Best Heavy-Duty River Tubes


Paddling / Wednesday, April 21st, 2021

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Looking for some awesome tubing action along a beautiful river? Before you head out, do you have the right tube for the fun at hand?

When you’re ready to step up your tubing fun, heavy-duty, river tubes are the way to go!

Heavy-duty, river tubes are constructed of denier and reinforced with a raft-quality synthetic polymer for more aggressive river play with the durability to handle encounters with rocks, limbs, and other debris that would sink the hardiest pool tube.

Tubes are designed for different purposes There’s everything from heavy-duty river tubes, fishing float tubes, and snow tubes to the cute pink flamingo, pool tubes.

NRS, AIRE, and STAR are the top 3 brands making raft-quality, heavy-duty, river tubes that can handle everything from a leisurely float to aggressive river play. Each brand manufactures two heavy-duty models. You can’t go wrong with any of these tubes, but my favorite tubes are the AIRE heavy-duty river tubes.

Why AIRE River Tubes? You can lock them up with a cable lock when camping. They do have a significant strike against them. They lack a D-ring which is found on the NRS and STAR tubes. It can be added to the AIRE tubes though.

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What About Tractor Tubes for River Floats?

When I was a kid, tractor inner tubes were all I had for a float down the river. Well, I did grow up working on our family’s blueberry farm. We used what we had. Tractor tire tubes still aren’t bad. But they sure do get hot in the summer sun! And the long valve stims can scrape you up pretty good.

Specially designed river tubes from NRS, AIRE, and STAR are safer and more comfortable than tractor tubes.

If you choose to use a tractor tire tube, don’t use old, patched tubes off the farm like I did as a kid. Get a new tube and add a cover to improve safety and reduce the heat that builds on the black surface.

Bradley sells a tractor tube with a heavy-duty cover. The top of the cover is constructed from an 1100-denier, plastic-coated, canvas and the bottom is made from a 1000-denier polyester, mesh fabric coated in vinyl. The mesh fabric allows water to pass through the center of the tube while still being abrasion-resistant.

The Bradley cover is an improvement but it still doesn’t fully cover the entire tube leaving hot surfaces and there’s still the valve stem to contend with.

The only benefit is that the Bradley River Tube with Heavy-Duty Cover will save you a little money. Specialized, heavy-duty, river float tubes from AIRE, NRS, and STAR offer a clear advantage in comfort and safety.

AIRE Heavy-Duty River Tubes

A collage of green, blue, and red AIRE Rocktabomb Inflatable River Tubes.

AIRE has two heavy-duty river tubes: the Rocktabomb River Tube and the Bubbabomb River Tube. Both of these tubes share the same high-quality, design features and differ in little more than size and load capacity.

Speaking of quality, AIRE river tubes are made with the same technology that goes into their inflatable rafts, kayaks, catarafts, and paddlecats. With that being said, the tubes are designed for leisurely floating, on calm moving water.

AIRE does not rate their river tubes for any particular class of whitewater. It’s more the skill of the captain, not the ship when it comes to running whitewater in a river tube. Experienced river runners do use AIRE river tubes on whitewater, but they are a tube, and will not perform on whitewater like an inflatable kayak or inflatable raft.

AIRE Rocktabomb River Tube

The AIRE Rocktabomb River Tube is a high-quality, float tube with an ergonomic design for keeping river goers comfortable on longer floating trips. The tube has a load capacity of 250lbs, 12″ tubes, and a 20″ interior diameter.

The only real difference between the Rocktabomb and Bubbabomb River Tubes is the size of the tube, weight capacity, and price. If you aren’t going to exceed a 250lb load capacity, you can save around $50 by going with the Rocktabomb float tube.

  • Tough PVC outer shell
  • Urethane inner bladder
  • Double-zipper access seam
  • Thermal-Welded seams
  • Rugged Summit II air valve
  • PVC floor with built-in security O-Ring
  • 2 Sturdy handles
  • 1-year manufacturer warranty against manufacturing and material defects

AIRE Bubbabomb River Tube

The AIRE Bubbabomb River Tube is a high-quality, large-capacity river tube specifically designed for big and tall river goers. This tube is a bulked-up version of the Rocktabomb with a load capacity of 300lbs, 14″ tubes, and a roomy 24″ interior diameter.

With the Bubbabomb River Tube, anyone from a child to a large adult will float in comfort while being cradled by the tube’s trampoline-style, mesh floor. The mesh floor not only improves comfort it protects your rear from being scraped by rocks, limbs, and other debris.

  • AIREcell bladder system
  • Tough PVC outer shell
  • Urethane inner bladder
  • Double-zipper access seam
  • Thermal-Welded seams
  • Rugged Summit II air valve
  • PVC floor with built-in security O-Ring
  • 2 Sturdy handles
  • 1-year manufacturer warranty against manufacturing and material defects

NRS Heavy-Duty River Tubes

NRS has been around since the 1970s and has developed a reputation in the industry for building and selling rugged, reliable equipment built to the standards of the toughest outfitters and guides.

These same high standards have gone into the development of the NRS Big River Float Tubes and the NRS Wild River Float Tubes.

A cool feature of NRS river tubes is the removable cover. It’s not likely that you’ll get a puncture, but if you do, just head on over to the NRS website and order you a new one. It saves a little money over buying a brand new tube.

NRS Wild River Float Tube

The NRS Wild River Float Tube is more than capable of cradling you down a lazy river while you relax. No need to worry about tearing a hole in this highly engineered tube. It’s no pool toy.

The Wild River Float Tube comes in two options, with the mesh floor and without.

It has a total diameter is 45″, an 18″ interior diameter, and 13.5″ tubes.

  • Tough PVC inner bladder
  • Reliable Leafield C7 air valve
  • The tube cover’s bottom material is a super durable, urethane-coated polyester for extra protection
  • The tube cover’s top material is constructed with 840-denier nylon for comfort and durability
  • Reinforced stainless D-ring for attaching gear or connecting tubes
  • Two padded handles for easy transport, re-entry, or stability when the ride gets bumpy
  • Removable cover for repairs or replacement
  • Two available covers, with or without the raised, PVC coated, nylon mesh bottom
  • NRS Rock Solid Guarantee

NRS Big River Float Tube

The NRS Big River Float Tube is a larger version of the Wild River Float Tube.

It has a total diameter is 48″, a 20″ interior diameter, and 14″ tubes.

Although NRS does not weight-test their river tubes, the Big River Float Tube has a greater buoyancy and thus load capacity due to its larger tube size. This in combination with a wider interior makes it suitable for large adults.

  • Tough PVC inner bladder
  • Reliable Leafield C7 air valve
  • The tube cover’s bottom material is a super durable, urethane-coated polyester for extra protection
  • The tube cover’s top material is constructed with 840-denier nylon for comfort and durability
  • Reinforced stainless D-ring for attaching gear or connecting tubes
  • Two padded handles for easy transport, re-entry, or stability when the ride gets bumpy
  • Removable cover for repairs or replacement
  • Raised, PVC coated, nylon mesh floor
  • NRS Rock Solid Guarantee

STAR Heavy-Duty River Tubes

The STAR Makara River Tube and STAR Karma River Tube are comfortable, impeccably designed, and durable tubes built with high-quality materials and components. These tubes are built to last and STAR Inflatables backs that up with a 3-year manufacturer warranty. That’s longer than any of their competitors including their parent company NRS, Inc.!

The big design difference between these two STAR tubes is that there is no outer cover. The tube itself is constructed with durable 44 oz. 1000-denier PVC instead of a reinforced cover over a tube.

STAR Karma River Tube

The STAR Karma River Tube combines a traditional tube with premium materials, quality construction methods, and a superior design.

The STAR Karma river tube is asymmetrical. It has a wider back and a narrower front, seven-sided heptagon shape, and the larger 13.5″ tube at the back diminishes to 11″ on the front. These design features enhance the stability of the tube keeping it upright when waves get bumpy.

  • Constructed with durable 44 oz. 1000-denier PVC with a reinforced, PVC mesh floor.
  • Welded seams
  • Reliable Leafied C7 air valve
  • Ergonomic handles for comfort and security
  • One D-ring
  • An asymmetrical shape features a wider back and a narrower front
  • 3-year retail warranty, 1-year commercial warranty

STAR Makara River Tube

The STAR Makara River Tube improves on the traditional tube design with premium materials and quality construction methods.

It has a total diameter is 44″, a 20″ interior diameter, and 12″ tubes.

  • Constructed with durable 44 oz. 1000-denier PVC with a reinforced, PVC mesh floor.
  • Welded seams
  • Reliable Leafied C7 air valve
  • Ergonomic handles for comfort and security
  • One D-ring
  • 3-year retail warranty, 1-year commercial warranty

Features to Look For in a Heavy-Duty River Tube

Safety, durability, and comfort are top features when picking a heavy-duty river tube.

Tube Size

Size does matter when it comes to river tubes. A larger adult will need a larger tube but a large tube can be a struggle for a smaller adult or child.

Two disadvantages of large river tubes:

  • You may sit too far down in the river tube for comfort.
  • It’s easier for the wind to blow a larger river tube off course.

Durability of River Tubes

If you buy one of the heavy-duty river tubes mentioned in this post, you will be buying one of the most durable river tubes on the market.

Look for a river tube with an outer material made of 800 to 1200-Denier fabric that is coated with a high-gauge or weight synthetic polymer, like PVC or urethane. This will give you the greatest protection against punctures, tears, and abrasion from rocks, limbs, and other debris in the river.

If the tube has a mesh floor, it is best to have a raised floor so your butt won’t drag on the rocks as much. The mesh floor should be reinforced with PVC or other synthetic polymer-coated material.

You don’t want to buy a river tube of questionable quality. It can and will at some point ruin your day on the water. I have seen cheaper river tubes sink leaving the passenger to swim along behind a friend’s tube to the takeout.

I’ll tell on myself… I bought a Bestway Rapid Rider 2 Person Tube for a river float event. I thought it would be a fun tube to relax in with my wife. I tore a hole in the mesh bottom on the first run down the river. It wasn’t worth the money.

If you find it difficult to understand the materials and specs of these or other inflatable boats, check out Understanding Heavy-Duty Inflatable Boat Air Chamber Materials And Specs.

Mesh Bottom

Mesh bottoms provide comfort and help keep you cool on hot days. Make sure the mesh is reinforced with a synthetic polymer-coated material or you will rip a hole in the mesh like I did in the example above.

Air Valves

Your river tube should have a high-quality air valve to ensure years of leak-free service. Leafield and Summit are two of the top valves to look for.

Tubes that have valve stems can cause scrapes and other injuries. I used tractor inner tubes as a kid and I can still picture the long scrapes I got from the valve stems on those things. I’m so glad there are better options today.

Handles

Handles are for safety, comfort, and carrying.

Handles help you keep balance when things get rocky on the water and the two handles on either side are how you pull yourself back onto the tube if you are knocked of or decide to get in the water to cool off.

Tubes can get slick in the water. You need those handles.

D-Rings

Having a D-ring is a great plus. You can clip on accessories and gear or tether your tube to other tubes to make a party barge.

If you buy a river tube that doesn’t have a D-ring like the AIRE river tubes, you can attach things to your handles or add a D-ring patch to your tube. I’d opt for adding the D-ring patch. It’s less likely to get in the way or cause your tube to seem off-balance. BTW AIRE sells patches that will work with their river tubes.

Necessary Accessories for a River Tube Float

Air Pump

Don’t forget that air pump! You won’t be blowing a river tube up with your mouth like a kiddie float. A hand pump will work great and is cheaper than an electric pump.

Personal Flotation Device (PFD)

Always carry a United States Coast Guard (USCG) approved Personal Floatation Device (PFD). PFDs are part of the boating safety basics for paddle boaters and are required by law enforcement on government waters.

Dry Bags

There are no storage compartments. This makes dry bags necessary for keeping your food, accessories, and gear safe and dry.

First-Aid Kit

First-aid kits like the NRS Paddler Medical Kit are always recommended. When you need one, you need one!

I’ve seen people get torn up on the river. Rocks and trash can cause severe lacerations. It’s hard to close a good cut when you are in water and think of the water quality that is getting in that wound. Do you think that drunk guy on the river in front of you is pissing in the water or getting out and finding a spot?

Water Shoes

You never know what you might step on or in when you are on a river. I once stepped in an animal carcass while wading in the water on a kayaking trip. Wear water shoes to avoid cuts, scrapes, or being overly grossed out.

Flip flops are not water shoes. Flip flops offer little protection and fall off way too easily.

Other Stuff

Depending on what type of river float you’re on some of the following items are recommended others are optional.

  • Sunscreen
  • Safety whistle attached to PFD
  • Short paddle
  • Throw bag and/or throwable flotation device
  • Towline
  • Navigational light (in case you’re out after dusk)
  • Headlamp with extra batteries (in case you’re out after dusk)
  • Maps, permits, fishing license, or other paperwork (keep in a dry bag or waterproof container)
  • Phone in a waterproof case
  • Compass that floats
  • GPS
  • Weather radio
  • Emergency flares or strobe
  • River knife
  • Extra clothes for a change of clothing
  • Repair kit
  • Sunglasses with eyewear retainer
  • Hat to block the sun
  • Food
  • Water
  • Matches or other firestarters
  • Cash and possibly a credit card

Conclusion

If you’re going river tubing in a location that has rocks, risk of downed limbs, or other debris that could puncture a tube, a heavy-duty river tube is the smart way to go.

Low-end tubes are not made of reinforced synthetic polymer-coated materials and will fail you sooner than later. They aren’t a safe choice for a river float.

I personally like the AIRE river tubes the best. The AIREcell bladder system makes it virtually impervious to puncture and protects the tube from overinflation. And they have a PVC floor with a built-in security O-Ring so you can lock up the tube at a campsite.

The only negative about AIRE river tubes is their lack of a D-ring, but as I covered in the post, the D-ring can be added. When my two girls are old enough to go tubing, I want to be able to tether their tubes to mine and my wife’s.

I like the AIRE Bubbabomb River Tube for me, I’m taller, and I like the Rocktabomb River Tube for my wife and kids.

Stay safe on the river!

P.S. The Boating Safety Basics For Paddle Boaters will cover many of the safety basics that you need to know when tubing on a river.

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