How to start packrafting

DSC01789  Many thanks to those who in the last 48 hours have pushed the Car Camping sticker into competition with the Home sticker.  The later is still leading, but not by much.  Today is the last day where a sticker purchase will come with an entry into the pack raffle, so there’s that.

The first and last “how to” for any outdoor pursuit is to go fuckin’ do it. But there are subtleties to approaching anything, which mostly have to do with identifying exactly what you want to accomplish, and what holes in your skillset and closet need to filled.

The following is geared toward someone with no packrafting experience, little if any swiftwater paddling experience, but a decent body of backpacking knowledge, who wants to acquire the gear and skills to be able to do backcountry packrafting trips where swiftwater skills are a means to an end.  The South Fork of the Flathead, the Escalante, eventually any number of things in Alaska; these are why packrafting exists, for me.  Folks whose primary aspiration is sidecountry runs like the Grand Canyon should look to a different learning process.
R0011858Can you get into your boat and keep your feet dry?  It’s a good skill to have, especially on trips sans drysuit.

Step 1: Get a packraft

There is no way to learn without doing, therefore there is no substitute for having a boat, paddle, and PFD.  The many rental companies make testing out a packraft convenient, but a few days’ rental cost is not inconsiderable, and I think most people would be better served by just buying a Werner Shuna, PFD (either MTI Vibe or Astral V8), and an Alpacka.

Other boats will be tempting, especially in the near future when Kokopelli rafts will be available for use with REI coupons, but I’d strongly encourage everyone to just get the real deal.  Kokopelli is at present an inferior product when it comes to both materials and design.  The current Kokopelli rafts are less well balanced and slower than the 2015 Alpacka boats, so I can only imagine how both 2017 models stack up.

Almost everyone will be best served by the flagship Alpacka series, in the size Alpacka recommends for your height.  There is no longer any need to bump up for added stability or cargo capacity.  A cruiser deck is a good way to hedge your bets, a whitewater deck is mandatory for anyone who will spend a lot of time boating in cold water, and a self-bailer is good for really warm water.

I’ve been impressed at almost every turn with the utility of the cargo fly.  It doesn’t add much weight, but does add cost and especially bulk.  In each of the boats I have with a zip a pinhole leak has sprung, fairly early in the boats life, where the zipper is welded into the boat fabric.  This spring I’ve run almost 50/50 on times I’ve packed up on a desert river and had a single sand grain get into the teeth and cause a tiny leak.  This is simple, if annoying, to fix.  Pissing on the zipper to clean it before you unzip after a day floating has proven effective.  All last year, in the clean waters of Montana, I had no zipper issues.  Follow the zipper lube directions and use common sense and things should work out.

Having experienced the weight and bulk savings in my Curiyak, I’d be very tempted to buy a boat in 200D vectran if the cost was not prohibitive.  Vectran, with it’s total lack of stretch, is a different critter than the standard tube fabric.  It feels floppy when it is at all underinflated, and more rigid when your boat is well tempered.  I would believe it if someone told me that makes a boat a little faster in the water.

IMG_3247Bikerafting transition shitshow, guaranteed to be a timesuck the first few times.

Step 2: practice

Being an aspiring backcountry packrafter in a place like Iowa is not as bad a gig as it might at first seem.  Efficiency packrafting has everything to do with intimate familiarity with logistics; how you inflate and rig your boat with a 5 day backpacking kit versus a 2 day mountain biking kit, how you deflate, dry and pack back up in different scenarios, how you eat and drink and dress for a given floating situation, how you pick a good spot to put in or take out on a given body of water.  I’ve seen otherwise polished and proficient backpackers piss a couple hours away on a few boat-hike transitions because they didn’t practice beforehand, and didn’t properly consider how to adapt that practice to the situation at hand.

Everyone will screw up, but you want to minimize the number of times you (for example) have to pull over and big another layer out of your cargo fly because you didn’t pay attention to the storm rolling in (not that I’ve done that).  Dinky local trips on mellow terrain, with plenty of time for futzing, is the way to sort out the kinks.  With time you’ll sort out everything from how you like to pack your boat to a good clothing system.  Frequent trips are also a good way to build paddling fitness, which rolls appropriately into step 3…

IMG_3252Thrashed from a freezing day on the river.  Equipment adjustments are needed for the paddling and non-paddling parts of packrafting.

Step 3: build a paddling body and mind

As Will Gadd wrote a number of years ago, “Being unfit in a kayak on a difficult river is dangerous.”  For the purposes of the backcountry packrafter, “difficult” does not just mean class III or IV, and “unfit” doesn’t just refer to your lats and triceps.  Lots of the packrafting I’ve done has been on creeks or small rivers where the only floatable levels are darn close to flood.  This means that speeds are high, rocks are barely covered, and eddies small and tucked up in the willows.  Unlike while walking or biking or even skiing, while paddling you can’t just slam on the brakes.  A certain level of physical ability, and more significantly the wherewithal to use almost all of it when necessary, is vital.  So too is enough judgment and humility to get out and carry your boat when circumstances dictate.

Someone with a decent background trad climbing background, and not just on the plug and play sportrad cracks of the west, has a good framework for the mental side of paddling.  Someone whose only outdoor experience is based around hiking and backpacking might have a long and difficult road before they’re ready to be reliably safe paddling in the backcountry.

For those people who will need more support and mental development, skilled partners and classes and invaluable.  The APA Packraft Roundup, and the swiftwater rescue classes taught in association with it, are highly recommended.  We will be there this July.

R0013186San Juan River campsite with the 9 month old Little Bear.

Step 4: turn your imagination loose

Packrafts are incredible tools, easily the most versatile and creativity-encouraging piece of gear I’ve ever owned.  Big wilderness is their origin and bread and butter, but their portability and capability makes them at home almost anywhere.  Most gear just does a routine thing better, packrafts open doors you did not previously know existed.



11 responses to “How to start packrafting”

  1. I am not in the US so the giveaways does not matter to me, but I’ll be damned if I am not going to get some of M’ stickers to make things fair. She is not going to lose to you and your (obedient) henchmen.

  2. took me a while to get sorted but I ordered 20 last night. Eat your heart out Dave!

    1. Lol.

      Much appreciated.

  3. This pretty much nails my experience. Iowa helped my logistics; general fitness is adequate; lack of climbing or comparable background leaves a lot of mental catching up yet to do.

  4. On our Escalante trip last month, it was Ali’s first time ever paddling a river. Within 5 days, she went from being scared of the smallest waves to flying through the tricky, boulder filled rapid sections with ease. I was very impressed.
    I feel comfortable somewhere between class 2 and 3 rapids but I haven’t received much instruction on technique so I am always wondering if my movements and strokes are the best way to do it.
    I was at the roundup last summer and I think that the roundup is an ideal place to start learning. You can pick a trip in your skill level and be guided by experience packrafters. I did Mark Oate’s trip and he took an educational approach to the trip. Another person said that Luc Mel really helped with out with learning techniques.

  5. what are your thoughts on self bailers? Most of my creeks will probably be in coastal CA and fairly warm.

    1. Not a ton of personal experience outside IKs. They make all the sense in the world for warm water. The Kokopelli I briefly paddled this spring didn’t seem to have a thick enough floor to actually drain consistently which is a big problem.

  6. Siegfried Forster Avatar
    Siegfried Forster

    Beginner here so I bought a Scout to start with. I’ll keep this as a boat for day hikes etc but looking to upgrade to something a little bigger and with the cargo zip option to carry stuff for multi day trips. What do you think of the yak vs the gnarwahl. I relalize gnarwhal is going to be heavier but thinking it might be a better choice when I’ll be doing carry stuff and doing more water travel than hiking. Kind of ruled out the apacakalyose as it’s even heavier and I really don’t plan to do serious whitewater.

    1. Hard to think of a downside to the Gnarwhal.

  7. […] accessibility, with backcountry a secondary consideration.  The following is an expansion of this post from 3 years […]

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