Words by Roman Dial
Packrafting. First off, what the heck is it?
When you go packrafting, you are using a small, lightweight inflatable boat to cross and float rivers, streams or lakes, and even run rapids or cross saltwater bays and fjords.
Packrafts are tough and can do whatever bigger boats will do, but they also need to be easy to carry while you walk, run, bike, hike, ski or even fly.
Packrafts encourage amphibious travel, and they are used on some of the biggest multi-sport adventures in the world. Check out the American Packrafting Association’s website for more detailed information.
So how to get started?
My perfect packraft trip looks something like this: Park at a bridge across the Shenandoah River, hike up to a ridge that parallels the river (so you can scout the river along the way), and then walk five to 15 miles upstream of your car. Finally, float down the river.
It’s simple, but there are many things you need to know. I’ve laid out a few important tips in this article.
Learning the ropes & rapids:
Like many sports, it’s best to learn how to be safe and have fun from people who are already experienced. But because packrafting is so new, it might be that you learn your boating skills with a local paddling club. I recommend you take classes with kayakers, as paddling most modern packrafts is more like paddling a kayak than anything else.
Better yet, take an organized swiftwater rescue course to learn how to read water and rescue yourself and paddling partners. You’ll be glad you did and you’ll want all your partners to do the same.
Gear You Should Carry:
In the water… Here in Alaska, where I have been packrafting for over 30 years, I prefer carrying a 55-liter or bigger pack to carry my raft, PFD, knife, whistle on the PFD, drysuit/wetsuit/paddle-top, helmet, throw bag, paddle, and extra clothes I wear in the boat.
Even if you are paddling the Shenandoah River in August’s heat and humidity, you’ll likely want something dry and warm to put on at some point. I keep that clothing either in a dry bag or on me if I’m wearing a drysuit. Wetsuits and/or paddling jackets are also far better than rain gear, but you can get away with rain gear if the air temperatures are over 60 F and the river or creeks are not snow or glacial fed.
On land… So with all that stuff on top of whatever you need for hiking, it really helps if you are already a lightweight hiker. Check out Mike St. Pierre’s Stripped Down Gear Check List for more information on hiking light.
The four principals of going light…
Live by these rules, and you’ll lighten your packrafting and your life load.
- Experience – what have you been able to do before? For example, I know that I need one additional layer for every 20-degree drop in temperature.
- Sharing – what can you and your partner share rather than duplicate? My partners and I usually carry only one first aid kit, one repair kit, and maybe a stove and cook-pot (for warming up) among the group.
- Multi-purpose – what gear can serve double duty? For example, anything you use for hiking will be free when you’re boating. I boat in the same shoes I hike in (trail runners that drain well).
- What’s the latest and greatest gear? I use Hyperlite Mountain Gear’s 3400 Southwest Pack; it’s the perfect bushwhacking and packrafting pack.
How to pack your boat:
Check out this video to see how I fold my boat from bow to stern. Once folded, I strap it up and pack it against my back; it’s the densest thing I pack for a day trip. Then I shove lightweight fabric items to the outside away from my back. I use my paddle in two pieces, even if it’s a four piece, and lash them to the pack’s side compression straps. I nest the throw bag in my helmet and shove into the big external pocket of my Southwest pack. The drysuit goes in near my shoulders and back and the PFD, inside toward the back of the pack (away from my back), or strapped to the outside back. As the least dense item it can even dangle off the back.
It’s best to start a day trip with a walking leg and end with a boating leg, as a wet boat is heavy and gets the contents of your pack wet.
In a future post I’ll talk about how to best plan your overnight trips.