Let me preface this by saying I went floating down a river in Colorado in August, when water levels are low and temperatures are semi-tolerable. Your experience may vary (I hope you can find a warmer river than I did) but the clothes and gear you need won’t.
Do I need to get a legit river tube?
For the love of god, yes. I tried a crappy tube from Amazon and it turned out to be exactly that. You need a tube with: thick plastic material so it doesn’t pop; handles so you don’t lose it; and enough size to sit up on the water instead of in it.
The Intex River Run tube I ended up using is a really common one that works great. The headrest, handles, and cupholders all came in handy and the netting on the bottom made for a comfortable ride. The only things that are absolutely necessary are the handles; the other features are nice, but optional.
You can also rent tubes, and those companies will sometimes also pick you up and drop you off which is SO nice.
How do I blow up the tube?
Having a battery-operated pump saves you lots of time and energy. This one came with my camping air mattress, but also worked really well for blowing up tubes. Even better, the newer model is rechargeable!
What kind of shoes do I need?
Crappy flip-flops you don’t care about. Not caring about them is important because you will likely lose them.
If you want to buy something, I recommend water shoes. I like the newer water shoes that look like sneakers because I get extra foot protection and don’t worry about my shoes coming off. This is especially helpful for when (not if) you get stuck in shallow parts of the river and need to get up and walk yourself back on course.
The water shoes I originally bought are no longer available on Amazon, but these or these look like great alternatives. I like the sneaker-like ones because they have more substantial soles and the laces make sure they don’t come off your feet. They also dry super fast because of the mesh sides and all the holes in the sole’s design. Plus I like the way they look!
What clothes should I wear tubing?
A swimsuit and shorts worked great for me. You definitely don’t need shorts, I just felt more comfortable that way. I also happened to have shorts that are basically swim trunk material so they dried quickly. If you want to cover up more, I would highly recommend swimsuit-material clothes with UPF protection.
Even if you do wear quick-drying clothes, definitely bring a change of wardrobe to switch into once you’re done. After being on the river for an hour, I was VERY ready to not have a wet booty.
What else should I wear?
Sun protection! If you’re in the market for a shirt with UPF, I highly recommend Free Fly’s shirts. Wear a hat, sunglasses, and sunscreen that’s safe. Sunglasses also keep you from squinting your way down the river – the glare of the water is no joke! Croakies or some other sort of sunglasses retainer are a good security blanket if you’re worried about losing your sunnies, but not necessary. I am notoriously clumsy and hung on to my glasses without a retainer.
If you have any concerns about your ability to swim if your tube capsizes or tips you out, consider wearing a life jacket or other personal flotation device. Tube at your own risk!
What should I bring in the tube with me?
Only things you’re okay with having completely submerged in river water. If you are driving and don’t have a non-fob key, make sure to put it in a plastic bag or another waterproof container. And then check to make sure that plastic bag hasn’t popped open and submerged your key in water. Not that that happened to me.
At the end of the 2022 tubing season, I picked up this dry bag for my phone at REI. I haven’t had the chance to test it yet but it has stellar reviews. I’m excited to take it for a spin in 2023!
If you bring booze or other beverages, make sure you aren’t breaking any local laws. And, bring something to put your empties in so they don’t end up in the river. Littering is not cool!
What should I expect on the river?
If you are not on a literal lazy river at an amusement park, prepare to not relax as much as you may think. Yes, there are plenty of parts in the river where you can just float and not think about what’s going on, but you can’t just zone out the entire time.
You have to make sure you aren’t hitting rocks, getting stuck along the shoreline, or running into other people. That last part can be hard, so make sure you are really nice to any fishermen/women/people you float by (or in my case, accidentally into). That’s also just part of being a decent human, but you are kind of ruining their fishing experience so being extra courteous certainly doesn’t hurt.
One last thing. If you’re tubing in Colorado, be prepared for some chilly water. I went in August, and I basically only got comfortable once all of my extremities went numb. I realize this is not a rousing endorsement of tubing in Colorado, but it is my honest opinion.
I did see a group that anchored themselves in a slow part of the river and just soaked up the sun while staying cool in the water, which seems like the way to do it. When I went tubing in Vermont, the water was also pretty cold but WAY more tolerable, so if you’re at lower elevation your results may vary.
What other questions do you have for your first time tubing? Let me know in the comments below!