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A Beginner’s Guide To Packrafting

Author: Jenny Abegg

August 13, 2019

Our plan was set: We’d fly into the Alaska Range, rock climb for a week, and then traverse out by land and river. It was a human-powered exit that would test our stamina, glacier navigation, and river skills. We were both fairly seasoned climbers, but very novice packrafters. With 60-plus miles of wild Alaskan river before us, our one-hour practice paddle on a class II section of the Deschutes River felt almost laughable. But in the end, the two days that we spent on Alaskan waters—linking the Tokasitna River to the Chulitna River and paddling straight into the town of Talkeetna—was the highlight of the trip.

The ability to carry a packable, lightweight, and capable boat—far into the wilderness—opens up swaths of previously impossible routes and terrain. And yet, intimidation can still be a large barrier to getting started. Planning for our trip to the Alaska Range was rife with doubt. But we learned a lot—and had an amazing trip. If you’re thinking of planning a packrafting trip, here’s our best advice.

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Step 1: Choose Your Objective

This is the fun part: start dreaming. What’s your adventure cup o’ tea? Do you—as we did—want to fly into a mountain range to climb, and then packraft back to town? Are you a skilled whitewater kayaker with dreams of accessing remote whitewater? Or perhaps you’re a hiker—or fisherman or woman—who often ends up at alpine lakes, dreaming of what it would be like to experience them in a new way? The options for adventure are truly endless, and we challenge you to get creative. Combine sports, plan itineraries that would be impossible without a raft. Bonus points for pioneering new routes. Deciding on your adventure style will help you choose a raft to fit your needs.

Step 2: Choose Your Raft

Packrafts come in many different shapes and sizes, and you don’t want to be stuck with the wrong one for the job. Designs vary based on cost, durability, weight and packability, capability on water (from flatwater to serious whitewater) and capacity. If flatwater is your primary medium, a simple open-top design like the Alpacka Raft Scout might suit your needs perfectly. For Class III or IV whitewater, rafts will often be slimmer, more maneuverable, and have built-in or removable spray-skirts to keep water out (heck, a boat like the Alpacka Raft Wolverine is even designed to be rolled by a skilled boater!). Other models are engineered to carry multiple people or heavy loads such as firewood, a bike or a large game animal. Do your research because there’s a world of options, and there’s probably a boat out there that’s designed to meet your needs.

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Step 3: Picking a Paddle

A few companies make packraft-specific paddles, like the Werner Pack-Tour M and Alpacka’s Ninja. While these paddles impressively combine a lightweight and packable build with durability, a range of standard double-bladed kayak paddles can also get the job done.

Double-bladed kayak paddles come in one, two, three, and four-piece configurations. Most packrafters who are prioritizing a packable kit will opt for four-piece models, which break into—you guessed it—four pieces. Keep in mind, though, that the more pieces your paddle breaks into, the less strength it will have—which is particularly important in swift water. So those with their sights set on class IV rapids might instead opt for two-piece paddles. Additionally, there are a few features that make a paddle more or less whitewater-worthy, including blade shape and size, and materials (fiberglass vs. carbon fiber, for example). Similar to deciding on a raft, make sure you choose a worthy paddle for the job.

Step 4: Staying Safe

A Personal Flotation Device (PFD) is a key piece of every packrafting kit. The U.S. Coast Guard categorizes PFDs into five types, and we recommend Type III and V PFDs for packrafting purposes. Type III PFDs (the standard variety that you might wear on a river rafting trip) balance weight-savings, performance, comfort and safety—and many are made with shapes that accommodate a spray skirt. Type V PFDs (the style that inflate with a CO2 canister), on the other hand, are extremely compact, but you’ll sacrifice a bit of safety, reliability, and durability. Whichever style you choose, make sure your PFD is comfortable enough to wear all day, and allows free range of motion while paddling.

We also recommend wearing a helmet for all but the most mellow flat water. If you’re on a multi-sport adventure, a climbing or bike helmet will suffice—especially those with side-impact protection (like the Petzl Sirroco, for example). Packrafters with their sights set on class III or IV whitewater will be best served with a rafting/kayaking-specific helmet.

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Step 5: Know How to Care for Your Raft

While cleaning one of our boats at the end of our trip, we noticed that the zipper to one of our hulls was no longer watertight. The fix was simple—all it needed was a bit of lubrication—but without the right materials in the field, we could have been stranded ashore in the remote Alaskan wilderness. This was a lucky lesson for us in learning proper care and maintenance for our rafts, and always packing the correct materials in the field. Just one small puncture or leaky zipper can be a game-ender for a packraft, so repair tools and techniques should be taken very seriously.

Most packrafts come with a rudimentary patch kit, but we also recommend checking out Alpacka Raft’s recommended repair kits to make sure you’re prepared for any number of situations. In addition, Alpacka also has an extremely helpful database of repair tips, which we think of as required reading.

Step 6: Practice, Practice, Practice

Before you head out on an expedition—or just a day trip near home—we recommend that you are familiar with your raft, both in and out of the water. Read the user manual and familiarize yourself with the care and maintenance of all its different components (zipper, valves, patch kit, etc.,) before hitting the water. Figure out how your boat’s valves and zippers work and do a dry run of packing and stowing your gear. Learn what kind of in-field care and maintenance your raft needs. Blow up your raft, click your paddle together, and prep your entire kit in your backyard or local park. You want to be familiar with every aspect of your boat before getting in the water.

When you leave the shore for the first time, take it slow. At first, you’ll probably find it challenging to paddle in a straight line. You might feel as though you will tip over. Learn your boat, grow comfortable with balancing your body and gear’s weight, and play with different sorts of strokes. Even if you’ve paddled whitewater before in a kayak or larger raft, chances are you’ll experience a learning curve in your packraft.

Step 7: Hit the Water

Go float through some beautiful, wild, remote places! Bring a fishing pole, a book for the sandbar at mile 11, or a GoPro to record the thrill of Class III rapids. As you embark on your journey, remember to do your part to help keep wherever you paddle pristine. Leave no trace, or even do one better and clean up after those who came before you. And please, remember that packrafting is inherently dangerous. Water is one of our earth’s most powerful forces. Do your research and practice your craft to increase your likelihood of having a safe and successful outing.

Jenny Abegg

Jenny has a penchant for rocks of all sizes and spends most of her time trying to climb them, whether it be in her Pacific Northwest home, in Spain, Argentina, Brazil or somewhere in between. She’s often spotted in her blue GMC Safari, most likely eating chocolate, and she’ll probably try to convince you to help her with a crossword puzzle.