A number of years ago I removed the Contact button from the front page here, and hid my email link in the Fine Print. This has been effective, cutting out the overwhelming majority of the knucklehead emails (“Can you plan my whole Glacier backpack for me?”) which used to be almost daily, while not impacting the other emails (“We just did _____ like you wrote about last year and it was amazing.”) which are one of the absolute highlights of maintaining this website. As my focus and content here have evolved, a few questions have become more and more frequent. They are without exception good questions, which is to say they are nuanced and not subject to an easy or quick answer. Hence this new series, which will seek to answer these in nonreductive, long form.
The most frequent of these, by far, is some variation of “my partner and I just found out we’re pregnant, and are wondering how/if we can take our kid packrafting the summer after this coming summer.” A less frequent but still common variation is, “My kid is 3 and backpacking/hiking is complex/tough. I’ve never packrafted before and am wondering if it would be a good and reliable and easier way to get our family out into the woods more often.”
My answer to this second question is always: yes. Absolutely. Do it as soon as circumstances allow.
Elaborating why overlaps, to an overwhelming extent, with why packrafting is such a good activity for so many people and so many families. Or put another way, why a packraft is the right boat choice for so many people and so many families, even if you may not end up backpacking your boat often, or at all. The answer is portability and ease, ease of both deployment and transport, as well as of paddling. Packrafts are the ideal beginner craft in moving water, being uniquely both forgiving and powerful. What other boat (or indeed, tool for human powered travel of any type) is both able to sooth a nervous neophyte and facilitate the growth of technical skills without promulgating too many bad habits? In being this they are ideal kid craft. A toddler can tilt over the edge to splash and stare without risk of tipping, and you the adult can steer that same boat and toddler through rapids with a generous safety margin.
In a similar vein; parents find out quickly that one of the most frequent impediments to family trips in the woods is the exhaustion brought on by logistics. Packing, unpacking, cleaning, storing, and then finding and repacking all the right things can take up enough energy for just you, especially for a backcountry multisport trip. The varied and often somewhat mysterious needs of a tiny person (how many changes of clothes? how warm, and how cool?) multiply this. A packraft is the lightest, easiest boat to transport, which is essential backpacking, and darn handy when (for instance) fitting the gear and boats for 3 adults and 2 kids into a single vehicle for the shuttle to the start of a slackcountry float, or just when chucking an afternoons picnic and gear into the car for an afternoon at the lake. Maintained gas mileage, no trailer, no rooftop rigging, and a nice light boat to carry. You can bring along packrafting gear on the off chance of a lake float with no real added hassle. Again; we use the heck out of our packrafts, moreso now with two kids than before.
Now that Little Bear is 5 and Little Cloud 2.5, backpacking is almost at its most complex. The bear is a very good hiker for his age and size, and the Cloud can still (exhaustingly) be carried in the backpack. Both prefer river trips, in no small part because of the generic kid affinity for water. Floating also seems to better scale with the way they process the world, whereas walking often makes things seem too big (I imagine). Next summer the Cloud will be practically uncarriable, and I bet floats will be even more preferred, by everyone. Parents, understandably, focus their initial worry on the safety of their kids in the backcountry, along with how well kid logistics can be matched to their old, now dead, pre-kid ambitions for family outings. The better question to answer is what schedules and modes of travel fit best with small minds and rapidly forming imaginations.
It is possible to start packrafting with your kids well before they are 1. Our experience has been that somewhere around 14-16 months old has them being able to sit on their own in the front of a larger open boat, with the coordination necessary to not accidentally hurl themselves out. Paddling with a toddler on your lap (as shown above, on my first solo with kid float) is quite possible, but less than ideal for a number of reasons, first among them the probability you’ll eventually whack them in the face with your paddle.
This brings up the first equipment necessity; a larger open raft. Our Double Duck is 60 inches long inside. This is just enough space for M and I to fit with one small child (though the bow lacks the volume to make this acceptable in anything but very easy water), is ideal with myself and a 4-5 year old, and remains workable for me and both kids currently. The Double Duck was discontinued not long after we bought it, in favor of higher volume, heavier . This is logical, as the lack of weight carrying ability limits the Duck. But, the low weight (~6 pounds) and packed volume is very nice when doing a proper backpack, backcountry packraft trip with small people. With the kids getting big enough we’re looking at another large boat for next year, to do floats with one adult and one kid in each boat. My current thought is that the Mule, at 52 inches inside, would be quite adequate in that regard. On the other hand, getting a Forager or Gnu would let me take out both kids by myself, and the combined weight of Duck and Mule (6 and 8 pounds) is close to the combined weight of Gnu and Curiyak (11 and 4.5 pounds). I’m drawn to the Mule because it is self bailing, and because it would double as a solo load hauler for next year, when I am sure to finally draw the unit 150 moose tag.
Final note: our Duck was bought pre-cargo fly. It is pretty silly that our largest boat is the one without a zipper. On family overnight floats the Yak cargo fly gets loaded heavy, something that makes packing much easier. The downsides of the cargo fly are significant, but for a family boat having one is mandatory.
By the time kids are older than 2 the packrafting possibilities are limited only by parental imagination and ability to adapt and caretake. Warmer weather and lower flows are obviously far simpler here. This summer Little Bear has begun lamenting that some of our trips don’t have enough rapids, while Little Cloud has taken most of the summer to decide that being bucked and splashed is fun, rather than terrifying (and thus a reason to moan and point piteously at the shore). Packrafting at this point becomes, in short, like any other parenting challenge. More skill and organization on the adult end when make trips less stressful, and more frequent, fun trips will ingrain such things as normal in the minds of the children.
PFDs are obviously important. We’ve used infant and child Stohlquist Nemos and been very pleased with the fit and float of both. The design isn’t the most packable, guaranteeing that family backpacking loads get full Clampett. Around 2 kids will become insistent on having your paddle, and in our experience a stick will not serve as an adequate substitute. We bought one of these, which has proven adequately interesting, compact, and cheap. I’ve carried it many miles, and never regretted doing so. Other important details include a few strategic toys, which should be small, diverting, and should float! Seeing a plastic micro excavator slowly sink out of sight is a sad, sad thing for everyone. Keeping kids warm, dryish, and protected from the sun is as crucial in a packraft as anywhere. Hooded layers are great for all of these things, especially when hats never seem to stay put. The REI brand toddler and kids raingear is well fitting, affordable, and most importantly they make proper rain pants that mostly stay put on non-existent, diapered waists. Even on hot days we never take the kids packrafting without rain gear and a fleece hoody.
2020 is set to be second only to those great packraft exploration years of 2011 and 2012 for the number of days I’ve spent on the water, and over half of those have been kids trips. Things like overnighting on the lower Dearborn, doing a bikeraft loop with LB on the middle Blackfoot, and 45 minute evening floats on local ponds. For specific family reasons, along with them being so vital and joyful tools in the Montana wilderness, packrats are the absolute last piece of outdoor equipment I’d let go.