Updated: November 4, 2020
Backyard barbecues, laying on the beach, ditching work early on Friday afternoon… and river tubing! They’re all some of America’s favorite summer pastimes.
Floating on the river is all about enjoying the scenery, relaxing on the water, and chilling out with an icy beverage on a sunny day. During the hot months of summer, rivers all over the United States open to tubers, so it’s pretty easy to find a place to float the river that’s not too far from where you live.
But this isn’t anything like floating on the lazy river at your favorite water park. You’ll want to do some planning ahead to get the most of your trip.
We want to make sure you have all the float trip essentials, as well as our top river tubing tips, to ensure that your tubing adventure is a huge success. Here’s everything you need to know to float the river like a pro!
What to Do Before You Go
Rent vs Buy
Rent from Outfitter
When you use a tubing outfitter, they will rent you an inner tube or raft with oars and life jackets so you don’t have to worry about purchasing equipment.
Some type of shuttle is usually offered for a small fee so you can “put in” right after getting your tube or raft, float the river, “take out” at the designated end point where you also return your rental, and then hop on the shuttle to take you back to the launching point.
Alternatively, you can often park your car at the end point and take the shuttle to the outfitter launching point where you rent your gear. At the end of the float, you simply return your rental and get in your car.
Use Your Own Gear
You can also choose to go the do it yourself route and bring your own river tube, raft, or inflatable kayak. Investing in your own equipment means you’ll have it for years to come and it literally pays for itself after a couple uses.
With your own gear, you can decide where you’re going to go, and you won’t be limited to the parts of the river that the outfitters operate on.
You’ll need to do some extra research to make sure the spot you choose is safe for tubing and you’ll need someone to transport you to your launch site or take you back to your car when you’re done (if no shuttle operates in the area).
One of the easiest ways to float the river on your own is to use two cars. Leave one car at the end point and when you exit the river, you can drive that car to your launch point to pick up the other car.
Check Current Conditions
Obviously, you’re going to want to check the weather report to make sure it’s going to be a nice day to float the river, but there’s more to it than that. The flow rate and water level of a river determine whether it’s floatable or not.
If the water level is too high, the current will be moving super-fast, and it may not be safe for tubing. On the other hand, if the water level is too low, you could end up bouncing off the rocks or even walking part of the way instead of floating – not fun!
The flow rate guidelines are different for every river, so check online to see how things are looking at your chosen river before you head out.
If you’ll be using a tube rental place, check their website or give them a call for the most recent water levels. Most outfitters will update the conditions on the river every day using a color-coded key that tells you if the tubing is open to everyone that day, strong swimmers only, or possibly even closed entirely.
Even if you’re launching on your own, you can still check with local outfitters to confirm river conditions.
Know the Rules
On most rivers, it’s recommended that everyone wear a life jacket but for adults, it’s usually at their discretion depending on river conditions and swimming ability. Often, a life jacket is required to be onboard a raft or kayak for each adult.
State life jacket requirements for children should always be followed where in most cases, children under 13 are required to wear a life jacket.
While many rivers allow you to bring adult beverages, some do not. Some rivers also have rules against bringing Styrofoam or glass. Check the rules before you go because nothing will ruin your fun faster than an encounter with local law enforcement.
Eat Before You Go
You’re going to get to work up an appetite during an afternoon of floating on the river, so eat a full meal before you go. If your trip is likely to last more than three hours, pack some snacks in a waterproof dry bag and bring along a cooler for sandwiches and beverages. Floating coolers with beverage holders are perfect for a float down the river.
What to Bring
Here’s our handy checklist of float trip essentials.
Tube, Raft, or Kayak
If you won’t be renting your tube, then you’re going to need to bring your own. Look for one with a mesh bottom, a headrest, and a drink holder so it will be comfortable to float in for hours. The mesh lets the water in to cool you off and prevents you from losing your stuff.
Handles are also a must when choosing a river tube and it’s also nice if there’s some kind of hardware for tying ropes or tethers onto.
For any inflatable equipment you’ll be in, make sure the material is thick enough that it won’t puncture if you run into a branch or other sharp object in the river.
While you don’t need to spend a a hundred dollars on a tube to float the river, avoid the cheap $10 tubes intended for pools.
See Also: Best River Float Tubes
Since you’ll likely be under the direct sun for at least a couple hours which is only made stronger by the reflection in the water, apply a good sunscreen liberally before you go and every so often throughout your trip. Nothing ruins a fun trip down the river than a painful sunburn.
Bring along a hat and sunglasses (polarized work best), but don’t go for your favorites just in case they get lost. Remember, anything you bring could end up at the bottom of the river. Smaller kids should have a wide brim sun hat to keep them protected.
Rope and Carabiners
Nylon rope and carabiners will come in handy for tethering tubes together, tying off your cooler, and for attaching things like dry bags onto your tube.
Note that beginners shouldn’t tie inflatable rafts together as it makes them much harder to steer and you’ll have a higher chance of tipping over if there’s any small drops or diversion dams you’ll go over.
Portable Air Pump
A portable air pump is essential if you’re going the DIY route. Get one that plugs into your car’s cigarette lighter and you’ll be ready to float the river in no time.
Many tube rental outfitters offer areas (free or paid) where you can air up your gear so check with them first before heading out from home.
Insulated Water Bottle
Hydration is essential when you’re floating on the river in the sun for hours. An insulated, stainless steel water bottle (this is our favorite) will keep your water cold for hours and you can attach it right to your tube with a carabiner, so it doesn’t get lost.
Unless you have a super short float, you (or your kids) will probably get hungry. Be sure to pack a floating or waterproof cooler with an assortment of snacks. Some ideas include: granola bars, grapes, apples, chips, fruit snacks, and pretzels.
You can even bring sandwiches and make a short pit stop along your route to eat a meal before you get back in the tube or raft.
Waterproof Pouch or Case
This serves two purposes. The first is that it can hold your driver’s license, credit card, or cash you may need to have with you.
Secondly, you can store your phone in there whether you take pictures with it during the trip or not. This case is both cheap and works well.
What to Wear
Most people are going to be wearing a swimming suit on the river, but you may also want to bring along a sun-protective shirt in case you get too much sun.
Make sure you have water shoes or at least some sandals that have a strap to keep them on your feet. Water shoes are ideal to protect your feet from the rocky river bottom.
Leave a set of clothes and a towel at the car so you can dry off for the car ride home.
Additional River Floating Tips
One of the best things about going the DIY route is that you can choose your own float. Consider upgrading your ride to a giant, six-person (or more!) party float and you’ll be the envy of everyone else on the river. You could float the river in a giant flamingo or even on your own private floating island!
Note: Party floats and floating islands should only be used when the river conditions are very mild with slow flow rate as they are more intended for pool use.
If you rent individual tubes, or you each bring your own, think about tethering your tubes together. This will keep you from getting separated and ensure that everyone has access to the snacks and cooler.
Of course, if one person gets stuck you’re all stuck, so that’s something to consider.
If you’re a beginner and floating the river for the first time, try to stay near the middle of the river at all times. You have a higher chance of getting stuck in shallow water or snagging a tree limb the closer you are to land.
Now that you know how to float the river like a pro, gather up your crew and plan your own tubing adventure. It’s sure to become a tradition you’ll all enjoy for many summers to come. We’ll see you on the river!