Learning to Packraft: Ten First Steps for Backcountry Travelers

This article identifies the first steps on a path to packrafting competence for those specifically interested in actually carrying their raft on their back into remote environments!

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by Ryan Jordan | 2014-03-11 00:00:00-06

Introduction

I discovered little rubber boats as a wilderness tool in the 1980s (we didn’t call it “packrafting” then) as a mountain exit strategy: a way to relieve tired and battered feet that spent too much time in mountain boots on glacier climbs in the Olympics and Cascades.

My first packrafting trip down a glacial river in the Washington Olympics was an absolute disaster involving wood-shredded PVC, logjam drama, hypothermic whitewater swims sans life jackets or helmets, and dime-store boats with freeboard measured in centimeters.

We were young, stupid, ignorant, and arrogant.

But we lived. Barely. And at the time, we thought it was awesome. Looking back, I think I would have preferred a different path in learning how to paddle in the wilds.

There are many different reasons people want to learn how to packraft. Some people have zero interest in wilderness boat travel and simply want to try packrafting as a roadside activity. Some people are whitewater enthusiasts looking for a different type of thrill than that found in a larger raft, kayak, or river canoe. Still others see packrafting as a way to enjoy stillwater boating without the hassle, weight, and expenses of hard boats, boat trailers, car toppers, and tie-down straps.

For many of us here at BPL, however, we do see packrafting as a tool for wilderness travel - either as a means to paddle alpine lakes as a recreation activity (perhaps combined with photography, fishing, beach camp hopping, etc.), to paddle rivers as a mode of wilderness transport, or to cross larger rivers that we might not be comfortable swimming or wading.

Thus, this article focuses on a path to packrafting competence for those specifically interested in actually carrying their raft on their back into remote environments!

How To Packraft Jordan - 1
For many of us, the packraft is a tool for wilderness travel. Here, the author arrives at a potential camp on the North Fork of the Sun River in the Bob Marshall Wilderness.

Step 1: Rent or borrow a boat.

Before you shell out (no small amount of) cash on a packrafting setup, rent a boat. There now exists a number of packraft rental companies that provide a variety of models that can be tested. I wish that this option was available 10 years ago - it would have saved people a lot of heartache in their decision-making. Rent for a bit, and avoid some buyer’s regret (e.g., “The boat I bought was too heavy/expensive for what I needed…” or “I wished that I had purchased a more durable boat…”).

As a starting point, I recommend renting a boat from Amy Hatch in Victor, ID (Jackson Hole Packraft and Packraft Rentals Anywhere). Amy is an experienced packrafter, rents out multiple model types, has lots of previous experience in renting packrafts and serving rental clients, and has her rental process dialed in.

Step 2: Practice on a frontcountry pond.

Once you get your rental, become one with your boat at the local pond. Paddle it gently, paddle it aggressively, learn how much force is required to make it turn. Practice getting in and out of your boat. Flip it. Swim with it. Try to get back into it from deep water. Paddle into a headwind, parallel to a crosswind, paddle donuts in the wind. The bottom line: do everything you can to learn how your boat responds to you and your paddle.

How To Packraft Jordan - 2
Scouts learning to packraft on a reservoir as part of the Montana High Adventure Base Wilderness Packrafting high adventure program.

Once you’ve become familiar with your boat, it’s time to practice paddling efficiency. One of the most valuable exercises you can do at this point is to simply paddle forward in a “straight” line for a long ways (several hundred yards at a time is ideal). This will allow you to dial in a paddle stroke that is reasonably efficient - one that doesn’t involve a lot of side to side bow pivoting, results in good forward tracking, and expends as little energy as possible.

Step 3: Find a calm river.

The ideal river for your next set of practice routines is “medium-sized” (I call a medium sized river one where I can throw a rock across and barely reach the opposite shore), and calm flow (Class 1 only at this point!) with no major eddies, waves, obstructions, or bankside brush.

How To Packraft Jordan - 3
The Madison River near Three Forks, Montana is an ideal venue for safe packrafting practice. Flat, Class 1 water provides enough river current to learn packrafting maneuvers without the risk of running into dangerous obstructions.

Step 4: Cross your first river current.

Once you venture out into moving water, the need for safety precautions becomes more serious (see below, Safety Considerations).

Find a calm spot to enter your boat, paddle into a gentle river current, then paddle back to the calm spot. Repeat this several times, changing orientations: try forward paddling across the current, backward paddling across the current, spinning your boat across the current, and just hanging out at the current edge.

Don’t try this at a strong eddy line - where fast moving current is edged against an eddy with opposite-moving flow. These types of crossings sometimes require special paddling techniques to avoid a boat flip.

Step 5: Cross the river.

Get in your boat at a calm spot, paddle away from shore, and face upstream at a quartering angle. Then, forward paddle all the way across the river. Depending on the strength of the river current, paddle hard enough so that you reach the other side at about the same location as your take-off point from the opposite shore. In other words, try not to paddle so hard that you are traveling upstream, but try to paddle hard enough so that you haven’t traveled downstream a significant distance.

You just completed your first controlled forward ferry.

How To Packraft Jordan - 4
A medium sized, Class 1 river is the perfect venue to start practicing ferrying (crossing river currents) in a packraft. Madison River, southwest Montana.

Now, do the same thing back to the other shore, but face downstream and paddle backwards. This is the backward ferry.

Get comfortable with both forward and backward ferry crossings in a variety of currents.

Step 6: Find an obstacle and learn to avoid it.

The ideal obstacle in a Class 1 river is a large rock out in the middle of the river current. In the absence of large rocks, you may have to invoke your imagination and pick a recognizable spot marked by a weedbed, protruding log, underwater rock, etc.

Start far upstream of the obstacle, and backpaddle facing downstream. Use backpaddling techniques to ferry from left to right, avoiding the obstacle. Practice this on a variety of obstacles. You are learning the art of backpaddling to control your boat. It’s a critical, foundational skill in river packrafting.

How To Packraft Jordan - 5
Here’s a captain’s view of just minor chaos in a Class 2 river. Here, the paddler is backpaddling with a strong left back stroke to swing the stern (rear) of the boat to the right, allowing the current to propel the packraft to the right of the rocks in the foreground. Avoiding obstacles is such a critical skill in packrafting that it’s well worth practicing in low-risk environments of a Class 1 river where the consequences of a swim are low.

Step 7: Repeat Step 2 at your calm river spot.

The idea here is that you want to experiment with as many different maneuvering scenarios as possible so that you understand how your boat is going to respond to a variety of paddle strokes - but now, in the presence of a river current.

Step 8: Paddle your first point-to-point float.

You are now ready for your first point-to-point float on a Class 1 river. Pick a section about three miles in length that you know is free from dangerous obstructions (talk to local paddling shops to let them know what you are looking for, and they can point you in the right direction). Repeat that section a few times until you become familiar with it.

Step 9: Repeat Steps 2-8 with a pack.

Now, load up a backpack with your normal wilderness hiking gear. It’s probably in the range of 20 to 40 pounds. Strap it to the front of your boat’s tie-down points, and repeat Steps 2-8 above with the pack strapped to your boat. You’ll find that your boat is less responsive, and that more effort will be required for you to complete these practice skills effectively and efficiently.

Take it one step further and complete a Class 1 float (Step 8) with your overnight gear, with a camp in the middle, so you can get a feel for the tempo, joys, and challenges of river camping.

How To Packraft Jordan - 6
Don’t negate the need to practice the art of packraft camping. Packrafting introduces unique challenges to wilderness camping that may surprise you if you wait until you encounter them in a remote wilderness! Grande Ronde River, SE Washington State.

Step 10: Start planning your packrafting future.

You just completed a crash course in packrafting with your rental boat. Now, you’re ready for next steps: boat shopping, trip planning, and skills development.

At this point, consider partnering with a mentor who is an experienced packrafter to take you to the next level. Class 2 rivers, rivers in wilderness environments, and expedition-length packrafting trips bring complicated challenges and risks that aren’t worth taking if you don’t have boating experience. A mentor will help you adequately prepare for those challenges and identify those risks, so you can return again to paddle another day while maintaining a high fun factor.

Take a packrafting course in Montana.

If you’ve never packrafted before, or you have reached the limit of your current skills, consider enrolling in one of Backpacking Light’s Packrafting Courses. Our instructors will teach you a solid foundation of skills, expedition travel, safety, and risk management, while paddling the majestic and beautiful rivers of southwest Montana.

How To Packraft Jordan - 7
The camaraderie of a shared experience and solid skills instruction combined with stunning scenery and just plain fun, are the hallmarks of Backpacking Light’s Wilderness Packrafting programs.

Safety Considerations

You’ll have to make your own judgment calls based on your confidence, ability, and level of fitness, but in the absence of experience, please consider the following as you are learning how to packraft:

  • Wear a USGS-approved Class III personal flotation device (“PFD”). In most jurisdictions, this is law. There’s a reason for the law. Even the most experienced boaters drown.
  • Paddle with a buddy, preferably someone who has more experience than you.
  • Practice in warm weather and water conditions, so hypothermia risk doesn’t complicate your learning.
  • Be a strong swimmer. If you’re not a strong swimmer, take a swimming class first.

What’s Next?

As you gain skills, confidence, judgment, and experience, a wide open world of wilderness travel awaits the competent packrafter!

How To Packraft Jordan - 8
Intermediate packrafting: navigating logjam complexity, Fish Creek, Montana.


Citation

"Learning to Packraft: Ten First Steps for Backcountry Travelers," by Ryan Jordan. BackpackingLight.com (ISSN 1537-0364).
http://backpackinglight.com/cgi-bin/backpackinglight/how_to_packraft_jordan.html, 2014-03-11 00:00:00-06.

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Forum Index » Editor's Roundtable » Learning to Packraft: Ten First Steps for Backcountry Travelers


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Maia
(maia) - MLife

Locale: Rocky Mountains
Learning to Packraft: Ten First Steps for Backcountry Travelers on 03/11/2014 17:51:46 MDT Print View

Companion forum thread to:

Learning to Packraft: Ten First Steps for Backcountry Travelers

Rex Sanders
(Rex) - M

Locale: Central California Coast
Great article; more tips for beginners on 03/11/2014 22:09:41 MDT Print View

Ryan,

Great introduction article!

I have a few more tips for beginners, based on training hundreds of raft guides:

- You will learn much faster if you are warm, dry(ish), well-fed, well-watered, well-rested, and relatively pain-free.

- Be gentle on yourself. Everyone takes time to learn. Learn from your mistakes, but don't focus on them.

- Take breaks, especially if you are getting frustrated.

- Take time to learn to sit in the boat very comfortably and stably. You should be able to lean pretty far out without falling out or flipping. Practice in flat water.

- Take time to find the perfect grip for your paddle. For most people, your hands are about shoulder width apart. Find a grip that lets you make each stroke without moving your hands along the paddle.

- Try changing the angle between your blades (if possible). If you have an odd angle, try flipping the paddle around to change the angles in each hand. Find the angles that works best for you!

- Practice and perfect each paddle stroke separately:

- Left turn with a forward stroke on the right side
- Left turn with a back stroke on the left side
- Right turn with a forward stroke on the left side
- Right turn with a back stroke on the right side
- Left side forward stroke, moving the boat in a straight-ish line. Twist your paddle near the end of the stroke to keep going straight.
- Left side back stroke, moving the boat in a straight-ish line. Twist your paddle near the end of the stroke to keep going straight.
- Right side forward stroke, moving the boat in a straight-ish line. Twist your paddle near the end of the stroke to keep going straight.
- Right side back stroke, moving the boat in a straight-ish line. Twist your paddle near the end of the stroke to keep going straight.
- Alternating left side and right side forward strokes, moving the boat in a straight line.
- Alternating left side and right side back strokes, moving the boat in a straight line.

- Practice paddle strokes in slow motion at first. For each kind of stroke, watch your:

- Paddle orientation
- Paddle entry point into the water
- Paddle distance from the boat
- Paddle depth
- Paddle exit point from the water
- Hand grip
- Hand orientation on different strokes.

- Focus on making "perfect" strokes, then practice those perfect strokes. Gradually speed up those perfect strokes, and add more power.

- When you practice paddling in a straight line, pick a landmark in the distance to paddle towards or away from.

- Practice spinning your boat as fast as possible, in both directions, using both forward and back strokes.

- Practice "spin-and-stops". Point your boat at one landmark and come to a complete stop. Pick another landmark. Spin your boat as fast as you can from one landmark to another, coming to a complete stop at each landmark. Practice spinning in both directions, using both forward and back strokes. You are learning to control your boat angle.

- Make a game of paddling towards, and barely missing, rocks or other river obstacles. This is good practice for when you really need to get around a rock or obstacle in swift water.

-- Rex

Dale Wambaugh
(dwambaugh) - MLife

Locale: Pacific Northwest
Re: Learning to Packraft: Ten First Steps for Backcountry Travelers on 03/12/2014 15:22:31 MDT Print View

I think packrafts are a great alternative where you must hike to get water access; otherwise, I would much rather have a kayak.

A packraft is a very minimal watercraft and deserves some caution and respect in moving water. As with a kayak, you should always be prepared for a cold water exit and have the strategy and skills to deal with that event. A surprise dunking in glacial or snow melt near freezing water is a major reality check!

I'd love to have one for summer day hikes and overnight trips to remote mountain lakes. Fishing is the obvious goal, and I imagine they might provide access to campsites on the far side of a lake, away from the summer crowds.

I'm surprised that there hasn't been some development of shelters to be used with packrafts-- that nice fat wall/roof begs for some wings and a bug nest to meld with it.

Steve Duby
(JHypers) - M

Locale: Interior Alaska
Steps 11 and beyond... on 03/13/2014 02:56:17 MDT Print View

I'm honestly a bit shocked that this article didn't once reference Roman Dial's book. There's definitely a lot of crossover regarding the steps, but for anyone new to packrafting, Roman's book (published by BPL no less) should definitely be on your reading list, especially if backcountry travel is your goal.

Step #11, in my opinion, should be to take a swiftwater/whitewater rescue course specialized for packrafting situations. These are starting to be offered more frequently, so keep a look out for them in your area, especially in the PNW or Alaska.

Beyond that, I'm a big proponent of 'baptism by whitewater' in that, for someone who is looking to quickly develop whitewater skills for use in the backcountry, starting with those frontcountry roadside runs is going to be your best bet. Find a river or creek that's Class II or III, and run it with a fellow packrafter...or if you're really wanting to test your skill limits, an experienced whitewater kayaker who's willing to rescue your boat in case you swim would be ideal.

In my opinion, an "Alaska-ready" packrafter has the following assets and skills:
- Fundamental steps of learning to packraft (both Jordan's and Dial's) mastered.
- Swift/Whitewater rescue course-certified
- Class III or higher boating confidence and ability
- Pointy stern Alpacka (tracks better in the water)
- Dry suit

I emphasize Class III for two reasons: 1) it is often readily encountered along the upper stretches of rivers and creeks in Alaska, especially those that are glacially fed, and 2) it is the upper limit that most packrafts themselves can handle. Can a Class IV boater paddle Class IV whitewater in a packraft? Yes, but it usually requires some boat modifications. Class V? Get a kayak. Point being, if there's IV-V on your river, provisions are usually made to portage those sections anyway. But passing up on Class III due to a lack of skill? That is a serious loss of fun in my opinion. It means more walking when you could be paddling. Also, confidence and skill in Class III means your ability to handle Class II is even better, to the point where you might consider trying it in an open boat.

David Chenault
(DaveC) - BPL Staff - F

Locale: Crown of the Continent
Re: Steps 11 and beyond... on 03/13/2014 08:34:25 MDT Print View

Agree across the board Steve. My only question/concern is what does class III mean? I've seen it applied to such a massive range of water that I'm not sure it's such a coherent guideline, especially for someone who's never done whitewater before getting in a packraft.

Packrafting is seductive and dangerous, in that it's pretty easy to develop enough skills, and find the right sorts of low-volume, technical runs, that you can get in to dangerous stuff quickly. It's rather like modern ski touring gear and avy terrain, in that the gear allows skill development to far outstrip the growth of judgement and experience. I often wonder how many close calls have happened packrafting on whitewater that we haven't heard about.

peter vacco
(fluff@inreach.com) - M

Locale: no. california
how to packraft wrong. on 03/13/2014 08:37:38 MDT Print View

i bought a sevlor trail boat, blew it up, and went down to the pool at my aptartment. the gate was locked, and so i took my nice new boat back upstairs and shipped it to alaska the next day.
once i walked into anuktuvuk pass i pried my supplies away from the postmaster and headed west into whatever is west of ap. the upper reaches of the Reed River looked fine water to raft, so i blew it up, tossed in my pack, and kneeled across the pack to shove off from shore ( i looked quite manly doing this). 6 yards later i am upside down in a river and it's not look'n so manly anymore.
so, i slogged downhill thru some swamps and meadows until i could reach water that was not dropping several hundred feet per mile. and we try again !
this time i sat in the the boat proper, w/pack between my legs (learned fist thing) and it was less bad. the water goes to the outside of every turn and tries to run you into sweepers in the bends (learned second thing). the raft was very slow, and i had to paddle like a madman to stay ahead of the rivers desire to impale me on the outside corners (learned third thing). the trail boat does not run all sweet and dry thru the frothy white parts of the river ( ... 4th thing). all these important things learned in about 200 feet.
then, over the next two days, i rafted the Reed which moves along pretty good, and is INfested with subsurface snags. it was hardly the relaxing proposition that our good Dr. Ryan shows with Chase blissfully napping at the bow, fly rod angled off at a jaunty angle, and while wearing Exactly the proper hat.
it was a lot more like the first time you drive a big rig, with worn out steering, in heavy traffic. so let's just expect to be an physical and emotional wreck.

peter did not follow rule squat frikk'ng ONE, and i am not dead yet.
-----
that said. all those rules are Great Advice, and i recommend you take it if you don't want to end up drowned.

cheers,
v.

Steve Duby
(JHypers) - M

Locale: Interior Alaska
Re: Re: Steps 11 and beyond... on 03/13/2014 20:54:12 MDT Print View

Yet another reason for beginners to examine Roman's stuff. I completely forgot to mention the PR rating scale.

I think there comes a point with packrafting when you seriously have to ask yourself, "Am I a backpacker with a boat...or am I a boater with a backpack?" I guess I didn't go into much detail on whitewater classification because its easily researched, but when it comes to packrafting, I think the single greatest factor to consider when assessing the water is the volume, or stream flow (cfs). This is where classification can be a bit deceiving, because as you know, packrafts are small, light watercraft that are easily maneuvered, but more at the mercy of the energy and motion at play.

In any respect, let's look at American Whitewater's definition of Class III:

"Rapids with moderate, irregular waves which may be difficult to avoid and which can swamp an open canoe. Complex maneuvers in fast current and good boat control in tight passages or around ledges are often required; large waves or strainers may be present but are easily avoided. Strong eddies and powerful current effects can be found, particularly on large-volume rivers. Scouting is advisable for inexperienced parties. Injuries while swimming are rare; self-rescue is usually easy but group assistance may be required to avoid long swims. Rapids that are at the lower or upper end of this difficulty range are designated “Class III-” or “Class III+” respectively."

Add volume to a normal Class III run, and it can easily become Class IV or higher...but when considering BIG rivers that are normally at high volume due to sheer size, adding more water to the equation can make a Class I "boring" float in a paddle raft a bit nerve-wracking in a packraft. There was a point on the Chitina River last year where, when ferrying across a deep, powerful main channel, I thought to myself, a swim would have dire consequences...but the "rating" was only Class I if you were to shrink the volume down to the size of a creek while maintaining the same obstacles and stream flow dynamics.

I think the biggest point to be made in this thread, is that if you decide to utilize a packraft as a mode of backcountry travel, you cannot safely or efficiently do so with just a "backpacker" mentality.

David Chenault
(DaveC) - BPL Staff - F

Locale: Crown of the Continent
Re: how to packraft wrong. on 03/14/2014 10:48:03 MDT Print View

Funny stuff Peter. The demise of the Trailboat will probably save a lot of people from themselves. I took a nice insta-swim years ago when I popped mine on a logjam.

Venerated though it is, I think the international WW scale is fundamentally flawed. Since class VI is unpaddlable, you end up with a de facto odd number Likert scale, which any social scientist will tell you is a recipe for poor results. Ergo, class III ends up being a catch all between too easy to be impressive and hard enough to be scary.

Steve Duby
(JHypers) - M

Locale: Interior Alaska
Re: Re: how to packraft wrong. on 03/14/2014 17:09:31 MDT Print View

"Impressive" and "scary" are subjective terms. They don't inherently define whitewater by any objective means.

And fundamentally flawed? If that's your conclusion, by the same logic you would have to throw out every rating system utilized by outdoor enthusiasts, because they all have a degree of subjectivity.

And though we've been discussing the degree of difficulty of certain classifications with a packraft, the fact is that the IW classifications were determined without taking any specific craft into account. The PR rating system centers on the craft itself, and essentially describes what to expect/do when packrafting in the IW spectrum.

Revisiting Class III, it's categorized by a marked increase in both the size and irregularity of the rapids, and a decrease in the number of routes to avoid them...hence the introduction of scouting. It's the point where stopping and thinking about what your next move will be is likely a better idea than just negotiating the rapids as you float by.

Rex Sanders
(Rex) - M

Locale: Central California Coast
Whitewater scales on 03/14/2014 18:35:50 MDT Print View

To paraphrase the famous George Box quote:

Essentially, all whitewater scales are wrong, but some are useful.

I've found the AWA International Scale of River Difficulty from I-VI to be a very useful guide to running hundreds of rapids on dozens of rivers.

Is it flawed and subjective? Yes.

Are you likely to see rapids rated on any other scale? No, except for the Grand Canyon, which uses a 1-10 scale that's just as flawed and subjective.

We need to work with what we have.

So the obligatory comments on rapid ratings:

- Rapids can get much harder when river flows are much higher or much lower than normal. Many guidebooks rate rapids differently at different flows.

- Right now, this rapid might be much harder than the usual rating, for many reasons, including flow, weather (high winds can be a PITA), river changes since the rapid was rated, recent obstructions like logs or pinned boats, river traffic (bumper cars), etc.

- Right now, you and your paddling partners' ability to run this rapid could be very different from previous runs or similar rapids.

Which leads to ...

- When in doubt, scout.

- If you really wouldn't want to swim this rapid right now, portage.

-- Rex

Edited by Rex on 03/14/2014 18:37:23 MDT.

Steve Duby
(JHypers) - M

Locale: Interior Alaska
PR System on 03/16/2014 00:47:00 MDT Print View

Here is the source material if any beginners are wondering about the Packraft Rating (PR) System and what it is.

http://www.backpackinglight.com/cgi-bin/backpackinglight/packraft_rating_system.html#.UyVGtF5kISE

Brad Branan
(bradbranan) - M

Locale: Sacramento Valley
Re: Re: Re: Steps 11 and beyond... on 08/03/2014 17:13:09 MDT Print View

Steve,

Would you discourage a relatively new packrafter from floating the Chitina? I was considering rafting from Jakes Bar to Chitina this month. I've owned the packraft for a year, used it 15 times or so, taken whitewater kayak lessons, and used the packraft on Class II-III sections of the American River.