Packrafting  Stuff you ought to know

Interested in giving Packrafting a whirl? Dulkara Martig offers some information you might want to know before giving it a go.

A modern-day packraft is smaller, lighter and stronger than you think.

The days of 20+ kg rubber duckies are gone. A modern-day packraft weighs around 2.5kg and packs down to the size of a small tent. With the right model (and personal skills) you can even navigate technical whitewater. No, they don’t pop when they hit rocks!

You’ll never look at a map the same again.

Owning a packraft will inspire the explorer within you. Routes that seemed impractical or obscure suddenly make perfect sense. You can access places that would otherwise be inaccessible and also cover much larger distances in any given timeframe. Bevan Walker from Nelson loves using his packraft to cross alpine rivers and glacial lakes to access wild hunting terrain in the Southern Alps. One of his favourite playgrounds is the Upper Godley Valley:

Upper Godley, Southern Alps (photo by Bevan Walker)

You’ll never look at a map the same again

You can combine packrafting with many other sports.

Your imagination and skillset is your only limitation. Hiking, biking, skiing, scooting, paragliding, hunting. I haven’t come across any extreme ironing (Google it!) packrafting shots yet but someone should totally do it. Here are a couple of photos to whet your appetite for multisport adventures. One of my favourite things to do is hitch-hike with my packrafting kit. The novelty of being able to paddle down an awesome river and then have it all contained within a backpack to put my thumb out while sticking my thumb out on the side of the road will never wear thin for me!

Packrafts make surprisingly good sleds. Dulkara on a ski-mountaineering traverse in SE Alaska.

Bike-rafting on the Waiau River, New Zealand (Photo by Grant Stirling)

Jeremy and Constance did a scooter-rafting traverse of the South Island (Photo by Richard Rossitter)

Dulkara hitch-hiking with packrafting kit, the only challenge being the lack of traffic!

The equipment you need.

As bare minimum you’ll need a packraft, a lightweight inflation bag, a paddle (preferably a 2 or 4-piece split paddle) and some sort of PFD. The rest depends on the style of trips you’re wanting to go on. For example, flatwater versus technical whitewater. With the latter you’ll need the same kind of gear as any whitewater kayaker (rescue kit, helmet ec). There are lots of blogs on equipment online. Here’s a good blog post to start with, by Forrest McCarthy.

You can transition between walking and packrafting in 10-15 minutes.

This means you can even transition a couple of times per day. For example, to portage around a gorge to avoid a technical section of water, or to use a packraft as a tool to cross a river or lake that would otherwise be uncrossable. When you first start packrafting it can be frustrating and time-consuming as you get used to new packing systems. Packing for walking mode comes naturally if you have a background in tramping. The biggest challenge is trying to squeeze more gear into your pack, you may need a higher volume backpack than your standard tramping one. Typically people put their packraft at the very bottom of their pack or attach it to the outside. Loading your gear into your packraft will look different depending on what model you have (“internal storage” where you store gear inside the tubes of your raft versus attaching your pack with all of your gear inside to the front of your raft).

Dulkara packing in the Arctic (10 days of food and packrafting kit in here). Pic: John McLaine

Packraft transitions in Alaska

Portaging rapids (or whole sections of river) is easy.

There are two main reasons it’s easier to portage with a packraft compared to a whitewater boat. First, they are super light so you can carry a packraft on your shoulder (or similar set up) more easily. The second is that you can deflate your raft and transition into full walking mode. This isn’t necessary for short portages but perhaps you’ll be portaging an entire gorge section that is too technical (or totally unrunnable). I’m also a fan of the “walk the dog” technique. This is an easy way to skirt around the edges of more challenging rapids and is also an efficient way to walk downstream if it’s too shallow to paddle. If you enjoy exploring obscure alpine rivers then this is a common challenge to face. See picture below..

Walk the dog technique photo (Dulkara and Aaron, Acheron and Clarence Rivers – pic by Ben Weigl)

What to wear.

There is not one answer…it depends. What kind of trip you’re going on and on the season and temperature of the water you’ll be paddling in. The three most common set-ups would be: a drysuit, a wetsuit or just packrafting in your hiking kit (thermals, other warm layers, rain gear). Sometimes I bring a drysuit, other times I make do with thermals. I nearly always bring neoprene socks and in cold conditions I always bring some form of glove or pogie for my hands. If you’re paddling in really cold water, be conservative. You need to be dressed for submersion. There have been four packrafting fatalities in Alaska, all with swims in cold water.

Dressing warm for Alaska, Dulkara and Ben (Photo by John McLaine)

The skills you need.

There are many different styles of trips but typically you’ll be combining two key skill sets and very different environments: water and land. Most people will come into packrafting from a strong background in at least one of these environments. Be conscious of what your gaps in skills and experience may be. If you’re on grade 2 water you should be prepared to face the same challenges as any whitewater kayaker faces. If you are packrafting a section of water, you should feel confident in your ability to deal with an unexpected swim in it. If the idea of a swim makes you nervous then you are probably paddling above your ability and/or should invest in a river rescue course. There’s a big difference between fumbling your way down a river and styling it. Here are two blog posts I recommend:

Main risks associated with packrafting.

Be conscious of the things you don’t know you don’t know. If you come from a background in whitewater kayaking you will have faced consequences every time you made a tiny mistake (e.g. forgetting to rail as you exited an eddy or timing a stroke wrong). A packraft will bounce through things easier. This means people run the risk of climbing grades too quickly, with their skill development not keeping up. It’s important to develop good self-awareness of your own skill level. In a wilderness setting the worst thing that can happen is being separated from your packraft (with all of your important gear inside the raft). There are many stories of this happening overseas.

Choosing a packraft.

With the sport gaining momentum quickly, there are now several different brands and models on the market. There is probably not one perfect packraft for your needs. Balance budget, the kinds of trips you think you’d like to use the packraft on (whitewater, flatwater) and it’s features. The two key features I’d consider are whether to go for some sort of spraydeck (or open deck) or self-bailing packraft and whether you want an internal storage system (where you store your gear in the packraft tubes).

Internal storage. Internal storage is amazing on longer trips, particularly if you’re paddling more technical water (grade 2+). It keeps weight low in your raft, your gear stays really dry and your view isn’t obstructed by a big backpack on the front of your boat. The cons are that this adds extra weight and with every new feature, there’s another part that requires maintenance (the zipper).

Self-bailer versus whitewater deck. The main thing I’d note is that if you are paddling cold rivers in a self-bailing packraft then you’ll probably want a drysuit. A whitewater deck will definitely keep you drier and warmer but it has other challenges. For example, it’s more of an effort to scout rapids and it takes more time to take deck on and off. There are lots of blogs on the pros and cons.

Packrafts are AWESOME! Here are a few fun ways you can use a packraft off the water…

The most romantic 5 billion star hotel ever?

A couch in Iceland?!

A wall for wind protection when you find yourself sleeping underneath a picnic table in a snowstorm?

Fill your packraft up with beer at a party?

Want more information on packrafting in New Zealand?

Dulkara Martig is a highly experienced adventurer in many mountain disciplines. Often found in far-flung and remote mountain ranges around the world, she has embraced Packrafting as an integral part of her mountain travel repetoir.  Check out her many adventures on her blog; DulkaraMartig.co.nz 

Wilderlife