Editors Note: This article has been excerpted from the book Packrafting! An Introduction and How-To Guide, by Roman Dial (ISBN 978-0-9748188-3-2, Published by Backpacking Light, 2008).
Packraft Rating (PR) System
Standard whitewater ratings are not always a good indicator of packrafting difficulty. Some very technical rapids that are low volume and shallow - dangerous in a kayak - feel easier and safer in a packraft. Meanwhile, big, high volume but technically easy rapids can be tough in a packraft. Hence the following system, which should be considered open ended.
Good sport in a packraft. Running Ship Creek's Two by Four rapids (PR 5), near Anchorage, Alaska.
PR 1 Flat water, little or no current, no obstacles. No special techniques or gear needed. Lakes and slow rivers.
PR 2 Gentle current, small waves. Ferrying technique necessary to maneuver and avoid sweepers, strainers, and shallows. Floating is relaxed. Rain gear and garbage bags sufficient to keep dry.
PR 3 One to two foot tall wave trains, eddy lines, and holes can swamp and/or flip boat. Ferrying and back-paddling necessary to avoid obstacles, miss holes and rocks. Drysuit or wetsuit is insurance against swims and waves. Dry-bag protects gear. Requires novice boating-with-a-backpack skills. Bicycles or passengers manageable in boat.
PR 4 River powerful, often Class III for canoes, kayaks, and paddle rafts, meaning water reading necessary and scouting recommended. Flip potential high with loaded boats. Swamping avoidable with good technique or spray cover. Throw ropes and swift-water rescue training advised, although self-rescue easy.
PR 5 Generally Class IV or high volume Class III for canoes, kayaks, and paddle rafts. Scouting of rapids necessary. Spray skirts or decks, drysuits, helmets, and unloaded boats strongly recommended as well as safety personnel. Bracing, forward paddling, and confidence while big waves crash overhead needed. Precise maneuvering necessary through intense and powerful water. Swimming is risky. Throw ropes and swift-water rescue training strongly advised.
Learning to Packraft: A Suggested Sequence of Waters
Below is a suggested progression from first-time in a boat to longer trips. The progression was developed successfully through month-long classes in packrafting I have taught at Alaska Pacific University from 1997-2007. It is meant to be a step-by-step guide - using skills described in the following chapters - to quickly get beginners to the stage that took many of us years to reach.
Step 1: Stillwater Basics
Pool or lake boating to learn paddling strokes, both side to side and backwards, and to learn where the tipping point is on the boat. Practice wet exit and entrance - getting out of and into the boat without touching the bottom. Paddle with no pack first, then with a pack tied to boat. It is useful to try paddling with differing pack weights and different paddle lengths.
Points to consider:
- How strongly to paddle.
- How to back-paddle.
- How to turn the boat.
- How to position the paddle to keep the boat straight.
- What it takes to tip the boat.
- How to get in a flipped boat while swimming.
- Paddle with no pack first, then with a pack tied to the boat.
- How quickly the boat loses pressure without tempering.
- How well or poorly clothing keeps you dry and/orwarm.
Step 2: Moving Water Basics
Gentle, slow-moving current with some riffles and bank debris to learn how to paddle moving PR 2 water and to learn the basics of ferrying. First without a pack, shifting weight to find a good balance point, then with pack.
New points to consider:
- How the boat moves across the current during ferry - be sure to make multiple crossings.
- How to get in and out of the boat from the bank.
- Where the best position is for sitting in the boat.
- How to temper the boat - inflate, cool, inflate.
- Where deep and fast vs. shallow and slow water is.
- Where best to position the boat in current.
- What an eddy is, how it behaves, and how your boat responds to it.
- Where passage through an upstream opening "V" is located.
- How easily the boat pivots.
Jason Geck running PR 4 rapids on “Flower Power,” a ninety mile mountain wilderness traverse from Girdwood to Palmer, Alaska.
Step 3: Technical Moving Water
Unobstructed but moving PR 3 water with rocks, holes, waves to two feet, learning the basics of ferrying and river reading. Do the stretch several times, including with a pack tied to the bow.
New points to consider:
- How to read faster-moving water.
- What an eddy-line feels like.
- How back-paddling keeps water out of an open
- boat when passing through wave trains.
- How to avoid rocks by not looking at them.
- Dumping the boat when swamped with water.
- Back-ferrying with bow downstream.
- Front-ferrying with bow upstream.
- How to swim in moving water with your paddle.
- How to right a loaded boat while swimming.
- How to make a wet entrance into a loaded boat.
- How to grab your partner's boat while swimming.
- How to catch your swimming partner's boat.
- How to tow a swimming partner from your boat.
- How to paddle a boat without a paddle.
- How to toss throw ropes from shore to a swimmer.
- How to catch throw ropes if swimming.
Step 4: Day Hiking & Packrafting
Easy four-hour trail walk carrying all packraft gear, followed by three hours of rafting, up to PR 3. Learn how to pack and carry a day-pack with raft gear and hiking gear. Experiment with clothing, shoes, and how to keep gear dry.
New points to consider:
- How to pack the rafting gear for hiking.
- Clothes and shoes that are best for rafting and walking.
- How to pack gear and keep it dry while rafting.
- How the raft handles with a load.
- How best to bail the boat.
- How to read the water with a load on the front of the boat.
- How to tell waves from barely submerged rocks.
- How to tell shallow from deep moving water.
Step 5: Day Trekking & Packrafting
Longer day trip, six- to eight-hour walk, perhaps with bushwhacking, followed by PR 2 paddle. Purpose is to extend range of travel and see how you paddle when already tired.
New points to consider:
- How you feel rafting after a longer walk.
- How to stretch out, stay comfortable in boat.
- How the raft handles with a bigger load.
- More water reading: pay careful attention to current locations.
Step 6: Weekend Packraft Trekking
Weekend trip, heavier pack than day trip. Idea is to mix PR 3 rafting in two or more watersheds, hiking, and camping. Experiment with multi-tasking gear like raft paddle and PFD.
- Sluggishness of boat handling.
- Camping with boat.
- How pack can obscure view of water.
- How to keep gear dry.
Step 7: Technical Packrafting
Challenging four-hour, off-trail walk followed by three-hour rafting, up to PR 3-4 at low water. Best to follow more experienced boaters through rapids.
- Improving your boat handling.
- Improving your water reading skills.
- Improving your load tying.
Step 8: Expedition Packrafting
Week-long wilderness trip, 50% walking and 50% floating up to PR 3 across two or more watersheds.
Goals and objectives:
"Hellbiking” by definition. Paul Adkins hauls a big load off the Copper River and onto the Bremner Dunes, Chugach Mountains.
Like all boats, packrafts are subject to the physics of moving water. However, due to the combination of several factors - their inflatable nature, their small size, their low center of gravity, their vulnerability to swamping and puncturing, and especially their slow hull speed and high skin drag - packrafts are more sensitive to water volume than bigger rafts and cannot move as quickly as longer, narrower boats like canoes or kayaks.
Consequently, typical white-water ratings are not the most precise gauge of difficulty. Beginning packrafters can also progress more quickly in their development if they learn the basics of boating in calm, unobstructed water first, before jumping into the “fun stuff.”