Getting Started - Packrafting Gear & Where to Get It
Like in most outdoor sports, everyone who packrafts has strong personal feelings about gear. I am by no means an expert and so rather than argue for one thing or another, this is meant to be a resource that lays out a range of options for gear. When choosing what you need, think about what you're going to be using your packraft for, what kinds of trips you want to do and go from there.
Your boat will be your most important, and expensive, piece of gear. Because of this, you should do some thinking about what you're going to need your boat to do and what kind of water you're going to be paddling.
Packraft design seems to be hitting a renaissance moment. Right now there are boats for almost any kind of trip you can dream up, from a long distance bike-rafting adventure to backcountry hunting to serious, big whitewater.
The biggest difference you're going to find in packrafts is still that some are built for whitewater and ones aren't. Whitewater boats come in either "decked" or "self-bailing" models. Decked boats are more like kayaks, they have solid top decks that can be closed with a spray skirt to keep out water and keep you warmer. Self-bailers are more like traditional, large whitewater rafts, with a rigid floor that opens to reveal small holes and drain water when the cockpit fills up. If you're going to be paddling whitewater in BC, you probably want a decked boat since many of our rivers and creeks are glacier or snowmelt fed and can be quite cold. If you're only planning on paddling on hot summer days though, you can definitely go with a self-bailer. It's all personal preference.
Packrafts that aren't built for whitewater will have an open deck. In other words, they will look like any inflatable raft you've seen before. These boats are lighter than decked packrafts and can carry more gear more easily. Some bigger ones can even carry multiple people. If you're mostly using your packraft for flat water, like traversing Garibaldi Lake to do some alpine climbing, you'll be fine in an open boat. Alpacka offers two in between options for this, a removeable whitewater deck and a cruiser deck, which velcro's on and off their boats. It's a good middle ground, but definitely wont stand up like a proper whitewater deck in serious whitewater.
While most packrafts, whatever the deck configuration, can run up to Class III whitewater (some of the ultralight models being the exception) some designs are built for more serious whitewater.
Alpacka's whitewater series features the Alpackalypse and the Gnarwhal, both built with thigh straps, kayak style backbands and other features that help you retain control in bigger, more technical water. Kokopelli's Nirvana and Rogue series both have the kayak backhand, and the option for adding thigh straps. I currently own and paddle a Gnarwhal and love it, but I've also had tons of fun in up to Class IV rapids in an Alpacka Llama and a Kokopelli Nirvana, without the extra whitewater features.
In addition to serious whitewater, boats designed for multi-sport adventures are coming onto the market. The Alpacka Caribou has an elongated bow and ultralight design specifically for bike-rafting and the Kokopelli Rogue-Lite supposedly packs down to the size of a paper towel, making it an easy attachment to any set of handlebars. And, Alpacka's Forager seems purpose built for backcountry hunters and anglers.
If you're looking to buy a boat in a shop, your main options are going to be Kokopelli and Alpacka in Canada. There are a number of differences between the two companies and their boats, so do some research, call shops and look around online to explore what makes the most sense for you. If you're looking for more information on different boats read this.
Near Vancouver, Mt. Waddington's Outdoors in Chilliwack carries Alpacka products and Valhalla Pure Outfitters (locations in Vancouver, Squamish and the Interior) carries Kokopelli as does Western Canoe and Kayak in Abbotsford. Used boats are pretty rare in BC, but they do go up on Craigslist from time to time. You can also find used boats for sale here.
There are a lot of other options for packrafts available online, but I haven't paddled any of them. If you want to explore other options, check out this breakdown from Alaskan packraft adventurer Luc Mehl.
I'm 6'3" and use a whitewater kayak paddle between 200-210cm for packrafting. I might use a longer touring kayak paddle if I were doing some long distance ocean or lake paddling, but generally think a shorter paddle works better for packrafting.
The best paddles for packrafting generally are lightweight and break down into 4 pieces for easy carrying. Fiberglass and carbon paddles will be lights, but plastic will be stronger and cheaper. If you're just getting started and don't have a lot of whitewater paddling experience, buy a cheaper plastic paddle, wrecking your brand new $400 carbon Werner wont make you a better packrafter.
Werner, Aquabound and Ascent all offer 4 piece paddles that are available online and some are stocked in stores like Mt. Waddingtons, Western Canoe and Kayak and Valhalla Pure.
Whether or not you need a drysuit entire depends on what kind of water you're planning to paddle. If you're going to be on Class I/II or flat water, you can get away with rain gear (or less in the summer). But, if you're paddling in colder seasons, or more serious whitewater, you probably want one.
Lower mainland BC isn't Alaska, but many of our rivers and creeks are still glacier fed and very cold. Sustained exposure to these waters, especially outside of the hot summer months can be dangerous and deadly. If you're planning to paddle serious whitewater, a drysuit is a good idea. Few, if any, whitewater kayakers would head out without a drysuit, or at least a dry top/wetsuit combo, so take that as a sign if you're planning to paddle similar water around BC.
Just wear one, period. If you're going to be in whitewater, make sure it's a Class V PFD. Head down to MEC, or any of the shops listed above and try a few on to find one that fits you well.
Unnecessary on flat water and class I rivers, but anything more than that and you probably want one. Some people wear climbing and/or bike helmets, but they can fail in some instances. If you're going to be in serious whitewater, invest in a whitewater paddling helmet.
Find one that you like with at least 50ft of rope. MEC sells a cheap, decent bag that can clip to your PFD. I have a belt bag that fits under my PFD that I like. There are some lighweight packraft specific throwbags, but I've never used one.
A lot of packrafters swear by Hyperlite Mountain Gear bags. They're lightweight, waterproof and great for packrafting. But, they're pretty pricey and you don't need one to start packrafting. In fact, you don't really need any special backpack.
For most day-trips any 35-55 litre backpack will work for packrafting and anything 55 litres+ can work for overnights. For long expeditions or multi-day trips, you'll have to play around and find what works for you. Try out what you already have and find something that works.
Your bag, and anything in it will get wet so pick up some dry bags if you're carrying things that need to stay dry (i.e. a tent, clothes, etc...). On flatter water a rain cover can also go a long way in keeping your bag somewhat dry.
Shoes & Socks
My general rule packrafting is to try and only carry one set of shoes. I hike in light, fast drying trail runners and then wear them over my drysuit when I'm rafting (I just got a pair of Salomon Speedcross and love them). They get wet, but an extra pair of shoes takes up a lot space in my bag, and neoprene and Gore-tex socks go a long way in dealing with hiking in wet shoes. If you're doing overnight or multi-day trips, just have a pair of dry socks to put on every night.
I carry a small repair kit in my PFD all the time that has some Duct Tape, some Tuck Tape a couple Tenacious Tape patches and the patch kit that came with my boat. I also have a tube of Aqua Seal. On longer trips it's recommended to carry spare valves and other parts.
Still have a question about gear? Email me.