Tips for the packraft-curious: How to get started

[An introduction by Skurka] Luc recently published, The Packraft Handbook, a definitive how-to resource for this game-changing and rapidly growing mode of wilderness travel. It’s based on his thousands of miles of paddling experience and his swiftwater safety instructor expertise, and includes 150 illustrations to help convey critical information and skills. It reminds me of The Ultimate Hang by Derek Hansen — it’s extremely well organized and thorough, and makes packrafting much more accessible to newcomers and intermediates. Highly recommended.

What’s the big deal with packafts?

The big deal is that packrafts aren’t big. By definition, they are small and light enough to be carried in a backpack. An 8-pound boat that rolls to the size of a large sleeping bag can enable you to cross lakes, inlets, or float down rivers. The most popular packrafts fit individual boaters and are paddled with a river kayak paddle. The boats are inflated with clever stuff sacks that can be filled with air and compressed as a pump.

I grew up thinking of rivers as barriers — the limit of what I could explore. But with a packraft, those barriers become trails: all the blue lines on the map turn into trails! My favorite packrafting trips alternate between hiking and boating, which allows one muscle group to recover while the other is in use. I also loved the experience of learning how to read water and control my boat.

Many packrafters get into the sport with a hiking background rather than familiarity with water. If this is the case for you, it is important to honor the real hazards of water sports. Part of the fun of playing on water is that we can’t control the water, but that also means we are at the river’s mercy if things go wrong.

Sarah Histand on the Pelorus River, New Zealand

How do I get started?

As with many outdoor activities, there is a steep entry price for equipment. Packrafts cost from $600 to $1500, with the more affordable boats generally heavier, less durable, or inappropriate for whitewater. There are several rental options within the US, including Backcountry Packrafts, which ships packrafts throughout the US. Packrafters are often generous with gear; you might find a packraft to borrow through a local paddling forum or club.

Most packrafters in northern climates will want to paddle in a dry suit, which adds a significant expense. Dry suits are not only safer (they keep you dry if you swim), but they make the paddling experience more enjoyable. Having fun on the river will help motivate you to revisit.

You will also need a life vest, paddle, appropriate footwear (something that protects your feet), and a helmet if you will be on moving water.

I’ve got the gear, now what?

If you don’t have much or any experience on water, it’s important to start slow and choose appropriate destinations. You can’t just hit the brakes or slide to a stop on the water — safely navigating water hazards requires dedicated practice and training.

Step 1: Practice getting back into your boat

Head to a lake, pool, or other controlled setting to practice “wet re-entries.” A wet re-entry is a self-rescue technique, our version of the kayak roll. If you capsize (tip out of your boat) you will want to know how to get back in the boat. Not all paddlers can perform solo wet re-entries—this process is significantly easier with a partner who helps stabilize your boat.

While you are at the lake, also experiment with different paddle strokes to move the boat forward, backward, and making turns.

Step 2: Partner up

A common theme in paddlesport incidents is paddling alone. Even a minor mistake while paddling alone can result in a scary situation. Paddling with capable partners provides a metaphorical safety net: your partners can help retrieve your equipment and get you back into your boat or to the shore. Paddle clubs and online forums are good resources for finding paddling partners.

Tony Perelli and Margaret Williams, Willow Creek, Alaska

Step 3: Choose an appropriate destination

Packrafts have excellent “primary stability,” which means that they are very hard to tip over on flat water. But as soon as the boats are pushed up on edge—by currents, waves, or winds—they are very likely to capsize. Stay close to shore if you are paddling lakes or the ocean, and start on easy water if you are paddling rivers or creeks. River difficulty is rated using a Class scale, with Class I being the easiest. Class II rivers feature some obstacles, and Class III rivers require boat-control techniques to avoid river hazards.

If you see something you don’t like … walk around! Packrafts are perfectly suited for portaging.

Brad Meiklejohn, Roman Dial, and Russell DeVries on Honolulu Creek, Alaska

What’s next?

If you like your first experience in a packraft, consider seeking instruction, either through formal course offerings or with an experienced friend as a mentor. Instructors and mentors can identify appropriate destinations and let you know when it is safe to try a new or challenging maneuver.

Used properly, packrafts can open a world of opportunities. Adding water travel to a backpacking or bike trip allows you to cover more ground, visit new terrain, and create your own personal adventure.

More info: The Packraft Handbook

Posted in on November 8, 2021

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