Another frequent question is how to get started packrafting. Due to right time, right place a decade ago, and the guidebook, I’ve become one of the promoters of packrafting in the lower 48, which is fine. Due to the slant of content here, the inquiries I receive are essentially always from someone with a backpacking/wilderness background, with maybe some canoeing experience, but generally no whitewater experience of note. Which was pretty much exactly where I was in 2010. With that in mind, the follow is geared towards someone without specific whitewater background (e.g. safety techniques, reading complex water) and with explicit ambition to make packrafting a wilderness pursuit. This will be a distinct path from, for instance, the many people getting into packrafting these days who come from a whitewater background and want another tool to expand accessibility, with backcountry a secondary consideration. The following is an expansion of this post from 3 years ago.
The first thing to do on your packraft journey remains getting a boat. Doing this first makes sense, as the investment will require detailed and critical consideration of what draws you to packrafting. If you’ve journeyed to the brink already you probably have a good idea of what your interested might be, but to further refine those and provide some solid history and safety information, a copy of Roman Dial’s Packrafting! is highly, highly recommended. Roman may or may not have a few hard copies left. Used ones appear to be selling for ~$80 (!), so an ebook may be the best option.
It is worth reading Luc’s take (and the detailed discussion in the comments) on the current Alpacka line up. My hot take is that all but the most conservative boaters (in both inclination and likely terrain) will be best served by getting something with a fixed whitewater deck, thigh straps, and the cargo fly. The lure of class III and IV is a powerful one, both for the trip options it provides and for how damn fun it can be. If you have background in something like mountain biking or skiing you should be acquainted with how easily and deeply you’ve been draw to double blacks and chunky rock rolls, and should make a long term packraft choice accordingly. My now 5 year old Yak (now called the classic) continues to not be the limiting factor on a wide variety of class IV water, though if I were to buy new today I’d get a Gnarwhal. The Caribou is an attractive option for folks who are quite certain they won’t go beyond class II, or will only do so rarely.
- Alpacka Classic with WW deck and cargo fly for 70% of folks. Add thigh straps.
- Alpacka Caribou for mild, warm water only.
- Alpacka Gnarwhal/Wolverine/Expedition for those who know they’ll chase class IV down the road.
From what I’ve seen of the other options on the market, the reduced cost just isn’t worth the long term downsides of reduced material quality and especially design performance. Kokopelli rafts don’t paddle as well as Alpacka boats, and everyone I know who has built a DIY Packraft has spent weeks chasing tiny leaks and ended up with a floor that rips far too easily.
To go with your boat, you’ll need a PFD. I still find the MTI Vibe and ideal balance of weight, fit, and features. The Astral V8 is popular, but much harder to pack easily. The Astral YTV is comparable to the Vibe. The MTI Journey is cheap and light, and gets the job done.
For a paddle, I would use money wisely and jump straight to a Werner touring paddle, like the Shuna, in four piece. You pay double for a glass Werner, compared to a plastic Aquabound, but the increase in performance and satisfaction is exponential. Personally, I’ve found the reduced weight and durability of the touring paddles to be a fine trade relative to the whitewater paddles. I also find the finer feather adjustment mechanism very nice when dealing with headwinds (more feather equals easier paddling in strong winds). Plenty of folks paddle harder than I do and are harder on their gear, and will prefer the whitewater paddles. 210cm is a great all around length. Shorter is more nimble in whitewater, while the longer lengths feel more relaxed and efficient when putting on the miles. After 9 years my Shuna is noticeably loose in the joints. When I replace it (with another Shuna) I’ll probably go down to 205 or 200.
Lastly, drysuits. I’ve done the overwhelming majority of my boating without one. I’ve also gotten really, really, really cold in a packraft many, many times. My tolerance for such shenanigans is high, both through adaptation and because I don’t get cold particularly easily. I imagine the vast majority of people would have found my practices deeply unpleasant, unsafe, or both, and probably quit as a result. Which is to say that most aspiring packrafters should get a quality drysuit. My ancient one is old enough that the seam tape is starting to delaminate. When I go to replace it I’ll get this one.
- A lightish, fitted PFD without rescue features is the most practical choice.
- Invest in a high quality paddle.
- Get a drysuit if you live in a cold place, plan to paddle serious whitewater (or whitewater seriously), and if you get cold easily. If 2 or 3 of these apply, a drysuit is mandatory. Get one with a relief zip and socks.
The final consideration for new packrafters is education and skill development. There are obvious things, like being able to read water, execute a line through a rapid, and set safety. There are also less obvious things, like being able to portage efficiently, transition well and consistently, and properly evaluate hazard and your own mental state. Whitewater is different than most other mountain sports, in how deeply you’re immersed in the will of the world, and packrafting in the backcountry is different than other kinds of paddling in that you’re often on small, manky, brushy waters with little if any current beta and lots of potential snags and hazards. Safety is one thing in such an environment, in that making good decisions is impossible without experience, but efficiency is another thing altogether, and plays a huge part in big picture safety, too. Things like choosing a place to put in on a new creek or river, whether to scout or portage an obstacle on the left or right, whether to portage big or small, can all add up to hours saved or used over a day. And that kind of experience cannot be had anywhere other than first hand.
An ideal hypothetical progression for a current backpacker and aspiring packrafter, one who lives in Ohio or Iowa (as I used to) might be the following:
- Obsess. Read lots of stuff, watch lots of videos.
- Get your boat, paddle, PFD, and drysuit.
- Go out on local lakes and slow rivers. Practice paddling. Practice launching your boat. Do a whole lot of practice flips and reentries in water deep enough you can’t touch bottom. Then practice a whole lot of reentries in moving water.
- So some local hike or bike rafting trips, both day and overnight. Practice organizing, packing, and transitioning. Figure out how to balance your boat, what dry bags you’ll want and how you will use them. Maybe buy a new pack to fit all your toys. Get creative with familiar landscapes.
- Plan a big trip out west. A two trip trip, with one easier, shorter, less committing hike and float first, to get things further dialed, is a good way to go. In Montana, doing a few days on the North Fork of the Flathead or Dearborn before hiking in and floating the South Fork of the Flathead is a logical progression. In Utah, doing a stretch of the Green or San Juan before the Escalante makes sense.
- Take a packraft-specific Swiftwater Rescue class.
- Decide where you want to expand your skills. Take a whitewater specific trip to seek out difficult day and overnight runs. Go on a big water trip, like the Salmon or Grand Canyon. Do a spring skirafting trip, or a fall bikerafting trip.
- Go to Alaska, and float something that puts you 50+ miles from the road in any direction, on a wholly trail-less route.
Last and most importantly, enjoy the progression, You only get to do these things for the first time once.
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