FAQ: so I want to start packrafting..

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.

In summary:

  • 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.

In summary:

  • 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.


14 responses to “FAQ: so I want to start packrafting..”

  1. I put my COVID stimulus check towards an Alpacka classic this summer and it should be arriving in a couple weeks, so this post is quite interesting to me. I’m not sure how much use I’ll end up getting out of the raft before the winter starts and things get quite cold but I’m very excited to start this process of learning and hopefully putting it to work next spring and summer. PNW rivers can be woody but I have my eyes on some class 1/2 stretches that I think are realistic for me to do sooner rather than later. I don’t want to make too many predictions about how it’ll go before I’ve done much, but I expect the crux to be transitioning from sidecountry trips to having the confidence to do anything further from the road. From my research so far, Washington rivers get a lot more complicated pretty quickly once you get far away from the roads, so I may end up having to travel if I want easy to moderate wilderness water. We’ll see, but I’m looking forward to it.

    1. That is a good point: for historical reasons it is somewhat rare to have terrain which makes consistent, consistently floatable class II stuff that is also roadless. (In the lower 48.)

  2. “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. ”

    Ha, not me man. I’m not drawn to backcountry skiing because I might be featured in some 20 second video. I’m not looking for that perfect set of turns — I’m just looking to get out there, in the wild, in winter. I don’t “shred”. I tour.

    If I bought a packraft, I would probably use it on lakes. I’m a bit surprised that there isn’t more about this, since it seems like a perfect use. Just in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness there are 700 lakes. That means that all 700 lakes don’t allow motorized craft, and can only be accessed by foot. Hiking a trail, then taking a raft to the other side, then hiking off trail some more has been going on for years (long before anyone coined the term packraft). The idea of a much better, lighter option seems like a great idea.

    1. You are an ideal candidate for a Scout. ;)

  3. Hey Dave, any thoughts on the Classic in a Bay/Ocean situation? I live in NYC and would love something that I can throw on my bike (or subway) and paddle in the Jamaica Bay or even in the East River.

    1. I think the Classic or Caribou would work well, as well as a packraft can in such situations. Packrafts struggle in stronger winds, and when you have a situation when the prevailing wind isn’t with the waves and/or current things get weird fast. But with basic planning that should be easy to avoid.

      Some folks in Benlelux have some very cool videos of urban packrafting.

      1. Thanks! I’ll check it out.

  4. A comment made on this article on our local packrafting facebook group, that I thought was worth repeating here. As you think about your progression, its also important to be thinking about building up your network of people to go boating with. If you’re coming from a backpacking background, the difference between solo trips and group trips is pretty small, but on the water, one of the most important ways to mitigate risk is traveling with a group. Especially as a beginner. It can almost be tricky not to go solo because the kind of trips that packrafts enable require participants to have a diverse array of gear and skills and the inclination to do complicated, physically hard trips. My experience getting involved with local kayaking groups is that a lot of participants have limited interest in going beyond traditional roadside runs or vehicle enabled multiday trips. And planning trips with your backpacking friends leads you to a risk of the blind leading the blind once you hit the water. In the end, we had a group of friends all buy packrafts together and move their way up the skill ladder at the same time, and had serendipitous meetings with more whitewater-focused outdoorspeople at the right time and place for our skills progression, supplemented by professional training. Anyway, I’d encourage newcomers to the sport to think not only of the gear they need to get and the type of trips they want to do, but also put some thought into building up your network of boaters as you progress.

    1. A very good point Chris. I appreciate you adding it.

  5. Yo Dave, Currently working up your recommended progression and stuck on bullet point 5. I’m living in Illinois now paddling a Caribou and an old Kokopelli Castaway. Great for our warm local creeks and exhilarating cold waters of northern Wisconsin and Michigan. Not having a whitewater deck is also ideal for paddling with children. I am, however, having trouble with my kids progression. Do you have any suggestions for 3 and 6 year old boys? Both have been on day trips with me. My six year old has paddled solo on lakes, but I just don’t know how to make the transition to moving water with him? Potential mistakes are haunting to think about. Is he even strong enough at 6 for moving water? On an another note, my family is headed to the Tetons in June and I was thinking about sneaking off for a half day to try lower Pacific Creek in the Teton Wilderness. Don’t know if your familiar with this run but I would love to know if it would be a proper next step up from upper Midwest class 2 boulder gardens. Oh yeah, your blog is kind of awesome. Thanks.

    1. Our soon to be six year old doesn’t really do much with the packraft on his own yet. Even the small ones are just too wide. Grandma bought him one of those tiny plastic sit on top kayaks this summer and he loves it. Totally kid sized, including the paddle. That said, on a mellow class 2 what is the worst that can happen?

      Lower Pacific is ideal. Maybe hike ~2-3 miles up from the trailhead and float to a good ways below it.

  6. Hi Dave,
    Revisiting this thread as I am slowly getting my stuff together, very stoked at all your advice. For a PFD, do you still recommend a Vibe? They’re sold out a lot of places but good deals on the auction site… Just unsure of the sizing whether to size up or down if in between s/m and m/xl. If you recommend something newer thats around that cost, that has that slim/packable/pocket situation, I’m all ears!

    1. I still really, really like the Vibe. The sizing is accurate, with a bit of leeway either way. I have a small and with a 38″ chest can still fit in with a drysuit and lots of layers.

  7. Dave, thank you for all the amazing information on this blog. Your pack series has been a huge help to me as I attempt to build my own load hauler. What are your thoughts on the Refuge and Whitewater Refuge? They are now both available and in size large. I am looking to purchase my first “proper” boat, and these really attract me as boats in the spirit of packrafting I like most (wilderness traverse) with opportunity to be dressed up for running some whitewater. I agree with your point that as a skier and MTBer I will probably be drawn toward big water down the line, but I would love for that to be possible in a boat that can be as light as possible when the emphasis is on walking rather than floating.

    Thank you again,

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