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Rafting the Colorado River in Cataract Canyon with OARS. Courtesy of James Kaiser

What You Should Know Before Booking an Overnight Rafting Trip

River flows have created some ideal, last-summer conditions for exploring Colorado waterways and camping on their banks. Here's a primer on what to expect, what to pack, and how to stay safe out there.

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I was stretched out in the sunshine, a sarong draped atop my legs and a thick layer of sunscreen over every exposed piece of skin. The quiet chatter on the other raft blended with a gentle slosh of water hitting the bow. It would have been easy to pull my hat down and snooze as a few others did, but I was too entranced by the changing landscape around me. I was floating down the Colorado River through Canyonlands National Park in Utah and I had already hiked to pictographs, marveled at natural landscapes, and completely unplugged from the world. And it was only day one.

I’ve always enjoyed rafting, whether it was floating down the Ichetucknee and Chattahoochee rivers in the South as a kid or whitewater rafting in Ecuador as an adult. Since moving West, I’ve been on half- and full-day whitewater rafting trips and learned to SUP on the mellow stretches of the Colorado River in Grand County. But I’d never experienced the magic that was an overnight rafting trip until I departed on a three-day guided rafting trip with OARS from Moab, Utah, to tackle Cataract Canyon on the Colorado.

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Overnight rafting trips are one of the most magical and overlooked summer and fall activities in the west—Colorado included. As one friend said, it’s like car camping but with better camp spots and no car. It’s true—not only are the camp spots hidden gems compared to other popular sites, but they all come with a river view. However, before you depart on an overnight (or multi-night) trip, there are some things you should know:

It’s Similar to Camping

If you love relative silence, camaraderie around a campfire, the absence of most technology, and communing with the stars, an overnight raft trip will check all these boxes. Plus, on a guided trip, you’ll be meeting new friends and learning what meals can be created over a jet boil stove and an open flame.

“Everybody loves dessert,” says Cari Morgan, communications manager at OARS, a California-based rafting company that leads trips around the country and the world. “So it’s always a show-stopper when a perfectly cooked Dutch oven pineapple upside-down cake or fresh batch of fudgy brownies are served up after a steak and salmon dinner or chicken fajitas with homemade salsa and guacamole. On guided trips, the meals are taken care of, which means one less detail to stress about. Take notes: Your campfire cooking game will never be the same.

But, of course, all the things you don’t love about camping are also in play. If you’re not into bugs, tents, or “groovers” (metal boxes that serve as porta-a-potties in the rafting world), then an overnight rafting trip might not be for you. Still, it’s a nicer setup than many camps I’ve constructed myself and, in the end, an overnight trip is an adventure.

You Must Be Prepared

Unlike traditional car camping, if you forget something on an overnight rafting trip, there’s no Walmart or convenience store to run to. You also have to be mindful about the amount of stuff you’re packing, as all your gear—yes, even all the necessary layers—has to fit in dry bags.

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Many outfitters either rent or provide wetsuits, but for neoprene rafting booties and gloves, you’re often on your own. “For anyone who gets icy fingers and toes, this is a huge deal,” says Mona Mesereau, a Denver resident who’s first overnight trip was on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River in Idaho with Far and Away Adventures, adding that on a cold day of rafting, the bargaining to borrow a pair of neoprene gloves peaked at $200. “All in jest, of course, but it illustrates my point.”

Remember, it’s always better to remove layers than not have them in the first place. Other necessities to bring on the water? Sunscreen, bug spray, baby wipes, and water shoes. Rounding out the packing list is a sarong—these versatile objects can serve as a sunshade, cover-up, pillow, dressing room, really big headscarf, and more. Dip it in the water and experience instant, cooling bliss. It’s a game changer.

It’s Not Just About the Rafting

Yes, there are opportunities to tackle Class III, IV, and even V rapids, but there’s a lot more to a multi-day trips than just rafting.

“You might spend four or five hours per day floating downstream on the boats, but the rest of the time guests have the opportunity to explore the unique sights hidden within the river canyons, hike to scenic overlooks, splash in waterfalls and side streams, play beach games like bocce and volleyball, and relax in camp,” Morgan says.

With land camping, you’re hiking and biking from the tent, expanding in all directions like a spoke. On the river, you have the opportunity to pull off in multiple locations along the river to hike, wander, and explore.

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How to Book a Safe, Guided Rafting Trip

Before you book an overnight raft trip, there are several elements to take into consideration. Are you comfortable without a proper shower or toilet for a few days? Are you prepared to “rough it” in a sense?

But more importantly, booking your trip with a reputable company that has your safety and wellbeing in mind is key. An outfitter doesn’t have to have decades in business to lead a safe overnight or multi-day rafting trip, but it is a good indication that the company has worked out the kinks and knows what works.

Ask about the equipment offered: All companies should offer personal flotation devices (PFDs, also known as life jackets) as is standard, but do they offer helmets? What about wetsuits for colder water? The experience of the guides is also important. To tackle technical stretches of river, you want guides that not only have multiple trips under their belts, but also have navigated successful trips on that part of the river.

It’s also good to ask around. Word of mouth recommendations are a valuable resource; by talking to someone who has already taken the plunge, you’ll get a good idea of what you can expect on a trip. But be aware—rivers and water levels can change in a flash. An experienced rafting outfit or guide may make changes for your safety. For example, when I signed up for Cataract Canyon, I indicated that I was willing and able to paddle. When I arrived, I learned that, due to water levels, it was safer to have just the river guide on the oars. Us passengers still had to actively work during the rapids by shifting sides according to shouted commands to help balance the boat, but it was a slightly different—though no less exciting—experience.

Due to the high-water levels earlier this summer, the rafting season was variable in many locations with some companies unable to run trips due to safety concerns. However, due to that same ample snowmelt, rafting trips are still possible later this year. Mad Adventures, based in Kremmling, offers two- and three-night trips on the Upper Colorado until Sept. 8 and AVA Rafting and Ziplining offers three-day float trips on the Upper Colorado until the end of October. OARS, which leads trips in Colorado, Idaho, Utah, Oregon and California, will leads trips well into September and for Colorado River rafting trips through Cataract Canyon in Utah or Grand Canyon in Arizona, they’re offering trips through mid- to late-October.

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In the end, there’s nothing quite like an overnight rafting trip. It provides instant bonding, unforgettable stories, and the opportunity to experience an inexorable, shifting, mighty entity.

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