How to Raft the Grand: A Brief Guide for a Big Ride

How to Raft the Grand: A Brief Guide for a Big Ride

The classic Grand Canyon family road trip is the stuff of American summer lore-- mom and dad up front, the kids in back, bouncing along through the desert playing highway bingo until the magnificent views open up. But if the river is more your style than the land, you might turn your eyes to another majestic national treasure: the Rio Grande.

How To Plan a Rio Grande Rafting Trip

Like the Grand Canyon, the Rio Grande looms large in the American imagination, the stuff of John Wayne westerns. But it’s also a fantastic, scenic stretch of paddling perfect for everything from half-day tours to multi-day family excursions.

Here’s a brief guide for how to plan your big ride:

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Read up on the River Use Regulations

The first step to any successful paddling trip is to self-educate. The River Use Regulations put out by the National Park Service are a natural place to start. There you’ll start to see an outline of your packing list, which should include permits, PFDs (personal floatation device), and fire pans. You’ll also get a sense of the ideal conditions under which to head out, including what constitutes high or low river levels in cfs (cubic feet per second).

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Know Where To Go

Part of the River Use Regulations details the need for waste systems. The principles of Leave No Trace apply especially along waterways, and you’ll need to plan on more than just digging a cathole for when nature inevitably calls. If you have kids in tow, you’ll want to plan for how to deal with diapers, too. And naturally pack more than you think you’ll need.

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One of the nice things about paddling over backpacking is a little extra room for gear, and a little less worry about how much things weigh. You’ll find in the River Use Regulations that you’re required to have an extra PFD and paddle on board. But there are a few other things you might want extras of, such as tarps, food, and water.

You never know when the weather will get rowdy. Many a rafter has set out for what seems like a leisurely float down a generally slow, shallow river only to find themselves battling against strong winds blowing against the boat in a canyon, or a gale shoving you to the wrong shore, or an unexpected rain shower delaying you at dusk.

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Make An Emergency Plan

This should go without saying in the great outdoors, but if you aren’t used to the desert landscape through which the Rio Grande flows, you might forget to prep for a river journey instead of the mountain backpacking you’re used to. Snakes can swim, for example. You might not need bear mace, but you should definitely have a first aid kit and a snake bite kit.

Develop an emergency plan in place for what you’ll do if you end up on the wrong end of a rattler, or are caught in a storm, or if the raft overturns. You can’t count on cell phone service, and walkie talkies might not reach around bends in the river or canyon walls.

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Read Up On Your Route

Not all sections of the Rio Grande are created equally. Do some research on where to put in and take out and get a sense of how much of a struggle it will be to get your gear from river to parking lot. Plan your campsites in advance, much like you would for a backpacking trip on land. See if you can find reviews or accounts of how others’ trips along similar stretches went, especially in the same season or similar anticipated water levels or weather conditions.

If you have kids or aren’t as experienced a paddler or both, you’ll want to be especially mindful of river levels and rapids. Stick to class I or II if you’re new or are riding with little ones. Know where and how to take out to walk around rapids if you think they’ll be too tough for your skill level or too dangerous to ride with small children.

Most importantly, have an amazing time! The Rio Grande is one of America’s most epic and storied rivers for a reason. With a little preparation you can have fun as big as the river, and its reputation.