During the 1980s, packrafts began gaining popularity in long-distance adventure races in Alaska, and Alaska remains at the forefront of using packrafts on non-motorised, longdistance, cross-country journeys. Modern packrafts sit somewhere between a child’s rubber dinghy and a whitewater-rafting boat. Prices vary correspondingly, from cheaper boats designed to help you cross an occasional lake or wide river, right up to extremely robust, and more expensive, rafts capable of taking on serious whitewater.
If you want to try something basic before investing too heavily, then look at boats made by Sevylor. And if weight is more important to you than performance, try FlyWeight Designs. Their new FlytePacker weighs a smidgen over one kilogram, but can hold 140 kilograms. At the other end of the scale, the African River Kraft Gecko is a heavier and tougher option.
I used Alpacka’s Denali Llama raft for the Iceland crossing. Chris is shorter than me, so chose the Alpacka Yak. Our boats were supplied with ingenious inflation bags (enabling them to be blown up in a couple of minutes) and fitted with spray decks, which are essential for whitewater paddling. We bashed our boats on rocks, scraped them down shallow glacial floodplains, capsized them in big waves, and even sheltered beneath them in a sudden hailstorm. On the water, they were impressively stable, forgiving and comfortable. Off the water, they were light and easy to portage around waterfalls too difficult for our paddling capabilities. And they packed down to about the dimensions of a roll mat for stowing in the backpack. A repair kit of Tyvek tape, cable ties,
Aquaseal, gaffer tape, a needle and dental floss should be all you ever need to repair a packraft in the field.
A buoyancy aid is essential for all water activities. As with much of the kit described here, you’ll need to balance several factors when deciding which design suits your needs. These include weight, bulk, foam versus inflatable, the water conditions and temperature, and, not least, your own competence as a paddler and swimmer. We used inflatable buoyancy aids and manually inflated them so that they were always inflated when we were on the water. They’re lighter and less bulky than foam devices, but there’s a risk of them puncturing. Always seek specialised expert advice before buying safety equipment.
p i ck your paddle The choice of paddle also involves compromise. You need to balance cost, weight and strength with the type of water you’re planning to paddle on. Select a paddle that can be dismantled into three or four pieces for easy stowing during the non-river phases of your expedition. As packrafts can negotiate rivers less than 30 centimetres deep, you’re likely to find yourself taking on very shallow streams, particularly if you’re beginning at the river’s source. As a consequence, you often need to use the paddle to push off rocks in narrow creeks or, as on my first practice trip, for trying to smash a way through ice on a frozen river. I have also used my paddle as a clothes line and for warding off attacks from sea birds.
Packrafts can carry heavy loads on their bow. It may not look elegant, but being able to paddle a river with a
70 www.geog raphical.co.uk december 2010