Learning to Packraft: Ten First Steps for Backcountry Travelers

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Home Forums Campfire Editor’s Roundtable Learning to Packraft: Ten First Steps for Backcountry Travelers

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    Stephanie Jordan


    Locale: Rocky Mountains
    Rex Sanders
    BPL Member



    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
    BPL Member


    Locale: Pacific Northwest

    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.

    Steven Duby


    Locale: Interior Alaska

    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
    BPL Member


    Locale: Queen City, MT

    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


    Locale: no. california

    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.


    Steven Duby


    Locale: Interior Alaska

    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
    BPL Member


    Locale: Queen City, MT

    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.

    Steven Duby


    Locale: Interior Alaska

    "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
    BPL Member


    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

    Steven Duby


    Locale: Interior Alaska

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



    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.

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