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Tubing is a blast, but you must be well prepared. There is a rental station from which you can rent tubes for people and your cooler. If you're renting from the Salt River Tubing company, you can park for free and ride the free shuttle bus up and down the river all day!
For a cheaper alternative, you can take two truck and buy your own tubes. You can buy tubes at the convenience stores around Mesa. Walgreen's seems to be the cheapest. There are two Walgreen's. One on Power and McKellips and the last one on Power and Thomas. These three places are in about a 3 mile strip. However, if you buy your tubes and don't have a second driver, the bus shuttle from the end of the river back to the main parking lot is almost as expensive as the tube rental.
Bringing a cooler is a must! Water is one of the most important drinks in AZ. Don't forget the tube for the cooler as well. You can typically buy tubes with bottoms (more secure for coolers) at Walgreens for the same price as the rental.
Plan 3-6 hours for a trip.
If you buy your own tubes, take two trucks/vehicles. First you park one at the bottom of the river and then take the other truck with all the tubes in it to the top. There are different exiting points. Be sure you know which one you are at. The exits will determine the time you are there. If you're doing this on your own and parking along the river, make sure you get a Tonto pass for all vehicles. The forest service will ticket you otherwise! These can be picked up at the various gas stations and stores on the way to the river.
These items will make your trip easier:
1. ROPE (they recommend you don't tie yourselves together but as long as you don't exceed 4-5 tubes in a cluster its fine)
2. some old bottom sheets you no longer care about (to wrap around your tire so it doesn't get rediculously hot)
3. a cooler
5. old tennis shoes you no longer care about
6. a bag (or 2)
7. towels (leave in the the truck at the bottom)
When you are actually ready to go in the river bring all the tubes down and arrange them in the water around your cooler. Then take the rope and tie the tubes together (the best way is to loop each tube to the cooler and the tube next to it), then put your old sheet over your tube. To get in the river, everyone except the two strongest people out of the group get in their tubes and then the other two push every one out towards the current. Then they can get in.
There are many different areas of the River some travel faster and some areas can come to a stand still. Try your hardest to stay in the dead center of the river. Some currents will in fact pull you towards trees. Also be aware of large rocks sticking up if the current is low. Remember to never swim away from the current but with it.
The bag is for everyone to put there shoes in and tie to the tubes. You want to be sure to have shoes when you walk, because despite all the advertising against it, some people break the laws and bring glass bottles. In many areas and at the bottom of the river there is glass.
DO NOT BRING ANY ELECTRICAL DEVICES THAT ARE NOT WATER PROOF. Pretty much every item you bring will get soaked, unless it happens to be in the cooler and everyone is careful. A heavy duty ziplock bag taped to the inside of a cooler works for the set of car keys that you have to bring.
The river is one of the best past times because while your there you have no contact with the rest of the world and your just kicking it with some friends. You can meet many many people there and if you pick certain times the river has themes... like Mardi Gras.
If you are looking for a more family oriented float, the best times to go are before 11am. Also Sundays are a great too. Make it a Sunday floating picnic!! :)
Last but not least, please don't litter. That riparian area puts up with a lot of abuse with the tubers coming through and it is really depressing how many people feel its okay despite the hundreds of trashcans volunteers have placed along the banks. Sure, it is hillarious to hit someone with a soaking wet marshmallow but its also the reason the river water is a gross sugar-beer sludge by mid-afternoon everyday.