Written By Rachel Davies
Packrafts are touted as a versatile tool for exploration – by compactly packing into hiking gear to get over mountain passes and then swiftly transforming into stable but maneuverable boats for smashing down rivers or gliding across lakes. As an avid packrafter, the questions I’ve had time and time again are all about this packability. How small do they get? How can you carry all your paddling gear? How do you pack your gear away on the water? Well, here it is: the basics of packing packrafts, from on the trail to on the water.
Hiking along the Berg Lake trail in British Columbia, Canada (photo courtesy of Coburn Brown)
On the Trail
Try holding a Nalgene full of water with your arm straight out – tiring, right? Now try again holding it closer to your body – much easier. Weighting a pack has the same philosophy: keep the heaviest objects closest to you to reduce strain and ease balance. Your packraft will always be the heaviest item you carry, so however you choose to pack it, keep it close to your body.
The Solo Pack: The most common method is strapping the packraft down under the “brain” of the pack (the little pouch that straps on top) or straight on top, depending on the design of your pack. This keeps the weight centralized over the top of the pack and doesn’t require wrestling it inside. Make sure to keep a tight roll when packing up your raft and use Voile straps to hold it snug. There’s no right way to roll, but a standby method is folding the side tubes into the middle, and then rolling from the bow (front) to the stern (back), allowing air to escape out the zipper as you roll. Some folks roll it without folding to get a skinnier roll, but it will end up wider and can snag trees. Place the rolled raft on top of your pack and cinch the pack straps down tight to prevent wobble while you walk.
The Group Pack: The second option requires friends. When packrafting with a group, it can be advantageous to split gear amongst the group for efficient packing, instead of everyone carrying their own. On a multi-day trip with three friends, we had one person carry two packrafts rolled tight and stuffed inside her pack while the other two of us carried the third raft and the clothes, food, tent, and other big gear. This was especially efficient on days when we were just hiking so we didn’t have to dig through paddling gear to access food or other items on the trail.
Sharing the load can make packing easier, Rachel (in front) packs her raft on top while Laura (behind) had two rafts packed inside. (photo courtesy of Coburn Brown)
And of course, packrafting isn’t just the raft. You’ll end up carrying all sorts of other gear, depending on the type of paddling you’re doing. At the bare minimum, you’ll also have an inflation bag, paddle and PFD, and if you’re doing whitewater, you’ll also bring a throw bag, helmet, dry top or suit, and maybe a skirt.
Paddles: Having a paddle that breaks down into at least half but ideally four helps greatly with compact packing (a two piece can become goal posts, catching tree branches). A broken-down paddle will slide nicely down the outer sides of your pack.
PFDs: These can be tricky to fit inside your pack as they can create a lot of “dead,” unused space due to their awkward shape. Because they are light, a good solution is to strap it on the outside of the pack – just make sure it’s strapped down tight, so it won’t flop with every step and all the straps on the PFD are done up tight, so they don’t snag on anything.
Helmet: Another strangely shaped object to pack, helmets can seem cumbersome to bring but are an essential piece of safety gear for whitewater. Fill the space inside the helmet with a small stuff sack of gear or food and then fit in inside the pack. A bonus is that helmets are hard and protective so use that to your advantage! Sometimes I keep breakable items in my helmet that I don’t want squished like a camera.
All the little things: Inflation bags, throws bags, dry tops or suits, whitewater skirts, and all the other little bits and bobs can be used to fill dead space in your bag once all the big items are packed.
Packing can be a puzzle (photo courtesy of Coburn Brown)
On the Water
Whether paddling flat or whitewater, the main goals while packing gear into your raft are stability and balance. Depending on the model of packraft you have, you can either pack gear on the bow of the boat or inside.
The bow: Older and simpler packraft models will lend to packing gear straight onto the bow of the boat. Make sure to pack your gear in waterproof dry bags or sealed well in a garbage bag inside a hiking pack. Using the attachment points on the boat, strap your pack down tight with either cam straps (like the lightweight Surly Junk Strap or rope using a trucker’s hitch.
Inside: As when packing weight close to your body when hiking, heaviest objects should be lowest down in the boat, hence the advantage of packing gear inside rather than on the bow. Packrafts that allow for packing inside will come with dry bags to fit each side tube. Distribute weight evenly between the two so your boat doesn’t get pulled to one side and pack softer items like clothing along the outside to prevent items from poking the sides of the raft. These packs clip to the inside so they don’t slide around while paddling.
Next, slide your hiking pack inside the stern of the raft. Larger packs with rigid backs will poke against the sides of the boat. This is one of the many reasons Hyperlite packs are so popular with packrafters – the back and waist support are minimal and flexible, allowing them to fit easily inside the boat.
The downside of packing gear inside is that it’s far less accessible during the day, but you can bet packraft companies have designed solutions. “Bow bags” or “deck bags” are waterproof extra storage solutions that clip onto the front of the boat, making it easy to reach while paddling. Some folks will also clip things like water bottles by their feet but be cautious since these can be cumbersome when wet exiting.
Packing gear inside and using a bow bag for small day use vs. packing on the bow. (photo courtesy of Coburn Brown)
Rachel Davies is an avid paddler, both professionally and personally. She has made home bases in the South Island of New Zealand and in the Canadian Rockies, where she has worked as a hiking, cycling, rafting and kayaking instructor. Packrafting came into her life to piece together her love of all these worlds while exploring new places through challenging, type-two fun adventures. Rachel aims to share this passion through her writing and artwork - follow along on IG @rachelmydavies and racheldaviesart.com. (photo courtesy of Heather Chrystie)