I first got excited by packrafts (really excited) when reading about people who were using their boats to open up routes in the wildernesses they backpacked through. It was a long time before I could rub enough pennies together to get out there and do it myself, but I was intent that I wanted to use one of these boats to change the way I went backpacking.
I am a backpacker, and that is what packrafting means to me. By my personal definition, packrafting is an extension of backpacking which allows you to open up route possibilities where previously you saw obstacles, to experience the world from a different point of view, see things you’d never see if you weren’t in a boat, and to have a different kind of fun in the outdoors. I know others would see it differently, though.
I’m probably not alone among backpackers the world over when I say that I get a kick out of the planning that goes into a trip. Most people enjoy planning the gear they will use according to the route and conditions they anticipate. Some people go so far as to create their own dehydrated foods, or maybe even their own gear. But I think I’m on safe ground when I say that we are all into looking at maps.
Your perspective on a map changes completely when you look at it through a packrafter’s eyes. Which direction that river is flowing, and if it’s going your way, is suddenly way more important than where you might find a good place to ford it. You look at lakes and weigh up the odds of whether the prevailing winds will have you schlepping into a gale, or you see the islands on the lakes and just NEED to paddle out and camp there. When I’m planning packrafting routes I feel like they get closer to ideal the closer they get to 50% hiking and 50% paddling, and if the hiking is going to take me over mountain tops all the better. So when I’m looking at a map to judge a route, my eyes are drawn to where mountain ridges intersect with rivers or lochs or coastal inlets.
As with any backpacking trip, consideration of alternative route options is sensible. Many of the blue lines on maps look very promising, but planning to include them in a route can be tricky if you have no idea what the water level will be. What happens to your timetable if a strong wind (think big swell and white-capped waves) makes it unsafe for you paddle across that loch? How long is it going to take you to hike around? And what if you encounter a strong upriver wind when paddling a river you’ve depended upon to make good time? A strong upriver wind can make downstream progress completely impossible in some circumstances, or might just be so much effort it isn’t worth it. Foul weather alternatives and ‘escape routes’ are familiar concepts to backpackers and mountaineers alike, and so in my packraft planning they’re always in the mix.
And then there is risk to think about. To any backpacker, packrafter, or mountaineer there is always a need to consider the level of risk inherent to a particular route, and what (if anything) you can do to minimise the risks. Then you have a decision to take: considering the level of risk which remains when you’ve established your precautions, are you still comfortable to go ahead with what you planned? I firmly believe that we are all responsible for our own decisions and their consequences (therefore also our own safety). I wouldn’t criticise people for taking risks that I wouldn’t be prepared to take, but I’d still suggest due consideration before jumping in.
Where I live, you have to just accept that wet weather is part of the bargain. I backpack in Scotland to the following mantra: Accept wet feet. It is futile to try and keep them dry during the day, the land is just too wet and do you really want to try and cross that river with your shoes off? But my feet are always warm and dry in my sleep socks at night, and I think that is very important. Let’s face it, even with waterproofs supposedly guaranteed to keep you dry you’ll get wet eventually in enough of a deluge. But in a packraft, being wet to some extent is much more of an inevitability. So you need to give serious consideration to how that is going to affect your comfort and safety, and what you can do to get yourself warm at the end of the day. Personally, I carry a set of dedicated synthetic insulation for camp (both a pullover and trousers) to get changed into at the end of day. That provides welcome overnight warmth, and the wet clothes just go back on in the morning. When paddling at the colder times of year I often take a dry suit.
But cautions aside, can you imagine the possibilities? If you can, then packrafting could be for you. If you can’t, it probably isn’t.
My own packrafting is mostly in Scotland, where there is ample opportunity to paddle the rivers, lochs and coastal waters. The hiking is great here, too. But my packraft has also taken me from the arctic fjords and lakes of Northern Norway to rivers of Eastern France. And we (yes, by we I mean my boat and I) we have more plans coming downstream.
So I don’t know what packrafting means to you. Maybe it means nothing at all. But to me it means the possibilities are endless.