A Beginner’s Guide to Packrafting

P: Will Rochfort

Story by Heather Balogh

Prior to arriving in Gates of the Arctic National Park in Alaska, my packrafting expertise solely relied on a 45-minute escapade at a neighboring lake back home in Colorado. Sure, floating around the pond gave me a sense of confidence in the buoyancy of the rafts, but that was about all I walked away with in terms of packrafting knowledge. Since packrafting is an up-and-coming sport, I’d like to save other beginners from the trouble we encountered while becoming familiarized with the boats on the Alatna River. Not everyone should suffer as we did!

What is packrafting?
In short, a packraft is an inflatable individual raft that can pack down to such a small size that it can fit inside a pack while backpacking. Once hikers reach a river, they can remove the raft from their pack, blow it up with the included inflation system, and let the adventure continue on the water. The boats do add some weight to backpacks since the raft, spray deck, paddles, and PFDs weigh roughly 8.5 pounds, but it is worth it. Hiking and rafting allow adventurers to see more terrain and cover more mileage while still traveling under their own power.

How do you inflate a packraft?
Before receiving our packraft rentals, I wondered how we would inflate the boats in the backcountry. Would we have to pack in pumps with us?! Fortunately, that wasn’t the case and packrafts come equipped with an ingenious inflation bag. This bag is made of sil-nylon and has a threaded nozzle on one side. This nozzle screws into an accompanying valve on the raft so users can scoop air into the bag and then “squeeze” it through the nozzle into the raft. With practice, this technique doesn’t take long and skilled users can inflate the boats in mere minutes. Additionally, the inflation bags are very packable and weigh next to nothing, so it sure beats dragging an air compressor into the backcountry!

What type of clothing and gear should I pack for a packrafting trip?
Out of all my struggles on our Alatna packrafting trip, my clothing was the most trying! I had no idea how to dress, how wet I would really get and how warm of clothing I needed to wear. In short, I was clueless.
Keeping your body dry is imperative, especially if you are adventuring in chilly topography like Alaska. If you don’t own or want to wear a dry suit, definitely go with waterproof tops and bottoms. Even with a spray skirt, your lap is likely to end up drenched. You also need to seriously consider your footwear, as you will be asking it to take on a diverse range of activities. Not only will packrafters need to hike over extensive terrain but they will also be in and out of the water every time they enter or exit the raft. Neoprene socks are a great option to keep your feet dry, but if your shoes aren’t waterproof, they may become miserable while hiking. Knee high rubber boots are perfect for the rafting but truly become a heavy pain while hiking. Evaluate what type of trip you are planning and do your best to come up with the most appropriate footwear.

How do you pack for the river?
First and foremost, put everything in dry bags inside of your backpack. Or, if you don’t want to use lots of smaller bags, you can buy one large dry bag that will fit around your entire pack. SealLine makes backpack-sized dry bags that come equipped with straps so they are easy to sling over your shoulders for the hiking portions of the trip. Basically, you want to ensure your stuff stays dry if it goes for an unpredicted swim!

P: Will Rochfort

How do you attach your backpack to the raft?
Most packrafts will have straps attached to the front of the boat. Users simply set their backpack on the bow of the raft and then rig the lines through and over the backpack, hooking them on the other side. It will cause the back of your boat to rear up in the air while on land, but doesn’t affect paddling unless you’re carrying a seriously heavy pack. In my experience, you can easily carry a 60-pound pack on a packraft; however, carrying that same pack while hiking on land may cause some back problems later!

Good luck and happy packrafting!

P: Will Rochfort