So we have this house. We live in it, coming and going and back and forth every day, but don’t have as many pictures as we should. The fear I saw in it, three and a half years ago, remains almost solely in my memory. The sagging roof line along the sun porch remains, but the bushes which ate up half the yard were dug up and hauled off years ago the peeling paint along the eves and the bare window sills given a fresh coat.
After three years, the birth of a child, and the other starting school, we’re beginning to know the house well enough to see what we want it to be. So last month, while my parents were here to take the small people away from a day of noise and dust, we bashed an old window out of the side of the pantry/mudroom at the rear of the house and I made four cuts, as plumb as the last three years have taught me, for the new door. About a month later we pushed through two busy days of cutting, chiseling, and general detailing, ending with a big window where the old door had been, and a new set of mini french doors (23 7/8″ wide, each) where the window and part of the wall had been. We still have a lot of painting to do, and a lot of bench, shelf, and table building after that, but the guts and flow of the new daily entrance to our house got sealed up the night before the first frost of the coming autumn.
The house has begun getting inside me, as we have the house. This project dug into the original layer of the building, into dimensional 2x4s with a live edge, presumably milled from ponderosas felled on site, into layers of thick pine siding, into hand forged nails of at least 5 different sizes. We found floor joists sitting on nothing, and poured concrete into gaps, tying the new door sill into the footer. We found an old door sill, buried under two new ones and hidden by a bit of exterior decking, a groove worn in the middle by foot traffic predating the first world war. We’ve trimmed old windows (salvage we purchased from a similarly old home down in Butte) who sashes were almost as hard as metal and flowered pine into the air, scent trapped since the 19th century. It felt portentous, moving a back door that has stood in the same spot for over a century, and as I’ve pulled out layers of stubborn timber, and then used old stuff to frame up and patch in the new openings I’ve accumulated endless splinters. Much like the desert gets into, and then back out of, you I discover new splinters in the 48 to 72 hours after a project day, as puss pushes previously invisible slivers up toward the surface.
It’s a cliche, living towards the very edge of middle age wanting nothing more of a Saturday than an uninterrupted 10 hour shift moving a wall. The children, when they aren’t observing so close as to be underfoot, or trying to swipe hammers and screwdrivers, do well being entertained, but would prefer to go on a float trip. Often I would too, particularly after burning hours wrestling with a wall that is out of square, level, and plumb all at once. But as far as novelty is concerned I’ve been on a lifetime of float trips, while in ripping a straight line and driving trim nails true I am only getting started. In life situation, temperament, and locale (a neighbor just listed their house for 52% more than they paid a few months before we moved in) we are not tied up in every project going only towards increasing future value. It allows M and I to be playful and, to a certain extent, impractical. One, or at least I, can’t learn without messing things up. And the house has a lot to teach us. Fortunately, when it comes to timing in life, I’m in a good place for listening.
Especially now, when I don’t have to worry about nights below 40 degrees overlapping with big holes still in the house.
Another common question is from folks, like me, who grew up east of the Mississippi River, and would like to move closer to proper mountains and Big wilderness. While the answer, and the process to get one, depends greatly on personal preference and position in life, the question should be how, rather than if. M and I moved west permanently not long before this blog got started, and moved from Des Moines to Prescott in a partly full Xterra with 3 bikes on the roof. I no more regret those years in our 20s, renting, building furniture from scrap wood and forest logs, and riding bikes for endless hours everywhere, than I do the current years in our late 30s, raising kids and staying home on weekends doing remodels on a 1880s house, with unknown mountains in our back yard.
The impact of the choices which led us to these places have no been inconsequential. I’ve turned down jobs and turned away from career paths that would have brought more money, and sooner. I eliminated a raft of more prestigious (and probably, just plain better) grad schools because they weren’t in the right location. Our families have gone through a hell of a lot more bother and expense visiting us over the decades, especially when (like now) we’ve been in places with little regional airports, several connections and many miles from anything “major.”
Moving is, in short, not just a life choice, not even a lifestyle choice, but an existential once. The prime benefit, added up over all these years of adulthood, has not been in the big adventures, or the small daily ones made possible by backyard woods and trails, or the dreams fostered seamlessly by the craggy evidence on the horizon, it is the absence of what ifs. What would it be like to live in a given location, to really live there? We know, because we did.
After you have passed through the decision, it is, for most people, time to think about employment and money. In this respect the west is not really different from the midwest: more people in an area mean more opportunity, more economic competition, and thus more money. The smallest towns, which in the west and midwest (and I assume the south and NE) generally exist due to farming, usually have few job options outside ag or extractive industry. If career and personal preference intersect rightly (or wrongly), the question then becomes whether Denver or Salt Lake will be, for you, be all that distinct from Chicago or St Louis. Will you be motivated to fight ski traffic each weekend? Will you be able to sneak out early enough during the week to make bouldering in Little Cottonwood or a ride in Buff Creek a regular feature? Will the views, lifestyle, image, and diminished drive time for the occasional outside vacation be reward enough?
Large towns and small cities provide a realistic medium, with enough opportunity for most folks to make a living, while being close enough to the woods that integrating such into daily life alongside everything else is doable without monumental and potentially unsustainable investments in time and bother.
This where the real parsing starts, when it comes to preferences in recreation and climate and general atmosphere, as well as the more sticky questions of political climate and human vibe. 3 and a half years ago, when we were at the end of our own, theoretically final search for a place to settle, I wrote a good deal about choosing a place for the physical aspects, and on how one might use demographic data to spitball some of the human and cultural factors. And this is where the second sentence of that email I often get comes in, something to the effect of “we want to move west, and want to end up in a town close to the mountains, but are worried about the rednecks/mormons/republicans/cowboys/etc.”
In 21st century America, in most cities* it seems like you know what you’re going to get, or at least what you’ll be able to choose. This isn’t to say that Colorado Springs is the same as Cincinnati, but it is to say that both will have an Olive Garden, maybe 3 Olive Gardens, and that both will have streets and malls and traffic lights that could as easily be in one as the other. In cities, and increasingly in large towns, idiosyncracy and the legacy of regionalism is something one can choose to experience, rather than it being obligatory. Our little city of Helena is an ideal example. The town grew up around the gold mines, which were dug into placer (i.e. alluvial) deposits in the bed of a small creek as it exited the mountains. The old part of town, and the entirety of the old city (in 1900 the most millionaires per capita on earth) was built close to that gulch, the result being that today the city streets grid out along often steep, north facing hillsides. A silly place for a car-based society to exist north of the 46th parallel. The lions share of growth in Helena (the number of single family homes in Montana has doubled in the past 40 years) has taken place north, on the flats, where land half a century ago was less thickly occupied, simpler to build on, and more pragmatically located during the snowy months. It is there you find the parts of Helena that could, in America, be anywhere. Not yet Olive Garden, but Lowes, Hobby Lobby, and Applebees. There isn’t a socioeconomic chasm between any of the neighborhoods in Helena, but if you spent a month hanging in the front desk of one elementary school down on the flats and another up on the hill you’d notice some distinct differences.
Helena is also the state capitol, and that steady source of non-tourist based, non-extractive or ag based income has made it almost unique amongst Montana cities. This is the single biggest difference between city and town demographics in the west compared to elsewhere; the influence that tourism and trophy/destination/second residences have on one place, compared to another. As I wrote three years ago, how a town gets its money matters a great deal, and tourism/second home/retirement based locations are “made not grown, and that artificiality comes home to roost when the folks who live their can’t afford to live there, and therefore the substance of the place becomes hollow and imbalanced.” Ski towns (Crested Butte, Whitefish) are often wholly this, with the full time inhabitants whose labor shapes daily existence hanging in the background. As more and more boomers retire, the largess of that generation has hybridized more and more places. We’ve seen this at play in Missoula, heavily, in the decade since we lived there. It’s both a trophy destination and a proper city, the question being how far the former can go without irrevocably impacting the later.
Tourism, in short, is not a sustainable answer to how a community can exist. What is an answer, as many of the non-trophy towns in the west are discovering, is outdoor infrastructure and preservation as a lure for talent. You’ll likely take a hit to your functional income, in either absolute terms or relative to cost of living, by moving from Decatur or Columbus to Helena or Flagstaff, but the intangibles are easy to make center of the argument when they consist of good air and an easy walk or bike to hundreds of miles of trails. Even if the current move to remote work winds up being less extensive than predicted, I expect the pandemic to have a broad and lasting impact on these types of western towns and cities, potentially permanently increasing tax bases by significant percentages.
All of that being a long and circuitous way of saying that one of the compromises inherent to moving out west, and moving to what I’ll quite seriously call a real town out here, is living around people who are different. One of the chief complaints from old timers, directed at all of the above, is not just about the coming of Starbucks and new neighbors who can’t drive in the snow or know which shot size to use on grouse. It is about people not wanting, but tacitly expecting the amenities and convenience of modern culture, as it is fully instantiated elsewhere, to catch up with them, fast. The homogeneity which inevitably comes along is rarely given full, conscious consideration as such. Most people, old timers and city slickers alike, like Starbucks (and Maroon 5). Plenty of people will even look you in the face and deny the coherence of this sort of creeping intracultural colonialism. But those people are simply wrong.
The final matter then, after you’ve chosen an experience for the rest of your life, is to seek out the relevant particulars of climate and favored activities. You can ski in Arizona, of course, but if you really like skiing moving to Arizona doesn’t make the most sense. (Do the math though; actual weekend drive time from Payson to Durango or Taos might not be as different from Denver to Vail as geography would suggest.) If you really like whitewater it is hard to make a case for not somewhere west of the Divide and north of the basin and range. Many activities are more adaptable and subject to creative exploration than you might suppose, though. Montana is synonymous with fly fishing (and increasingly EVERYONE seems to be out doing it, even when no fish is eating within 15 feet of the surface), but climate probably allows longer functional seasons in both New Mexico and California. Does Nevada have good fly fishing? I would imagine so, and not having heard much about it, or any activity being tied to a given place, is not evidence of it not being possible there, or even darn good. If we’ve learned anything from living out west, it is that climate and proximal population, along with the history of land development (or more specifically, the lack) have far more influence on the outdoor side of ones lifestyle than terrain or trails. In California, it is harder to get away from people. In Colorado, harder to get away from roads. In Arizona, harder to get away from the sun. And in Montana, harder to get away from the snow (thank goodness).
There are plenty of poor choices, but the worst choice is the one left unmade.
*I’ve never lived on either coast for more than a few months. Bite me.
In the modern hunting game opportunity is a watchword. It means having the opportunity to hunt a given species in a given place, something increasingly relevant as interest in western hunting increased as some game populations decrease. It also means having the chance, in a given hunt, to put a stalk on, actively pursue, and attempt to kill an individual animal. The former question is both a biological and a sociological one. There is substantial latitude* in the number of tags, for most species, which biological integrity will allow, and state preference for revenue and the number of hunters and animals in the field shapes things significantly. Montana residents have long expressed their preference for opportunity based wildlife management, which is why we have long seasons for deer and elk, and why in most places in the state residents can hunt those animals with a tag they can buy every year. While elk hunting in Montana is a high opportunity affair when it comes to possible days in the woods, it is for most people a low opportunity affair when it comes to stalks on a legal animal. My elk hunting path has been unique and self limited, but as of today I’ve shot 100% of the bulls I’ve had in stalkable range. In Montana, a foundational assumption in elk hunting is that the overwhelming majority of your time afield will be spent looking for elk, rather than specifically trying to kill them.
Antelope are the opposite, especially in Montana, where you can get an archery only tag every year which allows you to pursue goats virtually everywhere in the state, for nearly 3 months. The opportunity aspect with antelope is also high in the chances to make stalks, at least with a bow, as the chances of success on each stalk is pretty abysmal, which is why the state can provide so much opportunity, in both senses, in the first place.
Its an opportunity I relish, mainly because it is the opposite of so much of wild hunting in the 21st century. Bison, for instance, is in the hunting all to do with the rarity of the tag, and the potential rarity in the animals on the ground. Once you find one the hunt is essentially over, evidence in most places** of how little experience the bison have with being hunted. Even grouse hunting in Montana is mostly about a lot of walking, about using time and distance to increase your odds. Antelope hunting, especially in my favorite spot, is the opposite.
The antelope generally hang in the same spot, way down off the end of the mesa, on a bench hanging between layers. They usually bed under one of two trees who sit, hundreds of yards from the nearest patch of green, on a seemingly utterly flat field of grass. The challenge is getting close to them, in my case, with a longbow, within 20 yards. After a few tries you figure out quickly how good antelope eyes are. After a few more, you figure out that those grass fields are not flat, and that the little gullies and most importantly the flowing swale of one layer rising into the other can let you get quite close. But close enough?
This most recent go, the answer was almost. I clumsily bumped them out of their favored spot, when I foolishly underestimated the cover begin backstopped by dark timber at 600 yards would provide. I watched them in the spotting scope getting more and more nervous before the lead nanny ran off her twitchiness in a seemingly random direction. The 14 other ladies followed quickly, the lone buck reluctant and well off the back. I walked well back, until my head was hidden by the slope, and then circled the cut bank and eased nearly 180 degrees around them, avoiding the cactus as I crawled up to the edge of a particularly large rock, and peaked over. They were bedded at 100 yards, far enough towards the other edge that I might be able to circle around, again, crawl up that rise, and be within range.
As I can best recall I did everything right, but they were still on their feet acting agitated when my eyes cleared the grass, and already being primed, the buck jumped the string hard. After a hunt a few years ago, in the same spot, I swapped all my knocks for bright orange, and even so it still took me a few minutes of searching to find the arrow. This at a distance where, were I more reliable at throwing, I could have hit them with a rock. But this is the illusion of antelope hunting. On the face you could have 10 stalks a day, bumping the herd, following, bumping them again. But terrain and circumstance might allow for only one of those stalks to have any real chance, and holding fire for a legit opportunity is the best thing I’ve learning from antelope hunting yet.
*Colorado and Montana are first and second in terms of elk population, and also first and second in terms of both elk hunter numbers each year and elk harvested. Oregon is third in both elk population and hunter numbers, but usually fifth (behind Idaho and Wyoming) with respect to elk harvested, one assumes due to the difficulty of hunting elk in coastal rainforest (2/5th of Oregons elk are the coastal Roosevelt species). Wyoming, by contrast, is fourth (or fifth, with similar numbers to Idaho) with respect to elk numbers, but 7th (behind Utah and Washington) when it comes to hunter numbers. Some states, such as Arizona and Nevada, have low elk populations, and commensurately low hunter numbers.
**The Henry Mountains in Utah being a notable exception, with a long history of hunting, and reportedly wary animals who often result in a once-in-a-lifetime tag going unfilled. The bison on the Kaibab Plateau having moved, over the past decade, to wintering within the National Park is another.
A bit ago we bought a canoe, having searched casually all summer, and finally found the right one. It’s a plastic Coleman, very old, and quite cheap. Cheap enough that we didn’t feel bad surfing rocks down the Lewis River this past weekend, and old enough that the sun faded tan on the surface was revealed, by the rock scrapes, to have been a deep green in whatever decade it was new. It’s fairly short, especially for how wide and shallow it is, with a curious molded keel inset with an aluminum tube that runs the full flat of the bottom, and is held down by plastic pillars below the front, back and middle seats. Turgid would be one word for the sum of its performance. Predictable would be another. Coming back across a glassy Lewis Lake we ran into the (low) max hull speed, as abrupt and imperturbable as grounding on a log.
The munchkins fit easily amidships, even with the extravagant, by backpacking standards, amount of gear we brought. If backpacking is too much action, canoeing is almost too little, and both of them got a bit bored during the long sit the first day, especially when dragging up the shallow final mile before Shoshone Lake took far longer than I had assumed.
It might be better to say that both canoeing and backpacking ask for focus too sustained for small people, or at least this is what I’ve been telling myself the past year as we’ve done so much in the woods so close to the road. Which is to say, many car camping and cabin trips and day trips, and very little backpacking. It is easy, as a prospective parent, to worry about the logistics of fitting little people into your favored wilderness pursuits. It is another thing altogether to figure out how to best fit their minds, the changing way they apprehend the world, to the places you want them to see.
The last day in Yellowstone was given over to touristing: Old Faithful, Grand Prismatic overlook, playing with rocks in the Gibbon River. Hiking the perhaps 2 miles round trip to the overlook was a success, not because of the sublime view, but because the old road out to the spur trail is runnable for small and occasionally forgetful legs, and because the studied parental eye found huckleberries near the summit. I spend lots of time wondering; at what age does the location of those berries, flowers, and particularly interesting rocks matter? Little Bear, now 5, talks about geology and remembers past visits, so even his worst behavior in the car 90 minutes from home seems worth the struggle. Little Cloud, 2.5, remembers where in the cooler we stashed the cookies he prefers.
The canoe then is both a vehicle for young imaginations, and equally a way for adult visions to suit young legs and, to a lesser extent, attention spans.
The Seek Outside Flight One is a ~50 liter, reasonably featured ~2.5 pound backpack designed to carry loads over 30 pounds well. Better load carriage and more coherent features than a Windrider 3400, and a burlier build than a Gossamer Gear Gorilla. In short, a modern lightweight backpack; an increasingly busy class, with the relevant reference point being the Rogue Pando Zoro, a point to which I’ll return in closing.
Unfortunately the Flight One combines a major design flaw with a major construction/patterning issue, the result being the carriage of the belt and lumbar pad not matching the other parts of the pack. I modified a Flight bag recently for a friend, following Philip’s mod detailed here, an easy job others may wish to emulate.
The Flight One uses an internal U frame, made from thin, solid aluminum rod, with a top piece of alu tube, that pushes on and makes it into a solid rectangle. The frame fits into a full internal sleeve, very tightly. This tight fit and the 7000 series alloy rod make the frame solid, springy, with an excellent degree of twisting flex. It’s a really nice solution to the modern pack problem. The problem is in the lumbar and belt arrangement. The belt comes in two halves, and adjusts for width with velcro. It velcros behind the lumbar pad, a la classic Dana Designs. Dana packs had a very stiff belt, and ran the main alu stay into the lumbar pad itself, both of which prevented sagging.
The Flight sags quite a bit, mainly because (as seen in the top photo) the lumbar opening is 3/4″ too large. As seen in the above photo, when I have 40 pounds in the pack, this slack hinges out immediately, effectively reducing the torso length of the pack by over an inch. In theory a 24 inch tall frame, the longest Seek offers on the flight, ought to be good for all but the tallest users. But that is a narrow if, and 22.5 inches is, for a taller but not beyond average person like myself, a fast problem at loads around 30 pounds.
Taking the bottom seam out and sewing the pad tighter would be one way to deal with that issue, but removing and resewing structural seams is a bit dodgy on relatively light fabrics like X21. Instead, my friend obtained extensions for the frame, and I removed the load lifter buckles and haul strap and sewed them 2 inches taller. A non-reversible modification, but simple and effective.
It’s illustrative to return here to the Zoro, which has had its issues, and takes a quite different approach to the belt-frame interface, using snaps to connect a hanging belt to the base seam, something quite similar to what Seek (re)introduced to the public with their original packs. Quite simply, I think this is the best way to go about building a pack, both because the connection methods tend to eliminate the possibility for stretch and sag, and because I don’t think lumbar pads really bring anything to the table in terms of enhancing load carriage (whether the lumbar benefits from different kinds of padding relative to the hips is a separate question).
Last summer I bought what ended up being one of my favorites shoes ever; the Astral Brewer. All of the limitations, and virtues, I noted in my review last summer have held true. The lack of a little extra structure in the sides of the forefoot has gotten me pinched on numerous occasions. The lack of a heal counter hasn’t been an issue while walking, but has threatened to pull the shoe off a few times in both mud and thick brush. The rubber is very good, but the tread can be sketchy in mud and downright scary on loose over hardpack. And while the upper fabric has manged over the past year, it doesn’t have much life left.
And I don’t really care, because the combo of zero drop, the right stiffness, and plenty of toe room is simply sublime, and simply not available in many other shoes.
So I invested in the TR1 Merge, Astral’s midtop hiking shoe. The tread pattern is more aggressive, the midsole 5mm thicker, the toe and heel have a rand, and the upper has a bit of padding in the ankle and tongue. Weight, for my size 12, is 14.1 oz per shoe.
The Merge does not have a heel counter, but on first glance the rand and doubled fabric provides a nice degree of stability the Brewer lacks. It will be interesting to see if this breaks down at all. I’m quite excited about the lightly padded ankle coverage, in a nonwaterproof package that doesn’t pretend to roll abrasion protection into the ephemeral notion of “support”. I’m bummed by the thin stripes of pure foam in the sole, as the non-rubber areas of the Brewer have made for a few pokey experiences with cactus.
Overall, I could hardly be more excited. Shoes over the past 5 years have only seem to come with more and more compromises for backpackers who like stout, minimalist shoes. Exceptions are a big deal.
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.
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.
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.
Amongst the few dozen folks worldwide who care about such things, the Dana Designs external frame packs are regarded as the pinnacle of the genre. I spent a couple hundred field days carrying an Arcflex, and for a number of reasons gladly passed it along a decade ago. Finding both the load carriage and feature set deficient, I can’t fathom a reason to go back to that tech, but I’m enough of a pack nerd/historian that when a Longbed popped up for cheap enough locally, it was an easy decision to buy it.
First, the numbers. The early oughts era Dana Designs Longbed is listed as 99 liters, and 7 pounds 13 ounces, stock. My version, with medium straps and belt, and a regular harness, breaks down as follows:
Belt: 14.5 oz
Straps: 7.3 oz (pair)
Bag: 3 pounds 12.6 oz
Harness assemblage: 8.1 oz
Magic wands (pair): 7 oz
Upper frame 4.9
Frame. 1 pound 3.2 oz
121.6 oz, total. Which is heavy, by any modern standard, and really heavy by most measures. Modern load haulers are generally 2-3 pounds lighter, in a package with similar capacity, but a more sleek feature set. The Longbed is not sleek, as evidenced by the bag weight. Four separate zippers, including a huge #10 U zip to access the main bag, are the main source of the overall weight, along with the huge lumbar pad and hypalon reinforced frame sleeve, which are sewn to and thus included in the main bag weight. In this respect it is the worst of late 90s pack design, complete with floppy, non-functional mesh sides pockets, and a size that isn’t even that capacious (42 inch top circumference).
These criticisms would be valid for almost any pack of that era, making the more interesting question why this most modern of external frame packs might have something to teach us still. As mentioned in the posts cited above, making a frame both rigid enough for load hauling and not massively heavy is challenging. On the one hand the 19 oz Dana frame is porky. On the other, it is more rigid than something like the Seek Outside Revolution, is at 29 inches taller, and that 19 oz figure includes totally rigid cross bracing. With a modern belt removing 5-6 ounces, and a less complex overall harness design cutting something close to 2 pounds, the Dana frame might be a more coherent package than it first appears.
With the top bar at full extension the Dana frame is a full 36 inches tall, a full ten inches beyond most modern hunting frames. It is also lighter, shorter, and narrower than something like the Barney’s Freighter frame. The other argument for external frames, beyond the virtues of tubing over stays, has always the footprint of the frame. The 26″ by 12″ footprint of modern hunting packs (Stone Glacier, Kifaru, etc) equals, when loaded 10 inches deep, 3120 cubic inches, about half a carefully boned out elk, and more weight than most people will be able to carry over rough terrain. A load bearing footprint beyond this is handy for loads less easily tamed. A bison hide is an example with which I have personal experience, or a moose quarter or rack of ribs (which many places in Alaska must come out of the field bone in), which explains Barney’s enduring popularity up north.
For myself, I’ve long wanted to experiment with a larger platform for family load hauling, and the Dana frame makes an ideal platform.
Carrying the Longbed in stock form does not make me at all nostalgic for my old ArcFlex. The external frame is indeed more forgiving of poor packing. I loaded up a five gallon bucket of iron window weights, resulting in a load too heavy to stand under without rolling over and crawling upright (a boundary I’ve found that for me is right around 100 pounds). The adhesive properties of the aggressive lumbar pad and thick, soft hipbelt were immediately obvious, as were their longer term impacts, having to cinch things repeatedly as you travel and motion and gravity combine to help things compress.
The years have taught me that the rough contours of hips require different sorts of padding compared to the less sensitive, and often concave depths of the lumbar. But I still struggle to see lumbar pads as anything other than a crutch for fit issues. I’m excited to experiment with the frame. I’m also excited to put lumbar pads in the bin until something unforeseen comes along. Dana packs remain the apotheosis of that design, and this pack not suiting me injects confidence into my dismissal.
The lowest unroaded section of the North Fork of the Blackfoot is a proper packraft classic. You can packraft it at kayak flows (~600 cfs or more), but I much prefer the pure boulder garden aesthetics and utterly clear water of true summer levels, with 350 cfs being ideal. Casey and I got it, from half a mile above the first pack bridge to the last road bridge, a few weeks ago at exactly 350, and a more perfect butt boating whitewater experience I cannot imagine. The geology is amazing, the rapids continuous, and lines solid but challenging. You might even see a bear, directly or indirectly.
If this lower stretch is the fat ideal of where packrafting is headed, that is to say technical, but accessible, the upper North Fork of the Blackfoot (upstream from the confluence with the East Fork is the sort of scrappy but eminently floatable creek that will never be popular. The grade is gentler, but the flows required and the brush and wood make the experience even more continuous. Unless you hit a really fortunate time in the wood cycle, floating will never be more efficient than a fast walker.
One of these will be packrafted dozens of times next year, the other maybe twice in the next decade.
There is another stretch of the North Fork of the Blackfoot which might get floated even less often. The short gorge below North Fork Falls drops a little over 300 vertical feet in 6/10s of a mile. And there are a few flat bits toward the bottom. The rest of the gorge is a astonishingly steep, sustained, and chunky piece of water. Years ago, pokes into the top and bottom suggested I would never have a reason to attempt it. This year, with the volume and especially quality of my whitewater days driving poise to unprecedented levels, I couldn’t get it out of my head. So I went to investigate.
North Fork Falls thunders into an impressive pool set into a bell shaped chamber, with shades of the Pacific Northwest. The first section of boulder drops gives away some of its pushiness at lower flows, though as seems to be the rule with such steep creeks, the blockiness and velocity make sieves and pins a real problem, even in water that never gets much above knee deep. With no warm up I was reminded of this inside 100 yards, when a steep sequence halfway between a boulder garden and slide bounced me from the bedrock wall out into a boulder, at a speed which I found gave me no chance to recover. So I flipped and swam, collecting ass and torso bruising for my bother. I hiked back up and tried again, hitting a better line up top, and in the crux exchanging an unsustainable side bounce for a straight bow slam that stalled me and folded the boat to an alarming extent before I shoved back into the flow, arm checked the same boulder, and was rocketed down, wondering what new things I would need to learn to feel more controlled in such water, and what arm guards I ought to buy.
The rest of the run got harder, and did little to provide clear answers. On some moves, memorably a left slide to 3 footer to hard right back ferry around a log, each stroke did just what I told it to. On others, such as a chunky and tight double of six footers, the odd kicker rocks mid drop tried to send me either over the bars or sideways, my now throbbing right forearm repeatedly asking for discretion. I portaged plenty, probably around 40% of the whole section, around drops which needed a little more water, drop with logs thrust out like rotten teeth, drops with obvious and obviously doable lines with sieve-y consequences or just plain too continuous to feel like a good idea solo. Learning happened fast, and I was pleased that my arms and balance were ready. A curving left drop to slide to hard ninety degree left eddy behind a bus sized boulder, stern hanging above a thin and thus unrunnable 8 foot flat drop to chunder. A seived out, impossible drop with a tenuous right side 5.7 friction move to a perfectly still eddy, just enough room to point the bow downstream in midair and hit a partial boof stroke before a 5 footer.
It was, in summary, an entirely perfect run for that place and that day. I’m left with a nose and one eye in the door, looking out and forward, wondering how and where to see the rest of this new world, and where in the summer there is still enough water.