Packrafting: a new era of river exploration

Note: this article was published in the NZOIA (New Zealand Outdoor Instructors Association) Quarterly publication in July 2015.

A year and a half ago if you’d asked me about packrafting I would have visualised people floating down rivers in cheap warehouse duckies with bike helmets. But times have changed. A modern-day packraft is the ultimate tool for amphibious exploration and I reckon New Zealand is one of the best places on the planet for it. Here’s an insight into what packrafting is all about.

A brief history of inflatable craft

Inflatable rafts have been around for thousands of years. Some of the first inflatable rafts used cow or goat skins as the air-tight bladder. These were the traditional form of water transportation for many people living in remote villages in central asia and were mostly used for transporting cargo and to cross big rivers safely. In the 1800s inflatable rafts started being used on exploratory trips, mostly in the American Rockies and in the Arctic. This was around the time that rubberised fabric was invented which allowed for more durable and versatile constructions.

Interest in compact, inflatable rafts increased further during world war one when emergency equipment was required as flights over large bodies of water became common. As life rafts evolved, becoming increasingly lighter and more durable, the interest in rafting for recreation increased. By the 1950s and 60s the use of inflatable craft for recreation had spread significantly and people started going on more adventurous and obscure journeys. This was also around the time that light-weight air mattresses started being used to float down rivers in Australia and to cross the Grand Canyon.

In New Zealand, the earliest recounts I found of rafting were in the early 1900s when three kiwis headed down the Waimakariri River on a large square raft made of kerosene tins! By the 1960s ‘cowboy’ rafting was becoming popular and rafts would be made out of tyre tubes roped together and amateur adventurers would propel themselves with manuka branches, or whatever else they could source on the side of the river.

New Zealander John Mackay published ‘Wild Rivers’ in 1978, telling the story of exploratory expeditions on six of New Zealand’s wild rivers. I came across the book at a friend’s place and managed to track Mackay down. He was surprised when I phoned him up out of the blue asking about his book which was over 40 years old! When we met up in Auckland he had a twinkle in his eye and a big smile as he recounted trips down various rivers in decades past.

When I asked what inspired him, John simply stated “laziness” with a cheeky grin. “We’d see rivers on the train and daydream about floating down admiring the amazing country without too much physical effort.” The first time he went rafting they caught the train to Mount White bridge and put in from there. They used long sticks, which worked reasonably well as paddles. Their initial vision was of standing up on their raft, paddling along with manuka poles! They would often carry paddle blades which they’d then attach to manuka poles but sometimes they wouldn’t use blades at all. “We thought It’d be a cruisy way to see some beautiful country. Often we’d find ourselves meandering along looking at trout but most of the time it was also bloody hard work.”

They had minimal information, trips were mostly exploratory, which is a real contrast to the information we have on hand today – water gauges, google earth, blogs, previous trip reports. New information and technology is constantly coming out. People are even starting to use drones to scout rivers.

Advancements in technology and some innovative designers have seen these inflatable crafts evolve into the modern-day packraft, designed to carry a person along with around 20kg of food and equipment down remote rivers. An Alpacka ‘Yukon Yak’ weighs less than 2.5kg, has a spraydeck (optional add-on) and packs down to the size of a small two-person tent. It can sit nicely at the bottom of your backpack and is the ultimate tool for exploring new country on and off the water. Contrary to what many assume, these boats are made of tough material and can endure hard use: rocky shallows, bush bashing and class 3 whitewater. Some paddlers are even using these rafts to run remote class 5 whitewater.

Personal experiences of packrafting in New Zealand

I come from a background of both tramping and whitewater kayaking. I’m addicted to the fun, the challenge and the exploration factor of packrafting. I find myself visiting places I’d never thought to go to before.

I distinctly remember my first real packrafting trip. It was a gloriously sunny South Westland day, one of those days where you find yourself grinning ear to ear, not wanting to be anywhere else on earth. I hitch-hiked from the front door and walked up the Wanganui River valley. My daypack weighed less than 6kg as I sprang along the trail and boulder-hopped my way to a decent put-in spot. I inflated my raft (which took less than 5 minutes) and hopped in, beaming ear-to-ear as I cruised down the rapids towards the main road. Not only was it much more fun than walking alongside the river, but it took around one third of the time! A river run which would otherwise be a helicopter-run became a regular afternoon trip.

It wasn’t long before I began heading off on overnight and multi-day trips. One of these started in Nelson Lakes; we tramped to the very source of the Clarence River at over 2000m elevation. From here we walked down the dry riverbed until we reached Lake Tennyson and started paddling the Clarence right from there. Another trip started with a meandering float from Lake Heron down Lake Stream into the mountains (a real novelty – there can’t be many rivers that head into the mountains!) before crossing two alpine passes and paddling out the south branch of the Ashburton River.

My local favourite (being based in the Nelson area) is the Pelorus River, recently flung to fame in the barrel scene in the film The Hobbit. It’s the ultimate ‘weekend warrior’ trip and can be done from the Hackett road-end to the Pelorus bridge in less than 48 hours door-to-door from Nelson (hitch-hiking included).

I’m seeing the wilderness from a fresh perspective and instead of long stretches of river bank travel (on foot), I’ve enjoyed floating out, saving both time and energy…and having more fun! So far I’ve found that I can save at least half the time when compared to walking. For keen world-adventurers, a packraft is an easy way to explore some of the Earth’s most beautiful wild places and you carry everything you need within the typical 23kg baggage limit for an international flight.

Clarence River edits: part one and part 2:

Safety implications

Typically there are two main ways people begin packrafting: those with a background in whitewater, and those with a background in tramping. The increased stability of a packraft compared to a whitewater kayak means that people can end up navigating technical whitewater before they’ve developed the skills needed to do it safely. They’re unlikely to be aware of this until something goes very wrong. With experience we develop good judgement, and most importantly the ability to accurately assess what is within and beyond our level of competence. Without a background in whitewater, a novice packrafter is all too likely to be unconsciously out of his or her depth.

I would recommend having proficient river-running skills in a kayak before taking up packrafting, unless you’re just sticking to flat water. Scaffolding your learning from lakes and slow moving non-technical rivers and slowly building up through the grades means that by the time you get to the harder stuff you’ll have a range of experiences to draw from.

Most of the risks are the same as in whitewater kayaking, especially in the event of a swim; for example, pinning and foot entrapments. And you’re more likely to swim if you capsize when packrafting. Rolling is possible (with  modifications – like adding thigh straps) but it requires much more practice to master.

Being able to self-rescue is critical because performing rescues of teammates can be difficult. A packraft is challenging to move around a river at high speed, so therefore is getting to a capsized friend quickly. Also, a capsized packraft will float downstream significantly faster than a whitewater boat which will fill up with water and often get pulled into an eddy. I recently had a friend test out one of my packrafts on the Hooker River. I was on the bank with a throw bag, it was easy to get him to shore after he’d capsized  but we then chased the packraft downstream for over a kilometre before being able to retrieve it safely. It was interesting watching the way it flew downstream and how it breezed past river features which would catch a plastic kayak. Thus, being stranded without vital outdoor gear during a more remote packrafting trip is a risk that needs to be taken seriously.

These are good reasons to  test out your equipment and become confident reading water and manoeuvring a packraft on roadside river runs before heading out on more technical wilderness trips. It’s also best to begin with trips where you can paddle next to tramping trails for easy retreat and support.

The future of packrafting in New Zealand

It is exciting watching packrafting evolve. Many people are modifying their rafts extensively, creating self-bailers and putting in thigh straps for better manoeuvrability (and rolling). New innovative models are becoming commercially available. New Zealand is the perfect playground for a packrafter and is held in high regard amongst the international packrafting community. Although we have limited rivers long enough for multi-day rafting and canoeing, we have a huge range of smaller creeks and rivers in remote wilderness areas. Many of these are inaccessible for ordinary kayaks, or prohibitively expensive to access via helicopter.

Essential safety tips

  • Don’t paddle above your skill level.
  • Scout! And make good decisions about what to run in relation to your personal competence.
  • Rescue skills and equipment are similar to whitewater kayaking – know and practice rescue skills, and carry rescue equipment
  • River communication: use clear hand signals, make sure you’re team-mates are on the same page
  • Swimming: learn how to swim effectively and safely in whitewater
  • Self rescue: be efficient getting back into own raft. Practice, practice, practice!

Keen to learn more?

  • The American Packrafters Association:
    Facebook search ‘Packrafting in New Zealand’ to join a growing group of keen (and aspiring!) packrafters
  • Roman Dial’s book ‘Packrafting! An introduction and how-to guide’
  • Blogs. There are lots of good ones which will come up in a basic google search. Roman Dial and Luc Mehl are good ones to start with.
  • Movie edits. A good place to start is with Roman and Luc’s blogs – check out the ‘show up and blow up’ series for technical packrafting