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Across Iceland by Packraft – a gear review

Here is a piece I wrote about my equipment selection for Backpacking Light, a super website for expedition advice.

Introduction

I am not an equipment expert. I am a relative newcomer to packrafting. But what I do know is how my equipment performs during fairly tough expeditions. The first time I posted a question on the BPL forum I was shot down initially, suspected of being a time-waster, a joker or, worse, a person who was not going to be backpacking light. My “crime” was to ask the incredibly passionate, knowledgeable community about a backpack capable of carrying 40 kilos of gear. Of course a 40-kilo backpack is hardly backpacking light. However, it was backpacking as light as was possible, which I believe is the true essence of this community. My pack was destined to weigh a crippling 40 kilos because I needed to carry all of the food, equipment, and camera gear necessary for carrying out and filming an unsupported coast-to-coast crossing of Iceland by foot and by packraft. In the end, I received lots of very helpful advice.

The journey across Iceland was a great success. My friend Chris and I encountered waterfalls, glaciers, mountains, rivers, volcanoes, and boiling hot springs during a difficult but delightful month in the high latitudes of an Icelandic summer.

My purpose with this article is twofold: to provide a skeleton of information for anyone considering a lengthy, unsupported packraft trip, and, hopefully, to spur all those many people in the BPL community who know much, much more than I about equipment details to add suggestions and improvements in the comments section below. I am only rarely going to mention specific brands, as I am aware that each country has different, good quality brands of equipment.

The Expedition

The aim of this expedition was simple: to get from the north coast of Iceland to its south coast. We carried all of our food and equipment. We trekked inland from the coast, climbing high into the cold, windy, inhospitable highlands and across a glacier to the source of Iceland’s longest river. We paddled that river until its course turned west, at which point we continued hiking through a volcanic landscape until we reached our second river, which we paddled all the way to the southern coast. Right, onto the kit.

There are a range of packrafts available, according to your needs. To give you a starting point for your research, here are three of the options:

You can customize the boats as much or as little as you need. My friend Ed Stafford used a tiny, basic model on his Amazon expedition because weight was his chief concern. As I planned to paddle some whitewater, a spraydeck was essential. I was also anticipating cold water (my test trip was across Scotland in winter with icebergs floating down the river beside us!), for which the addition of a seat is a great help in keeping you warm. It also makes the boat more comfortable for long days on the river.

Packrafters tend to use paddles that break down into several sections. This is a good time to mention that every single piece of kit on a packrafting expedition is a compromise. There is a constant balance between performance, versatility, and weight. Most of us probably need to toss price into the juggling act too… I used a cheap, light, three-piece paddle as I don’t know a lot about paddling and felt that I was unlikely to be annoyed by its rather average performance. What you don’t know can’t hurt you! True lightweight freaks will be happy to know that there are clever systems available to turn your trekking poles into paddles.

I’m not going to comment on safety gear in detail because I am not expert enough to do so. All I will say is that I would never paddle a packraft without a buoyancy aid (I use an inflatable one), a throw-rope, and a knife. And, after capsizing and frightening myself silly in some Grade 4 rapids, I will never again paddle whitewater without a helmet.

Small, useful accessories for the raft include a repair kit, Tyvek tape, a bowline, straps for fixing your pack to the raft, and small carabiners for clipping bits and bobs to your boat (though beware of trailing junk that may snag you in a capsize).

Packrafting is a very wet activity: dry bags are your best friends! They come in a range of sizes and durability, so shop around to find just what is quite right for your needs.

I wore neoprene socks inside my hiking boots, but for my next trip I would treat myself to a luxurious extra piece of gear: neoprene booties. They are more comfortable, warmer, fit inside the boat better than clunky boots, and you don’t have to suffer wet hiking boots.

I also wore neoprene gloves, which worked very well. They also worked fine as my gloves for the hiking stages of the expedition, even for crossing a glacier.

The equipment for the trekking phase of the journey is not really any different to any other trekking kit list, except that the clothes I wore for walking were also those I paddled in, so I wanted materials that worked well when wet (merino). I do not normally use trekking poles, but our packs were so heavy and the terrain so difficult that we decided they were worth the weight and the hassle. And now I am a definite convert to their benefits: they really did help a lot.

We used large GoLite packs to carry all our gear. Whilst they were very light and spacious, I believe that we made a mistake in this choice. For carrying really heavy weights you need a pack with more robust shoulder padding: we paid the price for shaving weight by having very painful shoulders!

For crossing the glacier we were happy with our lightweight Kahtoola crampons. There is, at times, a fine line between saving weight and being slightly reckless. Our lack of helmets and reliance on our paddling throw ropes for glacier rescue ropes perhaps treads that line. Each person must make their own choices, but it is important to be aware of the choices you are making and the possible consequences.

In future trips I would be interested to try a tent or tarp system that uses the paddles and trekking poles for support. On this journey I used my trusty old Hilleberg tent. Bombproof and fantastic as ever, but this did seem to be a good area for making a bit more effort next time to save some weight. Being a soft Englishman, I carried a short-length Therm-a-Rest and this, combined with a GoLite down quilt, ensured a good night’s sleep even as the temperatures dropped close to freezing.

We carried enough food to last a month and most of the other gear people take on long treks: stove, fuel, maps, etc, etc.

Like most of my gear, I used an MSR because that was what I already owned, rather than because it was necessarily the perfect stove. I bought a batch of out-of-date food from someone on the cheap. Some of it was inedible, which was annoying when we were already carrying far fewer calories than we needed.

Of more interest, perhaps, will be our choices of photographic equipment. My companion, Chris Herwig, is a professional photographer, and we were both eager to document our trip well, through photographs and video.

With the recent emergence of High Definition (HD) video capability on digital SLR cameras (DSLRs), I have made the switch from merely trying to take good photographs to also telling a good story through video.

We carried, by the standards of a lightweight expedition, a lot of gear.

We each carried a Canon 5D MkII camera. This was perhaps excessive except that both of us are very keen photographers and having to share a camera would have been too frustrating! We did, however, share our lenses. We carried these lenses:

  • 17-40mm f4
  • 50mm f1.8
  • 75-300 f4-5.6

Somewhat surprisingly, to make a good video you need to capture very good audio. It adds a lot to the story. We used Rode VideoMic and also carried a small MP3 dictaphone to capture audio when we were not videoing (the sounds of rushing water, wind, and so forth that help add atmosphere). Another way of turning an average film into a good one is to carry a tripod and stabilize your filming. Small options, such as the GorillaPods, are OK, but we knew we would use ours a lot, so carried a full size, though lightweight model.

We carried eight batteries and about 500GB of memory cards. To boost our battery supplies we also carried a foldable solar panel. This was, at best, averagely effective: it required a lot of hours of consecutive sunlight to make an appreciable impression on charge levels. However, as we enjoyed 24-hour daylight in the Icelandic summer, I think it was worth carrying, if only for our peace of mind that we were less likely to run out of battery power.

To capture action shots on the paddling stages we carried a GoPro HD Hero cam. This was fantastic and would make a good addition to every lightweight adventurer’s pack. Its audio capability is terrible, and it is far happier when the sun is shining (aren’t we all?!), but I am a big fan nonetheless.

Finally, below, is the full kit list, just to help you get started with your own plans. Packrafting is one of the most exciting ways of exploring wild places that I have ever come across. Bear in mind that every bit of kit is some sort of compromise, and you will be on the right lines. This, of course, is the principle of many lightweight backpacking adventures, so I am sure you will all be fine. Good luck!

Gear List

Packraft/Overland Trekking Kit

  • Packraft
  • Paddle
  • Bowline
  • Straps to tie down rucksack onto boat
  • Small carabiners
  • Repair kit, cable ties, gaffa tape
  • Drybags
  • Lifejacket
  • Wetsocks
  • Neoprene gloves
  • Throw rope
  • Rucksack
  • Trekking poles
  • Crampons

Cooking

  • Stove
  • Pan
  • Fuel bottles
  • Spoon
  • Mug
  • Lighter
  • Water bottle
  • Knife

Photography

  • Canon 5D Mk II
  • Lenses
  • Batteries
  • Solar charger
  • Memory card
  • GoPro Hero
  • Spare GoPro batteries
  • GoPro SD cards
  • Tripod
  • Microphone and batteries

Sleeping

  • Tent
  • Sleeping bag
  • Therm-a-Rest

Clothing/Footwear

  • Hiking boots
  • Waterproof jacket
  • Waterproof trousers
  • Socks
  • Trousers
  • Thermal underwear
  • Down jacket
  • Shirt
  • Fleece
  • Wooly hat
  • Buff
  • Headnet
  • Sun hat
  • Sunglasses

Other Essentials

  • Suncream
  • Insect repellent
  • Dental floss for sewing
  • Needle
  • Toothbrush
  • Toothpaste
  • Passport
  • Credit card
  • Mobile phone
  • Diary and pen
  • Map case
  • Maps
  • Compass
  • First aid kit

Backpacking Light is a knowledgeable and valuable community. Go have a look.

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Comments

  1. I myself feel kind of silly to pack really lightweight and then add camera equipment of more or less similar weight to the pack. Then again, I can’t get myself to compromise too much on the camera gear either. Thanks for the gear review!

    Reply
  2. Alistair from Africa Posted

    A comment on your camera lens’s – You only taking 3 lens on this giant slog but you taking 2 rather trashy lens amongst those 3 – becuase with those 2 trashy lens the images are not going to be as vivid/creative and astounding and that’s the whole point isn’t it?

    50mm f1.8 – Get the 50mm USM F1.4 , still relatively cheap but wider aperture , sharper , faster , better made – a recognized best value for money lens.

    75-300 f4-5.6 – a piece of junk , although its junkiness does make it light…
    What is the reasoning behind using that on a 5D MK II? (It’s like putting BB gun pellets in an AK-47!)
    Must be something better – maybe the 70-200mm F4 IS or a prime lens , though L lens are heavier they have no compare in useability and ruggedness….

    Reply
    • Being a Nikon shooter, I should probably refrain from answering, but I have the same grief about choosing lenses: It’s all one big compromise between portability and image quality. The MK II justifies itself regarding video. I guess the lens choices are made based on the best compromise between weight and performance. Alastair and Chris was probably pushing it regarding the weight of their packs even before adding camera gear.

      Reply
    • Hi Alistair – I agree with you on this. The deciding factor against it was simple: money! The cheap lenses you mention were the two I bought when I first began taking photography seriously. I’d like to upgrade them when I can afford to. I actually love the 50mm f1.8 – a total bargain lens.

      Reply
  3. Mitch of Minneapolis Posted

    You should have asked your question regarding hauling a 40 kilo pack on Summit Post instead of BPL. I can only imagine your pain hauling that weight in a Golite Odyssey instead of a Denali-style mountaineering pack.

    Reply
  4. Whitch solar lader do you use ?
    I have an 5d m II to.

    dev

    Reply
  5. Hi Alastair,

    Do you know of any companies that ship the cheaper boats to Ireland?

    Cheers,

    Sean

    Reply
  6. I think the very fact that you did it says the gear worked. It is so easy to sit in an armchair and suggest best kit, lenses etc. but you made the photos, the video with the equipment you had. Having crossed Iceland by 4×4 (on the roads if you call them that http://www.pinzgauer.4x4man.com/Iceland/Welcome.html) I take my hat off to the two of you.

    Reply
  7. Tom Watkinson Posted

    Hi Alistair

    I’m interested to know if you took any form of white water safety and rescue course before your expedition?

    Regards

    Tom

    Reply
  8. Andrew Maclean Posted

    Next week Lidl have blow up rafts on sale for £39.99 next week!

    Reply
  9. Any videos/vlogs/pics from your trip. Sounds amazing!

    Reply
  10. Hi Alistair. You are a huge inspiration! When will you come to Norway to packraft?

    Reply

 
 

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