There’s no better way to kick off summer than by taking a river trip—not just an inner tube float on a splendid afternoon, but by taking a bonafide journey in a boat. You need to float for days, where each bend reveals new terrain, where your ears alert to white noise downstream, and were you can listen to the current’s murmurs each night. Before you go, you need to know what things might be fun to bring. So here’s a list of the top ten most essential. Don’t shove off the bank without them.
1. River Map: Your smart phone won’t cut it. Not only will the signal desert you in a canyon, but your phone will also run out of batteries and you’ll accidentally drop it in the current. Bring a map. Rivers like the Salmon, Colorado, or Rogue all have their own river guides printed on waterproof paper. They give you a dash of local history, natural history, and accurate river mileage, along with notes on how to shoot the fiercest rapids. If your river doesn’t have a good map, then you should create one. Scribble notes in the margins and it will become a cherished heirloom of your river adventures.
2. American Flag: Nothing summons up the American mythos of a river trip quite like the old Stars and Stripes. Buy a cheap handheld parade-wavers’ flag, the kind that’s stapled onto a thin wooden dowel. Secure it into the stern of your boat and all wayfarers you pass will know at a glance that you’re floating for ‘Mericah.
3. Fishing Rod: Bring one and the accouterments to cook fish, but for God’s sake bring your dinner for each night as well. Nothing ruins fishing quicker than relying on a cast for nutrients. One rod per boat should suffice, and in the slackwater you can sneak off a few casts to the monsters lurking beneath. If the river deems fit, you may bestow upon your boatmates the joyous feast of wild procurement.
4. Binoculars: Secure them to the top of the cooler—don’t pack them away—and soon you’ll start checking out everything. It’s all fair game: the mystery bird singing in the trees, the day-moon rising over the canyon wall, that bikini, or the horizon line downstream frothing a cloud of mist. Binoculars are a must.
5. Book: The river alone is a story fraught with suspense, character development, and, at times, sheer boredom. Do yourself and your crew a favor and bring a riveting book along not for the escape, but so in the doldrums you can captivate your captive audience with a good old fashioned, long-winded story.
6. Climbing Shoes: Ok, you don’t really need climbing shoes, but the point is you pass a lot of rock. Those grubby cliffs stained with waterlines and bird splats have undiscovered routes. Screw deep water soloing in Mallorca. The shallow water solos of your local river are up to snuff. Bring your shoes. Test the rock. You might just find the next new spot.
7. Backpacker’s Guitar: Few sounds evoke a homespun adventure more than the twang of a steel guitar on the banks of a river. Something about the muffled garble of the current, the enclosure of the canyon, and the pop and hiss of the burning logs make campfire songs the sweetest sound to frayed whitewater nerves. If scientists studied this sort of thing they would undoubtedly find that it releases the unspoken tension of boatmates who have spent the day at elbow’s length aboard the vessel. Just do everyone a favor and rehearse a few songs before you embark.
8. Snorkel and Mask: You know what lurks at the bottom of a river? Of course not! That’s why you should bring a snorkel and a mask. There may be beer cans, trout in their otherworldly habitat, or some other sunken treasure. Go on and discover for yourself the last frontier of American rivers. It’s wet. It’s wild. And you’re guaranteed a certain kind of watery beauty that you won’t find in the magazines.
9. Beer: You knew this was going to be on the list, didn’t you? Refreshing. Intoxicating. And tasty. Rivers and beer are a lot like love and marriage; one leads to the other and each together can increase your odds of fun or drowning. The key here, as in life, is to maintain the buzz. Don’t get drunk. Swimming wasted doesn’t work. Maintain that quick-to-laugh, bubbly-in-the-head enthusiasm, so when the wind kicks up and sends you upstream under your fiercest paddling, you’ll keep that ever-important positive perspective.
10. First Aid Kit: When boats in motion try to navigate hard, stationary objects, carnage is bound to happen. People get whacked, hit in the head, or smacked by a branch. Bring your first aid kit. You’ll forget about it the whole time nothing happens, and then when something does, you’ll be like David Hasselhoff doing a swan dive off the bow of the boat.
Fit for captains or stowaways alike, these time-tested suggestions shall serve you well on any overnighter. Bringing them all will result in the utmost pleasure, but if you’re strapped for cash or time then, at a bare minimum, bring numbers 1, 9, and 10. Nothing can go wrong that’s beyond the scope of their influence. So carry forth young Merriweather. Paddle on John Wesley. The rivers of America are yours, explore.