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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

18 Responses to Packrafting for Ultralight Backpacking

  1. Philip July 9, 2013 at 12:41 pm #

    David – has packrafting really become a fad? I don’t know anyone in New England who does it. Seems like it’s a fad with a very small population.

  2. DaveC July 9, 2013 at 6:54 pm #

    It’s still on the upswing, and probably a few years from peak, but insofar as fad is defined as an infatuation with concept over practicality I’d say it qualifies.

  3. Glen Van Peski July 10, 2013 at 12:44 am #

    Wow, I’ve always thought it would be fun. Thanks for the specific idea on how to plan a trip. Any possibility of renting pack rafts to see if we like it before it investing in one? Living in SoCal, I’m not sure, even if I like it, how often I would get to use a personal pack raft…

  4. DaveC July 11, 2013 at 12:11 pm #

    There are a number of online, mail in and out places to rent Alpacka raft. and have both been around for a few years. just opened up here in Whitefish. All have comparable rates (200/week for boat/paddle/PFD).

  5. Philip July 11, 2013 at 7:38 pm #

    Great info. Here’s an excellent link from one of the rental companies about recommended gear and the various options available.

    Like kayaking, the boat is the inexpensive part, but as a recovered whitewater kayaking addict, I can testify to the fun of the sport.

  6. John Jonas July 12, 2013 at 8:57 am #

    You said “all of the best wilderness rivers have trails nearby.”
    I think you’ve not been to Utah’s canyon country. The escalate river is an amazing wilderness experience. It’s only accessible via packraft, and there are no trails as an alternate way of experiencing it.

  7. RossB July 12, 2013 at 9:40 am #

    Years ago my friends and I would take a raft up to some of the lakes in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness area (in the Cascades). This enabled us to get away from the crowds as well as hike to some otherwise very difficult to access peaks. The improvement in gear is most welcome, as I wouldn’t mind doing this again some time.

  8. Guthook July 12, 2013 at 10:24 am #

    I guess I must count as one of the fad’s followers– I haven’t had any experience with packrafting, but the idea of packrafting northern Maine has been itching in my brain for the last few years. There are a heck of a lot of lakes, rivers, and remote mountains up there that would make for some sweet scenery. One of these days I’ll get around to it. Or if some GG trail ambassadors want to organize something… 😉

  9. DaveC July 12, 2013 at 11:52 am #

    The Escalante has a use trail along the majority of the river, even if it does disappear into the willows frequently (and temporarily). The Esca also has a too narrow season to be considered amongst the top echelon of wilderness rivers.

    It is a good example of how packrafting can change the lowlight of a loop to a highlight. Most backpackers only do one trip with extensive sections of walking along the Esca before they learn their lesson.

  10. JD July 12, 2013 at 1:23 pm #

    I believe by saying “Lower 48” you don’t include Hawaii. Is not Hawaii lower than all the other 49? I suppose ‘contiguous 48’ lacks a certain panache. ‘Middle 48’ has the same number of syllables.

  11. Alan Dixon July 12, 2013 at 1:11 pm #

    >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

    Packrafts are not a “fad” for Alaska–they are eminently practical.

    In many areas, just the opposite of the above is true. Many routes are faster with a raft, and might not even be doable without a raft. Virtually no trails and interminable brush make for slow to impossible progress on foot along many brush choked river valleys–maybe 1/2 mile per hour on foot if you are lucky vs. making 6-7 mph in a raft. Not hard to make 40+ miles rafting in a day. This more than compensates for the effort of schlepping a pack with a raft between drainages.

  12. Renee July 12, 2013 at 4:57 pm #

    We have been packrafting around the North West for the last year and it’s starting to catch on. Many whitewater boaters are seeing the benefits as we regularly do class III and IV in our Alpackas! As a ultra-light backpacker I have found packrafting to be an exciting new adventure in backcountry travel!

  13. The Pooka MacPhellimey July 12, 2013 at 4:55 pm #

    Very helpful.
    I’m very interested in getting into this but I don’t have any local champions. So I appreciate this article and the links other GG blog readers have shared.
    I live in Far North Queensland in Australia.
    It’s a bit different here.

  14. Jason July 14, 2013 at 5:19 pm #

    Dose anyone have information about the LiteWater Dinghy made by Klymit? I am new to both Ultralight Backpacking and the idea of pack rafting.

    Thank you.

  15. Chris @ TheGearHouse July 16, 2013 at 12:45 pm #

    Jason – re the Klymit rafts – the last I heard a few weeks ago from a Klymit rep was that the initial run of their packraft sold out (200 or 300 I think) to retailers already but they have not been producced. Once produced and they can get feedback of sales from their retailers, they will look at how quickly and how large of a second production run to do. With the Outdoor Retailer trade show coming up in a couple weeks, I’m sure there will be much more information coming out soon about their rafts.

  16. Jason July 24, 2013 at 8:05 pm #

    Hey thanks Chris.

  17. scott March 10, 2014 at 2:08 am #

    i would have to expand on the article. the author greatly underestimates the amount of rivers that hiking in a packraft would give access to in the Western US, literally thuousands of exciting small rivers and runnable streams with millions of miles in total length. Not really feasable in a large heavy hardshell or an IK.

  18. Patrick August 22, 2014 at 9:21 am #

    Packrafting is fun and you can use them also to cross rivers (if there is no bridge nearby) or go for a relaxed paddling session on the weekends.

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