Overnight Rafting in Colorado: A Complete Beginner’s Guide

Colorado is the adventure capital of the US. With thousands of acres of public land to recreate on, it’s not a matter of “is there anything fun to do in Colorado,” but more “how will we find time to do all the fun things!”

From my own experience, two of the most fun things to do in Colorado are camping and rafting. There are tons of opportunities to get out of the city and immerse yourself in nature. And that is exactly what my family and I did!  Each activity is incredibly fun to do with the entire family in their own right, but did you know that you can do them together!?

Camp With Style - Raft Camping in Colorado

That’s right, combining camping with rafting is a great way to simultaneously get on the river to enjoy some choice rapids while also getting to set up your own little getaway on a riverbank for some private camping. But how do you do that?

Well, you’ve come to the right place. By the end of this guide, you will have the answer to many beginner raft camping questions like:

  • Where are the best places for beginners to raft camp in Colorado?
  • When is the best time of year to raft camp?
  • What are the essentials that I need to take with me?
  • What kind of tent should I bring?
  • How do I be safe on the river?

Beginner Rafter Campsites

Camp With Style - Raft Camping in Upper Colorado

One of the best places to access some excellent campsites as a beginner in Colorado is going to be on the upper Colorado River. Throughout this section of the river, there are tons of easy class II and I rapids, with only a few technical class III rapids to navigate.

The mildness of upper Colorado allows beginners to focus on having fun without the stress of having to scout out rapids and deal with the higher risk of flipping your boat!

All of the campsites that are along upper Colorado are first come, first served, so if you intend to go camping in your raft, be sure to head out early. That way you’ll have a much higher chance of claiming a spot.

A great spot to camp in upper Colorado is called Cable. This campsite was once the home of early miners that came to the area to mine for gold and silver back in the late 1800s. The cabins that they built next to the river are still standing today!

When Should I go Raft Camping?

Camp With Style - Beginner (2)

The best time to go raft camping could be year-round, depending on the gear that you have. Raft camping is awesome because there aren’t a ton of people that own rafts and of that number, there’s an even smaller population that knows how to rig their boats to haul all of their gear safely.

I will say that the absolute best time of the year to raft camp is during the summer. The snow has been melting for a while and the water has warmed up a bit. Water levels are much higher than they are during the early season runoff, making tricky rocks vanish under the water and leaving fun wave trains that dance playfully over the tops of them.

In addition to the warmer and higher water levels, you can get away with ditching your tent and sleeping under the stars. There really isn’t anything much more magical than sleeping under the stars alongside the river that you just paddled on that morning.

Raft Camp Essentials

Raft camping requires almost all of the same essentials as regular tent camping, but with a few additional items. Check out the list below to see what specialty items that you must take with you when you go raft camping:

Raft and frame rig

Obviously, you’re going to need a raft to go raft camping. The best way to set yourself up for success is to use a frame and oars instead of paddles to guide your boat down the river.

The reason why you want a rowing frame instead of paddles is that you can hang your gear from your frame. This keeps your gear from sitting on the floor of your boat, making it so that you mitigate the risk of tearing the floor if you go over a rock in the river.

Dry box

Dry boxes are a must when raft camping because they offer protection for all of your camping gear that you don’t want to get wet. Plus, they are great to use as a seat for the rower or other guests that you have in your boat!

Dry bags

For stuff that doesn’t go in the dry box, you’ll want to use dry bags to store them. Things like camp kitchens, sleeping bags, sleeping pads, extra clothing, and anything else that is small and would be difficult to organize in the dry box should go in dry bags.


This is your toilet! Yes, it is required that you take a groover with you on the river. Back in the days of old, river guides would use an old 50 cal. ammo can as a toilet while on the river. I’ll let you use your imagination for why the name groover came about.=

These are required because river systems are incredibly sensitive environments. It’s your responsibility to pack all of your waste out to ensure that the river stays clean for all of the animals that call it home as well as the humans that recreate on it and use it for drinking water.


What is camping without a campfire? Campfires are a staple of camping trips and are even more spectacular when their light shimmers off of the river at night.

As with the groover, you want to be sure to be as limiting with your impact as possible when it comes to recreating on the river. Firepans help keep the ash from fires from dumping into the river, which would cause potential harm to the animals that call it home.

Cam straps

You can never bring enough cam straps! These will help you rig your raft to flip, which essentially means that in the event that you make a mistake, and the river makes you pay for it by flipping your boat, you won’t lose all of your gear. Always bring more cam straps than you think you’ll need because the last thing you want to deal with is needing one when there isn’t one around!

The Best Rafting Tents

There are tons of tents to go camping on the river with. The best ones are going to be the ones that will fit you and your entire group but be small enough to pack into dry bags and your dry box.

For groups of 2-3, the best tent for river camping is the Kelty Night Owl Backpacking and Camping Tent (Updated Version of Trail Ridge Tent) - Lightweight Design Plus Oversized Doors with Spacious Interior, 2-Person" target="_blank" rel="noopener">Kelty Dirt Motel. This tent is awesome because it comes with a rollback rainfly that reveals the stars overhead while keeping you safe from being eaten by bugs with the no-see-um mesh that makes up the tent body.

If you have a big enough dry box, and you have a lot of people that you’re trying to fit into one tent, the Core 9 Person Instant Cabin Tent - 14' x 9', Green (40008)" target="_blank" rel="noopener">REI Kingdom 6 is a great tent to bring. It’s incredibly spacious inside, allowing for up to 6 people to sleep comfortably inside of it. This tent is practically bomb-proof too, as it’s able to withstand very strong winds when set up properly.

At the end of the day, it comes down to personal preference. If it makes more sense to bring a few smaller tents than it does to bring a big one, do that!

River Safety Tips

Here’s the thing, nothing will prepare you for safely rafting better than taking a class from certified instructors. You can get a good idea of how to safely navigate the water by reading guides like this one and watching YouTube videos, but at the end of the day, they are no substitute for guided, in-person instruction.

With that said, here are a few things that you have must-have when you go on the river when you’re raft camping to stay safe:

  • A river rated personal flotation device (PFD)
  • A throw bag
  • A pealess whistle
  • A blunt point river knife
  • A helmet (for sections that are class III and above)

Never go rafting without these items at the bare minimum. And as mentioned earlier, be sure to get proper instruction on river safety from a qualified guide. You’ll learn how to properly row your boat, maneuver past obstacles in the water, catch eddies, and read whitewater safely.

For more helpful hints on best tents to purchase, please visit our article on Best Tents for Camping in Colorado!

Final Thoughts

Raft camping is one of the most fun activities you can do in Colorado. Upper Colorado offers tons of opportunities for newbies to get in their boats and enjoy a night or two out on the river.

Be sure to get out there early to claim your spot along rivers like upper Colorado as they are first come, first served. Pack your boat with all of your essential camping gear as well as the specialty items specific to river camping. Always wear your safety gear and please be sure to get qualified instruction on river travel before you go.

With that said, pack your boat, strap on your Chacos, and hit the river! Where will you go first?

Disclaimer: Links in this article may contain links to Amazon. A percentage of every purchase made through Amazon will be donated to state wildlife conservations.

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