Safety Keys for Backcountry Packraft Trips

6-minute read

Aqua Bound Ambassador Johan Grönblad is an avid packrafter in his native Sweden. He’s also a former military medic and knows that safety must always stay top-of-mind when in the backcountry.

packrafters on a lake in northern sweden

Backcountry packrafting in northern Sweden

Johan loves the adventure of multi-day wilderness trips via backpacking and packrafting in the northern reaches of Scandinavia. We asked him what the most important safety considerations are for paddle trips of this kind in these types of locations.

He offers solid, practical advice that will help reduce the chances of emergency situations as well as how to handle any that may arise:

AQUA BOUND: What are the most important safety practices for backcountry packrafting (beyond the obvious “always wear your PFD”)?

JOHAN: The places I and the people I paddle with travel to are often in the far north of the Nordic countries. The environment in your part of the world that resembles those conditions is Alaska in late spring and early summer. Because of that a dry suit is a must. Hypothermia is a thing. Even if you might have really warm weather the water often is very cold.

A helmet is a must in fast-moving water. If you hit your head it doesn't take long to die if you are unconscious under water. In general, we bring most whitewater safety stuff whitewater kayakers use.

Scouting all harder rapids that you can't see fully is a must. And if you see tricky sections, it might be best to place people with throw ropes at strategic spots and have each paddler go through them one by one.

In the backcountry losing your gear might present a danger in itself. Therefore having one person help with the rescue below the whitewater section is something we choose to do often in those situations. That person checks that the swimmer is safe first and then collects the paddle and boat.

packrafter runs some rapids in a northern river

Proper whitewater gear and scouting rapids are key safety precautions

Another important thing is to bring one or more extra paddles. Paddles can break or get lost. An extensive repair kit for the boats is a must. A lot of things can go wrong but if you are prepared you can deal with it and finish the trip. We always agree on who brings what when it comes to group gear. The most important things are an extra paddle, an extensive repair kit and a medical kit.

We bring a beat-up tarp we can use over a fire and a kit to make an emergency fire so we can have nice evenings even if the weather is bad. Almost all these kinds of trips start with 2 or 3 days of hiking, so keeping weight down is always very important.

I also want to add that the absolute most important thing to understand is that
whitewater should never be paddled alone—especially not in the backcountry.

AQUA BOUND: What are other important safety measures to ensure a successful, safe trip?

JOHAN: Usually we take turns planning the trips. We sometimes use YouTube and blogs to borrow ideas. Sometimes we try routes that haven't been done before. In those cases reading maps is extremely important. Also important is to keep track of the elevation of the water. If you have a steep section, mark it on the map.

When all the planning is done we try to go through all the sections as a group to make sure everyone feels that it's a sensible trip. That way everyone is aware of the potential risks and tricky sections. That helps quite a bit with the mood of the group when we are in the thick of it. Everyone knew what they were getting into. Blame being passed around for bad planning is not a thing if you do it this way.

AQUA BOUND: How important is it for at least one of the group members to have Wilderness First Aid certification or some kind of medical training?

JOHAN: Here in Sweden, First Aid and CPR training is something most people undertake in school, when they do sports or in the army. I think the important thing is to understand hypothermia, to understand how to stop bleeding, to be able to make sure that a person can breathe. The rest will be taken care of when the rescue helicopter comes to pick that person up.

A nurse that is part of our group and I was a medic in the military. If the group does trips to extremely remote places where help isn't available, training would be a major focus. It's easy to hurt yourself and in those cases, I prefer to have at least two people in the group with deeper knowledge.

packrafters on a river in northern sweden

We always bring 2-3 Spot/In reach/PBLs. What I'm talking about are different kinds of satellite communicators. They can be used to send an emergency signal to the rescue service even when there's no cell reception. It's an added layer of security. What I love about these is:

Of course, it allows you to save a friend or yourself, but also…
It allows you to dare trips with peace of mind that you otherwise wouldn't.

One popular device is inReach by Garmin.

AQUA BOUND: Do you talk with group members about backcountry safety before or during a trip?

JOHAN: Like I already said, going through the trip as a group beforehand is important. Also, every morning we talk about what's ahead of us that day. Someone is always responsible for keeping track of where we are on the map so we know when it's time to be more careful and awake.

AQUA BOUND: Does the length of the trip make a difference in how you prepare for and think about safety?

JOHAN: Not really. I would say the distance from help if something goes wrong is the determining factor. If it's a remote place, we try to carry the boats more often rather than take risks paddling through hard sections.

AQUA BOUND: Any final safety thoughts?

JOHAN: Bringing good snacks so you can keep your energy levels up throughout the day is important. For some reason, it seems that incidents happen at the end of the day or shortly before lunch. Being able to keep the focus is very important.

I've torn my boat open on sharp rocks while trying to carry it over steep terrain around whitewater sections more the once. Often those kinds of unnecessary things happen when you’re hungry or tired—for example, a short distance from where you plan to stop for the day.

On that note, another thing I feel is very important for safety is to give the group enough time. Especially if it's something where you have a lot of whitewater. It's better, safer and more enjoyable without having the pressure to make a lot of miles every single day. We're out there to enjoy the wild and the comradery of the group.

Johan Grönblad with his packraft and Aqua Bound paddle in northern Sweden

All photos courtesy of Johan Grönblad, pictured here

What great advice from Johan Grönblad! Thanks for your time and expertise, Johan.

You’ll find plenty of videos and photos on Johan’s YouTube channel and Instagram page.

Do you have paddle questions our friendly Customer Service Team can help you with today? Contact them: 715-755-3405 • [email protected]

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