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Everything you need to know about packrafting

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Packrafts create endless possibilities for combining paddling and tramping adventures for cruisy river floats or big white water. This Q&A will help you get started.

How do packrafts work?

Packrafts are lightweight rafts paddled kayak-style. They have one-way valves to inflate, as well as an airtight zipper allowing access for gear stowage and to quickly deflate. Packrafts come with a simple inflation bag that screws onto a valve at one end and is open at the other. To inflate, air is trapped in the bag and squeezed into the raft. Mine takes six or seven bags of air and it’s ready to roll.

Are packrafts glorified pool toys?

I was sceptical when the idea of taking an inflatable raft down rapids was presented to me, but white water packrafts are rated to class four rapids and hold their own on drops up to six metres. They’re made from puncture-resistant nylon and can withstand bottom scraping on shallow rivers. Modern packrafts are shaped for nimble handling in rapids and are super stable. There are lots of options for outrigging, including foot braces, thigh straps, adjustable back supports, and spray decks with skirts or self-bailing floors. For multi-day adventures, bow and dry bags are available to stow gear. These bags can also keep the centre of gravity low.

The various components of a packraft. Illustration: Rachel Davies

How do you carry all the gear?

A packraft’s big appeal is that it is light enough to take into remote, otherwise inaccessible rivers.

Weight and size vary greatly depending on the make, model and outfitting, but most weigh between 3-7kg and roll up to the size of a tent. There’s the other paddling gear to carry too though, which is why most packrafters focus on lightweight equipment. The first time I looked at all my gear, I thought there was no way I could carry everything. It was tempting to cut weight by ditching throw bags or other ‘just in case’ items, but you can’t compromise on safety.

Gear you can upgrade to reduce overall weight include carbon paddles that break into four pieces, throw bags with lighter ropes and water-repellent bags, minimalist packs, personal flotation devices and carbon helmets. On a remote, week-long packrafting trip, I was able to pack all my gear and food into a 70l pack which started at 18kg and ended at 13kg.

Which packraft?

Packrafting is a growing industry so there is no shortage of brands or gear suppliers. Alpacka Raft first developed commercial packrafts in the early 2000s. All packrafts are made in Colorado with high-quality materials and custom options. Kokapelli arrived in 2014 with competitive prices and manufacturing based in China. Other brands include Micro Rafting Systems and New Zealand companies Blue Duck Packrafting and Koaro Packrafts. Prices vary, but most are between $1500 and $2200, though basic flatwater models start around $600.

There is a fair bit of packrafting gear to consider. Photo: Coburn Brown

How do I get started?

Ease into packrafting to build confidence and learn how to deal with tough situations on a river. Start with roadside runs to get to know the packraft, then graduate to day hikes, overnighters, and eventually multi-day adventures. Some outfitters like Packrafting Queenstown rent packrafts and offer courses and guided tours which are a great option if you’re unfamiliar with white water. It’s also worthwhile taking a river safety and rescue course.

How do I plan my first trip?

New Zealand really is the land of plenty when it comes to packrafting. The beauty of combining tramping with rafting is that it can make even an out and back trip feel like a loop since you’re changing your perspective in each direction. A great place to start is packraftingtrips.nz which has an interactive map with route suggestions. If you have more backcountry navigation and river travel experience, you can plan your own route.

When I plan a trip, I look at river systems to make sure they’re runnable and are the right level of difficulty for me. I read blogs and the DOC website, and scour satellite and terrain maps to see if there are any obvious hazards like canyons and waterfalls, and to estimate the flow of the river. I’ll then look at which tramping tracks intersect with access points to the river so I can create an out and back or loop trip.