Safety Essentials for Backcountry Packrafting

As with any paddle sport, you always need to keep safety top-of-mind when packrafting in the backcountry. Our friends at Alpacka Raft offer this comprehensive list of safety tips…

packrafter on whitewater
(photo courtesy of Deane Parker)


The folks at Alpacka Raft first developed the modern packraft almost 20 years ago. They ran a 3-part article series on their website on packrafting safety that we want to summarize here for you.

Author Chad Oelke says:

“Packrafting exemplifies this spirt of adventure: it is about exploring new water and routes, and leaving the bubble of the known for the unknown…With packrafting, you can explore off-trail and beyond the pages of the guidebook; the possibilities for trips are limited only by your imagination.

“But it is crucial to emphasize that packrafting is not backpacking on water. Packrafting accidents are on the rise because new boaters overestimate the capabilities of their craft and lack basic awareness of the risks of swiftwater travel.”

So here are some basic safety requirements to follow when packrafting in the backcountry:

Dressing for Packrafting

The rule for paddling is always to “dress for the swim” rather than the air temperature. That rule is most crucial when you’re in the backcountry on multi-day expeditions.

If you’ll paddle cold water and/or cold or unpredictable weather:

  • Invest in a drysuit. It could save your life.
  • Dress in layers. Warm under layers, waterproof outer layer, gloves.

Packing for Packrafting

“The biggest difference between whitewater safety gear for frontcountry boating (e.g., kayaking, rafting) and packrafting is weight.”


Plan to bring the lightest gear you can to minimize fatigue and injury. Here are the minimum requirements:

  • Life Jacket/PFD—Ideally one designed for paddle sports. Invest in a heavy-duty Class V PFD if you plan to get into heavy whitewater.
  • Helmet—Ideally a whitewater-specific helmet if you’ll run rivers with boulders and a high chance of spills.
  • Knife—In case you need to cut yourself free of an entanglement.
  • Throw rope—to rescue a friend.
  • Repair kit—Because sometimes things happen.
  • “Ten Essentials on Your Person”—These may vary depending on time of year and location. A few necessities you’ll carry on you in case you flip and lose your boat and gear. This includes things like firestarter, an emergency blanket and compass.
  • No dangling things—like loose rope or non-locking carabiners.

The Most Important Packrafting Safety Item

The most important thing you can do to prepare for backcountry packrafting is to learn the skills needed. Take a course that’s packraft-specific and swiftwater-specific.

Several different organizations offer these:

[Read Part I on Alpacka Raft’s website]

Learn How to Read the Rivers

Learning how to read a river—to recognize and choose the best path—is essential for safe packrafting. This includes:

  • Understand how river features like eddies, waves and holes will impact your paddling. Learn how to use them to your advantage or avoid them.
  • Understand how bends, gradients and constrictions affect water flow.
  • Learn how to read rapids.
  • Avoid flooded rivers and trees (and other strainers). “Strainers are the arguably the single most dangerous hazard to packrafters because they are common on the small rivers and creeks we run.”
  • Always scout unknown water before running it.

[That was hugely condensed! Read Part II on Alpacka’s website for all the details.]

packrafter navigating route

Learn Paddle Strokes

Take local on-water courses or, at the very least, watch a ton of videos on YouTube! Practice on low-risk water before venturing out onto big rapids.

Learn to Respond Quickly to Hazards

This goes with learning how to read the rivers you paddle. This can only come from on-water training and experience.

Avoid Common Causes of Packrafting Accidents

Decisions like failing to wear your helmet or failing to tie up your packraft during a lunch break can become serious very fast. Always use common sense and gain experience as quickly as you can.

But experience can be a trap, too. Know your paddling partners well before risking your life in a situation above your skill level that, turns out, is also above theirs. Beware of paddlers who are know-it-alls and have little respect for the river!

Know How to Manage Risk on Unknown Water

The best way to manage risk is to thoughtfully prepare for both knowns and unknowns. For example:

  • What you know: “The river is about 20 miles from its headwaters to the take-out, Class I-II at normal water levels, and we may have a few route descriptions that will guide us to the put-in.”
  • What you can’t know, but must prepare for the possibility of: “On the morning of the put-in, a grizzly mistakes your red packraft for a patch of soap berries and tears it to shreds.”

The bottom line:

“Before running a remote river, where your exposure to hazards may seem low but the consequences are high, think: Do you have the ability to confidently avoid known hazards and anticipate unknown hazards?”

[Part III on Alpacka Raft’s website gives many more details. Read it here.]

packrafters on a river
(photo courtesy of Deane Parker)

Risk is always an element of backcountry packrafting. But there are many things you can do to prepare for and cope with water level, hazards, weather and environment to lessen that risk.

Contact our Wisconsin-based Customer Service team today with your paddle questions: 715-755-3405 • [email protected]

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