(The Gear Loop) - What is packrafting? One of the rather glorious things about advances in equipment and technology is the way different adventure styles continue to merge. These days, lightweight gear means you can carry enough stuff to give you multiple options as to how you travel across a landscape.
You may have heard of bikepacking and ski mountaineering (skimo, if you're down with the lingo) and you may be aware of para-alpinism (a heady mix of paragliding and mountain climbing). Now, there’s this new buzz word in town: packrafting.
As its name suggests, packrafting is a combination of backpacking and rafting, and it opens up a whole world of possibility. In the mountains, how often do we outdoorsy folk say things like: "It’s not actually that far, as the crow flies."
Of course, there are no crows in the mountains, only ravens, but we’re straying from the point here… What we are getting at is that our upland regions are a maze of natural barriers: mountains, rivers, lochs, lakes and llyns. Getting from A to B often requires serious effort and huge detours.
However, we see a barrier as an opportunity. Steep cliff in the way? Time to get the rope and rack out. Mountain between me and the next valley? We love climbing mountains! Tricky river crossing? Time for a bit of problem solving. However, larger bodies of water present a totally different problem to hikers. Enter, the packraft.
What is a packraft?
A packraft is an inflatable boat that is light enough, and packs down small enough, to carry in a backpack. Generally far lighter (usually between 2 to 6 kg) than an inflatable kayak, they are designed primarily for backpacking adventures. You typically inflate by squeezing a nylon bag, forcing air into the raft.
A packraft is the ultimate ticket to complete freedom when exploring the great outdoors. All of a sudden, routes that were previously unimagined are a real possibility, with the excitement and novelty of a water crossing or two built into your hiking adventure. Pop your kit in a dry bag or two and off you go.
Of course, a packraft’s portability gives it potential beyond the pursuit of amphibious backpacking. Think bikerafting: that’s bikepacking with a raft in tow, too! Some packrafts are designed specially with carrying your bike in mind. Or you could simply pop your packraft into the boot of your car, or take it on the train, and travel to a nearby lake or river for an hour or two.
There are a range of models and designs out there. Some are large enough to carry two people, which allows you to distribute weight on the trail if one bears the burden of the raft, while the other carries the other essentials.
Some models are crafted for activities like whitewater rafting, complete with thigh straps and a spray deck, and many come with integrated storage for your gear. If you’re on a big multi-day trip with your best backpacking tent, having a packraft that can carry a large amount of cargo is ideal.
In terms of brands, US manufacturer Alpacka have been creating packrafts since the turn of the millennium and it is one of the leading lights in the field. Other brands include Anfibio, MRS, Audac and Kokopelli.
Where to go packrafting
The world is your oyster where packrafting is concerned. A quick Google search will reveal guided experiences, where you can safely get your first taste of this exciting new world.
If you decide to take the plunge (or hopefully not, as it may be) and invest in a packraft, start by planning adventures somewhere not too remote. we are thinking a pleasant journey across Derwent Water from Keswick to Catbells, or an adventure across Loch Lomond to bag Ben Lomond, for example.Once you’re proficient, the Scottish Highlands have to be the ultimate place to practice packrafting in the UK, especially the fjord-like lochs of the West Highlands or the lochan speckled waterscapes of places like the Fisherfield Forest or Assynt.
Speaking of fjords, why not plan a packrafting expedition in Norway, taking you through vast, untamed landscapes! Or picture paddling through the clear waters of Slovenia’s Soča Valley, surrounded by huge limestone peaks.
Of course, it pays to do some research before you travel. Check that body of water isn’t on private land, for example, and take heed of tides, currents and rips in tidal areas so you don’t end up in trouble.
What to wear
What to wear really depends on the body of water you’re about to tackle and its temperature. If you’re about to cross a calm Scottish loch and it’s a warm summer’s day, you’re going to be more concerned with the midges than the slim possibility of getting a soaking.
It would be worth donning lightweight waterproofs to guard against the odd splash but other than that, you’re probably good to go in what you were hiking in.
However, when the water is Baltic during winter, you’ll be glad of a drysuit. Even though the chances of a dunking are still low, the consequences could be much more severe without one.
The shock of a sudden submersion, coupled with the risk of hypothermia once you’re back out of the water, mean that it’s a case of better safe than sorry. A drysuit is also necessary if you increase the chances of getting wet by launching into faster moving water, even in summer where temperatures can remain low.
What other gear do you need?
You don’t want to be up some creek or other without a paddle. Clearly, a paddle is essential for a packrafting adventure. Though you won’t want just any paddle, as the whole point of a packraft is that it can stow neatly away in your backpack.
Packraft paddles are ultralight and break down into smaller, packable pieces for handy transportation. A life jacket – or to give it its technical title, a personal flotation device – is also recommended.
Besides this, you might want to consider wearing water shoes that double up as hiking shoes, as they are quick drying and designed to grip wet surfaces. Depending on your raft’s storage capabilities, you may also need a dry bag or three for all your gear. Oh, and a repair kit is pretty essential, as you won’t be going anywhere if you can’t inflate the thing because of a tear.
That’s pretty much it if you’re taking to calm lakes or rivers. However, if you have whitewater ambitions, you’ll need items like a helmet, drysuit and the other safety items.
How hard is it to learn?
Packrafting on a calm lake is a gloriously satisfying experience and you’ll feel secure thanks to the width and buoyancy of your raft, which make it very stable. This makes controlling a packraft relatively easy to learn.
Most packrafts are paddled like a kayak, with a double-bladed paddle. If you’ve ever kayaked before, you’ll get into the groove in no time. However, once on moving water things get a lot trickier and we’d recommend seeking tuition and doing a rescue course before trying this yourself.