Everything You Need to Know About Packrafting

Packrafting has seen a surge in popularity recently, and is fast becoming one of the most exciting ways to have a varied and inexpensive expedition. But what exactly is packrafting, and how does it all work?  We talk to Paul Taylor, an expedition leader with Secret Compass, to find out a bit more.

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What is a packraft?

A packraft is a lightweight, inflatable, expedition-strength boat. They are great for expeditions and adventures where you want to paddle a bit and then trek a bit as when deflated they are very light (around 2.2kg which is lighter than some people’s tents!).

How long does it take to inflate a packraft?

Under perfect conditions and if you were really going for it you could inflate a raft in under five minutes. Realistically, on the side of a river, on an expedition and when you’ve been on the go for a few days, it would more realistically take eight to 10 minutes to pump up and be good to go (not including reattaching your gear safely!).

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How long to deflate and pack up a packraft?

From getting out of the water to setting off on your next trekking section of your adventure, 15 minutes would be pretty good going. To be more realistic, it’s better to factor in a bit more time for the raft to naturally deflate, then to force the remaining air out as you roll it up and put it in a dry bag.

Can you just carry a raft for a while?

For a short move, let’s say a couple of hundred metres, the temptation is always to just carry it under your arm – trust me, don’t! The route is inevitably always longer and there are tress to crawl under and banks to slide down etc. You’ve also got to collapse your paddle and stow that away. Again be aware that if the blades are poking up above your pack they’ll get caught up in vines and rattan.

 

Why is a packraft perfect for your African river expeditions?

My experience of packrafting in Africa comes from two expeditions, one to Sierra Leone and one to Gabon, both with Secret Compass. On both of these rivers we were running them blind as neither had been recce’d before and there was limited mapping (and in the case of Gabon limited anything!) available. We had tried to descend the Moa river in Sierra Leone in local dugout canoes the year previously but had become hamstrung by our lack of flexibility and complete reliance upon local infrastructure. By opting to use packrafts we were forced to travel light and we became reliant upon only ourselves and that is the real beauty of packrafting, portability and thus flexibility. There are simply no obstacles to your progress that can’t be surmounted. If the river is deemed to be too dangerous, portage around. If this is a large section of river then put your walking boots on and spend a day on the trail. In the case of Gabon, we had no information (not even the locals had any) on the lower section of the Djidji river so we just took it day by day, rapid by rapid until eventually we reached the end. I’m confident nobody has paddled the entirety of that river as it could only be done in a packraft.

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Safety kit on a packraft

Always wear a personal flotation device (PFD) on the water, even when it’s incredibly hot. To that end buy something you’re not going to mind wearing day in, day out, even if it’s hot!

Running rapids

 If you’re going to be running rapids then a helmet is essential, especially if you’re in uncharted waters and don’t really know in advance what’s ahead. Make sure you get one that is not too heavy and will also protect the sides of your head. I like this one by Palm Equipment.

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Carrying a knife

 A knife is always worth carrying in your PFD. It doesn’t need to have a blade that will bring down a tree but should be small and accessible and something you can draw and open with your eyes shut and underwater – just in case. This kind of thing is ideal.

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Attaching kit to your packraft

I always attach a towing line to the front of my packraft. A lot of time on exploratory expeditions will be spent towing and dragging your raft around rapids and obstacles and this just makes life easier. A roughly 10mm cord is ideal and I pass one end through each of the four attachment points on the front of the raft and then join the two strands together in a figure of eight or overhand knot to create a handle. Give yourself a few feet of room so the raft doesn’t run into the back of your legs and so that you might be able to walk along a track out of/ just next to the water (if there is one!), and pull the raft through shallow water to the side.

Rucksacks on board

Thinking about attaching a pack to your raft? Your pack has probably got a hip belt and its worth folding this back on itself first, and doing up the buckle to stop it trailing in the water (as if you were taking it on a plane). Then, when it comes to attaching your pack to your raft, I highly recommend the use of these accessory straps.

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How to attach your rucksack

On my expeditions, I’ve used bungee cord in the past but the ‘give’ in these can cause problems when the pack moves when negotiating white water. The following is a really simple and reliable method. Just run the straps through the two attachment points on each side (the straps should be running up and down the raft) and place the pack on. It’s all about balance so it’s sometimes good to do this on the water so the pack sits centrally. Once you’re happy pull the straps through and make sure they’re nice and tight. It’s always a good idea to now undo any straps on your pack and pull them over the accessory straps and fasten them again. It just adds another level of security for your pack.

Taking on water (in a good way)

My pack has stretch panels for water bottles so I use the one facing me for water but you may well need to have a separate pouch if this isn’t the case. Whatever system you employ; the golden rule is that nothing is left loose in the bottom of the boat for obvious reasons! If you tip over, goodbye stuff!

Shoes

This is obviously incredibly important to get right. I guess you’re looking for a hybrid that you can comfortably wear in the boat and swim in but should offer enough grip to allow you to move across rocks and boulders and if necessary protect your feet when moving through the jungle whilst portaging. I’ve used a similar shoe to these in the past and found them to work well.

Fell shoes also work well as they’re light and have good grip.

Clothes

While packrafting in the UK I’ve worn a dry suit and on occasions full waterproofs to protect me from the elements but on my African expeditions I just wear a pair of shorts and a technical T- shirt – made of quick-wicking material (not cotton). Some people I’ve travelled with prefer long sleeves and trousers on the water but I prefer to use a hat and sun screen as I’m often in the water carrying out recce’s of what’s ahead so I want to dry quickly.

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Gloves

I always carry a pair of lightweight, mesh backed fingerless gloves just in case I need them to protect my hands. I’ve never needed to use them but some people would wear them as a matter of course.

Weight

How much does it all weigh? I’ve rounded it all off to take into account different manufacturers and types of kit but essentially:

Packraft: 2.2 kg
Paddle: 1 kg
Helmet: 500 g
Storage sack: 1kg
Total: 4.7 kg

What experience in the water do I need?

You clearly need to be a competent swimmer and the more comfortable you are in that environment the more you will enjoy your packraft adventure. I’m a decent swimmer but a couple of weeks before I’m going to lead an expedition I’ll get down to my local pool and get some lengths in and spend a bit of time wild swimming in my local river. However, the packraft is a very forgiving craft owing to the large surface area of its base and the fact you’re surrounded by a cushion of air. They are very easy to paddle and you just need those swimming skills and water confidence in the bank just in case.

What level of water can a packraft negotiate?

Personally, I’ve been down ‘Grade 4’ rapids in a packraft (I know people have been down ‘Grade 5’ but they would likely be experienced paddlers). The Grade 4s were relatively comfortable and with a spraydeck fitted (and without a rucksack strapped to the front deck).

Rapids with rucksacks on board

Having a rucksack or pack strapped to the front deck really affects the stability of the boat. If running rapids with your kit strapped in front of you, as you drop down a rapid the weight of the pack will shift the boat to the side. The trick here is to anticipate this happening and shift your bodyweight to the opposite side and put in a support stroke. If you just allow the boat to do all the work that’s when you’ll capsize. Another good trick is to deflate your inflatable seat before you run the rapid. Whilst having it fully inflated gives you good visibility and is more comfortable, letting the air out lowers your centre of gravity and quite simply makes it more difficult for you to come out. I’ve taken teams down ‘Grade 3’ rapids with expedition packs but on unchartered rivers with no guide books it’s really about making a dynamic risk assessment and trusting your judgement and experience. If in any doubt we’ll look for an easier line and then maybe a tributary that might lead around the rapid. This might involve dragging or carrying the boats for a short distance but if there’s no other option and the obstacle either looks like (or the contours on the map indicate) it might run for some distance we may well deflate the rafts and trek around it altogether.

Films

Finally, here are a few interesting packrafting films to watch!

 

Feeling inspired by how great packrafting sounds?

Head over to www.odysseon.com and check out the hiking, packrafting and camping weekend run by Secret Compass in Wales this month.

 

 

 

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