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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
As you gain skills, confidence, judgment, and experience, a wide open world of wilderness travel awaits the competent packrafter!
Intermediate packrafting: navigating logjam complexity, Fish Creek, Montana.