Floating down the Colorado River always implies being prepared for a wide gamut of conditions, from hot to cold, wet to dry. The weather may be variable; a storm can come through; and always there is the cold river water to cope with. This is combined with the limited volume available to each person on the raft for personal gear. The result is that if you think "backpacking", you won't be far off.
All companies provide you with a waterproof river bag for your gear. Many measure about 25 inches wide x 36 inches tall, flattened out. The width decreases as you fill it up, because the perimeter of 2 x 25 = 50" has to be maintained. These bags are stowed during the day and you cannot get to them. For stuff you need to have access to during the day, some companies provide you with a steel ammo can, others with a waterproof day bag. Since we go on many hikes, you also need to have a smallish day pack, which you can use for supplemental day storage. It's best to have a pack that you don't mind getting wet. Waterproofing of the contents is easily achieved by lining the pack with a trash bag. You can keep your hiking boots/shoes in the daypack, or you can use the boot bag provided by the crew.
An issue that comes up is how to bring the gear for the river trip on the bus to the put-in. You cannot bring suitcases, so something else must be found. Most people bring their gear in a doubled garbage bag, from which they transfer it into the river bag. Others have managed to find soft luggage that will fit into the river bag. This is fine provided the dimensions are conservative, so it will in fact fit. If it does not, you will have to throw the item away at the put-in. None of this applies if we start in Flagstaff, because then the outfitter supplies you with the waterproof bag the night before the start of the trip, so you can pack your gear in the motel.
So, the first issue is how much to bring. The answer: far less than you might at first be inclined to. This may seem like quite a hardship, but it really is not given modern gear and the welcome opportunity to abandon for a while the dress conventions that hold sway in the "outside" world. So, take a little vacation from urban preoccupations, and bring only the things that you really need, meaning, those things that will keep you safe and comfortable.
Different people have different notions of what they need, but no great mistakes will be made if the following principles are kept in mind.
- The cardinal notion is to keep reasonably warm, reasonably dry, and avoid sunburn
- The best way to cope with temperature extremes is to use the principle of layering. You shed layers when it gets hot, you add them when it gets cold.
- The best fabrics are those that dry quickly, meaning polypro, wool, or nylon materials such as Supplex. The ones to be avoided at all costs are slow-driers like cotton.
- Sunburn is an ever-present and potentially serious hazard. Avoid it by bringing some light garments with which to cover arms, legs, and feet.
- Last, and most important: it is essential to have decent waterproof gear. On the river, water does not come only from above in the form of rain, but also, and most forcefully, from below. Cheap stuff won't do. Some people manage adequately with hiking gear consisting of a waterproof parka and rain pants. Fine most of the time, but occasionally a splash will go down the neck or come up between parka and pants. Bib pants are an improvement. The best is gear with snug cuffs at neck, wrists, ankles, and waist. Dry suits, sailing suits, and paddling jackets are in this category. I use a paddling jacket, but not everyone likes them.
Now for some specifics.
- Plenty of strong waterproof suntan lotion, with moisturizer
- Lip balm
- Neutrogena Norwegian Formula Hand Cream (hands really take a beating for some reason), or
- Aloe Vera gel-I have just learned that it supposedly works miracles for chapped hands, or
- No Crack, best of all. In Flagstaff, it can be got at the hospital pharmacy
- Bug juice (not often used, but may be desirable in the lower canyon)
You will also need the usual stuff, soap, shampoo (both biodegradable if possible), tooth-cleaning gear, towel, and the like. For those men who prefer to shave, a battery-powered shaver is desirable, as it requires no hot water.
The best way to maximize protection and flexibility with a minimum of bulk is to utilize the right fibers and apply the principle of layering. "Right fibers" means principally polypropylene fleece in its various forms, which dries quickly and is warm even if wet. Layering means having clothing items that can be superposed on each other as the need for warmth increases.
- The most useful item in your polypro fleece repertoire consists of expedition-weight underwear, including long bottoms and long-sleeved top with a fairly tight neck and elastic cuffs, if you can find them. One of the best bottoms I have been able to find consists of polypro tights that have some kind of elastic fiber woven in. They are close-fitting but do not limit movement. Those of you with fine legs will be able to show them off; the rest of us will have to be content with being warm. Polypro underwear makes very good pajamas, evening wear, and even day wear under cold conditions. River types often wear a pair of shorts over the polypro bottoms under moderate conditions.
- When things get colder, supplex nylon pants are a good outer layer: they keep the wind out and dry instantly, and are essential if you are getting a sunburn on your legs
- If it gets really cold, add a pair of polypro fleece pants and/or waterproof pants.
- Quick-drying shorts are standard wear most of the time.
- For the top, t-shirts and tankinis are ok, or short-sleeved regular shirts with pockets.
- Add the polypro underwear top and a fleece jacket as it gets colder. A down vest might be a good addition, provided you keep it dry.
- You definitely need one long-sleeved shirt, as quick-drying as you can find it, to ward off the sun from your arms and avoid sunburn. An old dress shirt from Goodwill will do nicely.
- On the head, a wide-brimmed sun/rain hat is good, but you must be able to attach it to yourself with a neck strap or some form of lanyard. A wool or polypro sock cap is great when it's cold. I also like to use a visor on occasion.
- Polypro or wool gloves are an asset.
The feet are always a problem. Sneakers are a definite no -- they stay wet and cold.
- River sandals are standard gear, but watch for sunburn on top of your feet.
- As it gets colder, you can try combining river sandals with polypro or neoprene socks. Another possibility is some form of waterproof river bootees, maybe with polypro socks inside (make sure the bootees are higher than the socks). You will need a pair of dry footwear and socks for evenings in camp. The river sandals are fine camp gear, or the hiking boots.
- You will need a pair of light- to moderate-duty boots for hikes, and appropriate socks.
- Waterproof parka and rainpants, or
- Waterproof parka and bib rain pants, or
- Paddling jacket and rain pants/bib
- Dry suit
Kokatat makes reasonably priced paddling jackets and pants. They are sold at REI and elsewhere. You may be able to borrow or rent some of this stuff.
You neither can nor would wish to do without sun glasses on the river -- the sun is strong and the glare from the water powerful. You need sunglasses. Some of you may wear corrective glasses for distant vision. The best solution there is corrected sunglasses. If you don't have them, use clip-on sunglass lenses. Another essential on the river is some means of attaching the glasses to yourself while on the river. Without this, some wave breaking over you could easily carry the glasses away. Many people use Croakies or Chums, which are straps that fit over the ear-piece of the glasses and sit behind your neck when the glasses are worn. Another device is a little strap that attaches the glasses to your collar by means of an alligator clip. You should be able to find this sort of stuff at sporting goods stores.
Reading glasses are also a must if you use them, either for reading the river guide or for reading in camp.
Should your reading glasses get lost or destroyed, you can survive. But losing the sunglasses is serious trouble. You may consider bringing a spare. The Grand Canyon is a very unfriendly environment for lenses, seeing how much sand there is and how much of it blows around. A good strategy might be to bring an old pair and use it, keeping a good pair in reserve. Where could you stow the good pair? In an unpunctured and tightly-sealed ziplock bag. You must be religious about keeping sand out of the bag, otherwise it becomes a device for destroying lenses.
Those of you who wear contact lenses know what is best for you. However, many wearers have had trouble. It might be better to just use glasses.
- Medium-sized daypack
- Flashlight, preferably a headlamp. The ones with LED bulbs are best
- Carabiners, for attaching things to other things (cup to belt, daypack to boat, etc.). Don't get the little toy ones. Buy the plane-jane but full-duty full-size ones.
- Water bottle(s). Empty 1-liter soft-drink or tonic-water bottles are just fine, and expendable.
- 25+' of line, such as parachute cord. Great as a clothesline, and especially to anchor your tent to something that won't fly away. Believe me, it CAN blow, and I HAVE seen tents cartwheeling into the river.
- Camera, of whatever type you like. Keep in mind the ever-present sand. If you bring a film camera, make sure you have lots of film. If digital, batteries are the critical element, as well as storage media.
- Binoculars, small notebook, writing instruments, reading material...these are not essentials, but you get the idea.
- A copy of Larry Stevens' "The Colorado River in Grand Canyon -- A Guide", waterproof edition. It gives a mile-by-mile account of what is to be seen, and a great deal of information on fauna and flora besides, Larry being a biologist by trade. I can usually get these at a decent price from Larry if several people order a copy. Other guides are also fine.
The river companies provide soft drinks, lemonade, and water. The rest is up to you. Most people enjoy a couple of beers a day, especially if it is hot. Wine is very welcome in the evening, while socializing in camp, and with dinner. Since it is difficult for most people to deal with obtaining such supplies, I have generally acted as purchasing agent, taking advantage of discounts offered for quantity buying. I need a realistic estimate of how many beers and how much wine each person is likely to want per day. It is better to be optimistic in this because there will be no chance to change your mind once embarked on the river. I will also need to know wine preferences-white or red. I will pay for the beverages when I pick them up, and get reimbursed the evening before the trip or on the river.
Many people also enjoy bringing some special elixir for consumption in the evening or as a nightcap. That you need to bring yourselves. Be sure not to bring anything in a glass bottle. Nalgene works well.