River canyons suitable for rafting trips are generally steep sided and thus, the places to camp within them are very limited. This is not a new situation. These campsites we use today are often the very same places that mankind has been camping for thousands of years. If it’s a good site now, it was a good site then. The most attractive sites get heavily used throughout the rafting season. So, ironically, these rare and ancient places tend to get pounded. We therefore have a double incentive to preserve them. 'Leave No Trace' camping is the rule on river rafting trips. I find it ironic that, while backpackers carry far, far less gear, modern whitewater rafting, when done right, has a much lower per-person impact on the land! Below are some guidelines on river camping practices.
When possible, pitch your kitchen and tents on sand below the high water line, rather than further compacting earth and crushing vegetation up above. Sure, it’s obvious it's a campsite from the bare and compacted ground, but try not to make it worse. Keep to the traditional area of high wear. If you pitch your tent above the waterline, use the obvious tent spots; don't expand the area of compaction damage through your actions.
Fire rings, meaning fires set directly on the ground, are strictly prohibited on the permit-controlled western rivers. Instead, whitewater rafting groups are required to use fire pans which contain the fire and ashes, or use no fires at all. Also, elevate your fire pan to avoid scorching the earth. Actually, a small fire elevated off the ground is a pleasant and warming fire.
Campfire ashes should be packed out, just like the rest of your garbage and recyclables. Ash containers are also required equipment on many rivers.
It's a great practice to spread a fire-proof blanket beneath the fire pan to catch the embers that fly out of the fire. This prevents sparks from starting fires, but the more common value is in not discoloring the sand, gravel, or earth in the area. Thankfully, this is becoming a much more common practice as people become aware of it. In the morning, drain the contents of the blanket into your ash container. The result is that beaches and campsites stay clean and picturesque.
Absolutely everything that came into the river corridor with you should go out with you except your urine and waste water. It’s a good practice to hang separate trash bags around the kitchen area to keep burnable, non-burnable, and recyclables apart. This makes managing and disposing of your garbage load much easier.
Its almost unavoidable that little bits of food and scraps of packaging or paper get dropped on the ground. Do your part to pick these up and hopefully someone will pick up the stuff you mistakenly drop. Cargo pants were made for micro-trash! I stuff anything I find in an outside pocket of my river pants and toss the contents of that pocket in the fire (or dispose of as appropriate) later. I like knowing that I left the river corridor cleaner than it was before I came through.
Many rafting parties use tarps under the food preparation area to catch scraps and debris (the aforementioned 'micro-trash'). Doing so tends to keep the campsite cleaner so that it attracts fewer animals and insects. While this is not a strict requirement on most rivers, this is a great habit to get into.
There's not much to say about river toilet systems, affectionately referred to as ‘groovers’. Be sure to use one and be sure to look for the 'traditional' spot to set it up. Each and every recognized river campsite has such a spot. Don't make a new one.
Using a hand washing station on a rafting trip is just common sense from a sanitation and health standpoint. An important point is that you should use a catch-bucket for the soapy water and dispose of it according to the local rules. Some parties set up two, one near the groover trail and the other near the kitchen.
Be sure to strain all waste water before disposing of it. One neat trick is to bring women’s panty-hose for this purpose. Get the big sizes! First, cut a pair apart to separate the two legs. Then tie a tight overhand knot about 6-8 inches down from the top of one leg, and snip the rest of the leg off just below the knot. Then spread the open end above the knot out and pour the waste water into the panty-hose, over your catch bucket. Not only is the panty hose a good filter, but you can then toss that section of panty-hose into the regular garbage. Repeat your way down toward the toe whenever you need a fresh filter. This is a better approach than packing around a perpetually dirty metal strainer.
Regulatory agencies differ in their requirements for disposal of waste water. Some require that you cast it above the high-water line, while others want to see it cast into the river. In alpine river canyons the rule is usually to cast the waste water across the ground above the high water line. In contrast, desert river canyons cannot tolerate the waste water being cast on land since it rarely rains to flush and disperse contaminates into the soil. So the rule for southwest desert rivers is usually to cast the waste water into the main current and let the river flush it out of the canyon. Know and follow the local rules.
Our rivers are a surprisingly precious resource. Of the fresh water on the planet, only .006 percent is found in rivers and only the tiniest fraction of that flows through terrain suitable for river rafting trips. And we can certainly say about rivers that ‘they aren’t making any more of them’! Even though some whitewater rivers are not officially monitored or regulated, please treat them all the same. Just because the government hasn’t clamped down on protecting a particular river, doesn’t mean it’s not the right thing to do.