July 9

Packrafting for Ultralight Backpacking

Packrafting has become a fad. It’s not an especially robust one, being like backpacking fundamentally unglamorous, but it is out there. Like all fads, market penetration has been high. You, as an experienced ultralight backpacker, have no doubt seen the videos and read the blog entries.

History of Packrafting

Modern packrafting was born in Alaska, where big rivers cannot be crossed any other way. It has blossomed uneasily in the lower 48, where the reach of roads, trails, and the bridges associated with each blunts the necessity of little rubber boats. There are routes to be done in the lower 48 where a packraft is essential, and even more where having a raft is faster than walking the same miles along the parallel trail. But these options are few, and even fewer outside the high water of spring and early summer. For an ultralight backpacker, packrafting will only occasionally prove to be the fastest option, especially given that contemporary packrafting gear will add between 6 and 10 pounds to the pack: 3-6 pounds for a proper raft, 2 pounds for a good paddle, a pound or a bit less for a PFD, and often a pound or so in extra clothing.

Missouri River
The Missouri River in Missouri River Breaks National Monument, Montana

Packrafting is a Wilderness Experience

You, the seasoned ultralight backpacker, should consider packrafting because miles walked in a day and in a trip is but one semi-coherent way to measure the worth of a hike. And packrafting allows you to see new things in new ways.

All of the best wilderness rivers in the lower 48 have trails nearby. Most of those trails wind through forests with perhaps intermittent views on the hills and mountains around them. All of these trails were built by humans, shaped by standards of human convenience in the wilderness. Rivers flow downhill to the ocean, carving a path according to the inscrutable, detached terms of erosion. Humans can learn much by traveling on such terms.

packrafting Flathead River
The South Fork the Flathead River, a great wilderness float and home to some sublime under-river cobbles.

Packrafting for Beginners

At the moment Alpacka packrafts are the only game in town. Other packrafts exist, but they are either too fragile for moving water use in a wilderness setting, or too heavy. Aspiring packrafters would do well to start by renting an Alpacka from one of the numerous online agencies. Backpackers with a reasonable amount of moving water experience in either canoes, kayaks or rafts will find packrafts exceedingly easy to paddle. If you have experience ferrying, catching eddies, and reading water renting a boat and learning on location during a backcountry trip is a reasonable proposition. For beginning boaters, spending the extra cash to rent a boat and practice close to home is wise. Read up a bit, on packrafting in particular and mild whitewater in general, rent your raft, and take a three day weekend for learning. Spend the first day on a lake and slow river, getting used to handling and deep water re-entries, and the second and third days on an easy overnight trip.

alpacka Packrafts
The author with a 2010 Alpacka Yukon Yak at left, and a 2012 Alpacka Scout at right. The lower weight and cost of the Scout is attractive, but most users will find the additional stability and dryness of the main-line boats a worthwhile investment.

Local packrafting trips can provide surprisingly interesting experiences. Even rivers through major urban and agricultural areas can feel quite isolated from the rhythms of the world around them. Dedicated backpackers will inevitably want to experience a true wilderness packraft, and in the lower 48 no river provides a better beginner experience than the South Fork of the Flathead in Montana. The South Fork is unique because it provides consecutive days of moderate wilderness floating. The river itself is gorgeous, and the nearby hiking almost as good. Opportunities for loops which combine both abound.

Packrafting the South Fork is best in July and early August, when flows at the Twin Creek gauge are between 5000 and 1500 cfs. Much later risks excessively low water in the upper reaches, and high water in June can be intimidating. May floats can be excellent but cold, and require snow travel in the high passes.

Logistics in the Bob are daunting for visitors and will be expensive. The best option is to either drive or fly into Great Falls and rent a car. Park at the Benchmark Trailhead west of Augusta, deep within the Bob complex. CDT hikers will recognize it as home to the Benchmark Wilderness Ranch. Hike over Stadler Pass down to Danaher Creek, inflate the boats, and put in. If you float all the way to the Spotted Bear River, there are 55 river miles ahead of you, interrupted only by the six mile portage around Meadow Creek gorge. This can easily be paddled in three days, but fishing, swimming, and side-hikes may well occupy many more. Several options exist going up the Spotted Bear drainage, to take hikers to either Spotted Bear or Larch Hill passes. The CDT can then be followed under the Chinese Wall and back to the trailhead, with more miles of moderate floating down the Sun River.

Sun River
The Sun River also provides excellent packrafting at a modest level of difficulty.

Experienced backpackers accustomed to 20-25 mile days can easily do this loop in a week, although 10 days is probably better. It provides all the quintessential benefits of wilderness packrafting; seeing a drainage evolve along its length, traveling close to the land, and making easy miles via current power. There’s not a good way to resupply, but no matter. You’ll only have to carry a full load for 15 miles until you put in, and by the time you’re back on your feet at Spotted Bear your food will be half gone.

If the South Fork doesn’t inspire you to seek out more options, than packrafting is just not for you.

This post was written by former Trail Ambassador Dave Chenault