Packrafting Safety

packraft safely in rapids

(photo courtesy of @thebikeraftguide)

As with all paddling sports, safety needs to always be top-of-mind for packrafters, whether they’re beginners or experienced paddlers.

Alaskan packrafter and outdoor skills instructor, Luc Mehl, has written The Packraft Handbook (published May 2021), and devotes a significant portion of the book to safety practices such as risk mitigation, self-rescue, wilderness first aid and more.

Luc got into packrafting in the early 2000s when it was still in its infancy. He mainly enjoyed the sport and how it took him into more and more of Alaska’s backcountry… until the drowning of a good friend. Luc says, “Rob’s death rattled my assumptions and provoked me to seek training, get certified to teach swiftwater rescue, and write this book.”

Along with other leaders in the packrafting community, Luc is working hard to develop a “culture of safety” so fatalities become more and more rare.

What are the Keys to Packrafting Safety?

There are several keys to packrafting safety:

  • Always wear a PFD…always.
  • Dress for the water temperature. When packrafting in cold water, wear a wet or dry suit, whichever is called for.
  • For whitewater and coastal surf, a helmet for protection from rocks.
  • Learn self-rescue techniques, including swiftwater rescue, if you plan to paddle rivers. Nothing beats taking a hands-on course or two.
  • Don’t paddle above your skill level.
  • Don’t paddle alone.
  • Know river levels, scout rapids.
  • If on open water, know weather forecasts and be prepared for sudden squalls.

As Luc’s article “Packrafting Fatalities” shows, sometimes there are deadly accidents even when paddlers do everything right. But most are due to separation from the boat and paddle partners in cold and/or swift water.

the packraft handbook art

(from The Packraft Handbook, illustration by Sarah K. Glasor)

Developing the “Culture of Safety”

“The packrafting Culture of Safety is an effort to normalize safety. We want it to be normal to wear a life vest, paddle at appropriate water levels, seek training, and feel comfortable pointing out dangerous outfitting or habits that you notice at the put-in.” (Luc Mehl)

A few of the topics The Packraft Handbook addresses that influence safety include:

  • Basic paddle strokes and boat control
  • Wet re-entry, the basics of self-rescue
  • Learning about rivers and current
  • Open water crossings
  • Water hazards
  • Rescue, repair and medical emergencies

You can buy a copy of The Packraft Handbook directly from Luc’s website. The book is full of great information as well as wonderful hand illustrations by Sarah K. Glasor.

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