Of all the questions we are asked in the office by those new to river rafting, the one most asked is "What should I wear?"
It is a fair question and the answer is difficult to pare down to just a few short sentences. Rafting in the state of Washington is decidedly different than rafting in many other regions because our rivers are fresh from the alpine lake elevations of the Cascade mountain range. This means Washington rivers do not flow lazily for miles and miles warming up in the sun before spilling white over rocks and drops on your favorite white water rafting stretch.
This means Washington rivers like the incredibly beautiful, yet challenging, Wild & Scenic Sauk River tumbles out of the Glacier Peak Wilderness area borne from one of several glaciers. It means the white water we play in was Cascade snow pack only a half-dozen hours earlier.
Washington rivers are notably cold. Washingtonians can be relatively impervious to the biting chill of their local waters, but even natives should take heed of a few hints and tips for dressing for success on a 4-hour river trip like the Wenatchee River out of Leavenworth.
Before talking about the clothing options, let’s talk neoprene.
Washington river outfitters provide wetsuits and wetsuit boots. Some will charge you extra for the service, but they all own neoprene.
The wetsuits provided do not cover your arms. They will be sleeveless. They are referred to as ‘farmer johns’. The reason for this is so that your arms will be unencumbered for paddling.
These neoprene farmer john wetsuits will also be comparatively thin in thickness as compared to diving suits and, again, the reason for this is comfort in paddling.
You should think of the wetsuit as ‘insurance’. If you fall overboard, the neoprene provides additional buoyancy, protects your flailing body parts from rocks and, once the water has seeped inside and your body has warmed it up, insulation.
However, to be comfortable on a raft on top of the water while getting splashed periodically (either by the river or by your friends), you are going to need several other clothing items.
Remember ‘leisure suits’? Ever heard of polyester? Does your athletic son or daughter insist on Under Armour to play sports?
When you are on the water, and especially when you are on a river in the spring or on the west side of the Cascades where a ‘sun break’ is cause for celebration, you need to be wearing a synthetic ensemble along with your neoprene - and NOT cotton. Synthetic fabrics work well in the outdoors because they dry readily.
Synthetics designed to be worn outdoors (outdoor clothing stores are loaded with these products) not only dry fast, they ‘wick’ the wetness away from your body which helps to keep you warm. Cotton shirts - like plush cotton sweatshirts - just become a soggy wet mass on the river and never get a chance to dry out.
Have you ever noticed how long it takes cotton to dry in a clothes dryer as compared to non-cotton fabrics? That is what we are talking about. Your body will spend inordinate amounts of energy trying to dry the cotton sweatshirt when it should be using that energy to keep yourself comfortable.
Beneath your wetsuit - other than a bathing suit - you should don a thin synthetic long or short sleeved top. Silk is acceptable. If you have a thin wool long underwear top, that is acceptable as well. Those Under Armour sports tops are perfect. Just stay away from cotton.
Your stylish wetsuit goes on next and then, on top of it, depending on the weather conditions and the difficulty of the river (how much are you going to get wet), you pull on the thicker synthetic or non-cotton top. The thickness of this layer should be similar to the thickness of a sweatshirt but the appropriate fabric. Thickness allows for that ‘wicking’ effect to work.
The final upper body layer would be the rain jacket, wind breaker or river outfitter provided splash jacket. The idea behind this layer is that it will trap some of your body heat, deflect some of the incoming water and insulate you from wind.
A couple of other clothing options to consider depending on weather factors, the nature of the river, the time of the season, the height of the river are: ski caps, synthetic fabric gloves and neck gaiters. Caps and neck gaiters trap a good portion of your body heat and can be life savers if your metabolism is unaccustomed to Pacific Northwest ambient temperatures. Warm, fuzzy ski caps are essential to aid in post-swim recovery.
DRESS FOR SUCCESS
Finally, to be on the safe side, it is wise to bring all of these items regardless of the conditions. Because, frankly, conditions can change and you do not want to be caught short. Even on the hottest eastern Washington day on the Wenatchee, you want to make sure you have a rain jacket tucked away in a safe, dry place. Just in case you go for what we call that 'unscheduled swim'.