Alpacka raft in Kachemak Bay, AK
Here are some things we've learned in our bumbling along, about packrafting itself, and how to use the packrafts and rafting stuff as part of our general hiking setup. Most of this stuff is based on the Alpacka raft. See the Sevylor page for Sevylor-specific tips and warnings
Since our packraft trips are primarily based on long-distance travel rather than whitewater runs, we're nowhere near pushing the limits of the river capabilities of packrafts. On the class II and sometimes III that we're usually doing, the Alpacka rafts are very forgiving. They bump off most rocks, and go right over most waves. The way they're most likely to tip is backwards (especially older boats - post 2005 or so, they have slightly pointier sterns), so lean forward when you hit a big wave.
So far, we're some of the only people using packrafts for extended flat water paddles, crossing ocean bays and fjords. I think this should change. Alpacka rafts can be paddled quite easily at a steady 2 mph (2.5 in glassy calm water). This is primarily a hull speed limitation - it doesn't take much effort to get there, but you don't do much better if you hurry. This may sound slow, but compared to off-trail hiking in any but the most open terrain, it's actually faster. And the packraft is both very stable in waves, and very easy to reenter if you flip out of it. For open water, it's important to always tie your paddle to the boat (to grab if you flip). Tangling isn't much of a problem, but you can lose that boat in an instant if it's windy. If you want to do an entirely water trip, a kayak is still a better choice. But the combination of ocean and land opens up a whole new realm of possible packraft trips (similar to what a packraft does for river + land trips). We've done up to 6 miles in a single crossing (in Kachemak Bay, and the Kenai Fjords), and 12 miles in a day (could easily do more). We'll be using ocean packrafting in combination with hiking and skiing to do a never-before-done 4000 mile trip from Seattle to the Aleutian Islands, starting June 2007.
Setup, and other uses for the Packraft
Inflation bags - I haven't used the new style inflation bags (big rectangular ones) much, but they have no problems I know of. The older ones (cylindrical with rings to hold the bag open) morph into something twisted and strange after a few weeks crammed in a corner of a pack. It's best to keep the rings that give the bag structure unbent as much as possible. This can be done by packing a sleeping bag inside the inflation bag, taking the stays out of the inflation bag and packing them separately, or just putting it carefully on top of the pack.
Tempering - Water is usually colder than air. As soon as a nice, plump, well-inflated raft enters the cold water, it gets squishy. We usually blow them up tight, then set them upside-down in the water to cool while we get ready (firmly anchored to shore). After they've deflated a bit in the cold, we blow in a few more puffs of air. When a raft comes out of the cold water into the warm sun, the air will expand again, so let a little air out to prevent it from exploding. On winter trips, where air is colder than water, the reverse occurs, and the raft will get plumper in the water.
In open water, and in the wind, it's critical to attach all your gear to your packraft. In open water, if you lose the raft, you're likely to die of hypothermia before you can reach shore. While setting up for paddling in the wind, the raft can quite easily sail for miles without you.
Goals of our system: Everything is held in place while paddling. Upon capsize, the pack can be released, allowing easier reentry. But all things remain attached, allowing retrieval of pack and paddle, and so that the raft cannot be lost.
We usually tie a piece of cord to the grab loop of the raft (don't try this on a Sevylor), thread it through a strap on the pack, then attach the other end to the paddle with a bowline around the paddle shaft. The problem with this system is that it leaves the pack loose in the raft. So we use a secondary attachment system, where the two front most grab loops are connected with a string, and one side of a snap-in-buckle (like on pack straps) is connected to a short piece of webbing at the middle of those strings. The other half of the buckle is similarly attached to the second two grab loops. The pack is placed on top of the spray deck, the buckle is clipped over the top of the pack, then the webbing strap is pulled to cinch it into place. The purpose of this is to hold the pack in place, while allowing it to be released quickly and easily. This is critical in an open-water capsize. Righting the boat is very difficult from underwater with the pack on top. Releasing the clip is easy to do, the pack falls off (still attached to the boat and paddle with the first string), and you can climb into the boat and paddle away (boat retains almost no water, after flipping upside down).
Exceptions - This is an ocean-based system. In a river, depending on the rapids, tangling in the strings may be a greater risk than losing the boat. We use our system in slower rivers - where it doesn't matter, or wider rivers (such as the Copper River) - where losing the boat is like losing it in the ocean. I wouldn't use it in big rapids.
Standard foam life vests - If you're doing big rapids (especially if it's not a really long trip), these may be the best choice. They have great inflation and can't puncture. But they're heavy and bulky.
Inflatable life vests - Inflatable life vests (like airplane ones, or other emergency ones) can work. They aren't bulky, but they are heavy, and often have a CO2 cannister that you need to get rid of.
Homemade life vests - On our long trips, we've gone to using life vests we've made from thermarests. Inflatable sleeping pads can be heat resealed if you cut them up, so they're pretty easy to modify. The new and improved version has cut out arm holes, and a pair of buckle-closed straps to hold them in place. They are as fragile as the sleeping pad you make them out of (we use thermarest prolite 3, 3/4 length) and have a bit less floatation than a standard life vest. May not be the best for larger rapids, but great for long-distance trips, where rapid-running isn't the primary goal. The best part about these is that they don't add any additional weight or bulk to your gear (can still be slept on, no problem). This double use of a sleeping pad doesn't let you double use it as a raft floor.
Homemade thermarest life vest on the Nushagak River.
Secondary uses of the Alpacka
Groundcloth or Bed: Deflated, packrafts are a great groundcloth for wet ground in an open-floored shelter. Inflated, they're good single-person beds (still need a sleeping pad on top if warmth is required).
Sleds: In winter, Alpacka rafts make great sleds in open snowy terrain.
Learning from Our Mistakes...
Iceberg Escape - Setting up to raft in a strong wind on Bear Glacier Lake (in the Kenai Fjords) we failed to tie the packraft to anything before blowing it up. It promptly flipped over in a gust, dumped out the food bag weighing it down, and proceeded to fly 3 miles across an iceberg-filled lake without me. Tie the raft down first, then blow it up.
Rockfish - Fishing from an Alpacka in the Kenai Fjords, Hig was a little careless pulling in his rockfish, creating a tiny whistling leak in the boat. Didn't leak fast enough to be a problem, but it did take forever to find the hole. Be careful with sharp fish
Barnacle Chute - Fishing from an an Alpacka in the Kenai Fjords, I was even more careless. As I was pulling in a fish, I let my boat get swept backwards by the swell into a narrow, barnacle-lined chute. Barnacles are sharp. But I only got one small slash - easily patched with Aquaseal. Watch where you're going.
Trolling - This time a friend of ours was doing the fishing, trolling as we drifted down the Nushagak River. Until he snagged on the bottom. And suddenly wasn't drifting any longer. The river was about 6mph, much faster than one can paddle upstream. The raft was getting more and more unstable and threatening to dive underwater as he was stuck there. Eventually the fishing line ran out and off the end of the reel, and he floated free. Maybe trolling in a fast river isn't such a great idea
Exploding Seat - Some of the Alpackas have black seats. I left an inflated Alpacka with a black seat sitting in the sun on the beach for a couple hours. Air expands in the heat. The seat popped. Don't leave an inflated raft in the sun
Leaking valves - We've had this problem mostly with the old (red) top-off valves. We weren't really careful not to tweak them getting in and out of the boat, so the red plastic cracked. Then we patched them with some strange brand of seam sealer. Then we had to peel all that off, and re-patch them with Aquaseal.Be careful with those top-off valves, especially the old red ones. And use the right glue in the first place. And bring along alcohol to clean the raft first.
Sand/gravel in valves - Sometimes we've thought that the rafts were leaking, only to find sand or gravel in the main valve. Keep the valves clean.
Cold - Rafting sometimes, we've gotten really really cold. Particularly on the Hulahula River, where we were in the Arctic, with minimal clothing, no spray decks, and not enough skills to keep the boat from filling with water. Bring more clothing for rafting than walking (duh). Especially if you don't have a spraydeck.
Paddle breaks - On a winter trip, we managed to break chunks off the blades of two Aquabound Manta Ray paddles by hitting them on rocks. I think these particular paddles may have been somewhat flawed (the replacement Manta Ray has been great), but we certainly contributed to the problem. Carbon fiber is more brittle in the cold. Manta Rays are lighter, but a bit more fragile than the old Seafarers. Be nice to the paddles
Out in the surf - This was our only serious problem. A friend was out playing in the surf, in some large outer breakers. For a life vest, he had a thermarest tucked under his coat. His paddle was attached to the raft, but with a string on a cheap plastic clip. After being flipped in the surf (not in itself unexpected or problematic), his coat zipper popped open, so he lost the thermarest. Then the clip broke as the wave dragged the raft away from him, so he lost the raft too. Then he swallowed some sea water. It worked out that another person in another Alpacka was close enough to help him back to shore, but it could have been bad. Check the gear. Especially in the ocean, it's critical that your life vest and boat can't get away from you.
All content copyright Erin McKittrick