So, your friends have invited you to go river floating - congratulations! Or maybe you're organising a float and this is your first time! Either way, you're in for a treat! Meghan and I have done several of these in lots of different locations including:
- The Au Sable River in Michigan
- Russian River in California
- Wolf River in Wisconsin
Of these, we're most familiar with the Au Sable and Russian rivers which we have done multiple time. After many floats there are a few things we've learned to bring... Some will be obvious, others are a less so but all of them will make sure you have a great time on the water!
Ten Things to Pack for a River Float
Okay, I said that some of these would be more obvious than others. On many rivers you can go with a company. This is a great way to go if you don't want to have to store tubes, or don't want to buy them until you try it out. In Oscoda for example we went with Oscoda Canoe rental and it was a great experience. This also means you don't have to have two cars or worry about parking as they'll provide transportation to the drop off point.
However, if you're thinking this is something you'll do more than once or want to tube a river without a company offering these services (e.g. the Russian River in California) then you'll need to buy some tubes.
As you'll see in the video above, we went with these tubes. They're pretty cheap (usually around $25 - $30) and are fairly durable as long as you treat them well.
Warning: We'd suggest getting an extra tube and not the cooler float. Yes, we know it sounds cool and so convenient... but as it turns out the materials tubes are made of are not great insulators.. so your drinks will get warm very quickly. Since the tube is a specific size, larger real coolers won't fit inside it. Plus, it's a pain to blow up all the small compartments. Save your self some hassle and just get another normal tube to put the coolers in.
Hopefully, you're going floating on a very warm day. There are few things more refreshing (in my opinion) than a ice cold Coors Light (yes, I know I'm sure I'll hear about this in the comments) while floating down a river. As I shared above the best way to keep these drinks cold is a cooler!
Make sure it has lots of ice and can handle keeping things cold even in the direct sunlight.
We generally bring a cold drinks / food cooler and then another cooler to dry and keep things from roasting in the sun. We use that to store things like chips, sunscreen, etc.
3: An automatic inflator
This is a big one that will make your experience much better. It seems like everytime we've gone floating there were people who didn't bring an air pump. They tell themselves "I can just blow it up using my lungs"... unfortunately, they learn that doing so will take hours.
At minimum bring a foot pump. We'd suggest getting something like this. It plugs into your car and will make it easy to get your tubes inflated and get on the water.
If you want to take this to the next level, you can get something like this. Why is this helpful? It means you can inflate the tubes while the drivers take the car to the end point. Otherwise, you spend time inflating the tubes and then have to sit around and wait while the cars are put into position.
You may be thinking wait a second, why would I bring paddles? I'm just going for a leisurely float. If I wanted to paddle I would get a canoe. Fair enough... but here is the thing: when you're floating you often times come across obstacles. These obstacles include things like trees, sandbars, bridges, etc. Many times the current will push you into these and while you could get out and swim your tubes away from them.. it's much nice to have some paddles.
Paddles also help if you get to a slow part of the river or if the wind is such that it's slowing your progress. We generally bring 4-5 paddles for a group of 6-8 and keep them in the cooler tube(s) until we need them.
You're going to be sitting in direct sunlight for 4-5 hours on average. This is not the time for "oh it's fine I don't burn" comments. Lather up and make sure you get your legs. I've gotten some of the worse burns of my life thinking that my swimsuit would cover my thighs when in fact, it did not. Bring sunscreen and reapply it frequently.
Bring lots of water. Yes, bring more fun beverages as well.. but make sure you have plenty of water. Again tubing is most fun on hot summer days. Sitting in the sun that long makes it super easy to get dehydrated. We usually bring a few water bottles for everyone or a big jug to share.
This one is optional and may not be needed if everyone in your group has the same tubes. The tubes linked above come with rope and connectors that make it easy to raft together as many tubes as you want. If your group has lots of types of tubes / floats we'd suggest bringing some rope to create your flotilla. It's less fun if everyone is floating apart during the entire session.
Something like paracord will keep everyone together. In our experience, this is not always provided by companies so it's a good idea to bring this anyway.
8: Waterproof Speakers
It's always fun having some music on the float. We usually make a Spotify playlist, put our phones in a Zipblock bag and then put it in the dry cooler mentioned above. A few different family members have JBL Speakers which work well because you can pair them together to have a "party". That way everyone on the float can hear the music without it having to be super loud for one side.
Make sure your phone is waterproof and/or you bring bags. A few of our family members who have "waterproof" iPhones have killed their phones on these floats. Better safe than sorry here.
You will get hungry on these floats! We suggest bringing some snacks to munch on throughout the journey. Our go to is usually sliced meats and cheeses with some crackers.
10: Two (or more) cars
This will be obvious for anyone who has done it before but for those who haven't it's critical to have two cars for a river float. Below, I'll include entry/exit points for the rivers we've done most often. When you start your float you will take one car to the exit point and leave it there. Then you'll drive the second car back to where you want to start your float (up river). At the end of the float, you'll do the same thing in reverse.
Entry / Exit points for The Au Sable (MI) and Russian Rivers (CA)
The entry point for Russian River is about an hour and 15 minute drive from San Francisco without traffic (68 miles in total). There are companies that will take you up and back (in a party bus, for example).
The Russian River is generally fairly slow moving river and took us about 4-5 hours to complete. Below you can see a map of where you start your journey (Steelhead Beach Regional Park, 9000 River Rd, Forestville, CA 95436, United States) and where you end (Sunset Beach River Park, 11403 River Rd, Forestville, CA 95436, United States)
Au Sable River
The Au Sable is one of the best rivers in Michigan and is well known for it's clear water, great canoeing, and many campgrounds. The best place to start your river float is just outside of Oscoda Michigan.
This float takes about 5-6 hours depending on the current and winds. It's very relaxing and has lots of stopping points as you float through. About halfway through the float there is a nice set of sand dunes. Perfect for a nice snack break!
You'll start your journey on the Au Sable at Whirlpool Angelr Access. It's got ample parking (there is a $5 fee if you don't have a National Parks pass) and it's an easy place to launch your tubes. From there you'll float down to Riverbank park. It's about 3.1 miles driving, but probably closer to 5 miles when you take into account the river bends.
It sounds like a lot when it's all written out like this, but it really is one of the most relaxing ways to spend the day! Best of all, once you get the tubes it's a very affordable way to spend a day! We love it and try to make sure to do it at least once a year!