Sunday, January 10, 2021

PNW Packrafting FAQs

There's been a growing interest in packrafting in Washington, with over 100 people joining our "PNW Packrafting" Facebook group group over the past month! I though it'd be useful to compile a list of FAQs related to packrafting in Washington. I posted this set of FAQs on our Facebook group this morning, but since that post is only visible to group members, I am re-posting it here for public viewing. For folks living in Washington/PNW and interested in packrafting, I highly recommend joining that group (we frequently do group outings together, and members will often share trip reports and recommendations).

Q: What are packrafts? What does one do with them?

A: Packrafts are an lightweight but rugged inflatable boats. Packrafts are versatile, and are great for anything from floating on an alpine lake, to floating on Class III/IV rivers (or even higher!). For running rivers, packrafts are akin to whitewater kayaks, but are more stable and easier to get started on. Packrafts generally have whitewater decks, similar to whitewater kayaks. For winter trips, it's best to have a drysuit -- but in the summer and/or on easier rivers/lakes, it's possible to go without.

Q: What are the best packraft brands? What about DIY packrafts?

A: The two most common brands are Alpacka and Kokopelli. Alpacka is generally considered the higher-end of the two (and is a little more expensive), but both are good brands.

I own three Alpacka packrafts. They are all of the "classic" variety (click on "classic" on https://www.alpackaraft.com/), with a "Whitewater Deck" build configuration. I bought mine before either the Cargo Fly or the ability the whitewater deck to be a Removable Whitewater Deck were in an option. If I were buying now, I would definitely get the latter and I would maybe get the cargo fly, though I'm less sold on that and it costs a little more extra. For most people, and especially if you'll only have one boat, I do think that getting a whitewater deck (of one type or another) is better than going down the self-bailing option, but there are folks who really like their self-bailers.

My other packraft is a Kokopelli Nirvana with a spray deck. It's a little heavier and bulkier, but the price for Kokopelli is definitely cheaper. So if price is a large consideration for you, you could get a Kokopelli and still have a great time.

There is also an exclusively self-bailing Bakraft by Aire. It's an interesting boat -- I've been in one before, in Costa Rica -- but I haven't seen them in use in either Washington or Alaska. Like I said, for Washington/PNW/Alaska, most folks go for having a whitewater deck.

There are the really cheap floatables as well, e.g., the Uncharted Rapid Raft or the Klymin LiteWater Dinghy. I don't have direct experience with either, and they might be good boats for going out on a lake, but they're not whitewater boats.

Finally, there are do-it-yourself packrafts. I personally don't have any experience with them -- and have some skepticism regarding the amount of time it would take to do a quality job, and/or the amount of glue fumes you would end up breathing in in the process -- but it is a thing. There was a discussion about it earlier this year: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1152724471784252/permalink/1418021261921237/

Side-note: why do I have four boats? My wife and I bought a boat for each of us, to be able to do trips together. However, we found that we often had friends who wanted to join, so we bought a third boat. Then we realized that most guests/friends come in pairs, so we eventually bought a fourth one. I rarely need all four boats, so if you're just starting to look into packrafting and would like to borrow one to try it out -- especially on a trip that I'm already going on -- just let me know.

Q: Talk to me about safety

A: I'm a firm believer in a packrafting safety culture! Packrafts are a lot of fun, but especially when in the PNW, you're going in fairly cold water, and there are frequently downed trees and logjams in rivers. So please, get into this sport safely!

The first element of safety is being prepared. If you're new, go with someone who's experienced. Progress slowly -- start at Class I/II- rivers before progressing to II/II+/III-. Have a quality life jacket (and make sure it's buckled snugly) and drysuit (more on that below). Bring a change of clothes in a dry bag. Unless it's a super easy river that you've done before, don't go solo. Check the water levels before you go, to make sure that the river isn't running too high. Use this group to let folks know that you're thinking of doing such-and-such river, and see if others in your skill level want to join!

While you can be a self-taught packrafter ("self-taught" as in taught by a more experienced buddy), it is a good idea to take a class. I took one such course two years ago, and it's made me a much more competent and confident paddler, especially with regards to self-rescue and running Class III whitewater. It's also where I tried out a drysuit for the first time, and subsequently bought my own. We are fortunate enough to have such trainings offered in North Bend (an hour east of Seattle) once a year or so. The North Bend course is led by Zak Sears from the Swiftwater Safety Institute (same guy who led it two years ago). This year, the North Bend dates are April 6-7 and April 12-13. See https://swiftwatersafetyinstitute.com/ssi-courses/packraft-specific-training/ for more info. A different company (but listed on same site) is also going to be offering a similar course in Idaho on July 27-28, right before the 2021 APA Packraft Roundup that's scheduled for July 29-August 1st.

Even on "mellow" runs, the deadliest thing to watch out for are wood hazards (log jams, trees across the river, etc). Do not underestimate the force with which current would push you into/under one of those things -- and avoid encountering them at all cost! If you can't see around a river bend, and especially if the river is narrow, get out to scout if you need to; portage the boat around those hazards if you can't navigate the water safely with enough margin for error; paddle at an angle upstream if you have to in order to get to shore before hitting one of these things. The other thing to remember is -- if you flip on a rapid and go into the water -- to swim in a "defensive swimming" position with your feet up to avoid entrapment. Look it up online (e.g., at https://paddling.com/learn/self-rescue-swimming), and once again: consider taking a whitewater safety course as soon as is practical!

If you'll be in an area outside of cell reception, I'm also a big fan of having a Garmin InReach (which I use for my other sports, e.g., hiking and paragliding). It gives you a way to communicate to the outside world in case of an emergency, and to be able to check in ("running later than expected, but I'm all good").

Q: How do I get started? What are some rivers to run? What are good resources?

A: If you're in the Seattle eastside area -- which is the area I'm most familiar with -- there are a number of great rivers to get started on, that are Class I or II-. Classic car-accessible runs include:

For slightly more advanced runs, the Upper Middle Snoqualmie Fork (listed as Class II, though I would call the beginning section of it a II+) is one of my all-time favorites: https://www.americanwhitewater.org/content/River/view/river-detail/2219. There is also a short-and-sweet II+ run on the South Fork of the Snoqualmie: https://www.americanwhitewater.org/content/River/view/river-detail/2224.

Going up to more of a II+/III-, the Sauk (near Darrington) has several different sections that are all great, and can accommodate multiple skill levels. The lower Sauk is a Class II (https://www.americanwhitewater.org/content/River/view/river-detail/2201/), though be on the watch out for logs. There's a slightly more advanced (II to III-) section at https://www.americanwhitewater.org/content/River/view/river-detail/2198/. And finally there's a more advanced run in-between those two sections, that is a III+, though it can be started a little later to make it a III-: https://www.americanwhitewater.org/content/River/view/river-detail/2199. Further up north, there is also the beautiful Nooksack: https://www.americanwhitewater.org/content/River/view/river-detail/2171

I really love the recently-updated "River Info" map page on the American Whitewater site: https://www.americanwhitewater.org/content/River/view/river-index. You can pan around the map to find rivers that are in your area, color-coded by difficult level. From there, just click on a river and view the details (which will often include the current flow rate and the recommended flow range).

I've also used the "Paddling Washington" book before, which I own in Kindle format for easier searching: https://www.amazon.com/Paddling-Washington-Flatwater-Whitewater-Northwest/dp/1594850569.

Of course, packrafting offers a lot more opportunities than just doing the sorts of rivers that river kayakers can do! I've had a great time taking a packraft up to Colchuck Lake (https://www.wta.org/go-hiking/hikes/colchuck-lake) and to Goat Lake (https://www.wta.org/go-hiking/hikes/goat-lake). I also had a good time hiking with my wife up the Queets River in the Olympic Peninsula, and then floating back down. I'm sure there are many other trip opportunities as well -- and I encourage folks to post trip reports to get the community excited about these!

Finally, for those wanting a book about packrafting as a sport, Luc Mehl -- a packrafting legend in Alaska -- is currently writing a Packrafting Handbook that I'm really excited about, to be released in May of this year. You can learn more about the book, and join the mailing list, here: https://thingstolucat.com/packrafthandbook/

Q: What other gear do I need? (Drysuit, paddle, life jacket, throw rope, helmet)

A: For any serious paddling in Washington (class III) and/or serious winter paddling, a drysuit is a must. Mine is a fairly basic one, and I'm perfectly happy with it. For me personally, having borrowed a drysuit with a standard neck gasket during the packrafting safety course -- and having hated it! -- I've opted to go for a "semi-dry" drysuit that uses a neoprene collar in place of the latex. My thought is that unlike river kayakers (who do Eskimo Rolls, etc.), packrafters don't intend to spent much time with their head underwater, and I'd rather be comfortable rather than feeling like the neck gasket is trying to strangle me. But I'm a bit of an anomaly in that regard. For those who are curious, my drysuit is https://www.nrs.com/product/23008.03/kokatat-mens-supernova-hydrus-25-semi-drysuit. Get a set of neoprene socks to go over the top of the drysuit, to protect the feet more. I then use the Astral Brewer 2.0 Water shoes -- two sizes larger than than what I usually would wear -- for footwear on the river.

You'll obviously need a paddle. Most packrafters use a kayaking paddle, but as short as possible. I personally have always owned AquaBound paddles, and really like their Manta Ray 4-Piece Posi-Lok: https://aquabound.com/products/manta-ray-carbon-4-piece-posi-lok. Most packrafters I know use Werner paddles.

I would recommend spending the extra $50 to get a 4-piece instead of a 2-piece: it will make it easier to take hiking, or to take a spare with you in the boat on a group trip (I've had two occasions now that I've gone with a group and someone broke or permanently lost a paddle; so since then I've generally taken a spare).

You'll want a life jacket (PFD), something like the NRS Ninja: https://www.nrs.com/product/40013.04/nrs-ninja-pfd. For anything beyond Class I or II-, you'll also definitely want a helmet. You can use a bike helmet if you're in a pinch, but for more serious whitewater you'll want to get a whitewater helmet.

For winter-time paddling, I like to use either pogies (e.g., https://www.nrs.com/product/25031.02/nrs-mamba-pogies) or mitts (https://www.nrs.com/product/25027.05/nrs-toaster-mitts).

As you advance and take a whitewater safety course, you'll want to get (and know how to use!) as throw rope. The Waist Belt Throw Bag by SolGear (https://www.solgear.com/rescue_gear/waist_belt_throw_bag_with_60_of_8.2_mm_sure_grip/) is the best I've seen, and was recommended by my whitewater safety course instructor.

For folks who live in the Seattle area: I highly recommend the Kayak Academy in Issaquah, which is where I bought my drysuit (new) and helmets (used). They sell used and new gear, and also rent gear (drysuits). They have an online store as well: https://www.kayakacademy.com. Call ahead during COVID times to see whether they're still operating at the physical location...

Q: Talk to me about logistics. How do you plan which river to run? How do you shuttle back from the takeout to the put-in?

A: Like I mentioned earlier, I use the American Whitewater website (and/or the Paddling Washington book) to come up with a candidate set of rivers that I'd like to go on, and then -- as it gets closer to the day that I'm going to go -- use the current flow rates, weather, and insight into the desires & skill levels of my group to pick the river.

I like to grab a bicycle with me, and drop it off at the takeout before driving to the put-in. This solves the shuttling problem (and is especially handy during COVID times!). If I'm going with a family member who drove up with me in the same car, having them stay at the takeout is easier than packing everything up and biking up with it -- but hey, they're called "packrafts" for a reason, you can absolutely pack them down (and that's where having a 4-piece rather than a 2-piece paddle really helps too)! An overnight backpack backpack (e.g., a 70 liter+) will work for gathering your gear.

I hope this helps folks who are getting into Packrafting in the PNW -- and again, I encourage you to join the our "PNW Packrafting" Facebook group for trip reports, group-floating-trip coordination, and questions. Have fun, paddle safe, and see you on the water!

* * *

Some photos below, for a sampling of trips that I've done in Washington:

Packrafting the Upper Middle Snoqualmie Fork (https://www.americanwhitewater.org/content/River/view/river-detail/2219).
A Class II+ run.
Oct 2019


Packrafting on Goat Lake (https://www.wta.org/go-hiking/hikes/goat-lake). It's a 5-mile hike each way, but not too intensive.
June 2018. (Pictured here is my wife, Katrina Zlatkovsky)


Yours Truly, packrafting with a group on the Sauk river (likely the Bedal Campground to Whitechuck Boat Launch section, or maybe the section below that) in summer of 2019.


My mom on Colchuck Lake. It's a 4-mile hike each way, with the last two miles fairly steep. But *so* rewarding to be out on the water, once you make it to the top!
June 2019


Me on the Queets River, 2013. My wife wrote a blog post about it: http://blog.michaelzlat.com/2013/07/trip-to-olympic-peninsula-2013.html


Packrafting with my dog on the Snoqualmie River, just downstream of Carnation. At that point on its journey, it's a Class I river.
For the dog, I put some booties on him to prevent him from scratching the boat. He wasn't too fond of this whole affair, but if I had him sitting inside the boat and me hugging him with my legs, he stayed put. September 2018.


Class III section of the Sauk, Dec 2020. The group was assembled using the PNW Packrafting Facebook group! See https://www.facebook.com/groups/1152724471784252/permalink/1494030107653685 for a trip report.



Yakima (Class II, https://www.americanwhitewater.org/content/River/view/river-detail/2276).
July 2020


Skagit River. Class I-II. https://www.americanwhitewater.org/content/River/view/river-detail/2205
Sept 2018


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