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River rafting
October/November 2010

What to sell to customers

going down the river

A first-time rafter could have a hard time deciding what to take along on a river trip, so would a rowing enthusiast who would like to increase their comfort levels while on the water. Knowing which products are well suited and available for river rafting will enable you as a retailer to advise customers on the best choices among the products available on the market. NELLE DU TOIT found out what a river rafter would need on to take along

South Africa is host to some of the best river rafting sites in the world. The vast number of rafting companies offering single and multi-day trips for families, friends or companies on team building exercises, is testimony to the growing popularity of this activity. Thanks to the growing interest in adventure races, river rafting on a competitive level is expanding as well. Inflatable white river rafting has been accepted as a formal discipline by Canoeing South Africa (CSA), allowing rafters to compete in the SA Championships and the World Championships. According to CSA wild water canoe and kayaking is on the rise as well.

As a retailer you can therefore expect more and more enquiries about what to wear and take on a trip. What should you recommend?

From head to toe

“What to wear depends completely on the time of year and the category of water a rafter will encounter,” says Pine Pienaar of the African Rafting Company. Rivers are categorized by ‘classes’ ranging from smooth but fast water to extremely dangerous unexplored rapids, so the chances of getting soaked in white water rapids would be much higher than in smoother water.

But falling into the water on tremendously hot days is all part of the fun. “It is likely that you will swim at some point,” says Jackie Goeverneur of Wild Elements Apparel, distributors of Columbia. “So a quick-drying shirt and shorts and a quick-drying/waterproof hat with chin strap are a few items that will help prolong enjoyment in the water.” Summer outfits will differ dramatically to winter outfits and so rafters should keep the temperature and weather conditions in mind before packing for the trip. “The temperature on the Orange River (one of South Africa’s most widely commercialised rivers) gets up to 50˚C during the day in summer and not preparing for the tremendous heat could make the journey very uncomfortable,” says Marius la Cock of African Water Wanderers.

“Many rafters wear shorts and a swimsuit, it’s not necessary to wear technical fast drying clothing as it gets extremely hot and most clothing will dry very quickly in the heat. But it does provide comfort as moisture management wicks away sweat and offers protection against the sun. If it can be afforded, the best option would be a long sleeve UV protecting and moisture wicking top.”

The advantage of wearing a tight fitting moisture wicking baselayer is that it is breathable, it prohibits tree branches from getting stuck in your clothing when going down a narrow river and it stops wind from getting in under your clothes and chilling you.

“A long-sleeve nylon-lycra top is excellent at providing sun protection, however, it will only be half as effective in keeping you cool as a Keep-you-cool baselayer garments,” says Tammy Rutherford of Second Skins, who used to conduct river rafting tours.

While canoeing and kayaking baselayers can help to reduce boarders butt (chafing around your upper thigh, bottom and leg areas) — It does not necessarily prevent it, but it does help minimize the chafing. For adventurers going on a multi-day trip where the heat and other issues are already making the trip uncomfortable, extra comfort in the seated region would be more than welcome!

“It helps to go without underwear when rafting down the river as the elastic from underwear causes great discomfort when it starts to rash your skin,” warns la Cock. “Lycra tights worn on their own or underneath clothing also helps to prevent rashes.”

A great thing to have on the Orange river, or on any river in hot weather, is a kikoy (a cotton sarong/wrap). “I wear one over my shoulders and one over my legs to keep the sun off my skin,” explains la Cock. “We normally wet our kikoys in the river and throw them over ourselves to cool our bodies. We have spent many hot nights sleeping under a wet kikoy as nights could get up to 30˚C in summer.”

Sunglasses are very important. Some first-time rafters think they can get away with not bringing sunglasses on a rafting trip, but the glare from the water is sometimes so extreme it can damage your eyes quite badly, advises la Cock. Many people lose their sunglasses on the raft so it is advisable to use neck straps for the glasses.

A wide-brimmed outdoor hat is also very important. The wide brim keeps the sun off the back of the neck and the ears as opposed to a peak cap which only keeps the sun out of your face. Once again, chin straps help prevent the wind from blowing your hat off. For colder nights around camp, a beanie or a Buff is a great head warmer and is often seen as a must-bring.

For rivers like the Breede where mosquitoes are a problem, clothing with in-built insect repelling functions could help ward off mosquitoes and reduce the risk of being bitten.

Clothes for the cold

For cold water rivers such as the Dorings River (that runs off melted snow from the Hex River Mountains) and the Breede River in winter, a wetsuit is recommended. “The problem with wetsuits is that they chafe when they are not submerged in water. Baselayers provide anti-chafe protection as well as UV protection and keeps you warm,” advises Rutherford. But for melted snow waters some still advise a wetsuit as a cost-effective option. “It’s not necessary to go thicker than a 3mm wetsuit,” explains Pienaar. “Wetsuits thicker than 4mm get very warm, even when they are dry. They keep you warm but it is an uncomfortable warmth as you sweat and get sticky as well,” says Kobus Bresler, a representative at First Ascent who has been on many rafting trips as a guide.

Wetsuit booties go well with a wetsuit for added insulation against the icy waters.

Another option is to wear an outer layer (such as a wet-weather suit, raingear, a waterproof paddle jacket or windbreaker) over a thick long sleeve baselayer and/or a thermal insulation layer. “A rain suit can go a long way towards preventing cold shivers and hypothermia (when your wet body gets wind chilled and goes into shock),” adds Bresler. Although very effective at keeping you warm, comfortable and dry, it is a more expensive option than a wetsuit.


Outdoor sandals and water shoes are the recommended choices. “Never go barefoot,” warns Pienaar. “The river does not necessarily have an area where you will need to get out that does not consist of thorns and rocks and it’s almost certain that if you go barefoot you will hurt your feet.”

Wearing closed shoes, sports shoes or even canvas shoes that do not allow water to pass through is a bad idea to wear on the raft as they get water-logged and take much longer to dry. “Closed shoes around camp on a multi-day trip is a much better idea as scorpions and other creepy crawlies have a harder time getting through to your feet,” says la Cock.


The wearing of gloves on the raft seems to be an issue eliciting differing opinions. Most agree that wearing gloves lessen the grip that the rafter has on the paddles. But paddling for days can cause blisters, which causes great discomfort for people who don’t have calloused hands. Especially when kayaking or canoeing, where the top hand turns the face of the paddle blade while the other allows the shaft of the paddle to turn, grip is very important.

“Rather recommend that your customer apply Zambuk lotion on their hands the night before they go out paddling. This helps to make the skin waterproof and helps to prevent blisters. Only once hands have started to become sensitive do we normally begin to use gloves,” says Nico van Niekerk, a retired adventure kayak racer.

“If gloves are needed, the best would be tight-fitting, cut-off gloves that have extra grip in the middle of the palm such as cycling gloves and golf gloves,” says la Cock.

Keeping it dry

The type of boat used determines how you should pack for the trip. Packing lightly is key for all rafting trips as everything that is brought with on the trip should go into the boat. But as kayaks are more streamlined than inflatable rafts or crocs, for instance, it demands a more compact packing method. Large paint-bucket drums won’t necessarily work in a kayak but could work in a canoe.

Most rafting companies supply two dry bags (one for clothing and camping equipment and a smaller day bag for on the raft) but for enthusiasts who like to raft regularly, having their own dry bag and camping equipment can give them extra peace of mind.

Pacific Outdoor Equipment and Sea to Summit manufacture dry bags that fit into the bow and stern hatches of the kayak. Clothes or camping equipment can be stored in the water tight bag that fits into the deepest corners of the kayak and can be inflated for extra flotation should the kayak roll.

A deck dry bag is also an option. Mostly designed for kayaks, it can also be used on any other raft as well. It normally has mounting straps or ropes that attach to the raft ensuring that the dry bag stays attached to the boat should the rafter fall out.

Smaller on-the-raft watertight bags are great for personal items. Most dry bags are designed with a roll and clip function to trap air inside the bag ensuring it stays floating and keeps water out.

“There is a trick to rolling roll-top bags. The first roll should be as tight as possible and the rest of the rolls should remain tight (like one would roll a very compact sleeping bag),” explain Warren Gans of Ram Mountaineering. Some bags, like Columbia’s River Runner, have an added zip to ensure dryness.

Neck strapped dry bags are great for keeping keys and cell phones close (underneath a shirt/wetsuit) and dry. “But I would advise to go for a hard case for any expensive equipment such as cameras or a GPS,” warns John Fontyn of Eiger Equipment.


Smaller items like a headlamp, sun-screen, lip balm, inexpensive rain-ponchos, water purifiers, water bottles or hydration packs, insect repellent, biodegradable soap and shampoo, black bags, nutritional bars/sweets and a coolerbox with drinks (for multi-days) should be taken along as well.

Luxury items like cameras and GPSs (with its own watertight pouch/case) are also a nice option.

One of the most important aspects of multi-day river trips is ensuring that you have clean water, as it can very easily ruin your trip if you get infected by water-borne diseases. There are various forms of water purification on the market such as filters, chemical tablets and UV light emitting water purifiers. Some water bottles and hydration bladders also have anti-microbial properties that prevent bacteria from growing in a container kept in the hot sun for the day.

Citronella used in biodegradable soap is not a sufficient insect repellent and a separate trusted insect repellent should be used when going on rivers where mosquitoes are a problem.

“We live out of the water on these trips — bathing and cooking — and biodegradable cosmetic products is seen as a must-bring, not only for your safety but for the safety of the surrounding communities and wildlife dependent on the river as well,” says La Cock.

“Even if you use biodegradable products, the soap degrades slowly and gets into contact with water used for other means. We have a great solution for this,” says Leo Rust of Adventure Inc. Sea to Summit has a range of 5-20 litre portable kitchen sinks that allows water to be taken out of the river and be used on the land away from the river.

When considering sunscreen, make sure it is waterproof and does not leave an oily residue, making it difficult to paddle.

A headlamp is essential for multi-day trips around the camp or on a moonlight paddle (where a group would go out on the river during full moon). It not only helps to see the person next to you but also helps the guide to be able to see the last person in the group. A headlamp or torch is also essential to see when the river’s water level rises close to camp as people would need to pack up and move camp.

Overnight on shore

On multi-day trips good camping equipment can help make the trip much more comfortable. Some rafting companies supply a tent and sleeping bag. If the rafting company supplies catering it usually means that they supply all crockery and food.

It is normally recommended to bring your own ground sheet even on guided tours. The groundsheet acts as a moisture barrier and protection from whatever sharp/abrasive things might be underneath the tent/sleeping bag.

Investing in a good sleeping bag would make the journey more comfortable. Goose down feathers have the highest warmth to weight ratio for any type of insulation. A self-inflating mattress provides extra comfort when sleeping on the ground. The great thing about a self-inflating mattress is that it will work even if it has a puncture.

“I would highly discourage anyone to take a blow-up mattress. Every time an adventure seeker brings a blow-up mattress on a trip they usually end up sleeping on the floor because of a small puncture undetected by the eye,” adds la Cock. If a blow-up mattress is all that can be afforded, a mattress repair kit is highly recommended.

A tent, if needed, should be as compact and lightweight as the rafter can afford. For boats like inflatables and crocs, space taking tents are more tolerated.

When a rafter is not going on a guided trip, or where it is advisable to bring your own cooking equipment, a small portable stove is a great addition to the camping equipment needed on a multiday trip. In addition to the portable stoves discussed in the previous issue of Sports Trader, Eiger Equipment will be launching a new range of Kovea portable stoves soon.

There might be slight differences in what is considered a luxury and a must-have, but the essential gear for a multi-day trip and a one-day trip remains similar, with added camping gear and lighting equipment for multi-days.

The very least a rafter should take with for a one-day trip is suitable clothing, a hat, sunglasses and water shoes, a small dry-bag to keep personal items dry, sun-screen, lip-ice, an inexpensive rain poncho, insect repellent, a water bottle (with clean water) and snacks.

Anything else would add to the rafters comfort and ensure their enjoyment of the trip.

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