Anyone with a mild, passing interest in the world of adventure will have heard of the ever-affable Alastair Humphreys. Even those living under rocks have encountered him, for he has overturned them with his bicycle wheels, crampon-clad boots and packraft paddles on practically every continent during his years as a bike touring adventurer, packrafter supreme, desert explorer and winner of a National Geographic ‘Adventurer of the Year’ award – for encouraging everyone to go on their own Micro-Adventures.
This blog entry is adapted with permission from Al’s excellent, extensive, adventure-packed blog.
What is a packraft?
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.
Top 10 tips
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 grab-line. 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.
- For cheap and cheerful, or to try out the concept, look at Sevlylor rafts.
- For really lightweight boats turn to Flyweight Designs.
- The toughest, but priciest, option is the Alpackaraft.
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 – like my Scotland Coast to Coast. I recommend you do the same.
Compromise = versatility
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!