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Bigger isn’t always better, especially if you’re talking about the size of the packraft you’re carrying on an Alaskan bushwhack.
Recently, we set out for a daylong romp in Southcentral Alaska’s Kenai Mountains. Our lightweight adventure racing packs, filled with water, calories, warm clothes, maps, compass, first aid kit… whitewater drysuits, kayak paddles, packrafts and personal flotation devices (PFDs), weighed less than 20 pounds.
On this trip we had decided to try a classic Alaska route. Not classic in the sense that a lot of people do it, but in the types of terrain we would traverse. We started with a quick three-mile speed hike up the Johnson Pass Trail. The next leg included seven hours of alder bashing, a long climb up a tundra-covered ridge, a steep 2,200-foot down-climb that cliffed out numerous times, and a short bushwhack to a gravel bar on the Placer River. That placed us 12 hours into our trip and more than a dozen miles from where we’d left our car, with nothing but swamp and glacier-fed river in between.
The fun was about to begin. We unpacked on the gravel bar and changed into our paddling gear. Then we inflated our packrafts and waded out into the river to start our float. Our less-than-four-pound packrafts were well worth their weight. They turned what would have been a miserable walk into a pleasant float. The class I-II Placer River moved fast enough to get us to our car in about 90 minutes. And the three-foot waterfall near the end of the trip splashed enough glacier water into our laps to keep us awake for the drive home.
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Jacques Boutet, Laura McDonough, and Craig Medred readying for their descent into the Placer River drainage (AK).
Photo: Jim Jager
Alaska wilderness travelers first started using packrafts to cross cold, glacial rivers like the Placer more than 25 years ago. Early packrafters experimented with all sorts of boats, from old fighter-plane life rafts to specialty rafts made by Sherpa and Sevylor. Eventually, packrafting started gaining popularity as a sport of its own instead of just being a way to keep hikers dry or help them avoid some bushwhacking. The idea caught on and backcountry trekkers and Alaska Wilderness Classic racers soon started testing their boats’ limits by using them to run miles of mostly gentle rivers as an alternative to bushwhacking through the terrain. The problem, however, was finding inflatable boats that were durable, lightweight, packed down small, and handled well on moving water.
The Sherpas quickly emerged as the favorite packraft because of their durability, weight, and handling. Unfortunately, the manufacturer stopped making them and 1990s-era packrafters were left with only one choice, Sevylor’s Trail Boat. The sport’s growth stymied because the relatively inexpensive Sevylors were light but very fragile. They weren’t built for the rigors of fast moving water and frequently burst at the seams and their vinyl sides were easily punctured. They were fun toys, but not gear that serious trekkers could rely on in the wilderness.
Enter wilderness gear designer Sheri Tingey and her son, Thor. Thor wanted a tougher boat for a month-long trip that he was planning in Alaska’s Brooks Range. She obliged by designing a boat that eventually led to her starting Alpacka Raft Company.
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Jacques Boutet, Laura McDonough, and Craig Medred descending into the Placer River drainage (AK).
Photo: Jim Jager
Alpacka packrafts weigh around four pounds and pack down to the size of a loaf of bread. They are also amazingly durable. The boats come with ingenious and lightweight inflation bags that eliminate the need to carry a pump. It takes between two and five minutes to inflate one in the field. And paired with a spraydeck, they can run class III and IV whitewater. Class III water can be run without a spraydeck, however, it will be a much wetter ride. These new boats reinvigorated the sport of packrafting.
Tingey, who started whitewater kayaking more than 30 years ago, used her paddler’s sense to design, test and refine packrafts that can actually be paddled instead of just floated. Then, she used high-tech fabrics and seam-welding technologies to simultaneously make her boats lighter and tougher. The resulting boats easily fit inside a backpack and enable relatively novice packrafters to safely paddle in water conditions that would be too technical for similarly skilled kayakers and would destroy vinyl boats.
Gear and Clothing
All sorts of outdoor enthusiasts are now starting to use packrafts because they simplify the logistics of traveling through the wilderness. Hikers and trekkers use them to cross rivers and float through hard-to-hike terrain. Fishermen love being able to “boat” on their favorite remote lakes. Hunters prefer packrafting to carrying large game away from remote hunting areas. Mountaineers use the boats to recon routes and access and depart from remote climbs. Wilderness kayakers are even leaving their hard-shell boats behind because packrafts let them run previously inaccessible rivers. And mountain bikers have discovered that they can add extra tie-down loops to their boats for carrying bikes on self-contained bike float trips.
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Mark Stasik on a climbing reconnaissance into the Alaska Range. Here, Mark is packrafting out of the range on the Sanctuary River in Denali National Park, AK.
Photo: Joe Reichert
Paddles. All of these different packraft users need to carry additional gear beyond their boats. They must first choose a paddle that meets their particular needs. Packrafters who float down mostly class I rivers can get away with inexpensive, telescoping-aluminum shaft paddles with plastic blades. More technical water demands “real” kayak paddles.
There are two schools of thought regarding paddle length. The old school says that the relatively wide boats are best paddled with long, 220 centimeter or more sea kayak paddles. But there is a growing consensus that shorter whitewater paddles in the 200 centimeter range are better because they improve maneuverability and are easier to carry when the boats aren’t on the water. Some ultralight enthusiasts, like Ryan Jordan, a Montana backcountry packrafter, consider a four-piece, 210 cm carbon fiber paddle to be the creme-de-la-creme of versatile packrafting paddles. Carbon fiber paddle blades aren’t quite as durable as the plastics of cheaper models, but a full carbon paddle will weigh only 32 oz – compared to the 40 oz of plastic paddles.
Virtually every packrafter agrees that three or four-piece paddles work best in backpacks. Some paddlers like to use their paddle shafts as walking sticks and carry the detachable blades inside their packs. Paddles also serve well to set up tarps in areas where suitable tarp supports cannot be found or trekking poles are not taken.
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Erin Higman exiting her packraft (somewhere on the Kenai Peninsula). Brentwood and Erin Higman are experienced packrafters, floating the heart of some of the most remote wilderness areas of the north.
Photo: Brentwood Higman
Clothing and Personal Flotation Devices (PFDs). Packraft clothing varies with climate, trip needs, and water conditions. Any packrafter who plans to run medium to fast water should expect to get wet. In cold water conditions this means selecting outerwear carefully. Wearing rain gear in warmer conditions, dry bibs or lightweight waders in cooler conditions, or a drysuit in the coldest conditions depends primarily on your tolerance for cold, the temperature of the water, and the amount of wind you experience (which can have a chilling effect, of course). Cold-water paddlers usually wear insulating, waterproof socks (e.g., neoprene) with their hiking shoes to keep feet warmer. Remember that PFDs also add some insulation. Most serious packrafters choose inflatable PFDs because they are relatively light and take up little pack space. Picking a PFD without a CO2 inflation option can save extra weight.
Waterproof Gear Storage. Packrafters also need to protect their gear from getting wet. The alternatives range from using dry bag-packs to using a dry bag inside of the pack, or wrapping the whole pack up in a trash compactor bag. The compactor bags are more durable than conventional trash bags. At any rate, a packrafter must protect his gear in the case of an accidental dunking.
Spraydecks. Packraft spraydecks are on the market for the first time this year. They allow paddlers to run much bigger water and keep most of the water out of the raft. They also let trekkers turn their packrafts into bivy bags for overnight trips.
Repair Kit. Finally, a boat repair kit should be carried if walking out is going to be inconvenient. Alpackas are tough enough to bounce off of rocks and survive minor scrapes with snags and strainers. But they only have one tube and will deflate if punctured. Field repairs can take anywhere from minutes to hours, depending upon the damage. Repair kits can be the heavy and sophisticated type that professional rafting guides carry for remote areas, or as light and simple as a tube of McNett Seam Grip and a few feet of duct tape.
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Multisport (note the mountain bike): Jim Jager on Willow Creek, near Talkeetna, AK.
Photo: Sheri Tingey
About the Author
Jim Jager lives in Anchorage, Alaska and has been packrafting for more than ten years.
Jim Jager is one of Alaska’s premier wilderness endurance athletes and has been an avid packrafter for many years. He has won many of Alaska’s toughest races including the Alaska Wilderness Classic and the Iditaski, as well as being a frequent Ecochallenge competitor. He is a great packrafter, constantly testing the limits of these tough and tiny rafts.
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Jason Geck high in the Brooks Range (AK), near Arrigetch Pass. On this ten-day expedition, Jason and Roman Dial crossed several high passes before dropping into the Class III-IV headwaters of the Noatak River to the standard put-in point, hiked over another pass into the Alatna drainage, and floated back down the Alatna to their starting point.
Photo: Roman Dial
My own packrafting history begins just five years ago when my son turned me on to this great backcountry tool. A kayaker and an outdoor clothing designer for most of my adult life, I was pretty skeptical when I listened to Thor’s glowing tales about how much fun a packraft was. Looking at the little Sevylor trail boat he was using and seeing the number of patches it was already packing, I thought the whole concept sounded more like a suicide mission than something fun. Then I tried the boat: definite suicide mission if you don’t relish swimming every mile or so on the river. A light bulb turned on in my designer brain, “You know, with the right fabrics and the right design this thing could be awesome.”
I owe a lot to Ray Jardine’s writings for my relentless pursuit to keep the boats simple and focused. I am old enough to remember buying “Friends” climbing protection from Ray when he sold them from the back of his VW bus in Yosemite. Years later, reading his book about backpacking on the Pacific Crest Trail jolted me back to my original philosophy about backcountry travel. I was just ending the “hauling everything under the sun” stage of carrying extra for my own kids and usually one or two of their friends. As the kids took over carrying their own gear I stripped my gear drastically. After a long hiatus from outdoor gear and clothing design to raise a family, my return to simplicity prompted a revival of my interest in ultralight creations. Ray’s book put me back on track. When the opportunity came to design packrafts my philosophy was already on target: “Keep it simple stupid, less is more.”
I feel fortunate to be designing packrafts today. The fabric industry is only now capable of developing the ultra high-tech fabrics that are necessary to produce a really tough four pound packraft. The concept of a packraft has been around for a long time, there just haven’t been materials available to make a good one. Today my fabric company and I work hand in hand developing fabrics that I never dreamed could be so amazing. A packraft is a pure minimalist tool. Every bell and whistle adds weight. I strip them down to the pure essentials. It is a perfect combination of using the ultimate in high-tech materials to create a beautifully simple low-tech tool: a packraft.
I want to close with an excerpt from an article by Roman Dial. Roman, like Jim Jager, is well known in Alaska for his amazing and difficult journeys, many of them accomplished in packrafts. This story is a classic introduction to the concept of packrafting and details Roman’s introduction to packrafting from Alaska’s true packrafting pioneer, Dick Griffiths.
I love Dick’s philosophy, you gotta make age work for you, not against you. The rest of this article can be read on the web – to find it, simply enter “Packrafting in Alaska” by Roman Dial, into your favorite search engine.
– Sheri Tingey, Chugiak, AK, May 2004
Sheri Tingey is an experienced backcountry river runner, packraft designer, and owner of the Alpacka Raft Company of Chugiak, AK.