What is packrafting?

Wikipedia already has a quite comprehensive article about packrafting so I'm trying to write a shorter version here.

Packrafting is an outdoor sport which involves using a small, inflatable boat called a packraft. Different from inflatable kayaks and cheap PVC pool toys, packrafts are much tougher and durable but lightweight at the same time. Because of this, high-end packrafts are also quite expensive (well over 500€). To my knowledge the most prized packraft manufacturers in the world are Alpacka Raft and Feathercraft, whose packrafts are known to be extremely tough and well-designed.

Packrafts are usually paddled with a kayak paddle and the hiking gear is stashed in a drybag attached on raft's bow. Alpacka has also developed an airtight zipper system (called the Cargo Fly) which allows storing some equipment inside the raft's tube. Rafts are inflated using the combination of a silnylon inlfation bag and the user's own lungs. The bag is used to fill the raft up to 95% of it's volume and the last 5% by blowing. While empty and rolled a packraft takes approximately as much space a foam sleeping mattress or small tent. Then there's of course the paddle and PFD to carry too.

Paddle shaft is usually made out of aluminum (heaviest and cheapest), glass fiber or carbon fiber (lightest and most expensive). Paddle blade material depends heavily on manufacturer but the cheapest ones are usually HDPE which isn't very stiff and therefore adds weight. On the other hand the most expensive paddles have some kind of carbon fiber laminate blades which are very rigid but yet lightweight. Then there's also the coupling system. The blades are most commonly attached to the shaft with snap buttons but the center part can be of some different design. Snap buttons are the cheapest choice but many paddle manufacturers also offer some kind of adjustable coupling which lets you choose the blade angle freely. For a paddle it's highly recommended to use a 4-piece to make packing easier. 2-piece paddle is also a possibility but much more cumbersome to carry around. The universal paddle length almost everywhere around the world seems to be 210cm, most likely because Alpacka sells and recommends such paddles with it's boats. Longer paddles can also be used but they weigh more and are a hinderance in more technical water. Because this is an international blog I see no reason to promote any specific places to buy paddles, it's better that you just ask your local vendor. Just keep in mind that packrafting is still a niché sport and finding compatible paddles is not always so straightforward.

Many packraft manufacturers have developed their boats to a level that allows using them effectively in even higly technical whitewater. Some world class packrafters such as Roman Dial and Luc Mehl have rafted down some rigorously aggressive waters in conditions many of us wouldn't even consider. Luc has even listed some of the basic whitewater principles in his blog. Packrafting in whitewater is clearly different than using a canoe or kayak as highly buoyant raft tends to float over various river hazards and hitting rocks is more just annoying than dangerous. Needless to say, packrafting in easier whitewater is really fun and easy to learn.

So, what you need is simply:

  • A packraft
  • A paddle
  • A personal flotation device (aka. PFD)
  • A suitable dry bag
  • Some way to fasten the dry bag on the boat

If you plan on packrafting in whitewater it's best to take some precautions and start with less cargo on the bow so you can learn to handle the boat better.