What to Bring When You Float the River

By Suzanne Wiley

Texas is a Mecca for floating the river. In Central Texas, within a few hours of each other—and in some cases, only a few miles—you’ll find the Frio, Guadalupe, Brazos, San Marcos and Comal rivers, all with tube outfitters, campgrounds and plenty of revelers eager to have fun in the sun. However, not all these rivers are created equal and all offer a different type of float—especially depending on how much rain there has been. One of the most popular, the Guadalupe, is a 230-mile river that flows through Central and South Texas, emptying out into the Gulf of Mexico.

The Comal river runs through New Braunfels, Texas and is the shortest river that is still navigable in Texas.
The Comal River is one of many good floating rivers in Central Texas.

For kids attending almost any Texas college or university, a tube trip is like a prerequisite for graduation. Camping in 103-degree weather, packing enough ice—both the frozen and Bud kind—and using enough sunscreen are part of the syllabus for Toobin’ 101.

Though I passed, I did learn some hard lessons on my first float trip on the Guadalupe.

Conditions on the Guadalupe can change daily from strenuous to pick-up-your-tube-and-walk. Floats, depending on where you are dropped off and picked up, as well as water conditions, can last anywhere from 1.5 hours, all the way up to 8. The Guadalupe isn’t for the faint of heart. Even in my early 20s, it was a beating. In fact, it deterred me for years before agreeing to float again.

Getting my feet wet (both literally and figuratively) took some coaxing, but a leisurely “float” down a not-really flowing Brazos river in North Texas convinced me to try again.

After that, because 41 is significantly different than 21, my next tubing adventure was down the much smoother and shorter Comal.

The spring-fed Comal River is the shortest, navigable river in Texas and its entire three-mile length flows through the city limits of New Braunfels, Texas until it intersects with the Guadalupe. It’s roughly a three-hour float unless you stop and linger. The Comal is 72 degrees Fahrenheit all year-round, so floaters who want to avoid the crowd can tube peacefully and comfortably in early spring. Unlike the Guadalupe, you won’t encounter any rapids. It’s the type of river you float when you want to relax, float with children or somewhat relive your 20s but without the sunburn and stupid decisions. However, there is some excitement and not just from the college kids avoiding Public Intox tickets; you will go down three tube chutes at the beginning of your float.

With police monitoring, lifeguards, all the people, condos and houses, the Comal makes you feel pretty safe. Yet, it is a naturally flowing body of water and you float at your own risk.

The second two tube chutes are fairly tame, yet there has always been someone in my group who tips over or gets stuck in the vortex of current after the first chute. Though none of my friends have been physically hurt, scared…yes…hurt no; there are regular water rescues required at this particular part of the float—not even 30 minutes in!

Though drownings are rare here on Texas’ rivers, all rivers, no matter where in the country you are floating, aren’t without their dangers. To have the best and safest float, it is important to bring along the right gear and practice these tubing safety rules.

Life Jackets

Wear a life jacket if you aren't a strong swimmer or under 12 years old.
Wear a life jacket if you aren’t a strong swimmer or under 12 years old.

Even if you are a strong swimmer, having a life vest in tow is a smart idea in case you lose your tube, get caught in rapids or find a fellow floater in trouble.

Drowning is the second leading cause of death for children from 1 to 9 years old. If you are floating with children, no matter what level of swimming skill they have, they need to wear a life jacket or other proper floating device for the entire float trip. In fact, it might be a law in your state. Check with local authorities before floating with children under 12 years old.


Shield yourself from the sun with at least SPF 30. Your sunscreen needs to be labeled “broad spectrum” to protect from UVA and UVB rays. An average adult needs to apply about 1 ounce (a shot glass) of sunscreen at least 15 minutes before sun exposure. Reapply every two hours. If you are a spray sunscreen type person, spray each area of your body for at least six seconds—you should be able to see the sunscreen and then rub it in. Don’t forget your scalp, necks, ears and lips! Take a t-shirt or other cover-up to put on if you begin to burn. A hat with a brim and sunglasses will help protect your face and sensitive eyes.


River bottoms are rocky, slippery, uneven and probably filled with sharp shards of glass. Wear sturdy shoes with a proper sole that tie or strap on. Tennis shoes, aqua shoes or sandals designed for water recreation and hiking are acceptable. Flip-flops are not a good choice. Take precaution when stepping out of your tube, especially in fast-moving water. If you get a foot caught between two rocks, swift current can take you under.

When use sunscreen, wear a hat, sturdy shoes and stay hydrated when floating the river.
Use sunscreen, wear a hat, sturdy shoes and stay hydrated!


If you chose to purchase your own tube for the float, make sure it is durable enough to last, even going over sharp rocks. You don’t want a blowout. Reputable outfitters will rent tubes suitable for floating. Give your tube a once over for proper inflation, leaks or holes. Pack a patch kit just in case.


If you and your party are going to tie-up together, make sure your paracord is secured tightly and keep it short. Avoid letting rope dangle in the water, as it can snag on jutting rocks, trees and branches.


On longer floats and depending on the time you float, you might want to pack some healthy snacks or sandwiches—especially if you will be drinking alcohol. Salty snacks will further dehydrate you, so eat whole wheat crackers, popcorn, fruit, baked tortilla chips or chicken sandwiches—avoiding deli meats, as they are usually high in sodium.


Sip from a cool bottle of water regularly to prevent dehydration, heatstroke and heat cramps. If you will be partaking in cold frosty libations, alternate between an alcoholic drink and water.

Be Weather Aware

Check the weather before heading out. If there is a thunderstorm chance, don’t risk it. Wait it out at camp, the condo or cabin. A storm may spring up unexpectedly while on your float. In this case, if you see lighting, get out of the river and wait for the storm to pass. It is safe to return to the water 30 minutes after you hear the last clap of thunder.

Share Your Float Plan

Let someone know what outfitter you chose, what time you left and when to expect your float to be finished.

Other tips for floating the river:

  • Don’t wear or take anything you couldn’t stand to lose.
  • Styrofoam coolers are cheap but also an environmental disaster. Take a durable cooler with latching lid.
  • Floating straps will secure your glasses and keep them afloat in case they fall off.
  • Don’t be a litterbug. Bring a mesh trash bag with a drawstring opening. Bring everything out you brought in.
  • In case of emergencies, you will want to be able to reach medical care. Take at least one fully charged cell phone in a waterproof cell phone pouch. The best place to keep your cell phone is around your neck.
  • Most tube outfitters require you to leave your keys, but in case you’re independently floating, bring a securely latching dry box or bag to keep your keys, ID, towels, wallets and other items you take with you.

As I heard a police officer say to a fellow floater on the Comal, “don’t let this ruin your good time.” Follow the rules, be safe and always practice water safety!

Will be you floating your local rivers this summer? What advice would you give a first-time floater? Leave your tips and suggestions in the comment section.