As Roman Dial, author of ‘Packrafting! An Introduction and How-to Guide’ puts it: a packraft ‘encourages amphibious travel’.
By Chris Scott
Imagine a small, robust raft that unrolls from your backpack and inflates with the help of the breeze. Agile enough to throw at all the white water you dare, you can just as easily access wilderness areas where transporting or portaging hardshells is a drag. Fly overseas fully equipped without blowing your baggage allowance, or just cycle to the water then stow your bike on the bow for the ride back. It’s all possible with a packraft: a portable but durable miniraft that offers a whole new way of enjoying the water.
The idea of portable rafts isn’t new, but in the 80s enterprising Alaskan adventure racers moved things forward. As with so much outdoor gear these days, the advent of lighter, tougher and cheaper materials has created new forms of recreation and adventure travel.
A packraft is made from a woven base fabric coated in urethane. Once fully inflated, this fabric’s finite stretchability translates into a firm vessel that transforms paddling efficiency and response. Yes, a ‘squeezed-from-a-tube’ pool toy (see box) will also float, but so does a knotted bin bag. It’s this containment of high pressures, allied with sophisticated hull forms that produce a boat you can take to far flung places, load up and set off with confidence.
The lightest packraft made by Supai weighs 700g and rolls up smaller than a pair of jeans, Feathercraft make tough, self-bailing packrafts, just like full-sized ‘Zambezi’ rafts. Alpacka produce over half a dozen models weighing two to three kilos. Add a spray deck for Class IV, or an airtight zip to store your gear inside the inflated hull for added stability.
Like any inflatable, a packraft bounces rather than slam into rocks, but clearly when speared, dragged over clam beds or attacked by a grizzly it’s less robust than a hardshell creek boat. And out to sea it won’t cut through the waves like a slick sea kayak longer than your car. A packraft’s unique benefits come in what you can’t easily do with hardshells: take the bus to your local river and hitch or walk back; traverse the wild corners of the Scottish Highlands, trekking cross country over loch and river.
Opportunities are only limited by your imagination: the Amazon, outback Alaska, obscure African waterways – all have been packrafted. A couple of years ago we hopped into a tiny Cessna to explore the croc-infested Fitzroy River in northern Australia (see issue 3 of ThePaddler ezine – click here). Everything we needed: boats, a week’s food and gear, fitted in regular backpacks and luckily they were the right sorts of crocs.
Gear and techniques
Canoeable rivers and lakes offer no obstacles to a packrafting novice. And while more stable, the same limitations of waves and more especially wind, make a relatively slow packraft ill suited to a three-week tour of the Western Isles. Flatwater cruising speed is about 3mph, or whatever a tailwind or current allows.
Gear is the same as regular kayaking. I use the same paddles, PFDs and dry bags as for my IKs. If you use narrower hardshells and are short, you may want a longer paddle of say 215-220cm to get around a packraft’s relatively high and wide sides.
Sat at the back of a buoyant raft not much longer than you are tall, paddling will induce a left-right yawing motion at the bow, something often confused with ‘tracking’. A packraft with track straight across the water, but until you’ve mastered the knack it’ll do so in a series of shallow zig-zags. A pack across the bow reduces yawing, but in a packraft you’re not going to be imitating Donald Campbell streaking across Coniston Water.
The other tendency packrafts have is flipping backwards or ‘bandersnatching’ at the base of steep, sloping chutes. As the nose ploughs in and rebounds, water hammers down on the stern and over you go. As in a kayak, lunge forward as you launch and be ready with a brace. The elongated stern of post-2011 Alpackas greatly reduced bandersnatching and had the added effect of reducing yawing too.
Other than that, you’ll enjoy a packraft’s ability to flip through 180° with just a quick draw, as well as the stability and low centre of gravity. With thigh straps added, you can roll a packraft, though some think the risk of entrapment makes straps a bad idea. On the bright side, a 3-kilo miniraft that’s as buoyant as a cork tends to skim over nasty hydraulics rather than get buried by them.
Although it looks similar, a packraft differs exponentially from the PVC beach toys you can buy for 20 quid at holiday resorts. The cheapest packraft will cost ten or 20 times that, but pumps up firm, paddles efficiently and won’t be burst by a sharp noise. PVC is a stretchy plastic film that can’t become taught like nylon or polyester fabric.
Furthermore, these over wide ‘slackrafts’ as I call them, are actually designed for backward-facing rowing facing a flat stern while sat at a buoyant, rounded bow. Try kayak paddling forward and you’re either pushing that flat ‘stern’ like a half-sunk pallet, or you’re sat in the less buoyant stern, yawing dizzyingly at 1.3 mph.
But slackrafts are a cheap way of sampling the packraft experience. I’ve done multi-day trips with mates in slackrafts and on all occasions they’ve ended up detesting or destroying them. Usually both. But at least they got out there.
Intrigued? Then check out some of the resources below.
Alpacka Rafts Handmade in Colorado, the best range of packrafts
apaddleinmypack Chris Scott’s packrafting blog
Feathercraft Baylee River Runner Feathercraft’s rugged white water packraft
Packrafting Store Only EU outlet selling Alpackas and Supai, plus all the gear.
packrafting.blogspot.com Alaska-based author and adventurer, Roman Dial