We’re an active family. We enjoy hiking, riding bikes, hubby & the kids even sleep in a tent in our backyard during the summer. But we’re not really a camping family. I admit that I like running water and bathrooms a little too much. So when O.A.R.S. mentioned that we should go on a river rafting trip and tell you all about it, I was a bit worried. What would we eat? Where would we sleep? What would the bathroom situation be like? Could our family really handle four days and three nights living on a river?
The OARS team recommended the Gorges of the Lower Salmon River rafting adventure as great for families, so that’s what we booked. The trip would begin and end in Lewiston, Idaho. The communication of the OARS team was great and helped us get ready for the trip easily. Their website shares the itinerary plan and a great packing list.
It’s good to know that you’ll need to plan for an overnight hotel stay the night before your trip. The hotel night isn’t included in your OARS package. You can stay anywhere you want, but just have to make sure you can attend the OARS meeting at the host hotel the night before. That meeting is when you’ll meet your guide leader and receive your waterproof bags for the trip. You’ll also get your departure time for the next morning.
Packing for Our Multi-day OARS River Rafting Trip
One of the more worrisome points for me was how to pack for this river rafting trip. Recognizing that you’ll only have two bags and nothing else for 4 days can be a bit alarming. However, we all survived just fine. OARS has a great packing list on their site that is well thought out. I highly recommend that you also think about weight and what you will really need when you’re planning what to pack.
You’re given two waterproof bags which are your two pieces of luggage for the trip. These are handed out the night before you depart during your required OARS orientation meeting. You truly need to think of these as a checked bag and a carry on bag. The checked bag is stowed under gear in the bottom of the boats while the carry on bag is what you keep with you throughout the day. Each late afternoon/evening when you arrive at camp you’ll form a fire line to unload everyone’s “checked” luggage. Here’s where the weight comment comes into play. You don’t want to be that person who has the heavy bag that throws out someone’s back. Plus, you then have to carry that bag to wherever you’ve set up your tent for the night.
6 Specific Things We Packed and Needed
*note – these are just a few “special” items we needed. The packing list is really filled with all things you need, so don’t think these extras list is all you need. :) Links for items are affiliate links meaning I earn a small commission if you purchase with no added cost for you. Thanks in advance!
- LONG SLEEVE BUTTON-DOWN SHIRTS – These were a lifesaver for us and a must have. The sun does and will get hot out on the river. Sunscreen is great, but honestly, covering up is your best option. Our lightweight button down cotton shirts were also perfect for pulling off to dunk in the river and wear again to cool off.
- LOTION / LIPBALM – Being out in the sun and in the water for that many days can do a number on your skin. I was thankful that I had packed some body lotion since we all ended up with dry hands. We also all had dry lips and used our lip balms regularly.
- EXTRA SUNSCREEN – Whatever amount of sunscreen you think you’ll need for your family for 4 days, double it. And get a high quality sunscreen that lasts and is water resistant. Again, the sun was intense and we were regularly reapplying. Our oldest got a sunburn one day when she rode in a boat apart from us, so I recommend every family member have their own sunscreen packed in their carry on bag.
- TRAVEL TOWELS – We had these great lightweight travel towels which were great for the river rafting trip. Since they were small they were easy to keep in our carry on bags. Plus, they dried out quickly overnight.
- COZY JAMMIES / SWEATSHIRTS – Mornings can be a bit cool and crisp along the river. When you wake to go get your first cup of coffee and relax, it’s nice to be cozy while doing it. Sure, many campers got dressed for the day right away. But we preferred to be warm and cozy for coffee and breakfast, then went and changed into our day clothes once the sun had risen and the heat was rising.
- BIODEGRADABLE CAMPING WASH TOWELS – The dust and sand will build up and you’ll be dreaming of a shower around day 3. Thankfully we packed some biodegradable wash towels that we used to wipe down our bodies in our tent in the night/morning. Then we could toss them in the garbage and felt “somewhat” fresher for the day ahead. I also brought biodegradable soap, but just wasn’t up for the cold river water bathe option.
6 Things We Should Have Packed
- HEADLAMPS – While most nights had us so tired we crashed early in the night, we should have packed headlamps instead of handheld flashlights. I also packed a book and wished I had a headlamp to read by at night rather than trying to prop a flashlight up to shine on the book. For night time bathroom breaks you also don’t want to have to manage a flashlight while doing your business.
- PANTS – The temps were hot, so we figured shorts would be the way to go. Those hot temps were from the hot sun and just like the long-sleeved shirts saved us, the lack of pants was rough. We all got red on our legs no matter how much sunscreen we applied. We should have packed some hiking type pants. Almost all the guides wore long pants, they knew to keep themselves covered.
- BABY POWDER – The great thing about the Lower Salmon Rafting trip is that all the beaches are sand. This is great for relaxing and having fun, but the sand does get everywhere. It would have been nice to have some baby powder or a powder pouch to rub on our skin before bed to help keep the sand from getting in our sleeping bags.
- FLIP FLOPS – We all packed outdoor water shoes with closed toes and heels for the rafting. However at camp on the beach and in the mornings we wished we would have had a lightweight pair of flip flops to wear.
- UMBRELLA – There was no rain on our trip (although the OARS packing list tells you to pack for it just in case) but we wished we had an umbrella for the sun. Not for while on the boat, but when we stopped at beaches for snack and lunch breaks we wished we had an umbrella just to help get out of the sun a bit. There aren’t always a lot of trees down on sandy beaches.
- CLIPPING WATER BOTTLES / CARABINERS – You have to have a water bottle for the trip. Staying hydrated is very important! But storing that water bottle becomes a problem sometimes when you’re on the boats. Lizzy had a clipping water bottle and it was the best for this trip. I wished we had purchased insulated water bottles and used carabiners. There are lines (rope tie downs) running around the boat and that’s where you fasten your carry on bag and water bottle. You should have a clip so you can fasten your water bottle to the line instead of having it roll around or getting wedged into the side of the raft.
OARS has tons of tips and a packing list on their site under each adventure, so I highly recommend you read it thoroughly if you’re going on a river rafting trip. Also read it beforehand so you have lots of time to buy/order any clothes or gear you might not have.
What You Don’t Need Because OARS Packs It
It’s good to know that OARS really is a full-service rafting adventure company. I can’t even imagine trying to take one of these trips without an outfitter. OARS has their own packing lists for what they need for each guest. They take care of all the food, including snacks. This is huge! They have all the tents and bedding you’ll need for the river rafting trip. Plus they have camping chairs for lounging at camp. They also pack some games like horseshoes and bocce ball.
What Our Typical OARS River Rafting Day Looked Like
Our 4 days on the river were pretty similar. Of course our start day and end day were a little different because we were bused to and from the river. But a standard day had us getting up in the morning for coffee and breakfast. The start times weren’t too early which is nice for vacation. Coffee is announced at camp and people make their way out of their tents. There are those who start breaking down their tents and sleep areas during the break between coffee and breakfast. The others, like us, who relax in a camping chair with a cup of coffee while the sun rises and the day warms. After eating breakfast everyone should be breaking up camp and the boats start getting reloaded with all the gear.
Once we departed from camp we made our way along the river. We normally traveled an hour or two before stopping for a morning bathroom and snack break. These stops were short and we were back on the river within 15-30 minutes typically. The next stop was for lunch where we had more time to relax and play. After lunch we all loaded back into the boats for more rafting. We would sometimes have another stop or just go straight to our night camp. During each day we’d typically go through about 3 rapids.
Once we arrived at camp it was time to unload all the boats and set up camp. The guides typically used this time to have a little meeting and relax before starting dinner prep. Campers would set up our tents and then enjoy a cold beer while the kids played. Everyone came together to have dinner and we typically would end up chatting. Night would fall and that would be the signal for most of us that it was time for bed.
The OARS Boats on Our Lower Salmon River Rafting Trip
Seeing as we had been on a rafting day trip once I was a bit surprised by the boat experience OARS offered on the Lower Salmon River adventure. The trip had dory boats, passenger rafts, a paddle boat, and a gear boat. The dory boats are special wooden boats that are not run on too many trip due to their age and uniqueness. They look like old fishing boats and offer a different kind of ride than a raft. There were two rafts for the campers to ride on that were just ride on rafts, not paddling. There was one paddle boat which is probably the type of river rafting trip most people are accustomed to, where the riders are holding paddles and helping navigate based on commands.
In addition to the boats listed above there was also the option for “duckies”. Also known as IKs, or inflatable kayaks. These were available for anyone age 13+ and who passed a flip test. Lizzy and Paul both gave the duckies a try. They both had wipeouts, but did enjoy the experience. The guide will make a call on whether to allow the duckies to run certain rapids.
What Was the Food Like?
Our family loved the food on our trip. OARS does an amazing job of providing delicious, gourmet meals alongside a river. It’s hard to believe they tote along wine, tomatoes, and steak for 4 days and three nights. Mornings had a delicious breakfast of fruit and meals like bacon and eggs, pancakes, and omelettes. Lunches were often sandwiches with various meats, cheeses, and breads. They also had some delicious mustards and pickles to add to the sandwich! Dinners were absolutely delicious. And I don’t think it was just because we were starving! :) We had smoked salmon, pork carnitas, and steak for each of our dinners.
In addition to the three main meals, OARS provided snacks like jerky and trail mix during the day. And for drinks they provided dry mixes you can add to your water in your water bottle. They have a water purifying pump, so you’re able to get fresh water at each stop. In the evenings they bring out a cooler that has some canned drinks for the campers. They also pack beer. Each camper is allotted 2 canned drinks per day. You can bring your own snacks and even your own alcoholic beverages. OARS asks for the snacks to be given to the crew to keep with the kitchen food and to help prevent any animals trying to get into the food if you leave it in your own bags.
Allergies on Our River Rafting Trip
Since we travel with a child with allergies, the food situation was a worry for me. They did provide special snacks in a separate container just for Mia that were safe for her. They also made sure that all the meals were safe or that there was an alternate if there was an allergen in one of the ingredients for the meal.
My biggest concern was that they still did serve nut based snacks for the general snack, so contamination is possible. On standard trips they provide peanut butter for sandwiches. They brought it out on our first lunch stop, but after seeing my cross-contamination worry firsthand they did not offer peanut butter during the rest of the trip. I’m happy to report that we had no allergic reactions during our trip, however if you have an allergy you might want to realize that they work hard to accommodate your allergy for you, but won’t remove the allergen from other’s meals.
What Was the Bathroom Like?
Another worry for me as a non-camper was the bathroom situation. I admit that it was rustic. The river becomes your bathroom spot for pee. Some guides are masters of the modesty squat along shore, while I preferred to wade into the river. You don’t want your clothes to start smelling, so it’s best if you can drop your drawers (or pull stuff to the side) to do your business.
Going number 2 was another story. On the first day you’re encouraged to “become one with your body” and convince your body to only go number 2 in the morning or night. There is a portable toilet set up at camp where everyone can do their business. This is like a port-a-potty without walls. There are actually two toilets, one for liquids, one for solids.
The guides find an area near camp that has some privacy and they set up the latrine. There is a can that holds the toilet paper placed near a handwashing station and this can works as the “key”. When you need to go you look for the key, grab it, and go. If the toilet paper can key is not at the handwashing station then you know to wait because someone is already there.
TIP: Two piece swimsuits are a must for women/girls on a river rafting trip!
The OARS Difference for Families
I can honestly say that going on a river rafting adventure with OARS makes a big difference in the kind of family vacation you’ll have. When you look at all the care and experience that’s needed to plan and navigate a rafting trip, you want a trusted outfitter. I really appreciated the nice gear and delicious food that we had on our OARS trip. All of our tents and sleeping gear were in excellent condition. The meals are top notch and dinners even feature appetizers and dessert.
By far, one of the best parts of OARS for families are the guides. These people live and breathe the river. They absolutely love to be out on these adventures, but their jobs are also hard work. They’re constantly working to keep you comfortable and most importantly safe on your trip. The guides also work to engage with your kids. Most nights there was a guide setting up some kind of game for the kids to play on the beach. I think OARS also works to help families find the best river rafting adventure that will fit their family, both in location and based on ages of other kids already booked on the trip.
My Final Thoughts
Our O.A.R.S river rafting trip on the Lower Salmon River was one we’ll never forget. It was so outside of our average family vacation that we all have amazing memories and stories to tell. For this non-camping family, this was an ideal adventure for getting away from screens and reconnecting with each other.
Another surprising fact is that it was actually relaxing. Paul and I often found ourselves relaxing each evening on the beach while the kids played. With no internet we had nothing to distract us from each other and from just chilling out. That habitual checking and rechecking of our phones was non-existent. The fact that we didn’t have to do ANY planning apart from packing and leaving was another huge relaxing aspect. Everything was taken care of for us. We just had to show up and have fun. Pretty great way to spend a family vacation if you ask me!