Packrafting: Paddling Remote Locations
Forgive the pun, but packrafting is blowing up. There are over 30 manufacturers struggling to keep up with demand, and the global packrafting community is hungry for instructional resources.
Packrafts are a modern flavor of light and portable self-propelled boats, a natural evolution from the coracles of previous millennia. Coated nylon fabrics and heat-welded seams allow these boats to fold to the size of a sleeping bag and weigh as little as two pounds (1 kg). Whitewater-capable packrafts typically weigh closer to eight pounds (3-4 kg).
Packrafts are particularly popular with backpackers—allowing people to cross rivers and lakes with a relatively small weight penalty. Packrafts have been strapped to bikes and used as sleds on snow. The boats appeal to urban adventurers too, with closet storage rather than needing a garage and car rack.
For many packrafters, packrafts are their introduction to watersports. This is a mixed blessing. The excellent primary stability of the boats is forgiving, which promotes a false sense of ability. When this overconfidence is taken to turbulent water, the boats capsize easily. Fortunately, with training, the boats can be re-entered from the water.
Another safety concern for the packrafting community is that many packrafters consider the boats as a hiking, biking, or skiing accessory. This mindset—the river as a trail—can result in underappreciation for the inherent risks of being on the water. Not a week goes by that I don’t receive feedback from The Packraft Handbook like this one: “Definitely helped my group take a step back and realize how much we didn't know.”
Safety considerations feel particularly important for the packrafting community because our paddling often takes place farther from the road system (farther from external help). The concern isn’t just for novice paddlers—experts who are unfamiliar with field repairs and remote rescues are getting in trouble too.
My packrafting experience throughout remote Alaska has helped me to identify several important safety principles for remote paddling.
Managing vulnerability: I find it useful to think of risk during the trip planning phase as the combination of hazards, exposure, and vulnerability. Hazards are the things we can’t control: rocks, waves, holes, wind, wood, etc. Exposure is what we choose to expose to those hazards … ourselves and our boats, unless we opt to portage. Vulnerability is the consequence of exposure to hazards. We have a lot of control over vulnerability—training, proper equipment, and capable partners all make us less vulnerable.
Remote settings make us more vulnerable due to the challenge of extraction. To maintain my risk tolerance, I balance increased vulnerability by lowering my exposure—choosing to paddle less difficult water. For example, I seek Class IV rapids for day-trips on the road system, but I prefer Class III rivers when deep in the mountains.
Trip plan/documentation: I put significant effort into creating a trip plan document that is shared with trip partners, family members, and an in-town contact. The in-town contact is given our anticipated schedule, Plan A route (as a Google Earth kmz file), backup plans, and contact information for local rescue assets such as flight services. If we need help, we communicate with the in-town via a two-way satellite text messaging device.
A thorough trip plan forces me to explicitly create an emergency plan. There is a misconception that an SOS button is an emergency plan. The SOS button is for when you’ve exhausted your emergency plan and have no other options.
River research: I collect as much information about the destination as possible. Guidebooks, trip reports, pilots, and online forums are common sources of river beta. I try to determine what water levels we can expect, and how the catchment responds to rain. I use satellite imagery to locate rapids, canyons, or other features of interest. We carry these waypoints loaded into our smartphones and GPS units for on-the-fly navigation.
Repair kits: Packrafts are shockingly durable, but they are still susceptible to punctures and tears. Fortunately, most damage can be repaired in the field. One of the most extreme repairs I know of involved sewing and glueing claw gashes after a grizzly swiped a packraft on the Aleutian Peninsula of Alaska. When I applauded the packrafters for managing a repair that allowed them to finish their trip, Bretwood “Hig” Higman responded, “We used that boat on an 800-mile trip the next summer too!”
Tape is the go-to repair material for packrafts. Tyvek vapor barrier tape works well on the exterior of the hull. Gorilla tape works on the inside of the hull. I’ve used vinyl underwater tape to seal a slow leak while floating down the river.
What Goes Wrong
Not surprisingly, packrafters get in trouble when the boat capsizes. But not all capsizes are a big deal—with training, some packrafters can re-enter their boat in seconds.
The most common factors that lead to capsizing are high water, wind (and wind-generated waves), and limited boat control (a polite way of saying “inexperience”). Like many outdoor incidents, some packrafting incidents might have been prevented by waiting for better paddling conditions.
What happens next depends on the rigging of the boat. Some people are trapped in their boat by dangerous rigging: straps, loose cord, paddle leashes, etc. Other people are quickly separated from their boat. This is especially true in windy conditions.
Statistically, packraft fatalities when the paddler is separated from their boat often include one or more of these factors:
- Paddling alone
- Cold water
- Exhaustion (“flush drowning”)
- Getting caught by river debris (wood or human-made hazards)
Packrafts are also used on open water: ponds, lakes, and the ocean. Like many packrafters, I underestimated the hazards of these environments, which have been the sites of 20% of packraft fatalities. The problem with open water paddling is that conditions can rapidly change from benign to severe, catching paddlers far from the shore. Open water’s environmental hazards (wind, currents, temperature, etc.) are harder to identify than river hazards (wave, hole, rock, etc.).
Packrafting is a new enough sport that we have a limited count of fatalities (fifteen) and can use the hard-earned lessons from other paddle sports to proactively reduce packrafting incidents. Based on the reported packrafting incidents, the following principles are important for the packrafting community:
- Paddle with capable partners. Experienced partners can assist you if you capsize.
- Assume that there is a hazard around every blind corner. Scout the river and portage when necessary.
- Dress for the swim and wear a drysuit in cold climates.
- Anticipate and have a backup plan if the wind picks up during an open-water crossing.
- Wait for high water levels to drop (after precipitation events).
- Practice/train to improve boat control and swim proficiency.
Please help the packrafting community by sharing these safety considerations and applauding open communication. Together we can live long lives visiting the world by water.
Luc Mehl is the author of The Packraft Handbook. Luc has paddled thousands of miles in his home state of Alaska and is an instructor for the Swiftwater Safety Institute.