Rafting Gear

In this section, we look at packraft equipment. Packrafting in the wilderness is dangerous. If you're going to packraft in remote lakes, consider how you will mitigate for potential drowning or hypothermia. If you're going to float white water, familiarize yourself with dangers of rapids, hydraulic holes, eddy lines, and sweepers. If you're going to float in the kiddie pool, you better have a cool hat and those water-wings with sparkles on'em.

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A NOTE ON PFDs (A.K.A. Lifejackets/Personal Flotation Devices). We often use inflatable mattresses as our flotation devices, as profiled in the Accessories section. We are not suggesting that you should do the same. We do this out of our own comfort with certain situations, and/or out of necessity. We always use a more reliable PFD when it is available. The extra weight and bulk may save your life!!!

The Alpacka Raft

Left: The Alpacka raft, at rest. Right: The Alpacka raft, not at rest.

The Alpacka raft and its siblings are manufactured by the Alpackaraft, up in Alaska. We LOVE these things. They're lightweight (about 4 pounds), very durable, repairable in the field, and suitable for running whitewater. In certain terrains (such as Alaska and the Olympic Mountains), packrafts tremendously expand your exploration options. The unique virtue of the packraft is its portability.

Alpacka rafts are expensive, and will run into the $600+ range. They are also State-of-the-Art. See them at www.alpackaraft.com/site/.

We find Alpacka's useful for several key applications:


It’s hard to take Alpacka Rafts beyond their design spec, but we’re trying. Our primary exploration has been in exceeding Alpacka’s design spec laterally – that is, instead of overusing the rafts in their intended roles, we take them into other roles:

Groundsheet. Like any other impermeable barrier, a deflated Alpacka raft is a serviceable, if not exactly smooth, groundsheet, providing a little insulation and a lot of protection from moisture and grit. Stones, sticks, etc. should not puncture the raft, but cactus spines and broken glass might.

Shelter. We're still working on Alpacka raft shelter techniques, and we'd love to hear ideas on this one. An alpacka or three and a creatively tailored tarp have endless possibilities. Bretwood Higman and Erin McKittrick, Beyond Spec's Staff Marriage Counselors, use two techniques to shelter in Alpacka rafts. In first, simple version, they take two rafts, partially inflate them both, and place them upside down, one on top of the other. Then they strap the top one to the bottom one so it won't slide off or blow away. That done, they crawl between them, making a Hig-Erin-Alpack sandwich. The floor of the upside down bottom raft holds them off the cold ground, and the void under the top raft's floor provides a space for two not-too-large people to snuggle up together. It's not very comfortable, but it works.

Sled. Inflated Alpacka rafts also make acceptable sleds, with the seat providing cushioning and the sides protecting the rider, although kayak paddles are dubious steering mechanisms. In the 2004 Alaskan Wilderness Classic, many intrepid racers used their Alpackas as sleds to descend from a snow-bound pass. Aspiring sledders may wish to note:

Quicksand Escape Pod. Bretwood Higman & Erin McKittrick have found utility in carrying the Alpacka, or any other raft, inflated on their back while crossing potential quicksand flats in Alaska. If the ground begins to liquify, one can simply fall back, and lie on the raft. This prevents further sinking, and gives you a large, buoyant platform from which to manage the extraction of any sunken feet.

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The Sevylor Raft

Left: Negotiating a hole on the Queets River, WA, in a sevylor.
Right: The sevylor in calm water. Note the small plastic paddle.

Sevylor packrafts run about $60, including a miniature collapsing kayak paddle, and are sufficient to float a single person with equipment. Sevylor rafts are also very easily punctured and swamped. The paddles tend to break at embarassing moments, and the blades bend when you stroke hard. We only recommend using Sevylor rafts in flat, calm water with no sharp objects present. You can run minor whitewater (Class 2 & 3) in a Sevylor, but it is a BAD idea. If you insist on using the Sevylor outside ponds and swimming pools, we suggest:

If you actually intend to take the raft on whitewater, we STRONGLY advise: The Sevlor's inflatable bottom makes it a substitute air mattress, but this is counterbalanced by the fact that a single rocky stretch of river is likely to puncture the bottom. Otherwise, you can used it as a small tarp to sleep on.

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Collapsable Kayak Paddles.

Company called Aquabound makes collapsable kayak paddles recommended for use with the Alpacka raft. We haven’t torture-tested these paddles too much, since, frankly, they’re expensive: () for fiberglass, () for carbon fiber. Aquabound allows you to order paddles cut to your desired length. Bear in mind the trade-offs: greater length = greater leverage = better power and control, but shorter paddles are “handier” and easier to pack, especially if you plan on doing a lot of bushwacking with the paddle lengths in your gear. Most of us, on purchasing our paddles, found that the middle sections were cut to different lengths, making packing a little more awkward. You may want to specialy request that Aquabound cut the two midsections to equal lengths, if you plan on doing a lot of packrafting.

We don't know if anyone else makes similar paddles, but you can visit Aquabound at ().


Looking Foolishly into the Future: the Aquabound Trekking Axe. While a paddleshaft ice axe would be highly inadvisable for real mountaineering, the simple additions of a socket-plug spike and lightweight ice-axe head could a paddleshaft segment into a serviceable trekking axe for use on steep ground, non-technical snow, river fording, and log crossings.

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Inner Tubes
We haven't experimented with inner tubes, mainly because we almost invariably run cold rivers in cold climates. We have, however, heard some pretty gnarly tales about inner tubing in warmer climates. By all means, let us know what's up.

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Water Travel and Hypothermia

Hypothermia compounds any water hazard. In northern climates, many rivers are snowmelt. Even in hot climates, rivers are often dammed. When dams draw water from deep in their lakes (as they usually do, to maximize pressure in the turbines), they act as giant water coolers: water sits deep, dissipates heat, and flushes through the dam, forming an icy new river.

White water is likely to swamp your packraft. Paddling will splash you. Windy open-water crossings will drench you in spray. This is par for the course: we expect to get drenched, and dress so we'll have fun anyway. Often, we get the most cold AFTER a long float, when we start walking again, as the cool blood sitting in our legs circulates into our core.

Being cold saps physical strength, handicaps co-ordination, and worsens judgement. At best, it's no fun. At worst, it's fatal. Insulate yourself well when running rivers! Watch out for your compatriots! If they look cold but don't want to admit it, you can always say that you're chilled, and call a warm-up break.

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