Packraft Fatalities

Close calls are abundant within the packrafting community, fatalities have been rare. These are the fatalities I’m familiar with; all but one have occurred in Alaska. The common themes in these accidents are cold, surprisingly swift water, and insufficient safety equipment (PFD and/or drysuit). The consistent story here is about getting quickly separated from boat and partners.

There is a concerted effort to efficiently develop a “culture of safety” for packrafters in the hopes that we can skip the history of accidents that our peers in other water crafts have experienced.

Relevant resources: American Whitewater maintains an accident database, American Packrafting Association is close to publishing a safety curriculum for packrafters. I’ve got some bare-bones notes on safety and outfitting, here.

I’m looking forward to not updating this page. Do your part!

Map locations are general guesses.

Iceland (2019)

Missing details at this point, but it sounds like a packrafter was separated from their boat on a large lake, presumably due to bad weather. I will update when I know more.

Nizina River, Wrangell-St. Elias, Alaska (2018)

American Whitewater Accident Report

  • no PFD or drysuit
  • cold water
  • limited experience
  • Class II

Aidan Don (22) and a friend were dropped off by airplane at Nizina Lake, intending to float the Nizina back down to McCarthy. The Nizina is Class II where Aidan flipped out of his boat, but very cold and choked with glacial silt.

Neither boater wore PFDs (or drysuits, I assume). There has been some discussion about how they were able to rent boats without safety equipment.

Lion’s Head, Matanuska River, Alaska (2017)

American Whitewater Accident Report

  • flush drowning
  • cold water
  • considerable experience
  • Class IV

Martin Rinke (63), an experienced boater, fell out of his boat in the Lion’s Head section of Matanuska River. Lion’s Head, Class IV, is known for its big hydraulics and difficulty distinguishing rocks from water due to both being the same gray color. The AW accident report mentions an IK and Kayak, but Martin was in a packraft. I am confident that Martin was in full safety gear.

Tana River, Wrangell-St. Elias, Alaska (2014)

American Whitewater Accident Report

  • flush drowning
  • cold water
  • no drysuit
  • significant experience, but considerable discomfort with water
  • Class II (accident occurred below the Class IV canyon)

As part of the Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic, Rob Kehrer (44) and Greg Mills portaged the Tana River Canyon (Class IV), putting in below the technical features. The nature of the river at their put in was cold, silty, with large hydraulics, but technically only Class II. Rob flipped in some of the big water hydraulics and was instantly separated from his boat and Greg.

Rob was wearing rain gear and a PFD. I believe he had some gear essentials (stove, etc.) in his pockets, which would have worked against his PFD’s buoyancy. It is likely that a dry suit would have made a huge difference. The Wilderness Classic participants generally do not use drysuits.

Katete River, Alaska (2012)

Wrangell Sentinel

  • presumed flush drowning
  • high water
  • solo
  • considerable experience
  • Class unknown

Colin Buness (25) disappeared on a solo, I think, trip to the Katate, a tributary to the Stikine. Colin had considerable experience, including actively training to become an ANG Pararescue Jumper (PJ). Rescuers found his packraft in a log jam.

“We found his foot tracks in a gravel bar where we believe he had pulled in and looked downriver,” Tim said. “We think he was scouting out the canyon and everything looked good to him, but he couldn’t see around the corner of that bend, which is where we feel that he went into the water.”

Sag River, Brooks Range, Alaska (2009)

Packraft Forum
Fairbanks Daily News Miner, page 1 and 6

  • no PFD or drysuit
  • cold water
  • limited experience?
  • Class II

Jaymes H. Schoenberg (22) and a partner used packrafts to cross the swollen Sagavanirktok River en route to Arctic Village. Jaymes overturned his boat and was quickly separated from his partner. He was not wearing a PFD.

8 Comments

  1. Luc, thanks for caring, researching, and publishing!

    I am a life-long whitewater kayaker and just getting into packrafting. Hardshell kayakers consider a PFD one of the five “essentials” – you don’t put on the water without one. And, you don’t paddle with someone who doesn’t have one on. Pretty depressing to see fatalities related to no-PFD.

    As your data shows, a drysuit is also an important piece of safety gear – especially for packrafting because rolling up is unlikely and swims are more likely. Continuing to encourage drysuit use in the packrafting community is important. What I’ve learned is that you can be reasonably comfortable in a drysuit even in warmer weather – wear lightest layers or shorts under it. You will be warm, confident, and paddle more aggressively because you are not afraid to be in the water. If you get hot, jump in the river for a cool down.

    1. Hi Jay, yeah, a $50 PFD and $600 drysuit might have saved three of these lives. In Alaska, I urge people to consider the cost of the drysuit as part of the packraft purchase price.

      Alpacka made an incredibly light suit for several years, but I think the lightest option currently on the market is something like the Kokatak Swift Entry, 2 lbs.

      1. I will soon own one of those Kokatats. My old NRS drysuit is heavy.

        I like your approach of considering the drysuit as part of the initial kit & cost. I will adopt that when discussing with people interested in the sport.

        -Jay

  2. Even here in the Southeast, the rule is “dress for the swim”. I was appalled on a trip with outfitters in Alaska where we were told “your raingear will be fine”. The classic Alaskan boots we were given were a source of concern, as well.

  3. Wow, glad you put this together, thanks. Is the Aug 24-25 class still a go? Tp

    On Thu, Aug 15, 2019 at 6:53 PM Things To Luc At wrote:

    > lucmehl posted: ” Close calls are abundant within the packrafting > community, fatalities have been rare. These are the fatalities I’m familiar > with; all but one have occurred in Alaska. The common themes in these > accidents are cold, surprisingly swift water, and insufficie” >

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