Early Spring Rafting Gear – Where to Go and What to Wear

By Kim Cassels   •   March 8, 2021

Early Spring Rafting Gear – Where to Go and What to Wear

Man early spring rafting - Mild to Wild
Credit Whitewater Guidebook

Some folks just can’t wait to get back on the river, and we don’t blame ‘em! As soon as the sun hits those blanketed peaks on March 20, it doesn’t matter how wickedly ch-ch-ch-chilly those waves are going to be— It’s time to throw on the early spring rafting gear baby! Rafting in early spring lets you enjoy the all-encompassing glory of canyons all to yourself, and there’s just something about seeing the wilderness awaken from its winter repose.  

And because winter’s lease just expired, early spring rafting gear is a different animal than, say, late spring rafting when the water is pouring from the mountains by the buckets. These inaugural trickles are only to be trifled with multiple, mindful layers involved. Here’s a few rivers that are great for early spring rafting, and what to wear while you’re on them! 

Southwest Rivers that Start Flowing in Early Spring 

Colorado River-Moab Utah-Mild to Wild Rafting

Colorado River – Utah 


  • Late March temperatures are usually average 52° F / 11° C.
  • Early April temperatures usually fluctuate between 52° F / 11° C and 61° F / 16° C. 


  • Late March CFS averages between 3,000 and 4,000 CFS
  • Early April is more unpredictable, as runoff traditionally fluctuates quite a bit during this time, ranging from 2,500 to 8,000 CFS.    


Currrent conditions Colorado River 

San Juan River – Utah 


  • Late March temperatures usually average 52° F / 11° C.
  • Early April temperatures usually increase from 57° to 65° F / 15° to 19° C. 


  • The San Juan River levels change drastically year to year, ranging between 400 and 3,000 CFS between late March and Early April. 


  • Sand Island to Mexican Hat 
  • Mexican Hat to Clay Hills 
  • These river permits are by lottery, unless you go on a commercial trip.

Current Conditions for San Juan River

San Juan River, Utah - Boat Floating the San Juan River - Mild to Wild
Credit Oars

Rio Grande – New Mexico 


  • Late March temperatures usually average 49° F / 10° C
  • Early April temperatures usually average 54° F / 13° C 


  • The Rio Grande is another incredibly unpredictable river, although it usually starts higher in late March and falls dramatically in April. 
  • Flows range from nearly 300 to 1,000 CFS 

Current conditions for Rio Grande 


What to Wear for Early Spring Rafting

early spring white water rafting conditions. shown on the Upper Animas River .
Needleton Put-In on the Upper Animas River


Base Layer – Swimsuit or other layers that are quick drying and not water absorbent

Cotton is a big fat no-no on a cold river. Stick to synthetic fabrics with nylon, propylene and polyester.  This goes for ALL layers when you’re rafting in cold water. 

Swim trunks with under armor - Mild to Wild
Immersion Research – Courier Guide Short


Mid Layer – Synthetic long johns, shirt or Farmer John

If you’re someone who tends to get extra frigid, or water temperatures are below 55°, consider adding this layer to your rafting attire.  These layers shouldn’t be too thick that they interfere with your mobility. And because early spring is so capricious in nature, you can take these layers off if you get too toasty.

Thermal Women's Shirt - Patagonia - Mild to Wild
NRS – Women’s Hydroskin 0.5 Long Sleeve Shirt 


Outer Layer 


Drysuits are intended for quite-cold water temperatures, which are considered below 60° F. However, consider how much swimming potential there is if you’re going early spring rafting.  Most rivers are still at low water levels during late March and early April, and if you’re not anticipating spending much time in the drink, you can probably pass on a drysuit. 

Women's Drysuit - Kokatat - Mild to Wild Rafting and Jeep Tours
Kokatat – Icon GoreTex Pro Women’s Drysuit 2021

Wetsuit – 3 to 5 mm

Wetsuits are a popular option for rafting as they’re less technical and bulky than a drysuit. These suits are designed to insulate and warm the water against your skin, so while you might get wet, you should stay comfortable in the raft.

It’s recommended to wear a full-length wetsuit rather than a Farmer John/Jane for early spring rafting. Wearing at least 3 to 5 millimeter thickness should keep your body heat well insulated while you’re out on the river. 

Mens NRS Wetsuit - Mild to Wild
NRS – Men’s Radiant 3/2 Wetsuit

Feet – Socks and Booties

Wearing a pair of neoprene or wool socks underneath neoprene booties or river sandals adds an extra touch of coziness on the river, especially during those brisk spring mornings. If you really want to get serious, put on a pair of wool socks and then add neoprene socks on top before throwing on your booties. 

Men's Hunting Socks - Smart Wool - Mild to Wild
Smart Wool – Men’s PhD® Hunting Heavy Crew Socks


Last Layers – Fleece, Splash Top, PFD and Helmet

Once you’re zipped into your wetsuit, throw on a plush fleece over the top to show your core you really do appreciate its body heat. Then you’ll add a splash top over the fleece to keep yourself from getting soggy. Lastly throw on your PFD and strap your noggin’ into a helmet for the rocky sections of the river.

Patagonia - Women's Lightweight Synchilla® Snap-T® Fleece Pullover - Mild to Wild
Patagonia Women’s Lightweight Synchilla® Snap-T® Fleece Pullover


Neoprene Gloves, aka Pogies

Keeping your digits warm can make a huge difference on the river, especially when you’re rowing or when weather gets nasty. These should be a no-exceptions add on if you’re rafting in splashy water below 55° F / 7° C. 

Gloves are kind of a big deal for outdoor adventures. If you want the down low on the best gloves for river runners of 2021, check out this awesome gear article from KayakHelp.


Neoprene Gloves - NRS - Mild to Wild
NRS – Hydroskin 0.5 mm Gloves


Neoprene Skull Cap or Hood

Who likes an ice cold ear? No one, absolutely no one does. Both fit nicely under your helmet, and hoods also cover your neck.

A raft guide favorite is the Immersion Research Thermo Cap

thermo cap - immersion research - mild to wild
From 4Corners Riversports – Immersion Research Thermo Cap

Other Things 


Why wouldn’t you treat yourself to hot beverage on the water? Drinks also help you stay warm, and, depending on what you put in there, hydrated! Get one with a handle so you can still strap it to the boat.

Purple Hydro Flask - Mild to Wild
Hydro Flask Wide-Mouth Vacuum Water Bottle – 20 fl. oz.



When you’re doing more floating than splashing, it’s kind of nice to have something to wrap up in when spring is literally blowing in through the canyon. If you’re on a multi-day trip, these are also great to help insulate your sleeping bag.

Blanket of the Colorado River - Mild to Wild
Rumpl – Original Puffy Blanket, Grand Canyon

Hand Warmers

These can be absolutely shiver savers, and you never know if (more like when) it’s going to snow! Throw them inside your gloves, and on the back of your hands if you’re rowing.


Ways to Save on Spring Rafting Gear

If you’re going on a commercial trip, all of your layers/gear will usually be provided by the rafting company except for your base and mid layers (swimsuit and long johns, etc.) and extra accessories like socks and gloves.

If this gear list is intimidating to those who want to start rafting on their own, check out outdoor consignment stores that offer great pricing on gently used gear. Here’s a few places in the Four Corners area:

Outdoor Exchange – Durango, Colorado

Moab Gear Trader – Moab, Utah

Sales on 4Corners Riversports – Durango, Colorado


More Reading

How to Pack for a Multi-Day Rafting Trip 

Top Spring Rafting Trips in the U.S. 

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