Nothing says summer in Texas like a float trip.
A Day on the River
For those who’ve never been (or, gasp, those who may have never even heard the term “floating”), a day spent lazily floating in an inner tube down a Texas river is some of the most fun you could ever hope to have. Floating (or “tubing"; the terms are interchangeable) generally takes anywhere from one to several hours, depending on which river you’re on, which outfitter you book with (although you can also opt to go it alone), and how many stops you make along the way. No, you don’t need a paddle, a helmet, or any other gear (Colorado, this ain’t); depending on the river, you may experience some rapids and deep areas where you can’t touch the bottom, but you shouldn’t need anything to navigate or paddle with.
Basically, your day on the river looks like this: You’ll put all your snacks and drinks in a cooler, tie the cooler to one person’s tube, and then hop in and leisurely float to your destination. And, the best part is, given the abundance of floatable rivers in Texas, you can really customize your experience—do you want to party like it’s Mardi Gras? Sink into a state of utter relaxation, becoming one with the water and the sky? See some of the best natural scenery that Texas has to offer? Whatever you’re craving, there’s a river for it; see below for details.
Where to Go
The Lone Star State is blessed with some incredibly scenic rivers, no two of which are the same. We’re narrowing it down to the top five rivers here (with honorable mentions down below), but this is by no means an exhaustive list.
- Frio River. Emerald-green moss and giant cypress trees thronging the riverbank, sun-bleached limestone cliffs, glassy, crystal-clear waters...the Frio scenery is just plain gorgeous. Accessible lodging and tubing can be found at Garner State Park, or in the close-by towns of Leaky and Concan. (Recommended outfitters include Tube Texas and Josh’s Frio River Outfitter.)
- Nueces River. The Nueces is easily Texas’s prettiest river, and it’s also one of its most remote/least well-known. You’ll be blown away by the water quality here—the startlingly clear, blue-green is Caribbean-like in color. The Nueces is rather isolated—flowing from Real County, in southwest Texas, to the Gulf—which is all part of the fun, of course. (You’ll find tubing outfitters in the nearby town of Camp Wood.)
- San Marcos River. The spring-fed San Marcos has a (well-earned) reputation for being the party river of Texas, with its location that runs right through Texas State University. A day on the San Marcos is like a night out on Bourbon Street, and you will end up shotgunning Lone Stars at some point. You’ve been warned. (The city park behind Strahan Baseball Stadium is the best entry point, outfitter options include Tube Texas, Texas State Tubes, and Tubes San Marcos.)
- Guadalupe River. Like the San Marcos River, the Guadalupe (or the Guad, for those in the know) is always crammed with beer-guzzling, Texas flag-waving revelers blasting Kid Rock from a giant speaker. It’s popular for a reason: The stately bald cypress trees and flowing green waters are a sight to behold. You can opt for a two-hour, four-hour, or six-hour float, and cabins and campsites can be found all through Central Texas, in San Marcos, New Braunfels, Gruene, and other towns. (Outfitter options include Tube Texas, Tube Haus, Andy’s River Toobs.)
- Medina River. While the Guadalupe and San Marcos are always packed with people, the lovely Medina is usually much more peaceful—it’s definitely more of a meditative experience than a party zone. (Check out the Medina River Company, in Bandera, for tube/shuttle services.)
Honorable Mentions: South Llano River, Comal River, Colorado River, Trinity River, Brazos River
When to Go
Tube season in Texas typically stretches from late March/April to September, with the busiest months being June, July, and August. If you want to avoid crowds, your best bet is to go in March, April, or September, depending on the weather.
What to Bring
If you’re not adequately prepared, your day on the river can go from fun to not-so-fun, fast. First off, you’ll need two tubes: one for your body, and one for your cooler. Other than via outfitters, you can find tubes at Wal-Mart, CVS, Walgreens, Target, or any other similar box store.
Aside from tubes, the most important thing to bring is sun protection. If you forget your sunscreen/sun hat/sun shirt at home, then you may as well cancel your trip—that white-hot Texas sun is no joke, especially in July and August (and especially if you’ll be out all day). And, actually remembering to reapply sunscreen is everything.
Proper sun protection aside, other key ingredients for a good time on the river include a cooler packed with ice, plenty of water (aside from the other drinks of your choice), snacks, and a trash bag—don’t be the super-gross person who pollutes the river with your beer cans and plastic wrappers. And if you’re planning on bringing your phone, a (very) waterproof case is a must. Oh, and keep in mind that glass and Styrofoam aren’t allowed, no matter where you go; instead, bring cans, or, you know, pour your chilled rose into a stainless steel thermos. Whatever floats your boat.
Where to Book
There are multiple outfitting companies available at the most popular tubing rivers in Texas. Most will shuttle you up the river and pick you back up when you’re done floating; some will take you back to your car, while others will take you back to the outfitter parking lot. Depending on the river/route you’re doing, it’s also possible to just show up with your own tubes and float to your campsite or cabin, or back to your car. For a full list of reputable tubing outfitters, see here.
Tips for First-Timers
- Don’t bring anything on the river that you would be devastated to lose—this goes for everything from expensive Ray-Bans to your cherished childhood baseball cap to your phone.
- And on that note: Don’t bring anything on the river that you wouldn’t want to get wet.
- Wear open-toed shoes with a back, like Chacos or Tevas—not flip-flops.
- Did we mention sun protection? When you’re on the river, you should apply sunscreen, and then reapply, and then keep reapplying, all day long. There’s nothing like a lobster-red sunburn to ruin a perfectly good float trip.