Packrafting Gear List

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by Ryan Jordan | 2004-07-09 03:00:00-06

Introduction

Ry on raft
Ryan Jordan packrafting the Class II-III Madison River at low water in Montana’s Beartrap Wilderness.

Packrafting, floating down wilderness rivers (or on alpine lakes) with a packable raft, requires a unique attention to gear not normally considered by most backpackers. The following gear list is one I use while packrafting in warmer (summer) conditions. Cold weather considerations are discussed later in this article under Raingear.

Planning for a typical packrafting adventure usually requires that you consider the following:

  • Bushwhacking. Many wilderness rivers and alpine lakes require some amount of bushwhacking to reach drop-in locations. Consequently, clothing and packs made with durable materials may be necessary.
  • Load Volume. Packrafts, personal flotation devices (PFDs), and packrafting paddles require substantially more volume than typical backpacking gear. Strapping all this gear to the outside of your pack may not be a good idea - especially if you’re bushwhacking. Your packraft is your ticket home. You will need to protect it.
  • Getting Wet. Unless you plan to float calm alpine lakes or flat rivers, you will get wet in a packraft. Floating a river with a Class II rating or higher in a rainstorm is one of the wettest backcountry experiences available. You need to consider this possibility when selecting raingear and the equipment used for keeping your pack and its contents dry.

Context

The gear on the list below was selected with careful attention paid to integrating as much of it as possible into a backcountry packrafting "system." The context for this gear list is as follows:

  • Location: Northwestern Montana (e.g., Yaak, Kootenai, Flathead areas)
  • Season: Summer (July - August)
  • Water Type: Moving (river), Class I-II
  • Terrain: Trails and bushwhacking through dense brush, below treeline
  • Expected Weather: Nighttime lows 40s, Daytime highs 70s, rain common

Rationale for Selected Gear

paddles
The author’s packrafting paddle of choice is the Aqua-Bound Seafarer, an all-carbon, four-piece paddle that weighs two pounds and costs less than $200.

Paddle. A variety of paddles are available, with most packrafters choosing to use four-piece kayak paddles (whitewater or sea touring power paddles). Whitewater paddles offer more blade surface area than flatwater recreational paddles, making it easier to power the raft in turbulent water and to negotiate obstacles. The larger paddle surface area also means less energy expended, especially when backpaddling in rolling waves and making tracks across flatwater sections. A good compromise between weight, size, and performance, are sea kayak touring paddles with a power blade design used for open water sea kayaking.

Two-piece paddles are easy to pack (never consider an unwieldy one piece paddle for backcountry packrafting) but are too long for bushwhacking in dense vegetation with a lot of overhead brush. Thus, a four-piece paddle is best for most backcountry use. In addition, a four-piece paddle gives you the most flexibility for support poles if you are using a tarp for shelter.

Paddle length ranges from 200 to 240 centimeters. Packrafters tend to gravitate towards shorter paddles because they are more packable, weigh less, and work exceptionally well in smaller backcountry rivers where longer paddles become burdensome. Generally 210 centimeter paddles are considered the most versatile. Ironically, individuals with longer torsos can get away with shorter paddles because they can more easily clear the tubes and keep their paddle strokes closer to the boat.

Paddles come in a variety of materials: plastic composites, fiberglass, or carbon fiber. Plastic paddles are the cheapest. A four-piece paddle can be purchased for less than $100. They can weigh as much as 3.5 pounds or more so you will want to be selective when choosing a paddle. The plastic paddles are certainly more durable than carbon fiber paddles, an important consideration if you are hard on your gear. Carbon fiber paddles are most prone to failure at the joints when putting the paddle together or taking it apart. In addition, carbon fiber blades are prone to nicking and cracking if over abused by using them as crowbars in rocky rivers.

Paddle weight has a tremendous impact on energy expenditure and maneuverability while operating a packraft. Look for a plastic paddle that weighs less than 2.75 pounds, or a carbon fiber paddle that hits the 2-pound sweet spot that most kayakers crave.

My choice: four-piece 210 centimeter carbon fiber paddles from Aqua-Bound.

Water Safety Gear. No paddle adventure, especially a river run, should be conducted without a personal flotation device (PFD). A variety of PFDs are available, with the major differences being non-inflatable (foam) or inflatable (auto-inflate via a CO2 cartridge or manual via air). My choice is a SOSuspender Scout, which is one of the lowest volume (read: packable) and lightest inflatable vests on the market. I skip the CO2 auto-inflate option and simply inflate the vest manually before hitting the water. Consider getting a vest with outside pockets for snacks, a camera, and/or a small water bottle.

My other safety gear: an ACR Whistle on an AirCore Spectra lanyard. When traveling with others and depending on the river size, each of us carries a rescue throw bag and line: 50 feet of floating 3/8 inch polypropylene rope that doubles as bear bag hanging line (note: Using rope as a bear bag hanging line may reduce the strength of the rescue line due to abrasion occurring during the process of hanging a food bag).

Repair Kit. A few pieces of packraft cloth and some McNett Aqua Seal covers the bases for most punctures and small tears. I also carry a few feet of duct tape which helps patch rips in the floor of the packraft. It can also be used over cloth patches to improve durability of field repairs.

raingear
A short inflatable sleeping pad provides protection from bumps and keeps your feet (and gear) off the normally wet floor helping them stay a little drier and warmer. The author mates a TorsoLite inflatable sleeping pad into the floor section of an Alpaca packraft.

Sleeping Pad. Remarkably, a sleeping pad is an important packrafting essential. When placed in the bottom of boats without inflatable floors, an inflatable sleeping pad protects your feet and bum from the impact of rocks. It also keeps you and your gear a little higher to facilitate paddling and keep you drier from the water that will inevitably accumulate in the bottom of the raft. Three-quarter length pads are usually sufficiently long to provide boat-length protection. The Cascade Designs ProLite 3 pad works well but bunches up in the front of the raft because of its non-tapered design. Three-quarter length pads that are more aggressively tapered (e.g., Pacific Outdoor InsulMats) fit better in most rafts. Because my Alpaca includes an inflatable seat, there is even less exposed floor area. My choice for packrafting trips is the Bozeman Mountain Works TorsoLite pad.

Raingear. For most backcountry expeditions, a poncho-tarp is my choice of raingear and shelter. However, using a poncho while rafting in a rainstorm is no easy chore especially on brushy creeks and rivers requiring a lot of maneuverability. So, "real" raingear is essential. In addition, most whitewater trips require more aggressive waterproof options in order to keep you warm as your boat fills up with water spilling in from the rapids! For cold weather trips, or trips requiring a lot of Class II-III+ whitewater, my rain gear consists of a set of lightweight waterproof-breathable splash jacket and pants, which have neoprene gaskets at the cuffs and hem to keep the water out while rafting. My favorites are the NRS Endurance top (12 oz) and bottoms (9 oz), and the new MontBell Paddling Jacket (10 oz). I've also used a pair of neoprene stocking foot wading pants with waterproof-breathable fabric uppers (Simms Guide Pants) paired with a waterproof-breathable rain jacket (Montane Hydra-Lite Smock) that I’ve modified by adding a crotch strap so it doesn’t ride up while in the raft. Total weight of either of these setups, which keep you (mostly) dry even through serious whitewater, is less than 2.5 pounds (with waders), and as light as 19 oz (MontBell top and NRS pants). For summer trips, or trips on calm rivers or alpine lakes, I simply use a set of ultralight waterproof-breathable raingear: GoLite Reed Pants and a Montane Superfly Jacket, paired with SealSkinz socks (for warmth and water protection during the rain, and when your feet are sitting in cold water in your boat) and Outdoor Research Rain Mitts.

shelter

The author’s shelter and sleep system focuses on minimum pack volume and weight: a 6-ounce solo tarp, 1-pound down sleeping bag, 10-ounce inflatable sleeping pad, and an 8-ounce bivy sack. One advantage to four-piece paddles is the flexibility they offer in pitching a tarp. Here, the handle and one paddle is used in the front, with the other paddle propping up the rear of the tarp.

Gear Protection. Keeping your gear dry is no small challenge in a packraft especially if you’re floating Class I+ rivers. Wind, rain, and even small wave chop can quickly put a few inches of water into the bottom of your raft. Forget about pack covers and water resistant stuff sacks. Nothing short of impermeable plastic is suitable. The best option I’ve found: contain all of the gear inside your pack using a trash compactor bag as a pack liner, and put your pack inside another compactor bag for rain and water spray protection.

Sun Protection. Spending countless hours on the water takes its toll. Sunscreen and sunglasses are a must with an edge given to polarizing lenses. These lenses dramatically reduce glare and help you read water currents better. In windy conditions, glasses with retainers will help to keep them on your head and side shields will keep your eyes protected from wind and water spray.

Rationale for Selection of Other Equipment. When I prepare my equipment for a packrafting trip, my primary motivation is reducing pack volume, so that (1) I don’t need an excessively large pack to contain all my gear while backpacking, and (2) I don’t have a humungous pack in my raft when I hit the water. Consequently, my clothing, shelter, and sleep system reflect items that are above all else, compressible and/or fit into a small volume.

backpack
The author’s packrafting backpack provides easy stowage of the paddle and enough interior volume to accommodate the raft, PFD, and an ultralight backpacking gear kit. Using a cord compression system, it has the flexibility to compress to a small volume while rafting. This pack, used primarily for summer trips that are less than three days, is a McHale Subpop having a 40 L capacity, weighs 28 ounces, and has an internal frame designed for loads of up to 35-40 pounds. For longer trips, the author uses a similar pack that weighs 48 ounces, has a 55 L carrying capacity, and an internal frame comfortable to 50 pounds.

Backpack. My backpack for packrafting is a McHale Subpop (I have two, of varying volumes, for different length trips). The packbag fabric is durable enough for serious bushwhacking (210 denier Spectra ripstop nylon) and has a rear "hydration" pocket that protects my carbon fiber paddle blades while hiking. It also has an excellent cord compression system that allows the pack to expand for the approach but compress to a tiny volume while in the raft. Its lightweight internal frame carries well when loaded for extended cold-weather packrafting trips in the backcountry.

Some examples of brands and models/styles are listed below for reference only. They neither represent an endorsement of that particular product nor a suggestion that the product listed is the best choice in the context of any particular situation.

Clothing Worn While Hiking
FUNCTIONSTYLEEXAMPLEOuncesGrams
sun/rain hatHat with brimTilley LT3.085
Hiking shirtDurable long sleeve zip-t for bushwhackingClouveil Rodeo Pullover8.0227
UnderwearTrim-fitting support shorts, boxer styleNike Spandex Running Short Tights3.085
PantsDurable long pants for bushwhackingCloudveil Prospector Pants9.0255
Hiking SocksLightweight linerSmartwool Liner Sock1.543
Hiking ShoesBreathable mesh for rapid water drainageBrasher Quick23.0652
Clothing Worn While Packrafting in Cold Water and/or Wet Weather (In addition to above)
FUNCTIONSTYLEEXAMPLEOuncesGrams
Insulating topSynthetic vestMontBell Thermawrap Vest6.0170
Shell JacketWaterproof-Breathable PulloverMontane Hydra-Lite Smock8.0227
Shell PantsStocking foot wading pantsSimms Classic Guide Pants28.0794
GlovesNeoprene, fleece linedSealSkinz Chillblocker Gloves5.0142
HatThin balaclavaOutdoor Research PS50 Balaclava1.028
Other Items Worn or Carried
FUNCTIONSTYLEEXAMPLEOuncesGrams
WhistlePealess whistle on Spectra CordACR Emergency Whistle1.028
Packrafting Gear
FUNCTIONSTYLEEXAMPLEOuncesGrams
PackraftWhitewater packraftAlpaca54.01531
PaddleAll-carbon, 4-PieceAqua Bound Seafarer, 210 cm33.0936
Personal Floatation DeviceInflatable PFDSOSPenders 16 g Scout Belt Pack (modified: CO2 cartridge eliminated and fanny pack cut out)9.9281
Throw RopeFloating rescue line50 feet by 3/8"; Polypropylene in Size S SpinSack5.0142
Other Clothing
FUNCTIONSTYLEEXAMPLEOuncesGrams
Wind shirtBreathable pulloverMontane Aero Smock2.571
Sleeping SocksFleeceWyoming Wear Fleece Socks3.085
Shelter and Sleep System
FUNCTIONSTYLEEXAMPLEOuncesGrams
Overhead shelterSolo tarpStealth 0 Catenary Tarp5.7162
Tent stakesTitanium skewer styleHi-Vis Lazr Stakes, 8 in1.852
Guylines25 feet, thin diameter SpectraAirCore 11.954
Bivy sackWaterproof bottom, breathable topQuantum Vapr Bivy w/Netting7.5213
Sleeping bagVariable girth down bagQuantum Arc X16.0454
Sleeping padTorso sized inflatable mattressTorsoLite10.0284
Packing
FUNCTIONSTYLEEXAMPLEOuncesGrams
BackpackInternal FrameMcHale Subpop, 55 L48.01361
Waterproof gear storageLarge plasticTrash compactor bags (2)5.0142
OrganizationUltralight stuff sacks, assortedSpinSacks (4)1.543
Cooking and Water
FUNCTIONSTYLEEXAMPLEOuncesGrams
StoveAlcoholBrasslite Turbo Feather0.924
Fuel container8 oz capacityPlatypus Lil' Nipper w/Squirt Top0.821
CookpotTitanium mugSnow Peak 600 / no handle2.468
Cook pot lidAluminum foilCut to size, doubled0.13
Wind screenAluminum foilCut to size, doubled0.26
UtensilSporkVargo Titanium Spork0.514
LightingMatches & lighterIn 4" x 7" Alosksak1.028
Water bottlesSoft sided bladdersTwo, 1 L Platypus Bottles2.057
Water treatmentChemical KitAqua Mira (repackaged into mini dropper bottles)1.028
Food storageBear Bag Hanging SystemUrsaLite3.085
Other Essentials
FUNCTIONSTYLEEXAMPLEOuncesGrams
MapsWaterproofLocal topo / trail map2.057
LightLED headlampPhoton Freedom Micro Light / Hat Clip0.720
First aidMinor wound care / meds1.234
FirestartingEmergency firestarting - waterproofSpark-Lite Kit in 4" x 7" Aloksak1.028
SunglassesDark polarized with side shieldsJulbo Nomads in Hides TechnoSkin Case2.057
SunscreenSPF 30Dermatone1.028
Insect repellent100% DEETBen's 100 in Mini Dropper Bottle0.514
Personal hygieneAssorted toiletriesToothbrush, soap, TP, alcohol hand gel2.057
Consumables (5-Day Trip)
FUNCTIONSTYLEEXAMPLEOuncesGrams
FuelAlcohol8 oz, ethanol8.0227
Food4.5 days24 oz / day108.03062
WaterAverage carried32 ozn/an/a
Weight Summary
PoundsKilograms
(1)Total Worn or Carried While Hiking3.01.3
(2)Total Base Weight in Pack14.26.4
(3)Total Weight of Consumables Less Water7.33.3
(4)Total Initial Pack Weight (2) + (3)21.59.6
(5)Full Skin-Out Weight (1) + (2) + (3)24.511.1

Disclaimer and Notice of Safety Issues - January 28, 2004

One of our readers wrote us a thoughtful letter about this gear list:

"...although I realize the objective of your website is to make everything as light as possible, in your quest to lose weight one of your authors has commited a serious safety violation. In the Packrafting Checklist, he suggests using an inflatable PFD for whitewater. This is extremly dangerous. Most inflatable PFDs aren't rated for whitewater and don't have the suspension systems to keep them on you if you get taken by the current. In strong current it is fully possible that a PFD could be ripped off of you. Whitewater specific PFDs are heavier than inflatable ones, but this is something that shouldn't be compromised. Also i'd advocate wearing a helmet. Thanks for giving this a read."

In response, I have to agree with the reader: using an inflatable PFD for whitewater does not provide the margin of safety as when using a PFD rated specifically for whitewater use, and the SOSPenders inflatable PFD I have on this gear list is certainly not recommended for whitewater use.

Thus, I can't defend my gear list for anyone other than myself, and realize that having an inflatable PFD on this list compromises safety. It is a choice not unlike that of an alpine climber using a single 8.5 mm "half" rope to scale the north face of a great peak rather than a thicker rope rated for use as a single rope. For extremely difficult rivers where I expect capsizing to be a reality, I will indeed replace the inflatable PFD with a whitewater rated PFD. But for me, Class I-II wilderness rivers provide acceptable levels of risk to warrant my personal choice of selecting an inflatable PFD.

As for the use of a helmet, the choices are similar. I forgo helmet use on Class I-II water, but bring one along for Class III and higher water.


Citation

"Packrafting Gear List," by Ryan Jordan. BackpackingLight.com (ISSN 1537-0364).
http://backpackinglight.com/cgi-bin/backpackinglight/packrafting_gear_list.html, 2004-07-09 03:00:00-06.

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