for a bath, your clothes are going to be permanently brown by the end. Pants were unnecessary on our trip, but we had perfect weather. If it gets windy, you'll be happy to have something to protect your legs from the sting of blowing sand and to offset the chill of cool evening temperatures.

Temperatures can be cold especially when a storm rolls through. If the weather is good, you need little more than a fleece jacket to throw on in the evening, but if it is rainy, you'll probably want some kind of insulating layers to put on under your raincoat. I had a down parka on my trip that I never wore, but I was glad to have it just in case. Talk to your outfitter and find out what temperatures are expected during your trip. It's hard to fake a warm layer out of multiple bikini tops, so be prepared for the worst-case scenario by bringing a few warm and waterproof items.

Those Essential Extras

Bring a waterproof container for your camera! Like your skin, sand and water are a lethal combination for most cameras. I thought I was okay keeping my point-and-shoot in my rain-jacket pocket, but soon discovered the pocket was not waterproof. Needless to say, my camera did not survive the trip.

At night, you have to walk down to the river to urinate. So, you may want to consider bringing a pee bottle along. I know, "Gross". But it's really not bad. I personally don't like crawling out of my sleeping bag and blundering my way down to the waterline, blind without my contact lens, to pee into the river. Inevitably, I step in the water and end up with sandy feet in bed. Much better to urinate in a bottle bedside, and dump the contents into the river the next morning. Choose a wide-mouth sturdy plastic bottle with a screw-on top to prevent spills. Mark the bottle so there's no chance you'll use it for drinking water. If you are nervous about peeing in a bottle, try it at home before you go to perfect your technique. If you can pee into a cup at the doctor's office, you can pee into a bottle on the beach.

I also like to bring along some kind of moist toilettes or baby wipes. You don't need a lot, just one per day. But it sure feels great to clean off your face and under your arms before you go to bed at night.

Finally, you'll want to put straps on your water bottles and bring along a few carabiners so you can hook your personal items: day bags, water bottles, etc. to the boats during the day. Most of your other belongings will be packed away and inaccessible while you are on the river.

What You Won't Need

Don't bother with your cell phones or computers. There's no reception down in the canyon. Your trip is a perfect time to get away from the constant contact of the world above the canyon rim.

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