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What to Pack for a River Float Trip with Kids

What to bring on a float trip

One of my family’s favorite activities is floating the river. With two young kids in tow it has been necessary to get more organized for our river adventures and I’ve found that there’s little room for error. But through trial and error we’ve streamlined what to pack for a day on the river and I am so happy to pass along the tips to our Tales of a Mountain Mama community.

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Boats for the River

Obviously boats for the river are super important. It’s important to factor things like family size, storage space, kids ages, your budget and the type of water you plan to float on. Just don’t forget the paddles (or oars)!

Best Inflatable Kayaks

Inflatable kayaks (or duckies) are a great option if you’re limited on storage space at home. Kids of all ages will enjoy them, too. Older kids can paddle them on their own (or even tow a younger sibling behind), and parents can easily fit a toddler with them on their boat.

What to pack for a river float trip

Here are our favorite inflatable kayaks:

  1. Tributary Tomcat Tandem
  2. Tributary Strike 2

Sit-On-Top Kayak

If you are planning to float a mellow section of river, like class I or II, a sit-on-top kayak is an excellent choice! Kids will love the stability and maneuverability, and of course the independence.

The Lifetime 6′ kids kayaks are a fantastic, affordable option. I paid a little over $100 for ours – and it comes with a paddle. These are really hard to tip over, and if your kid jumps (or falls) out, the open back makes it super easy to for them to get back in.

You can also find the Lifetime 6′ Youth Wave Kayak on Amazon.

Raft for the river

A raft is a great option for running whitewater, hauling lots of kids and overnight or multi-day trips. Unless your kids are old enough to paddle, you’ll need a frame and oars.

What to pack for a river float trip

All of this gear can get really expensive, but we have found great deals at local boat swaps, and on sites like Facebook Marketplace. We have friends who went in on a raft package with another family as a way to keep the overall cost down. This is a great option – until you both want to go boating on the same day 🙂

We recommend a 13′ self-bailing raft for families along with a frame and oars.

Life Jackets for the River

Life jackets (also called PFD’s) on the river are a must-have.

The most important thing in selecting a life jacket for a child is the fit. Kids life jackets are sized by weight, and this is not a piece of gear to buy big thinking they’ll grow into it.

Adult life jackets are a little more straight-forward than kids, with the usual array of sizes. It’s a good idea to try on several different types before buying, because they all have a different fit. I prefer a low profile, women-specific life jacket such as the Astral YTV.

For all the info you could ever need on buying a kids life jacket, be sure to check out our Best Kids Life Jackets + How To Choose post here.

The kids life jackets that we use (and highly recommend) are:

Food for a Day on the River

Because this deserves its own category entirely, right?!?

We keep dry snacks like chips in the cooler for easy snacking access.

Food Storage

When we go rafting, we pack all our food in a medium-sized cooler. Yes, even the stuff that doesn’t need to stay cool. Why? 1. Because no one likes soggy crackers and, 2. Because sometimes you need to grab a snack quick and it takes too long to open and dig through a dry bag.

When you’re packing your river food, don’t forget to strap the cooler or dry bags in. Losing snacks or gear is a bummer – and littering is a no-no.

In the inflatable kayaks, we strap in a soft cooler in the back of one of the boats behind an adult. A dry bag also does the trick, depending on the contents, of course.

River Food Suggestions

Some of our favorite river food includes:

  • PB&J or mini bagel with salami & cheese sandwiches
  • A reusable container with grapes, carrots or sliced cucumbers
  • Crackers, chips, pretzels or other crunchy treats
  • Cold pasta salad or tuna salad
  • Cold chicken drumsticks
  • Hot dogs (cook at home, then store in an insulated water bottle like this Kleen Kanteen. They stay hot for hours! I know, it sounds a little gross, but my kids LOVE this).
What to eat fon a float
Treats taste better on the river.

To encourage our kids to stay hydrated, we use carabiners to strap in their water bottles near the front of the boat, or near wherever they are seated. This way, kids can easily see their water and access it independently.

This is a good idea for the adults, too. Keep a water bottle out and handy to encourage (H2O) drinking.

What to Wear on the River

The thing that I never, ever forget to pack for a day on the river? Extra clothes for everyone in a dry bag.

The type of clothing you’ll need really depends on the air and water temperature and the weather forecast. We live in North Eastern Wyoming where the summer air temperatures can be in the low 80’s but the river water is in the 60’s.

There’s nothing better than cozy fleece to warm up after a swim.

Clothes to Stay Warm

Even if it’s 85 degrees out, kids can be swimming in the cold water and end up suddenly super chilled. We have been 100x thankful for an extra set or two of clothes that we didn’t think we would need (because fleece in August?!?!) to keep kids happy…and the rest of us too.

To start the day, my kids wear quick dry shorts and a long sleeve UPF/quick dry top. I always pack their wetsuits in case the rapids are super splashy and cold, or if they want to swim. Click here for our wetsuit recommendations.

I also pack fleece tops and bottoms and a light packable down jacket. And last but not least, a good hat.

If the weather is cooler and you’re planning to get very wet, a one-piece rain suit is a great idea. Child-size dry suits do exist but they’re very expensive and honestly we’ve never needed more than a rain suit. Both of my kids have worn the Tuffo Rain Suit (click here for the full review).

Here’s a list of the clothing we use on the river (keep in mind this will be different depending on where you live)

Sun Protection

As much as the kids would love to wear swimsuits or trunks with no shirts, I really try to keep them covered. And I’ve found that wearing UPF clothing is easier than keeping up with sunscreen.

Click here for our Sun Protection Clothing for Kids comprehensive post.

Sunscreen on the face and hats are non-negotiables in our family. If I could get the kids to keep sunglasses on, those would be mandatory too.

We usually opt for long sleeve sun shirts over having to reapply sunscreen all over the body. But we definitely apply sunscreen to faces, hands and feet. I like to keep my sunscreen super handy, so I usually throw it in the cooler so I can access it easily.

I’m a big fan of covering up rather than slathering on the sunscreen.

When the kids were babies, I would pack an umbrella or lightweight swaddle blanket to use for shade on those super sunny hot days.

Poop Bags & Wipes

I never go on a kid adventure without my “poop pouch” which contains a few doggie poop bags, a small pack of wipes, and hand sanitizer.

Poop happens even on the river.

Unless you’re able to get at least 200 feet (about 70 big steps) away from the water, you should plan to pack your poop out. This is a great Leave No Trace graphic that explains where to put the poop.

If your little ones are reluctant to go #2 in the wilderness, be sure to check out our How to Help Kids Poop Outside post.

River Fun

Of course none of this stuff is necessary…but it does make the day a little more fun!

Water cannons are SO much fun on the river.
  • GoPro for documentation and more fun
  • Water cannons – best for kids over 5 because they’re a little hard to squirt
  • A net – you just never know what you might catch in the river!
  • Goggles
  • Waterproof bluetooth speaker – this is the one we have and I like it because it has a clip to secure it to the raft frame.
  • Fishing pole
We always bring a fishing pole. Fishing is fun for kids – even when they don’t catch anything.

I have learned (the hard way) that packing the right stuff, like extra clothes, and keeping it all dry, is key to keeping my kids happy on the river. And happy kids = happy mama.

My daughter’s #1 river packing tip? Don’t forget the lovie.

Related Blogposts

Float trip essentials

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