Gear & Clothes That Can Make the Difference For Your Wilderness Packraft Adventure
Text by Moe Witschard // Photos by Moe Witschard & Mike St. Pierre
Maurice “Moe” Witschard is an experienced explorer, photographer and a filmmaker who loves packrafting and adventuring. Like all adventurers and packrafters he knows that it is key to stay safe and dry. In this blog post he shares 10 tips for your packrafing attire that will make your packraft adventure as safe and fun as possible.
Making smart choices as to what to wear often means the difference between joy and misery on a packraft trip. After packrafting extensively over the past 10 years, I have tried many different clothing systems. My present strategies are based on principles that I have taken from years of whitewater kayaking and backpacking. I apply them to my trips in what I believe is the most elegant of wilderness watercraft: the packraft. Here, I share my tips.
#1. Insulating Layers
My first line of splash proofing is to wear my raingear over insulating layers. If I’m running easy mountain whitewater during the summer months and the chance of swimming is low, my rain gear is all that I will take with me. Fully zipping up the jacket keeps splashes from dribbling down my front. Pulling arm layers up to below the elbows and securing the wrists of my rain jacket properly helps keep moisture from wicking up the arms of my top layers.
#2. Dry Suit
Dry suits often make the difference in keeping a joyful packrafting trip from turning into a sufferfest. As the likelihood of swimming increases above “minimal” and as water and/or air temperatures get colder, I reach for my dry suit. I like the Kokatak Gore-Tex Front Entry Dry Suit, which weighs about 3lbs. and is pretty durable. Two more delicate, lighter options are Alpacka dry suits and Kokatat paddle suits. I like dry suits that have relief zippers and that have the main zipper in the front of the suit. As a packrafter, you need to be able to operate the zipper of your suit by yourself, particularly when everyone’s hands are cold. If your dry suit has a zipper in the back, forget about being able to zip it yourself when in challenging conditions.
A wetsuit can be a viable option in certain circumstances. A 3mm wetsuit, when dry, weighs about the same as a dry suit. It can take more abuse and it costs far less. I use wetsuits when I do canyoneering/packrafting loops in the Grand Canyon. Bear in mind, a wet wetsuit is heavy and takes much longer to dry than a dry suit does.
When I pack for a packrafting trip, I plan insulating layers that will keep me comfortable for the coldest likely weather scenario. PFDs add insulation and keep you warmer. They can be worn over your insulating layers in camp in a pinch or during an unforeseen cold snap. Personally, I don’t factor the PFD into my layering system while planning. It’s just a bonus option if things get ugly, which they inevitably do sometimes.
But a PFD’s primary purpose is not added warmth. It increases your likelihood of staying alive if you have an accident. I always wear a PFD when I packraft, and you should too. I have two possible PFD scenarios. If I am running whitewater that is challenging for me, I opt for a standard whitewater kayaking PFD. Many of these weigh about 2 lbs. I really like the ones made by Astral Designs. If I am running water that is well within my ability and easy for me, then I take my super light PFD, the MTI Journey. It weighs 12 oz. and it’s relatively inexpensive.
Considering how the hair on the top of my head is getting a little on the thin side, I always have something on my noggin, whether a sunhat, warm hat, or a helmet, depending on conditions. I wear a helmet if I’m going to use a spray skirt on my boat, which could keep my head underwater for a moment should I capsize; or if I’m using thigh straps in my packraft. That is to say, I almost always wear a helmet.
As far as what helmet to use, I have two alternatives. If I am running challenging whitewater, I pack a standard whitewater helmet. I really like the Sweet Strutter helmet with the built in brim. If I am running whitewater that is well within my ability or if weight is of the essence, I opt for my BD Vapor climbing helmet. It’s super comfortable, super light, but not as protective from a rock hit as a dedicated whitewater helmet.
#6. Beanie, Helmet Liner
In cold conditions, I wear a thin hat like the Smartwool PhD Training Beanie. For a higher level of warmth and invincibility, I use a fuzzy rubber helmet liner like the Kokatat Surfskin Strap Cap. I love feeling invincible to the cold, even though I’m pretty much just kidding myself.
#7. Action Shoes
Shoe choices are relative to the person adventuring. However, I advise you consider fit, support and sticky rubber, in that order. Sticky rubber is really important and will keep you safer when you’re scouting or portaging rapids on slippery rocks. I usually packraft in a low top trail running shoe. My favorite, the La Sportiva Ultra Raptors, are light, supportive, super sticky, and they drain well too. The exception is trips that I do in the Arctic where packs are heavier and terrain is more uneven. There, I wear a light hiker like the La Sportiva Core High GTX.
I’m surprised how often I hear people testify on how important fast drainage is in a good packrafting shoe. Fast drainage is a definite bonus, but it’s one of the last qualities that I look for.
#8. Camp Shoes
I am generally not a man to speak in absolutes, but I never carry camp shoes on my packrafting trips. It’s too much extra weight. That said, I do love happy feet. In warmer climates, I usually cruise around camp in my packrafting shoes minus the socks. In cold climates, like the Arctic, I break out the secret weapon: Gore-Tex socks. I like the Rocky Gore-Tex socks. I get to camp, put on a dry pair of socks, put the Rockies over them, slip back into my packrafting shoes and I am in business. Otherwise, one can always opt for the “poor man’s” Gore-Tex socks: a couple of plastic bags that fit your feet. Cuben Fiber Stuff Sacks also work well.
Thicker socks inside a drysuit mean warmer feet, as long as circulation isn’t being constricted. In cold climates, I often remove the insoles of my shoes when I get to the river so that there’s room for thicker socks inside of my drysuit.
When it comes to keeping my paws toasty, I’ve got some good options. I am a big fan of pogies, like the Kokatat Tropos Hand Mitt. Pogies are like insulated mitten shells that velcro around your paddle shaft. Pogies keep your hands directly on the paddle, which can be an advantage for those who prefer it. I feel like they give me better control of the paddle. Folks with wrist issues also tend to do better with pogies because they end up gripping a smaller diameter.
Neoprene gloves can be great, too. Invest in a pair that fits not quite snuggly and that has ample room in the fingers. Tight fingers lead to diminished blood flow and cold hands. I really like the NRS Maverick Gloves. They don’t let water in the wrists and have very generous finger room. If things promise to be a real freezefest, then the NRS Toaster Mitts are the bomb.
So there you have it—the main points you should consider when dressing for a packraft trip. You should make thoughtful, deliberate clothing choices before you head out. Think about weight as much as you think about staying warm and comfortable. Don’t let too much misery kill the love for one of greatest syntheses of outdoor skills–the wilderness packrafting adventure.
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