Whitewater is seasonal and constantly changing, making it the perfect sport for van life. It doesn’t matter if you carry kayaks on the roof rack or tow a raft, vans are the ideal basecamp for chasing high flows around the country.
With a strategic approach, you can stay on the water, during prime seasons throughout most of the year. Even in the dead of winter, there is usually somewhere to run rapids. Stuff your bulk storage with PFD’s, dry suits and gear and hit the road to start checking rivers off your bucket list.
Spring and Summer Runoff Destinations
Runoff is dependent on snowmelt and the exact timing for high flows varies each year. As a general rule, high flows hit the western states in May and June. Keep an eye on the gauges and give a few of these western destinations consideration when flows spike. You can put together a serious spring break road trip by timing the snowmelt as well.
Lochsa River, Idaho
You can walk across this river during the fall but it’s a raging torrent of continuous whitewater each May. Head up the scenic Highway 12 where cell service is non-existent and the crowd is one of kayakers and rafters running laps and punching big waves. Make sure to stop at Lochsa Falls on the highway to watch the fun between your own runs.
Main Salmon River, Idaho
The Middle Fork meets the Salmon River to officially begin the “Main Salmon” section. The river is runnable during spring, summer and fall and it has a permitted (lottery draw) season during the summer months. Ideally, you will pull a summer permit but the odds of forming a trip ahead of the lottery are better for folks capable of running the early season.
Arkansas River, Colorado
A western favorite is the Arkansas River where strong early season flows create big whitewater on several different stretches. You can run everything from class III-V through scenic canyons. Early summer has big water but this river remains excellent throughout the entire summer. Colorado has a ton of additional river options in the area as well.
American River, California
California is loaded with whitewater trips and the American River is one of the iconic places to visit. Located in Northern California, it has multiple forks and options for beginners and advanced whitewater paddlers. The South Fork has a dam release and a long season that begins in spring and often extends into the fall. The North Fork is remote with 18-miles of rowdy whitewater that is primarily accessible during May and into early June if the flows hold.
Prime Summer Destinations
This list can easily grow into one of a hundred or more rivers. Summer is the time to explore those remote canyons and wild rivers across the entire country. While the earlier months often have bigger flows, the summer means sunshine, shorts and sandy beaches to enjoy in comfort.
Rogue River, Oregon
Rapids and scenery are both spectacular through the Wild and Scenic section of the Rogue River. This multi-day float is permitted during the summer months and also has some shoulder season windows outside the permit season. It’s an incredible river with
Middle Fork Salmon
Another iconic permitted river, the Middle Fork flows through the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness. Although the name sounds a little ominous, you will most likely not want to return after soaking up hot springs and an immersive wilderness setting in a deep canyon.
Penobscot River, Maine
This incredible class IV-V river has steady flows through the entire summer. It’s the perfect day trip river for anyone traveling the East Coast. It runs through a spectacular gorge and is surrounded by Maine’s wild timberlands. The state of Maine has several other great river trips you can include as well.
Yampa River, Colorado
Another permitted river, this one is ideal during Juner when flows are high and stable. It has some great class II-III water with splashy rapids and one bigger class IV that can flip rafts. The scenery and landscape through Dinosaur National Monument is jaw dropping and unforgettable.
Snake River, Wyoming/Idaho
If you want a combination of fishing and whitewater, hit the Snake River system in Wyoming and Idaho. You can launch near Jackson Hole for the scenic upper stretches or fish and row the Henry’s Fork in Idaho. There are a ton of floats, rapids and tributaries to enjoy. Long stretches of class II water make it beginner friendly in many places as well.
Ocoee River, Alabama
The dam release creates predictable flows throughout the entire summer on this fast moving Alabama River. It runs all summer and into September/October and is perfect for paddling or rowing. With 10-miles of class II-IV rapids, plan on making technical maneuvers, punching waves and getting wet in a half day float.
Fall and Winter
While many rivers are winding down their seasons, a few are coming into prime shape. Others also sustain flows because dam releases keep them in business during fall and winter. A large majority of rivers are out of season during fall and winter but several of the most coveted trips are open.
Grand Canyon (Colorado River), Arizona
Permits are issued through a lottery system and are difficult to draw. That said, plenty of permit holders are looking for experienced boaters to join trips throughout the year. Buckle up for a long trip into the heart of Grand Canyon National Park where you will meet some big rapids and incredible views. Rafting the full canyon takes anywhere from a few weeks to a month depending on your permit.
Gauley River, West Virginia
While western rivers are experiencing low flow volumes, the Gauley is ripping. Dam releases peak during September and October, making this the perfect place to push your whitewater limits during the fall.
Green River, Utah
Below Flaming Gorge Dam is the perfect day or multi-day river to explore. The dam release means it has stable flows throughout the entire year and visitors can tackle this one anytime. Winter is cold however so pack accordingly. The “A Section” is 10 miles, making it perfect for a day run. You can also hit the “B Section” and “C Section” to extend your trip.
Outfitting Your Van for Whitewater
A solid roof rack with ladder access is ideal for van life. You can strap kayaks and raft frames to the roof and still have easy access from the ladder. Deflate your raft and tuck it under the bed or consider a trailer to tow inflated rafts down the road.
The last piece of the puzzle involves shuttles for the river. Ambitious whitewater folks will run or bike shuttles when they have reasonable distances. For the longer shuttles, you might need to hire a service. I started carrying a small motorcycle on a hitch mounted rack and it’s a great system.
Do some research and start planning because you can fill an entire year with whitewater trips while enjoying van life. The ability to run hard all day and return to a comfortable bed and kitchen is a game changer for river rats who push hard throughout the seasons. See you on the water!