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I had motorcycled through the Great Smoky Mountains years before actually moving to the area. When I first saw the river tubing signs for Smoky Mountain River Rat years ago, I knew one day I would find myself floating down that river — I just wasn’t sure when exactly.
Well, fast forward a few years later… our family recently enjoyed our summer staycation in Townsend, TN and we finally made it a priority to take the time to float down the Little River with River Rat Tubing!
I’m happy to share my experience tubing down the river with my family of 3 adults, 2 college kids, 2 teenagers, 1 5-yr-old and 2 toddlers under 3.
I’m going to share with you what I discovered. I hope my tips will make your first experience with River Rat Tubing in Tennessee a great one — especially if you’re floating with small children!
Season Passes At River Rat Tubing
I have to tell you… it was such a fun and incredible experience that I actually upgraded my husband and I to a season pass (for another $30 each) just before leaving!
The season pass includes a whitewater rafting trip and 15% discount that can be used at these places:
Since River Rat in Townsend TN is only 45 minutes from my house, I felt confident that we would get our full value out of the season pass.
River tubing is a fun activity for us to do together, and it forces us to relax from our busy lives.
Floating down an actual river is such a relaxing way to cool down and get out in nature when it’s hot and sticky here in the the Smoky Mountains.
Plus, it’s fun to start daydreaming about owning one of the beautiful homes situated riverside — with all of their fun outdoor spaces that you can see along the river’s edge.
Before You Go Tubing With River Rat Tubing…
Here are some highlights and a few tips that I’ve learned firsthand from my times tubing with River Rat in Townsend, TN. Before you go tubing for the first time with River Rat, it’s helpful to know these things:
#1 – You can get snacks and refreshments after you’re done tubing at Toobers Cafe — which is located on site.
However, be prepared to pay tourist prices and wait quite awhile for food if they’re busy (like on weekends and holidays).
TIP: I’ve found that it’s best to pack your own cooler of snacks and refreshments that you can get out of your car after your float. They also provide a shaded communal area with picnic tables, and I saw several families with their own coolers there.
#2 – Make sure everyone in your party is well fed and hydrated before heading downstream.
The family-friendly outpost (Outpost A) is an approximate 2-hour float ride down the river.
TIP: Other than a refillable water bottle, no beverages are permitted while floating on the river. This is actually a great thing… because I didn’t see as much litter like you usually see when there is a lot of general public using a communal space.
#3 – River Rat Tubing has life jackets of every size.
If it would make you feel more comfortable to have a life jacket, then grab one — especially if you’re not confident about your swimming skills.
But more importantly, they also have life jackets in small sizes for children. A life jacket is required for all children under 12.
TIP: You can bring your own life jacket(s), if you wish.
#4 – They offer tethers for a $2 refundable deposit.
Tethers can be used to link tubes together while you’re floating on the water!
It is required that any child under 5 be tethered on a closed bottom tube to a responsible tuber.
TIP: For adults, they have both open and closed bottom tubes (tubes with and without bottoms) — so you can choose your personal preference for yourself. And if you have your own tube that you prefer to use, you can pay $8 for the all-day shuttle service that will get you back to your car and the River Rat facility.
#5 – River Rat Tubing prices start at $17 for adults and $12 for children ages 6 to 12. Children between the ages of 2 and 5 are FREE!
The cost includes unlimited shuttle rides and all-day river tubing.
TIP: You can save $2 per ticket if you book online or arrive at the River Rat outpost before 11AM.
#6 – With River Rat Tubing in Tennessee, you have 2 awesome routes to choose from.
There are 2 River Rat outposts:
- Outpost A is the lower section of the river and is the one we did for “family-friendly floating.” If you have any children between the ages of 2 to 6 or if this is your first time floating down a river, then you will want to stick to this route. This stretch of the river has relaxing scenic views, minor rapids, and a rock jump. The rock jump (“provided for River Rat guests only”) was a fun activity for my husband and the older kids in our group. It’s so shallow you can see the bottom — so you’ll want to cannonball if you decide to jump to avoid hitting the bottom. The small rapids were my 2-year-old son’s favorite — because he likes to crash into the rocks and other tubes! It was also a highlight for me — because you can build up some momentum and get a rush from not knowing where you will end up. (I suggest lifting your butt up in the fast-moving sections — to avoid colliding your butt with a rock. I’m speaking from experience here… I got a pretty good charlie horse and nasty bruise from one.) You will also want to remain on alert if tubing with small children in the faster sections — because tubes can be unpredictable if they hit a rock just right.
- Outpost B is considered the upper section of the river and is what they call the “adventure float.” This part of the river includes scenic views, swimming holes, and faster rapids. You must be 6 years of age or older to float on this section of the river.
TIP: There are sections of the river where you feel like you’re not moving at all. I would recommend buying a push stick that the store sells for $6. I got one for my second trip and it helped immensely! The push stick gives you a little more control, in terms of the direction you travel.
#7 – River Rat Tubing hours vary a little bit, depending on which outpost (type of float trip) you select.
- Outpost A (the “family-friendly float” outpost) is open 7 days a week from 10AM until 5PM, May through September. Their exact opening and closing dates vary, depending on water level and temperature. It’s best to give them a call beforehand if you plan to travel there during the off-season — which is early May (before Memorial Day) and mid-September (after Labor Day) — because they have shorter hours, in addition to sporadic days of operation.
- River Rat Outpost B (the “adventure float” outpost) officially opens on Memorial Day and officially closes on Labor Day.
TIP: The busiest times on the river are during their peak season — from Memorial Day to Labor Day.
#8 – River Rat Tubing trips start from 2 different locations:
- Outpost A is located at 205 Wears Valley Road in Townsend TN. It’s really hard to miss with all of their massive billboards telling you to “turn at the light” and “watch for the yellow tubes”.
- Outpost B is located 8435 State Highway 73 in Townsend TN. Just remember that this location doesn’t open until Memorial Day weekend.
TIP: River Rat Whitewater trips start from a separate outpost located in Hartford, Tennessee.
#9 – River Rat has clean restrooms and changing rooms.
This is great if you need to use their facilities before or after your float trip.
Plus, their facilities are handy for anyone who made last-minute plans to spend the day on the river!
TIP: I believe they have locker rentals too.
#10 – The River Rat store sells items that tourists would enjoy — either as souvenirs or for last-minute necessities.
They sell items such as:
- Around-the-neck waterproof pouches
- Floating key chains
- Refillable water bottles
- Dry bags
…to name just a few.
TIP: If you haven’t purchased a dry bag before your arrival at River Rat Tubing, I highly recommend getting one from the gift shop!
#11 – The staff (and the entire operation) at River Rat is top notch!
There are a few other outfitters in Townsend TN that provide river tubing services as well — such as River Rage Tubing (green tubes), Cowboy Tubing (orange tubes), and Smoky Mountain Outdoor Center (red tubes). So why did we choose River Rat?
I think we chose River Rat Tubing (yellow tubes) simply because of their marketing efforts. They were the first one that came to mind when we were choosing a place to go tubing in Tennessee!
At first glance, it appears they have the most efficient service as well. Smoky Mountain River Rat’s operation is no joke — you can tell they’ve been in operation since 1995 and they know what they’re doing.
They’re family-owned, all of their staff is super professional and friendly, and their equipment is top notch. Everything from start to finish is a finely tuned performance.
Plus, when you have a large group with a wide variety of interests, it gets hard to please everyone. Smoky Mountain River Rat can accommodate a big group because they offer a wide variety of outdoor activities besides tubing — such as whitewater rafting, kayaking, and zip lining.
Here’s one example of how River Rat is different from the other outfitters…
We went to Townsend TN to enjoy some tubing on July 4th weekend. River Rat Tubing was packed… there as a line around the building waiting for tubes. We decided to try a different outfitter, to see if we could get on the water faster. Cowboy Tubing across the street didn’t have any tubes — which is why they didn’t have a line. River Rage up the street only allows ages 3 and up — since they float down the more rapid part of the river. And the other outfitter next to River Rage didn’t allow anyone under 5 — since they also tube down the more adventurous part of the river. We ended up going back to River Rat, and we waited in line. We could tell that the entire team was hustling to get the line moving as fast as possible. You could see, shuttle after shuttle, they were quickly returning tubes… and people. We waited for about 45 minutes, but then we were able to enjoy the rest of the afternoon on the water. River Rat clearly has the most tubes and the most shuttles to handle large crowds on busy days. Plus, they are the one family-friendly operation you can count on if you have kids just over 2. The shuttle bus driver asked how long our wait was on the way back to our car, and he apologized for the long wait. But we could clearly see the traffic in town was a major factor in their delays. It was just busy everywhere on that holiday weekend. In my opinion, River Rat beats out all the other tubing outfits with their customer service.
Our family had a memorable experience with River Rat Tubing as a group — and I’ve had a great time on several other River Rat trips with friends, my son, and/or my dog. (I’m so glad we bought season passes!)
TIP: Dogs under 70 lbs. are allowed with River Rat Tubing — as long as they’re on a leash. They also provide dog tubes and shuttle service for your furry friend.
Here’s my video floating with dogs and a few more tips for your first float with River Rat Tubing:
#12 – There’s an RV campground right next to River Rat called Big Meadow Family Campground.
I think it would be neat to spend a few days camping at Big Meadow Family Campground on a lot overlooking the Little River with our toy hauler.
TIP: There are also several other RV campgrounds along the Little River to choose from, should you decide to stay in Townsend, TN — but Big Meadow would be within walking distance of the tubing.
Before You Go River Tubing For The First Time… Anywhere
Continuing with my long list of tubing tips, here are few additional things that I thought of while floating downstream. Before you go river tubing with any outfitter, keep these things in mind:
#13 – Minimalist packing is key.
- Water shoes (a must because the river bottom is full of river rock!)
- Bikini swimsuit
- Swim dress
- Waterproof dry bag (to hold everything I want access to on the tube)
- Refillable water bottle
I keep each item (my phone, car keys, a few diaper wipes, and 1 extra swim diaper) in a separate zip-top plastic bag to keep them extra protected and make them easy to find inside the waterproof dry bag.
Leave your towel, change of clothes, and anything else that is not absolutely necessary locked in the car. And… if you apply your sunscreen at the car, you’ll have one less thing to pack!
TIP: On my first river tubing trip, I wished that I had the around-neck waterproof bag — so I’d have easier access to my phone. I missed so many photo ops. So I ordered this one. (I packed my GoPro, but I forgot the float strap at home — so it became a hassle to open and close my dry bag while managing my 2-year-old who sat on me most of the trip. GoPro is the safest choice when it comes to waterproof gadgets.)
#14 – Use a refillable water bottle that has a loop on it.
That way, you can tether it to your tube and let it float in the water (to keep it slightly cooler, because the water is cold).
TIP: Putting some ice in your water bottle at the start of the tubing trip would also be helpful.
The Bottom Line…
East Tennessee is hot, and when you’re looking for a way to cool down with your family and friends, floating down the river is where it’s at!
For me, the River Rat Tubing season pass was a no brainer — because it’s the most convenient way to get on the water without the commitment, logistics, or work of a canoe or kayak.
I’ve been tubing with River Rat several times now, and I’ve always had an absolute grand time.
I cannot put a price tag on watching my son’s face light up when he sees a fish in the water, goats on the river bank, and the other ducks and geese.
I can’t wait to try the “adventure float” — which I’ve been told only takes about 1 hour. I’m already planning my next tubing trip with River Rat, and I’ve been telling my girlfriends who haven’t tried it yet all about it.
I’ve tried to include everything I think could be helpful when planning your first trip with River Rat Tubing. I hope you’ve found this article useful in planning your float down the Little River in East Tennessee.
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Until my son was born a few years ago, I was a diehard motorcycle enthusiast who traveled the globe. As a Marketing Specialist and Brand Ambassador for Harley-Davidson for over a decade, I lived and worked all over North America. Now, grounded as a first-time mom, I share my love for outdoor adventure with my son and extended family in the Smoky Mountains… and beyond. I hope you find my travel tips and recommendations helpful!