Pack-rafting involves a small, inflatable craft to paddle a waterway. Modern pack-rafts fold up to about the size and weight of a two-person tent, so they are light enough to carry for that float across a lake, or to cross a major river on a walking trip. But at the other end of the spectrum, they are durable enough and capable enough to paddle long sections of technical white water.
The ability to carry a boat into the backcountry opens up a myriad of new trip options. That ‘long boring valley slog’ becomes a fun, scenic float. A challenging ten-day Hollyford-Pyke tramp becomes a more achievable five day pack-raft trip. Rivers that were previously obstacles to cross can now become efficient and fun routes, or even the specific objective of a trip. It changes the way you look at a map!
But despite the recent surge of popularity, the concept of travelling on remote waterways with makeshift craft has been around in New Zealand for quite some time. The Mokihinui River is named for the ‘large raft’ used by the local Maori to escape across the river from a pursuing war party.
In more recent times, the Tararua Tramping Club newsletter The Tararua Tramper has accounts of ‘gorge tubing’ as early as the 1950s. Tubing was usually practised with a single tyre tube and no paddle; indeed the minimalist approach to river exploration.
In his 1978 book Wild Rivers, John McKay describes exploratory descents of the Upper Buller Gorge, the middle Clarence, the Motu, the Wanganui, and the Karamea; mostly done on single person ‘rafts’ constructed of two truck tyre inner tubes, lashed together with stout branches.
Members of the Otago University Tramping Club undertook early pack-raft trips in the early 1990s. These trips used cheap inflatable ‘row boats’ bought from the local department store. These flimsy looking craft were more intended for use in a pool use than in Fiordland, but for many trips they did the trick.
Meanwhile in Alaska, the modern pack-raft was born in the late 1990s when Thor Tingey coerced his mother into developing him a better boat. The Alpacka Raft was born, and since then their robustness, agility and lightness has skyrocketed.
Apart from the pack-raft itself, you’ll require paddles, cold water protection, buoyancy and water safety gear. Two or four-piece paddles fit in your pack. Essential are a well fitting personal flotation device and a whitewater helmet, which offers protection on all sides and from repeated knocks. Bike or climbing helmets are not adequate.
In really hot weather, thermals and a raincoat might suffice. But for most trips, you should have a wetsuit and spray jacket, or even a dry suit. Neoprene socks and lightweight shoes offer warmth, swimming compatibility and grip on wet rocks when portaging. A throw-bag and whitewater rescue knife complete a basic safety kit.
Pack-rafting increases the risk of spreading didymo and other aquatic pests, as pack-rafts have many nooks and crannies for unwanted stowaways to hide. Make a careful plan for drying and disinfecting or avoiding any contact with didymo. Though pack-rafts are incredibly forgiving for beginners to paddle, navigating even the simplest of rivers requires a good understanding of the hazards and safety considerations. As many new pack-rafters come from a tramping background, rather than a whitewater one, newcomers often ‘don’t know what they don’t know’.
Paddling and river safety skills are practical techniques that need to be learned from an experienced practitioner. Check out www.packraftingnz.com for pack-rafting specific safety and rescue courses.
Key concepts for safe entry to the sport
What are the main hazards on a river?
Perhaps the most dangerous hazard is trees that have fallen into the water. These form ‘strainers’ where the water can flow through, but anything solid (like a person or a raft) would be ‘strained’. The force of the water means there is little to no chance of escaping or being rescued. So keep an eye out for these strainers and avoid them at all costs; and that means paddling away from them early and assertively. If you happen to be swimming, you need to roll onto your front and swim hard away from the strainer, like your life depends on it, because it might.
The next most dangerous hazards are rocks and boulders. The obvious danger is being swept into a rock, but perhaps the more sinister hazard lurks beneath the surface. The gaps between boulders can be big enough to entrap a foot. If that happened, the current could force you underwater and hold you there.
If you find yourself swimming, you need to adopt the ‘whitewater float position’. Feet first, legs up, ready to fend off any rocks. When you see a chance to swim to an eddy, turn over and swim aggressively for it. Rocks and strainers exist in most rivers, even very easy ones, so it’s very important to understand how dangerous they are, and how to minimise the risks. On rivers Grade 3 and upwards, the water current itself can create hazards, which are one of the many things to learn about before progressing beyond Grade 2.
What happens when you flip?
Every pack-rafter will at some point fall out of their raft. As you go over, make sure you keep your feet up and try to hold onto your paddle. Most people install a ‘grab line’ around the pack-raft’s perimeter so you can hold onto your boat.
Unlike a kayak, it’s quite possible to right your pack-raft then wriggle back in from the water. Self-rescue takes a little bit of strength and skill, but it’s a fundamental pack-rafting proficiency. There’s plenty written about it online, but it requires practice to become quick and efficient, which is important if you’re tired, cold or scared. If you can’t reliably self-rescue, you really shouldn’t be on the river.
Losing contact with your boat or paddle can have bad consequences. Floating paddles are very difficult to keep in sight; most kayakers have a story about lost paddles. If you’re on an overnight trip, losing a boat means loss of all your food, shelter and spare clothing too. Pack-rafts tend to disappear downstream quickly, especially in any sort of wind, when they float faster than you can run or paddle.
Paddling a river is like playing ‘join the dots’. Each dot is a safe stopping point (an eddy, or a large, slow moving pool). Each line is a section of river where you cannot stop.
Safe river travel requires making a conscious decision to commit (or not); to leaving a safe stopping point and paddling a section of river until you reach the next safe stopping point.
You should always be able to see and reach the next safe stopping point. With this mindset, you’ll make decisions about paddling the next little section of water. If you see a problematic rapid or a hazard, then stop so that you can analyse it. This might mean getting out of your boat to scout ahead, or paddling to another eddy where you can get a better view. If you do choose to run the rapid, you need to consider the consequences of a capsize.
Although it appears that they are constantly moving, experienced paddlers are just looking further ahead to locate safer stopping points and analyse the lines between.
To run the rapid or to portage
If you are looking at a rapid and deciding whether to paddle it or portage it, there are plenty of questions to ask yourself:
Likelihood: How likely is it that I will flip?
Hazards: What are the hazards, and how difficult is it to avoid them?
Consequences: If I swim, what could happen to my gear or me?
Then what: What happens downstream? Is there a safe run-out?
Another good question is, ‘Would I choose to swim through it?’ If the answer is ‘no’, then you should be questioning whether you should paddle it. If you choose to paddle it, then you might also consider having someone positioned with a throw bag for safety, plus another person in a boat below the rapid to collect paddles/boats/people if the throw bag doesn’t work, or gear gets separated from the paddler.
Team work and leadership
As a team, you should space far enough apart so that if someone flips ahead of you, there’s still time to manoeuvre away, or reach an eddy before hitting the same feature of the rapid. But, you should be close enough together to keep in visual contact and be able to perform a rescue if needed. There are many visual and aural signals in use, which must be learnt and discussed among the team before setting off down river.
The most experienced paddler should be at the front, choosing the lines and deciding when to eddy out and scout ahead. They are also likely to be the ones doing much of the rescuing. The leader needs to take a conservative approach: if they have the most skill but then need rescuing, who is going to perform that rescue? The second most experienced paddler is usually at the back, keeping an eye on the rest of the group. That person is going to be the fastest person to respond if someone gets stuck in a hazard.
What’s the difference between grade 2 and grade 3?
You shouldn’t paddle beyond your ability. Many folk who try pack-rafting get the ‘whitewater bug’ and want to paddle harder rapids. So after they’ve negotiated a few Grade 2 rivers, they often start trying Grade 3. However Grade 3 isn’t a little harder than Grade 2, it is a lot harder; requiring good judgement and competent technical paddling.
Due to the incredible stability of pack-rafts, many people will successfully ‘bounce’ their way to the bottom of a Grade 3 rapid, but for a passive paddler, just one slightly unlucky moment will mean a swim. The consequences of a swim in Grade 2 are usually low, but Grade 3 poses real hazards with potentially serious consequences.
If you really want to move up in the grades, you should be attending paddling and rescue courses, being mentored by experienced paddlers, and working hard to develop your skills. If you can catch all the eddies you want, travel to all the points in the river, be confident to swim all the rapids, consistently self rescue and rescue others, then, you might be ready to progress up a grade under the supervision of an experienced paddler.
This column was originally published in the November 2017 issue of Backcountry Magazine.
FMC is pleased to be working with the pack-rafting community as well as Whitewater New Zealand to support the responsible growth of pack-rafting. To learn more, join the ‘Packrafting in New Zealand’ Facebook group, and check out trip ideas on www.packraftingtrips.nz.