Last article update: September 15th, 2021 (11:00 pm)
When Mr. Sunshine is up and smiling during the warm months, most rivers in America are open to river tubing enthusiasts to kick back in the cold waters and let currents push them downriver.
Floating on a lazy tube down a scenic river is a relaxing and fun way to spend an afternoon.
But tubing isn’t just about picking up your equipment and heading for the river nearest your home. You need to have a game plan.
In this guide, we look at what river tubing is, why it’s popular and how to prepare for a tubing trip, so you are safe in the river.
What is river tubing?
River tubing is a recreational activity that involves floating down a river on an inner tube.
The tube itself is usually donut-like and outfitted with skin fabric over the bottom, sides, and inner diameter, leaving room for a person to sit and ride waves.
You can either do towed or free-floating tubing:
- Towed tubing involves tethering one’s tube to personal watercraft or motorboat and letting it pull you through the water producing a wake pattern.
- Free-floating tubing involves riding the river untethered. You have very little control over the tube’s movements. You get moved by the river currents only. You may use your hands or webbed gloves to steer.
Why river tubing is so much fun
Tubing on whitewater river sections is be pleasurable and exhilarating.
The fact that you have limited control over the movement makes it more exciting. For a few hours or so, you are at the mercy of the water. You may float on a calm, lazy river, then quickly pass over waves that may send you airborne with your tube. How cool!
The tube size also allows people to ride in a wonderfully relaxing way, which is impossible with rafters and kayaks. In most cases, the tube covers have pockets and handles, allowing a person to pack drinks and snacks and kick back with refreshments and nourishment.
How to pick a river for a tubing trip?
Not every river is safe for tubing activities.
Depending on the flow rate and water level, the river may be too high and fast-flowing for safe floatation activities or too low and slow-flowing for exhilarating and fun tubing.
- Start with an online search of the specific river flow rate guidelines.
- Make sure the river has access points.
- Check the water conditions on the tubing day. You can even consult with local outfitters.
- Choose between DIY or full service from local tubing outfitters. The advantage of going with local tubing service providers is that you will be able to rent gear, and the tube is transported upriver to the launch point for you.
- The only negative is that their tours may be limited to specific sections of the river only.
- Pack adequately for the trip.
Some rivers offer a mellow trip suitable for young children, and some rivers will have mild rapids that will throw your tube around.
The American Whitewater Association created a river classification system to scale the difficulty of navigating a stretch of a river or rapid. The scale goes from Class I (easy) to Class VI (extreme).
With that said, class designation of a river may vary based on several factors, such as:
- fluctuating water levels
- type of boat used
- weather conditions (rain, wind)
Before you choose a river, make certain its classification is what you are looking for.
What to pack and wear for river tubing
To ensure you are safe and comfortable for fun times down the river, you will need:
You don’t have to get burned to enjoy the summer heat. No matter your skin complexion, sunscreen is a must-have if you plan to spend a day in a lazy tube.
The best sunscreens are broad-spectrum, high SPF waterproof products:
- Broad-spectrum means they protect against both UVB and UVA radiation.
- High SPF means they provide longer-lasting protection.
Use sunscreen on all areas that your clothes don’t reach, and make sure to use it before and during the tubing trip.
A hat (preferably with a large brim) is also essential on a sunny day to protect your head. Spending hours in direct sunshine can lead to sunstroke, a severe medical condition.
Broad-spectrum sporty wraparound sunglasses with polarised lenses will protect your eyes and make the trip much more comfortable. It would be best if you used a safety strap to keep them from falling off.
Clothing options for river tubing
For clothing options, go for water-safe apparel that is quick-drying, so you don’t walk back from the river soaking wet. Stay away from heavy, baggy jackets and dresses. Also, don’t go for anything that will restrict your arm and leg movement.
- Wear a bathing or swimsuit suit to keep you comfortable and relaxed.
- Wear a wetsuit, socks, and water shoes in case the water is colder. Neoprene wetsuits will insulate from the cold. The socks and water shoes also protect from rocky bottoms.
- Tight-fitting apparel is best, so you can swim comfortably in case you fall into the water. A white T-shirt is perfect.
- Have a towel ready.
- Snacks and drinks are good to have on long- lazy rivers. Pack some snacks such as crackers, chips, pretzels, and sunflower seeds. Don’t forget cold drinks, including water.
Toys for kids
If you plan on bringing kids along, you might want to pack a few toys to keep them entertained during the river excursion.
- Squirt guns
- Blow-up doll
- Water toys
Always wear a PFD when you go river-tubing, no matter your swimming experience. Some rivers also warrant wearing a helmet.
Keep your young ones in them throughout the tubing trip, too.
Cellphone and camera
Don’t forget your cellphone and camera! Your phone will come in handy in case of emergencies. Keep it in a dry bag to protect it from the water.
If you take a separate camera, use a waterproof case.
If you plan on the tubing as a crew, you can join your tubes using a rope so that you’ll remain close together. A nylon rope is the best; it resists rotting better.
Carry a pair of scissors or utility knife in case you need to cut the rope.
Portable air pump
Having an air pump handy is always a good idea. Not just for inflating your tube before you set off for the adventure but also to top it off during the trip if you need to.
What kind of tubes are suitable for river tubing?
Now that you’ve packed everything, don’t forget the tube (unless you plan on renting one).
Investing in your own tube is a good idea because you can explore different river sections safe for tubing. You can get an acceptable tube for as low as $30, but if you plan on using it more often, you should spend around $100 on a good one.
Here are a few things you want to look for when choosing a river tube:
- Get one with a mesh bottom; they are the most comfortable to sit in for hours.
- Make sure they have handles and structures to tie ropes into.
- A tube with a headrest is best for long trips.
Best river tubes
Here are some of the most popular inflatable river tubes you can use on your next tubing adventure.
Intex River Run I
This is a good beginner tube for river floating, and even for going on light rapids. It is especially comfortable due to the backrest, so you don’t have to hold your neck and head up during your float.
The size is just right for using your arms to paddle, and the grips do not get in the way at all.
- 53″ diameter
- 2 cup holders
- 2 handles
- built-in backrest
- mesh bottom
- wrap around safety rope
Renting river tubes
You’ll find river tubing outfitters along the more popular rivers, such as the Salt River in Arizona, Delaware River in New Jersey, Guadalupe River in Texas, etc.
You can rent river tubes from specialized outfitters for around $20-$25 per tube.
These outfitters usually offer a shuttle service included in the price of the tube, meaning that they will bring you back to their parking lot from their river exit point. This is a very convenient way of enjoying a few hours of river tubing, but it adds up quickly if you go often.
Is river tubing dangerous?
River tubing is a fun way to spend an afternoon, but since the tube does not give riders control over movements, it’s not without risks. River tubing accidents can happen and some result in various life-altering injuries.
Most common injuries and outcomes from river tubing accidents include:
- Sprains, strains, and other soft tissue injuries, if you are lucky
- Dental injuries
- Arm and hand trauma if you hit a solid object
- Drowning, when your tube gets stuck against a submerged tree, or you get entangled in a rope joining two tubes and get dragged under the water.
How to prevent tubing accidents?
There are precautions you can take to keep safe on your tube in the river. These include:
- Use life jackets. No matter your swimming skills, always wear a life jacket. Sometimes currents get aggressive, and even skilled swimmers can get overwhelmed.
- Inspect your tube, making sure it’s in good condition without visual signs of damage. Listen closely to the tube after inflating it for any hissing noises, which signal punctures.
- Have a plan on dealing with an emergency, and if you are going tubing as a group, bring everyone to speed.
- If you use a boat to pull your tube, do it carefully to avoid falling over.
- You may want to start with training from a professional before taking on the waters on your own.
More tips for river tubing
Here are some more tips for river tubing:
- Don’t bring expensive items to the river unless you are OK with losing them. You will be embarking on a casual, relaxing experience — no need to ruin a great day by losing something of value.
- Leave your jewelry at home.
- And when it comes to sunglasses and hats, they don’t have to cost a fortune.
- Look up your local area tubing rules to avoid falling on the wrong side of the law. Some locations prohibit drinking as well as the use of styrofoam and balls in the waterways.
Knowing the rules will keep you on the right side of the law.
If you’ve gone river tubing before, please share your experience in the comments below. Thanks!