What exactly is Packrafting?
So we have all heard of “Backpacking” and we have all heard of “rafting”. So what happens when you merge the two together in a compact, portable fashion…enter packrafting! A compact, foldable one man raft, which can roll up to the size of tent and fitted inside or on your backpack! This is a real game changer for wilderness adventurers. As the Packraft setup makes a raft very easy to mobilise which gives you the ability to hop onto the rivers in-between treks! This hot new trend is currently grabbing the great outdoors men and women of America. According to the American Packrafting Association “76% of our members started the hobby in the past five years.”
Some put this recent explosion in popularity down to Packraft technology which has improved so much in recent years, allowing great opportunities for multi sport river experiences.
Where did Packrafting start?
It ’s Origins can be traced back to Alaska, where this has been a flexible method of river transport for a number of years. In fact, the Packraft is not a new phenomenon, although the technology has improved massively in recent years. Various versions of what today we would call a Packraft have been around for over 150 years!
Brief Timeline of Packrafting:
- One of the first recorded uses of the Packraft was in 1845, where Canadian born Arctic explorer Peter Halket, used rubber pack rafts on one of his expeditions.
- Fast forward to just after world war 2 (1946-1955) and left over survival equipment used by the airforce in WW2, was sent to army surplus shops. These were so of the most compact, functioning packrafts for that era.
- The first documented use of using a packraft for “Hobbyist” river rafting by an American was in 1952. A married couple named (Dick and Isabelle Griffith), headed down copper canyon in Mexico! They did this on one of the airforce inflatable pacrrafts left over from WW2.
- As the 1970’s got underway American Safety manufactured a packraft designed to be used on calm waters. This was a nice design but not as robust as what we see today. As the 1980’s came around Seattle based “Curtis Designs” created a more lightweight version of the raft. Originally designed for lakes.
- During around 1985, Old Dick Griffith brought an American Safety packraft to take part in the Alaska Wilderness Adventure race! This proves the concept for a lot of people and creating a buzz in the industry.
- During a similar point in the mid 1980’s Sherpa packraft launched the first packraft specially designed to negotiate rivers!
- 2000: (Alpacka Raft) is born. – A young Thor Tingey takes on the Brooks range with a Curtis packraft in the summer. After he convinces his mum (Sheri) into building him a packraft for robust rivers!
- 2002: Sheri forms the Alpacka Raft company. A leap forward in Packrat technology with various sizes/models capable of running class 4 whitewater! One such model was called the “Fjord Explorer” with a rowing frame and a two-person packable canoe.
- 2014-2015: A tremendous leap forward in technology and the result of years of research the “Alpackalypse” is launched.
- 2019: Technology has continuously improved with more lightweight and robust packrafts being released regularly at more competitive prices. Packrafts are now trending heavily in the United States and around the world.
Where can you try Packrafting? – Top 10 Spots.
There are various spots to try out Packrafting some popular locations are:
Alsaka, a great place for adventures and a true originator of packrafting as we know it today!
Wrangell-St. Elias National Park
At Wrangell St Elias National Park, expect some great rivers, mountains hikes to glacier lakes and a true adventurers playground! Alaska can be a difficult place to negotiate by foot but as you open up the waterways it’s a different story with untouched areas suddenly becoming easily accessible!
Waterways here used to be thought of as obstacles but now they are truely though of as fun trials! If you fancy learning how to make the most out of the wilderness contact, “Kennicoot Wilderness guides” who offer two day courses where you can learn everything from river tackling strategies and self rescue.
Brandywine Creek state park.
This is a great place if your just starting out as Brandywine Creek is mostly a calm affair, with a beautiful country backdrop surrounding you as you meander down creek. It is also home to some great hiking trails, with some stunning views making it a great day out, for the chilled packrafter!
If you wan’t faster waters head further upstream to Pennsylvania!
Upper Lehigh River to Rockport Gorge
If your after something a little more vibrant then this is a great spot! However, be aware when I went there back in 2018, it was very busy with massess of private boats, paddlers and guided raft groups. This can be a little challenging negotiating past them, so some skill is required! The Lehigh River has 2 whitewater sections classed as an easy III, which is easier than the Lower Yough, but harder than the Delaware).
According to American White Water: The average release here is approximately 800 cfs, which creates a fun experience overall. A few times a year there are double, triple and even quad releases from the dam, these offer much greater whitewater challenges. Check out American White Water for an in-depth dam release schedule and river information here.
Tioga State Forest:
Pine Creek Gorge to Rattlesnack Rock
Pine Creek Gorge is a stunning wilderness offering great rivers to packraft on from Youghiogheny to Lehigh. It is also a fantastic place to go on hiking trails as they are well marked and easily accessible from Rattlesnack rock. The West Rim Trail is a great hiking area for a 10 mile journey, with easily accessible rivers to packraft back fast!
Potomac River – Harpers Ferry
Expect spectacular and mighty scenery as you head along the river carving through the Appalachian mountains. This is a fantastic whitewater run, spring is a great time to try this one out due to the less crowds and bigger waves!
Grand Canyon National Park
The Rim to Rim is a wonderful rugged experience along the North and South Bass Trails from one end of the Grand Canyon to the other. During a hike and Packraft session you will discover wild and untouched areas of the Grand Canyon, which only a small fraction of Canyon tourists will ever see!
Expect Majestic scenery and charming, intimate details like spring-fed creeks, flowering cacti, and desert wildlife.
Rappahannock River to Kellys ford.
The great thing about the upper part of Rappahannock River is its starts fairly calm with a nice flat water route, then the river gradient gradually increases to provide some great Class II-III waves and lifts making it a fun experience! This river is also easily accessible to allow you to hop out and re take your favourite parts!
Appalachian by Train and Raft!
We have a great article here on the Appalachian Trail, if your into hiking. However, bring your packraft along for an even funner experience! In between the Blue ridge and Appalachian mountains you will discover some fantastic river runs deep in nature! The region has a vast train network which allows access to these wild rivers easy to achieve!
A great guy named, Dan from Chicagobackpacker.com wrote a nice post on exactly this.
“The Amtrak Cardinal and Capitol Limited lines travel from Chicago to the east coast nearly every day, allowing access to a number of popular, runnable rivers. With a packraft, reaching them is an easy matter of packing up my river gear, riding on a train, and hiking out to a boat launch. On this tour, I combined three different Appalachian river trips into a week-long itinerary of train rides, paddling, and hiking.” – Chicagobackpacker
Also check this great article on the Appalachian Trail – A State by State Guide.
Rappanhannock River – Longest free flowing river on the East coast.
This is a great technical run thats easily accessible straight from the roadside, no long hikes! The fall line rapids near Fredericksburg, VA offer the biggest whitewater for packrafters! There is also various challenging routes for people of all difficulties.
Outside of the U.S:
For bountiful mix of mountains and Glaciers, head to Greenland! A great spot here is Patagonia! According to Konstantin, an avid pack rafter and adventurer: “We’ve drawn a path on Google Earth from one Greenland airport to another (some 300 kilometers), packed our packrafts, put on rubber boots and set off to conquer and overcome!”
To see more check out: Konstantin Packraft adventure. The route they did was from Maniitsoq to Kangerlussuaq . The blue line is their main planned route, the other lines are just options to cut corners or make it longer…if having too much fun!
8. Quebec, Canada
Magpie River – For real adventurers!
The is a great spot to book a packrafting tour, where you will have the change to hike, rappel and orienteer your way through the wilderness to lake magpie. The source of the wonderful Magpie River.
From their expect to paddle down 100 miles down Class III and Class IV rapids all the way to the Atlantic Ocean!
9. New Zealand, (Rees Valley)
New Zealand is a wild and wicked playground full of remote lakes and rivers which previously provided a barrier to entry for the standard adventurer! Discover canyons of turquoise waters, with a backdrop of mountains, waterfalls and glaciers! A popular spot for packrafting tours is Rees Valley, one hours drive outside of Queenstown…but it feels much more wild!
Tara River Canyon
Tara river Canyon is one of the longest and deepest gorges in Europe! The 74 mile canyon is a scenic playground though the Mountains of Durmitor National Park! Morača River and Bosnia’s Neretva River are also fantastic routes to explore!
A variety of adventure tours are common here which include transportation, guides and lodging! If that is got your all excited to go Packrafting check out Town and Tourists Packrafting tips below.
10 Packrafting Tips for beginners.
1. Choose a Lightweight Packraft
Which are the Best Lightweight Packrafts?
- For the best value check out: www.sevylor.com
- For the most lightweight, try: www.flyweightdesigns.com
- For the most high quality and sturdy backpacks: www.alpackaraft.com
2. Have Karabiners to keep things Clipped on.
3. Rubber boots.
4. Pack smart and light.
Remember to only bring with you what you need as if your hiking you will have to carry this on your back! Even lightweight packrafts add a load to your boat! With the boat, collapsible paddle, and buoyancy aid. Bring multi use clothes, such as waterproof top and bottoms or a drysuit.
5. Best to bring a friend for safety.
If your packrafting in an area with fast waters, bring a friend to scout ahead and have a system of paddle and whistle singals to help and communicate.
6. It’s all about Variety.
The best trips are a combination of hiking and packrafting with multiple rivers to each give you a different feel!
7. Set up a safety Grabline.
Rig a line around the raft to act as a safety grabline. However, make sure your aware of the dangers of trailing lines and underwater snag hazards!
8. Start Slow – Learn the basics.
If you’ve not pack rafted before start slow, with calm waters and an easy shoreline entry to learn the basics! The basic packrafting technique is similar to Kayaking in terms of how to launch and land your boat. Practice strokes forward, backwards and turns! Packrafts are generally more stable, though slightly harder to maneuver than a kayak but the basic skills are the same.
9. Practice – Packing/Unpacking your boat.
If that’s not an option for you, watching videos can be very helpful. It’s also helpful to practice unpacking, inflating, deflating, and re-packing your boat prior to a trip.
10. Gain some experience before taking rapids above class III
Make sure you have skills and experience in whitewater conditions, before taking on rapids above class III. Signing up for a course or joining a tour are brilliant ways to learn these techniques from a knowledgeable instructor.
Extra Helpful Resources:
- Learn basic kayaking strokes via Paddling.com
- For more info see, the great: National Park Service.
- American Packrafting Association