Our intrepid writer takes on the new sport that combines backpacking and rafting into one balls-out pursuit
While fun, backpacking and rafting have limitations. When backpacking, crossing rivers and ponds is virtually impossible unless you want to go for a dunk while toting your gear overhead. And forget rafting from any spot not easily accessible by car — unless you enjoy hauling around a massive raft. Packrafting solves both problems.
A packraft is an inflatable, one-man vessel that can run river rapids like a kayak, but that packs down tightly into a tiny block weighing as little as five pounds. So you can get deeper into the woods while hauling skis, snowshoes, climbing gear, camping supplies — even mountain bikes or fishing rods.
"A group of friends and I completed a 100-plus-mile traverse of Montana's Bob Marshall Wilderness by foot and packraft," says Ryan Jordan, CEO of Backpacking Light, based in Montana. "At mile 50, we'd only walked eight times. We rafted the rest, along pristine waters. And by the time we started the hardest, and most remote part of our trek, we still had fresh feet."
The concept got its start in Alaska. In the early '80s, adventure racers used primitive versions of today's packrafts to cross water where canoes and kayaks were too unwieldy. At home on lakes or rivers, packrafts can handle white water ranging up to Class IV (big rapids) in the hands of a skilled paddler. They boast dual air chambers encased by a bombproof polyurethane-coated nylon covering, an upturned bow, and, for rough water, a spray deck. Best of all, they weigh less than most backpacks. Even if you throw in a paddle, some rope, a wet suit, a life vest, and a helmet, the total weight you're carrying is minimal. All the stuff you'll need for an entire day trip will weigh less than the lightest inflatable kayak.
Another reason to jump on the sport now: Most folks haven't discovered it yet. Backpackinglight.com is a good source for beginners. You can also head to Montana, where the Bozeman-based outfitter offers packrafting classes for beginning and advanced paddlers. Don't expect the exclusivity of packrafting to last.
"Within five to 10 years, you're going to be seeing packrafting excursions all over," says Roman Dial, editor of the site packrafting.blogspot.com. "Instead of piling people into a big boat, outfitters will put them in their own boats and send then out on the trail to some rapids. And everybody's going to be having the time of their life because they'll be reaching the water and running it on their own."