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Tips for your first Packrafting trip

UPDATE: read about my greatest packrafting adventure across Iceland here.

My favourite purchase of the last few years has definitely been my packraft. I love it for many reasons which I will outline below. But I also love it because almost everyone I tell about it asks, “what’s a packraft?”

I always like being ahead of the herd rather than hot on its heels and it’s fun to be teaching myself something new and having to figure things out for myself.

A packraft is basically a rubber dinghy for grown-ups. It’s a small, inflatable boat that packs down small enough so that you can carry it in a backpack until you reach your river. Then you blow up the boat, hop in, and take your adventure downstream.

There are a range of packrafts available, according to your needs.

I used an Alpacka raft for my crossing of Iceland. But before taking on that trip (40kg pack containing 30 days’ of food, hundreds of miles of hiking, Grade 4 rapids) I began with something more gentle. I recommend you do the same.

It is best not to think of a packraft just as an inflatable canoe: they are not as good as canoes or kayaks on the water. Packrafts are all about compromise. They allow you to combine hiking or biking plus paddling on the same adventure. They are quick to inflate and deflate and relatively light to lug around. They are worse than kayaks. They are heavier than normal hiking. But they combine kayaking and hiking into one sweet adventure!

The great thing about packrafts is their versatility – they are ideal for weekend trips in the local countryside, for crossing wide rivers on big hikes, or for journeys involving a lot of paddling through rugged, remote terrain. Your imagination is the limit!

Here then are my tips for your first packrafting adventure:

  1. It’s all about compromise. Take clothes that you can walk in and also paddle in. You will get wet! Waterproof top and bottoms are not as good as a drysuit, but they are lighter. Merino undies will become your best friends.
  2. Rubber booties are a great additional extra to take with you.
  3. Normal water rules apply: it’s a risky thing to do alone. Travel in a pair. Scout ahead. Work out a system of paddle and whistle signals to communicate with.
  4. The best trips involve a good mix of hiking and rivers. If you can incorporate two different rivers into your project then that’s even better.
  5. Rig a line around the raft to act as a safety grabline. But make sure to learn about the dangers of trailing lines and underwater snag hazards.
  6. You can carry loads of gear on a packraft. It’s the walking phase you need to bear in mind when packing – even though they are lightweight options packrafts still add considerable weight to your load (boat, collapsible paddle, buoyancy aid etc)
  7. Have plenty of karabiners to keep things clipped on.
  8. Do a test trip first – one that involves some hiking, some paddling and one night under canvas. You’ll quickly learn gear requirements that way.
  9. Start gentle. Rafts are very forgiving to amateur paddlers, but still you should be careful. My first ever paddle was down water with icebergs floating along. Not smart!
  10. Read Roman Dial’s Packrafting book if you want to learn things properly.
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  1. Thanks a lot for the inspiring post.
    Can you also load a bicycle on a packraft? I’m not that much into hiking, but I do a lot of cycling. It would be great to combine cycling and packrafting.

  2. Thanks for this. That book is great too. I ordered a packraft from the U.S. last year but haven’t physically got my hands on it yet; its maiden voyage (with bicycle strapped to the bow) will hopefully be later this year.

  3. Great – thanks. I’m borrowing a packraft soon so these tips are all useful.

  4. I was thinking about switching from WW kayak to a packraft…it takes less space to store and transport, and you can roll in it ( unlike inflatable kayaks ), and it looks like it might be easier to bail from it than from a WW kayak.

    I wrote a post about packrafts on my blog, but couldn’t find anything cheaper than $500+ ( on Amazon ) –

    FWD is cheaper, but it doesn’t look like it comes with a skirt…

    Also, how does your “bottom” feel when you go over rocks in a packraft ?

    • Your bum does take a bit of a beating but I am old and soft so I bought the seat made by Alpacka. Defintely worth having. You can also put a ThermaRest in the bottom, though this does affect the handling a bit.

  5. Hi Al,

    Great info. Did you use the Yukon Yak for your Iceland trip? How did you find it ?

  6. Wow…I learnt a new word – packraft. A raft that can be packed into a ‘backpack’. Those are really great tips for those looking for an adventure. Definitely sound advice from someone experienced. 🙂

    I think this Sevylor QuikPak K5 is what you refer to as a packraft. Brilliant word.

  7. Steve Smith Posted

    Great article! I’m completey inspired! 2012 is going to be my year for adventures! Looking at doing your Scotland Coast to Coast route mid 2012 with a packraft and was wondering whether the River Spey could be done on one of the cheaper packrafts you mention in this blog and others? Also are the covers you have over the raft an optional extra?

  8. After that, people flocked to her grave,North Face Winter Jackets people with all infirmities – the blind, the lame and the sick.

  9. Les Jeavons Posted

    Where can I buy a packraft in UK?

  10. I have a Packraft and it’s really cool. You can go to places where you would usually not go and it’s also nice to combine hiking and paddling. You can also attach a sail on it and let the wind do the work. Here a link to our packrafting trip in Sweden:

  11. Logan Thomson Posted

    Much to my delight I found out at the perth paddle show that Backcountry Biking rent, sell and run courses using alpackaraft’s and are based in Aviemore. I am planning to rent one mid November to try it out! Hope this is of help to some of you!

  12. Neil Irwin Posted

    I’m off tomorrow for a multi day trip up the thames, but this is a started for me. In a few week I’ll be off to India where it’ll be all paddling and less hiking.
    Any tips on kit lists/what to take? I have an idea, but curious to know how much I can actually load on my Llama…

  13. Thanks for this, I’m now working my way through all the literature on packrafting that I can lay my hands on.
    In the very very early planning stages of a year-long (estimate at this stage) Patagonia expedition when I got my mind running about all the water crossings and stumbled onto packrafts.
    Thanks again.



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