Alaska Packrafting Intro – A Packrafting Primer
Entire books have been written on packrafting, and particularly on Alaska packrafting. Entire books could well be written on just one type of backpacking trip, whether it’s multi-day backpacking/packrafting trips or whitewater packrafting techniques. There’s no way I can hope to cover even a fraction of it all here, so I won’t try. Needless to say this page is really just an outline for those who maybe haven’t yet heard much (if anything) about packrafting, more than it is for those who are experienced packrafters.
Packrafting in Alaska
Alaska is generally considered to be the birthplace of packrafting, and, as with backpacking, Alaska perhaps offers a packrafting experience quite unlike any other place you might venture. These small packable boats are perfect for Alaska backcountry travel, with its vast trail-less terrain, and miles upon miles or rivers, creeks, streams and lakes, and, of course, the infamous coastline and Inside Passage. Hence, packrafting has really boomed in Alaska, and become an ever-increasingly popular sport and method of adventure travel. If you’re not yet familiar with packrafting, then settle in and start thinking about how it might work for you; trust me, and the countless other Alaska explorer and adventurers, there’s nothing quite like pack rafting.
I won’t try to cover everything here, just enough to pass on enough information to help you in your planning for your packrafting trip. I’ll cover a few basics of safety and gear, and techniques I’ll mostly leave to the field. This isn’t meant to be a guide to all you need to know about packrafting, as much as an outline of the things you need to learn about before you venture off pack rafting. Hopefully it is of some benefit to you.
Safety is a big issue in and around water, particularly in the backcountry. Particularly around cold water. Particularly around fast, cold water. This means Alaska rivers are not to be trifled with. For any big water, or whitewater runs, we’ll have to do some safety work first, in flat water, and run over the standard river danger and river rescue protocols. We’ll also gear up with Personal Flotation Devices (PFDs, what folks used to call ‘life vests’), helmets, dry suits, paddle gloves, etc. I recommend this kind of trip for those of you with at least some basic whitewater paddling experience, such as kayaking. You’d want to be at least a comfortable Class III boater for most trips.
For whitewater packrafting trips, we’ll also only run trips with a guide/client ratio of 1:2. For groups of 3 packrafters or more, there’ll be at least 2 guides on the trip, always.
Perhaps the biggest thing with whitewater packrafting safety is self-rescue; when you flip, you swim. Unless you’re one of the few folks who work hard enough with your boat to develop a solid roll (or ‘Eskimo roll’, as some folks call it), you’ll more than likely come out of your boat. And even WITH a good roll, having a strong enough roll to pull it off whilst being worked-over in a Class IV rapid (what we call a ‘combat roll’) is rare. So plan on swimming. Get comfortable with a wet exit, and all that goes along with it; hold on to your paddle, grab your boat and watch downstream for danger.
As soon as you’re clear, flip that boat over and get yourself back inside it. There are as many ways to do this as there are people falling out of packrafts, so I won’t tell you how here. Just know that your job here is to keep you, your paddle and your boat together, and get yourself back inside your boat as soon as possible. If you can’t get your boat right side up again (most likely), hang on tight and kick yourself and your gear towards safety (usually the near shore). Another option is clamber on to the top of your upside-down boa; its even possible to paddle from here, but I think it’s usually wiser to just hold on tight and wait for a break in the rapid. Usually a boat will eddy-out (make its own way to shore) before long.
If possible, flip the boat back over, and climb back in (remember – hold on to your paddle!). With some practice, it’s doable in most situations to self-rescue like this. Once in, assess the situation (look downstream for possible hazards), and make your way to shore. Let your group members know you’re OK with the universal standard boating sign for “OK”; i.e., pat the top of your head. If you’re not OK, let them know immediately (3 blasts on a whistle, and the sign for ‘not OK’ – wave your arm (with or without your helmet) in distress).
The main point here is that, in the event of a flip, you need to understand how to rescue yourself. Your group and guide should assist, if possible. But you’ll likely not just roll back up like you might in a kayak, and you don’t have someone else in your packraft to flip the boat and/or pull you back like you would in a standard raft. It’s on you.
It’s a good idea for the others in your group to know and understand the likely problems when someone swims; obviously, they might need help, and maybe even immediately. They also very possibly might lose their boat (easy for you to find, most times) and/or their paddle (very difficult to find). If you’re downstream from a swimmer and see the person is OK, and the group is all OK, keep an eye out for a paddle coming your way. And, as always, try to have at least one spare paddle for the group in your gear somewhere.
As always, the specifics and subjectivity of your trip should dictate the gear required. Where you’re going, when, what kind of packrafting and paddling you’re doing, the nature of the rest of your trip, your group, and your own skillset and experience guide your gear choices. However, that said, there are always a few basic guidelines we want to consider.
Packrafting with PFDs, helmets, etc
For either the float trips or the combination trips, we have to compromise weight and gear. It’s not possible to pack for a 10 day backpacking trip and also bring a drysuit, PFD and helmet and drybags. So we don’t run big rivers on those trips, and we’re careful about how much boating we do. The packrafts are generally used (on combination trips) for crossings, or to run relatively mild rivers. Any rapids, drops, holes, etc that require particular gear/skills, etc we’ll portage.
On the other hand, a whitewater specific packrafting trip, such as a run down the Lakina River, will require a helmet, PFD, drysuit (or dry pants and drytop, but a dry suit is best), paddling gloves, etc. For example, if you want to combine this trip with the Hidden Creek -> Lakina River backpacking trip, or the Nugget Creek -> Lakina River hike, the best plan is a 2-pronged approach. We’ll fly in, do the backpack leg of the trip, then have the folks in the group who are not paddling out fly back to McCarthy, and have the pilot bring our paddling gear in when s/he comes to pick up the hikers. If needed, we’ll haul the packrafting gear with us on the hike, but this is quite a bit of extra gear to carry, particularly if water levels are high and we really need drysuits. Throw ropes are also essential at this level.
Packrafting without helmets, PFDs, etc
For a casual float trip, we often won’t use gear like spray skirts, dry pants, etc, but just go light and fast. On trips like this, such as the Lost Coast hike, PFDs aren’t practical, and really not critical. We use the packrafts simply to cross the rivers, or occasionally just a simple float down a Class I stream to get along the river if need be. Small ultra light drybags are great for keeping your most important gear dry inside your pack, such as cameras, sleeping bag, etc, and we’ll tie or strap your pack on the front (bow) of your packraft.
Most of the packrafting specific gear for a trip like this is congruent with the backpacking trip itself, so we try to double up as much as possible. A pair of River Sandals are great for both hiking in the river, on the beach and wearing in the boat, as well as at camp. Rain gear (pants and jacket) work well for keeping you dry in the boat. Dry bags or heavy duty compactor bags (inside your pack) double as stuff sacks as well. This way we keep the overall loads down as much as possible; we can use a paddle for the tent pole in the cook tent! And packrafts make a GREAT seat at camp!
As with gear, techniques vary with the trip context; but the main paddling techniques we need to concern ourselves with are front paddling (easy enough), back paddling (important!) and ferrying (super important!!!!). For a float trip, we’ll mostly paddle down an easy river, with little to medium effort required. You’ll generally be steering yourself and avoiding any potential hazards (snags and strainers, rocks/pourovers, etc – rule of thumb, don’t look at what you want to avoid, and look where you want to go). You’ll also be ferrying yourself and your boat. For backpack/packraft combinations, same thing, with more ferrying. For whitewater packrafting trips, it’s mostly backpaddling and ferrying. We’ll go over these in detail as needed. But the big one for most trips is ferrying.
Ferrying involves pointing your boat diagonally upstreams, and paddling forward, in such a manner to keep you and your boat facing, pretty consistently, up and across the river. We can call it 45degrees for now, but the angle will be completely situational. You use the current of the river to “push” you and your boat across the river. With a little practice, you’ll have this technique down; it’s a common enough boating skill.
Backpaddling is a big one. Much more important than it is for, say, whitewater kayaking. Running whitewater in a packraft is more akin, in this way, to whitewater rafting than it is to kayaking, I think. Backpaddling to slow down and then quickly maneuver or redirect the packraft is an important skill and habit to acquire. I find I backpaddle almost twice as much in my packraft than I do in a whitewater kayak. It’s easy enough to do/learn, but important to remember. Slow yourself down and find the line that works, as, when whitewater packrafting, you don’t have near the speed to correct and move that you will in a whitewater kayak.
Other, non-paddling packrafting techniques involve packing the boat; loading the gear correctly to provide good balance and a low center of gravity, without taking up too much room. The newer packrafts here utilize the a Cargo Fly, allowing us to load a lot of the gear inside the thwarts (tubes) of the boat; providing a more rigid boat, a lower center of gravity and a lot more safety. They’re pretty awesome. In a brief lesson, you’ll learn quickly enough how to carefully and safely load your boat appropriately; for a quick ferry across a river, we’ll just tie a backpack on the bow. For a longer river-run, such as a multi-day ANWR packrafting trip, you’ll compartmentalize your gear into the Cargo Fly and a drybag on the bow. Knowing what you might need handy makes a big difference.
There’s obviously a whole lot more to packrafting than this. But for folks who haven’t yet jumped into the world of Alaska Packrafting, I hope this gives you a little food for thought and taste for what just may well lie in your future. It’s good, good fun. I’ll add more to this page as I get time, but hopefully this quick primer helps you think about what kind of packrafting trip you’re looking for.
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