Desperate for a chance to forget about the pandemic entirely, leave almost everything behind for a while and actually enjoy yourself without worry, even now? It’s not impossible. A multi-day river rafting trip is an inherently unplugged adventure that replaces cubicle walls with canyon walls, congested roadways with peaceful waterways, Zoom calls with no calls, and a life so unpopulated by people that the pandemic will (temporarily) fade from reality. OARS, a leading outfitter in rafting adventures for more than 50 years, offers dozens of itineraries across multiple continents, including plenty here in the United States for those not interested in navigating the complexities of testing requirements, increased paperwork, vaccine verifications and potential quarantines required by many international destinations. Among the most spectacular domestic escapes currently offered by OARS is the 6-day Cataract Canyon Whitewater Rafting experience, featuring Class III–IV rapids often billed as the biggest and most dangerous in the country during high water (spring, when some reach Class V), and still plenty exciting through the entire summer season, with additional rapids resurfacing as water levels drop. When you’re ready to hit the water for a transformative journey unlike any other, here’s what to expect from river life, camp life and your personal life, along with plenty of tips and suggestions for maximizing your experience.
What to know
The starting point
This nearly-100-mile river journey begins in Moab, where you’ll meet at the OARS warehouse fairly early in the morning to load up your gear in waterproof bags (provided) and head to Potash to put in (i.e., hit the water). You’re required to attend a briefing at the warehouse the evening before, so you’ll need somewhere to stay in Moab for at least one night. Maximize your time here by coming an additional night earlier, giving yourself a full day to play in and around this inspiring town. Among the newest hotels here, Element Moab is a wellness-forward stay that offers creature comfort without detracting from Moab’s natural gifts.
Expect wide windows in airy rooms, mountain views from the outdoor pool and hot tub, and fuel-focused food options from the generous breakfast spreads. Get your adrenaline pumping early on a trip through the natural obstacles of Hell’s Revenge with Xtreme 4×4 Tours, strapped into custom-built vehicles that climb walls, traverse ridges and perform stunts you wouldn’t have thought possible, all with you inside. You’ll also hop out for some breathtaking viewpoints along the way, and maybe for a snack break while your guide replaces damaged parts (seriously, the tour is extreme). Afterward, consider a sunset visit to Arches National Park. It’s most crowded early in the morning for sunrise and can be too hot for hikes in the early afternoon, so catch the colorful skies of sundown if you’re only in town for the day.
In the evening, you’ll find the most artful presentation of thoughtful plates at Desert Bistro, where Southwest-influenced cuisine is reimagined with warm hospitality offered both within the cozy interior and on the elegant back patio. After your river experience, you’ll return to Moab in the evening, so plan to stay overnight here to freshen up (you’ll appreciate a serious shower experience after a week on the water) and sleep in style, letting someone else worry about cleanup as you recharge before hitting the road. Fairfield Inn & Suites Moab is an affordable option for an instant refresh to seamlessly reintroduce yourself to society and prepare to head home. If there’s more Moab you want to catch before you go, you’ll also appreciate that this is the closest hotel to both Arches and Canyonlands National Parks.
OARS rates the Cataract Canyon 6-day itinerary as a more challenging physical experience, but the amount you exert is almost entirely up to you, most days. On this itinerary, there are a few days of flatwater to cover before reaching the famed rapids, and you can pass these 50 miles kayaking, standup paddleboarding, or just chilling on the oar rafts operated by your guides. You can even jump in and float or swim for a while whenever you want to cool off, have fun (or use the “restroom.”) When passing through rapids, boat options will be restricted based on safety (goodbye, SUP), but whether you want to brave your way through in a 2-person kayak, join an 8-person oar team or hitch a ride with an expert guide is completely up to you. These trips are popular with nearly all ages from kids (minimum ages apply, based on itinerary) to seniors, providing an exert-at-your-discretion experience both on water and land, where optional hikes or mini-adventures are offered most afternoons.
Whether your favorite part of each day will be your time on the river or your time at camp is a tossup. Each evening you’ll collectively unload the boats and set up camp somewhere suitable along your path. Working together, unload is quick and efficient; once complete, you’ll set up your own tent and personal supplies for the evening, and (probably) clean up a bit from the day. Guides set up an impressive kitchen at each beach, preparing a hot dinner that changes every night (expect anything from chicken tikka to steak, with vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, and any other pre-communicated needs met at all meals), and groups generally convene in a chair circle for chatting, drinks and games before and after eating. In the morning, hot breakfast is served, you’ll break down your tent and bring your belongings back to the shore and your guides will load the boats in a baffling display of organizational genius that’s more difficult to decipher than the riddles they may toss at you throughout your trip. While you’re generally expected to be self-sufficient regarding your personal belongings and set-up of your individual sleep site, guides are available to assist when needed and the communal atmosphere of camp life means your fellow adventures are usually looking for ways to pitch in for each other, so you don’t need any special skill, experience, or fitness level at camp either.
What may be the greatest hesitation for most first-timers is one of the major draws for all returning rafters: disconnecting. You won’t have cell service inside Cataract Canyon (or most canyons hosting rafting itineraries) so you’ll be leaving the world entirely behind for the duration of your journey. In fact, you’ll rarely even see other people in person, outside of your own camp crew. If this is your primary concern with hitting the river, pull the plug and jump in. There are so few opportunities left in today’s world to truly unplug, but this is one, and you owe it to yourself to rediscover your own mind and body without the influence and constant input of others, or the incessant notifications that never allow you any true rest. If you fear not having emergency updates from family or friends, you can always spring for a satellite texting service for infrequent updates, but bring fully-charged external batteries if you plan to employ this; there are no power outlets on the river. Otherwise, the only use for your phone during this journey is as a camera (revisit note on external batteries), and plenty choose not to bring them at all.
Spending several nights on the river is surprisingly affordable. When compared with the nightly hotel rate, daily meals and activities of a same-duration vacation elsewhere, a rafting escape often proves less expensive while offering access to locations and experiences that can’t be had any other way. Aside from stunning scenery and intimate access to otherwise unreachable nature plus adrenaline-pumping adventure (if you choose), all meals, activities, tents, dry bags and return transportation (in this case, a scenic flight retracing your itinerary as you return to Moab) are included, to say nothing of the personal growth and new relationships to be found if you’re interested.
What to bring
OARS provides detailed packing guides for each itinerary, including considerations for seasonality, and it’s in your very best interest to pack accordingly. The items below are by no means a comprehensive selection or replacement for an OARS guide, but they’re among the most comfortable and effective choices for items you’ll need as you check your way down the provided list.
You can rent a comfortable sleep kit, including sleeping bag, sleeping pad and linens, from OARS for very little cost, but bringing your own can considerably improve your sleep, which is a critical element you don’t want to ignore. The Torchlight Camp 35° from Big Agnes combines the best of the heat-trapping quality of mummy bags for early season trips with the increased leg room and freedom of expandable zippers for the claustrophobically-inclined or those camping in higher temperatures. Underneath, cushion your rest with the Insulated Q-Core SLX sleeping pad, which nearly self-inflates and provides 3.5” of insulated protection from the ground beneath.
You’ll absolutely need durable footwear that stays securely attached without trapping water, making the Chaco Z Collection an ideal choice. With arch support and unfussy, adjustable straps that conform to your own foot’s shape, your feet will stay protected on the river and at camp, and they’re even suitable for some hikes and excursions. For more serious hikes, opt for the Sertig II Low GTX sneaker from Mammut for impressive grip and welcome waterproofing around the sole.
It might sound crazy to seek waterproof outerwear while living on a river, but you’ll need total protection from splashes in colder months and from rain storms any time. For full coverage, especially needed during early season trips, snag the waterproof and breathable BFF Jacket and BFF Pants from Houdini (don’t be fooled by water-resistant alternatives, you need actual waterproof garments for this). And don’t forget your head: while you’ll want sun protection every day, you can double your benefits by opting for Houdini’s quick-drying Gone Fishing Hat. If you’re traveling in the heat of summer and rain doesn’t appear likely during a last-minute check of the forecast, you may only need occasional reprieve from passing showers, and could opt for the Albula HS Hooded Jacket for appropriate protection at serious savings. When you do get wet, whether intentionally or otherwise, the Matador Ultralight Travel Towel provides near-magical absorbency and dries quickly before stowing so small and light in your
drybag that you’ll hardly notice its presence when not in use. Finally, while OARS provides a waterproof drybag for whatever you may want throughout the day until you retrieve the rest of your belongings at camp in the evening, it’s wise to bring additional waterproof bags in smaller sizes to keep your drybag organized. Matador’s Freerain Waterproof Packable Hip Pack holds smaller items for easy access in a waterproof compartment that can sling over your shoulder or around your waist for toting along on hikes, too.
Eye protection is important, and you’ll want to be sure your shades don’t disappear with a gust of wind or in the chaos of a rapid, so be sure to bring along a retainer to keep them secured around your neck. The CAMP collection from Shwood offers ideal river shades with bioplastic frames, polarized lenses and a spot-on sleeping bag case for half the cost of comparable alternatives.
No, you’ll have no need of formalwear on a river trip, but you might want some warmer layers for cooler nights, especially the windy ones. If you’re rafting in cold months, significant thermal layers are a must, but even in summer you’ll benefit from the comfort of the Lifeproof Pullover from Someone Somewhere. These super soft sweatshirts are odor-proof, stain-proof and liquid-proof, withstanding up to a week of wear without washing, and pack small into a tiny roll with built-in strap for easy stowing. Each one is hand-signed with the name and location of the artisan who crafted it, supporting indigenous populations of remote Mexican regions. For light thermal layers that provide a buffer from slightly cooler temps without overheating, the BodyfitZone 150 is an ultralight merino solution that provides just the right amount of protection.