Part of the joy of rafting the canyon is being removed from the outside world and the stuff that often surrounds us. However, there are still some key items you’ll need with you.
Private or commercial trip
To get a private trip on the Grand Canyon, there is now a weighted lottery process for a permit where you pay $25 and hope your name is picked. If it is, you’ll need to completely outfit yourself. There are outfitters like Canyon REO or that provide everything you need from rafts to PFDs (personal flotation devices) to cooking gear. Or, if you already have some of it, you can pick and choose.
However, there are a limited number of private trip slots available, and if you want to guarantee a spot and if you have little experience with river running, there are a variety of commercial outfitters. You can go in a motorboat which will allow you to see more of the canyon in a shorter amount of time, or you can go in an oar rig which will take more time but is quieter.
If you’re going on a commercial trip, no matter the type of boat, while the big stuff like the food, toilet facilities, and boats are taken care of, you still need to pack your own personal stuff in duffel bag or backpack so it can be easily transferred into a dry bag.
On your head
A hat is a necessity. A ball cap or visor would work, but a wide-brimmed hat is ideal to protect from the sun.
Having a way to attach the hat to your person, like using a carabiner to clip it to your PFD or shirt, will keep the guide from having to turn the boat around and fish for your hat if it’s been blown off by the wind or ripped off in a rapid.
At least one pair of sunglasses, a backup pair, and/or a way to keep them on your head. I didn’t feel elegant or cute with the strap on my sunglasses, but I didn’t mind since it kept me from losing my shades.
A bandana or (in my case) a Buff can be worn either on your head beneath your hat or around your neck. It’s good for dunking in the river to cool off, and it’s also good for cleaning your sunglasses. And it provides another layer of sun protection.
On your body
Long-sleeve, quick dry or very lightweight cotton shirts. The sun can be vicious, and keeping covered up is the best way to prevent sunburn. For those who don’t want sleeves, any quick dry t-shirt or tank will do. But make sure to avoid heavy cotton t-shirts since they will just keep you cold once they get wet, and packing up a damp t-shirt into a dry bag for the day will guarantee all your stuff will have a musty smell next time you open the bag.
Pack pants, shorts, or zip-off pants, ideally in a light color for the heat, especially if you’re going in late July or August.
Rain gear, a jacket and rain pants. The rain gear is not, as I quickly discovered, for keeping you dry through the rapids, but for helping to keep you warm.
A bathing suit or two. I used the bathing suit as underwear essentially. It helps you dry out faster, and it means you can strip down for a little swim in any side streams you came across. It also allows for a bit of modesty while bathing. Though there’s a reason for the phrase “boatmen’s butt” – have something dry to change into at camp.
If you go early or late in the season, April and October, you are likely to need some warm layers. A fleece, thermal underwear (top and bottom), a stocking cap, and gloves will help prevent you from getting too chilled after you’ve pushed through a wall of whitewater. The water in the river is coming from the bottom of the dam, so it’s a brisk 50 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit year-round.
On your hands
During the shoulder season when it’s chillier, you’ll need some warm gloves. Throughout the season, a pair of rafting or snorkeling gloves could help prevent chafing as you hold on through the rapids, and they will help keep your hands warm.
On your feet
A good pair of river sandals with a backstrap like Chacos or Tevas. Don’t buy them new the day before. Break them in before you leave so you can prevent blisters.
I packed a pair of flip-flops that I designated as camp shoes. I didn’t get them wet (or too wet) at any point, and it was nice to have a separate pair to wear off the river.
A pair of hiking shoes or running shoes with good traction for side hikes particularly if you’re planning on taking a longer trip that allows for more on-foot exploration.
ARR provided a cot, sleeping bag, sheet, and pillow. If you’re going with a commercial trip, find out what, if anything, they provide. I used my own travel sheet just as a personal preference, and there were many people who’d brought their own pillowcases.
Toiletries and bathing
Sunscreen and lotion. It is hot and dry down in the canyon. To get burnt on day one and having to suffer through the rest of the trip with lobster red skin can be torturous. Bring a full size bottle of sunscreen, and a chapstick with sunscreen in it. And at night, my skin appreciated a slathering of lotion, and something like Aquaphor will help with any body parts that are chafed or extra dry.
Any medication that you need to live, that seems obvious. What might not be as obvious is to have some in two places. Just in case a bag gets washed overboard or a raven takes off with your toiletry kit (ravens are tricky!), you won’t have to cut your trip short.
In some places, you’re 24-48 hours from a hospital or medical facility.
You will shower/bathe in the river and must use biodegradable toiletries. ARR recommended (and I used), Johnson’s baby shampoo and Ivory soap. A quick-dry towel and a bath at night will help prevent the musty stink in your bag.
If you wear contacts or are prone to dry eyes, make sure to have eye drops. The wind can pick up quickly and I got to the point where I just didn’t wear my contacts at all because they got so dry.
A camera, extra batteries, and perhaps an extra camera. You don’t want to go on this “trip of a lifetime” and have your camera die on you. Waterproof cameras for rapid shots are expensive, and there are cheaper disposable options available. Even waterproof cameras are not likely to be sand proof so be careful when camping and storing your camera overnight since the fine grains of river silt can ruin a camera.
A headlamp. Once night falls, it gets dark quick. Make sure it’s out of your bag well before you need to make a midnight bathroom run.
Cash and ID
Bring along cash for tips for the boatmen and swamper and for any souvenirs you may want at the end of the trip.
Have a photo ID since many of the commercial trips involve a flight back to the point of origin. No photo ID = no flight.
Water is provided, and if you’re on a private trip, don’t forget to have a way to filter water. Bring a water bottle or Camelbak that you can easily bring with you. It should have a strap or a clip so it can be secured to your person on hikes and to the boat while on the river. Hydration is key. I’ve heard the story of what happens to those who get extremely dehydrated (it involved a turkey baster, Gatorade, and an opening that wasn’t the mouth) so keep your water bottle with you all the time.
When I asked Riley, Kenny, and Chelsea (our swamper and boatmen) what people didn’t bring enough of, they all said beer. It’s stored in bags that are slung over the side of the boat, the clearest benefit of cold water.
Not at all required, but could be nice
When I first saw Riley, our “swamper,” wearing a sarong, I was jealous. Per National Parks Service rules, the river is in Grand Canyon National Park, all liquid waste goes in the river. This means that life is a touch harder for women than for men, and I would have liked to have a sarong or skirt, at least in camp.
You are camping outside, and you will not have control over whether any of your neighbors snore. I spent my last night pondering whether I could (a) move my cot without ending up in the river or (b) smack my neighbor hard enough with my pillow that he’d stop snoring. If I’d packed some earplugs, I wouldn’t have had this problem.
I found my collapsible bowl to be a great bath accessory – using the bowl to scoop water to wash and rinse my hair. Some dunked in the water completely, but it’s not always possible to do so and also avoid the current, and, to be frank, the water was just too cold for me in the evenings.
I realize this is a vanity issue, and it’s really not at all a necessity. However, on a longer trip, particularly for those with longer hair, you could consider the Johnson’s leave-in conditioner.
Socks. I know that socks with sandals isn’t really all that sexy, but they can provide two benefits. First is that they can be kept in your day bag and put on after a run of whitewater particularly in the off-season and/or if you’re in the shade. Second is that the sand on the beaches where you’ll be camping can get in between your foot and a sandal strap and rub raw pretty quickly.
If you’re a fisherman, you can bring along a collapsible pole. We fried up some trout that someone caught on the first night.
What you don’t really need
I asked the boatmen what people brought that they didn’t really need. Without hesitation, they all said solar showers because they can leak, pop, and in general seem to be a bit of a hassle. I wrote all this down, nodding my head, not admitting to the fact that I’d made friends with a couple with a solar shower, and I’d used it the night before. They did make a good point. While the water was a bit warmer, it was heavy and seemed cumbersome to keep track of on the boat.
A watch. If you have one with you, toss it to the bottom of your bag. You’ll wake up when the sun comes over the canyon walls, eat when you’re hungry, and you’ll sleep when it’s dark. You’re on the river. Be on the river.