As I recently bought a new Alpacka packraft, learning how to Packraft is now essential for me. Since I am living in Finland – a country with 100.000 lakes – packrafting could enhance the possibilities to see the landscape from a different point of view than on a normal hiking trip. My first wilderness trip was when we went packrafting to the Sarek National Park in Sweden – which is not allowed anymore. I didn’t have much packrafting experience and if I would do this trip again I would probably do things quite differently. This blog post should give some safety tips on gear and how to learn packrafting. However, I am not a safety instructor so use the tips in this article at your own risk.
Learning packrafting is not that difficult as long as you just want to paddle on flat water – however, if you are planning to go packrafting in whitewater, you should maybe take a whitewater rescue course (e.g. from Rescue 3 Europe). I would recommend everyone to take such a course before going into whitewater. For example, I did one just before the European Packrafting Meetup in Slovenia. You learn there how it is if you fall out of your packraft in a very strong current and how to swim. If you are interested in First Aid then the NOLS Wilderness First Aid course is highly recommended. I have not done this course myself yet.
I have recently updated my packraft to the Alpacka Raft Gnarwhal which I like more since you can store your gear inside the tubes and it’s also self-bailing which adds another safety feature from my point of view since it doesn’t matter anymore if water gets into the packraft in case the spray deck opens. Moreover, I am able to see more what’s in front of me since there is no backpack anymore attached in front of me which limits my view. This is an important aspect as you are able to better read the river in front of you.
Wearing a pair of socks in case you are not wearing a full drysuit (e.g. waterproof Sealskinz) and sitting on some sort of isolated pad (e.g. the one which comes with the packraft) is a must. I would also wear one or two pairs of merino layers under the dry suit as the dry suite alone does not keep you warm – it just protects you from getting wet.
Moreover, you should wear a PFD (Personal Floating Device), helmet and a dry suit. I would probably never go packrafting far from the shore without a dry suit especially if the water is freezing cold. I have actually a couple of PFDs at home. The Astral Green Jacket is a full rescue jacket for white water and a lighter one which is more suitable for trips where I need to save some weight. It’s also a good idea to have a throw rope. I have actually two throw ropes – a longer one and a smaller (2m) one which I always wear with me.
Further, I also have a Fox 40 whistle and river knife attached to my PFD. The river knife can be useful if you need to cut a rope or if you need to deflate your packraft in an emergency situation but you can also use it for any other tasks on a trip. The whistle is important to give signals to the others in the group e.g. if you need help or if you need to get attention. You can also use the whistle to signal fishermen in front of you that you are coming with your packraft. You should also take a first-aid kit (might also include an emergency foil blanket) and pain killers with you and inform people where you paddle before you go on a trip or use a GPS messenger to send your current location on a daily basis to your friends or relatives.
Consider also to packraft in groups and not alone especially in the wilderness – who should rescue you otherwise? Also, make sure that everyone in your group has safety gear. For example, if you are the only one with a throw rope in your team and you might need help then there is nobody who throws a rope to you. Make sure you read about the river and to find any dangerous spots you might encounter. You might also check satellite pictures to see how the river runs. It’s better to walk around some obstacles rather than risking your life. Scout as much as you can if you don’t know the river and if you are not able to see what’s in front of you. Try to learn reading a river to avoid obstacles such as holes. Avoid going over manmade constructions in the river.
Finally, try to paddle as much as you can in rivers which you can manage and exercise different techniques e.g. eddy in/out or getting into the boat if you flip.
So when we are on a spot in the river where we can’t see what is in front of us we do the following steps:
Step 1: Scout
Once we are on a spot where the rapid gets stronger and where we cannot see what lies ahead of us we always step out of our packrafts and scout. Sometimes scouting can take some time but for safety reasons it’s better to take your time and arrive a bit later rather than get into an emergency situation in the backcountry.
Step 2: Evaluate
Once we scouted the rapid, we decide if we should paddle through it or not. Some of the criteria we use in our evaluation process are:
- Are there any obstacles? Is there a safe way to avoid them?
- How long is the critical part of the rapid?
- Do we have enough experience to paddle the critical part of the rapid?
- Where can we get out of the rapid in case of an emergency situation?
- How easy or difficult is it to get out of the rapid?
- Does anyone need to stay on the ground to secure the other?
- Who wants to go first?
Step 3: Packraft, Carry or Deflate
After evaluating the rapid we decide if we should packraft the rapid, carry our packrafts around the critical spots or to deflate our packrafts if we have to carry them for a longer time.