As packrafting continues to evolve and gain popularity, we need to put more effort into safety, technique, and rescue skills. Like most packrafters, I jumped into the water without any prior paddling experience. Packrafts are so stable that they allow us to navigate technical water without the appropriate skill set to manage the hazards, and it is amazing that there haven’t been more accidents. There are some how-to tutorials specifically for packrafters, but I don’t understand a lot of this effort. If you want to learn how to run water, the kayaking community has already documented the techniques.
We are spoiled in Alaska because the kayakers have taken the role of big brother, teaching and guiding us through rapids. Even the kayakers that don’t like us will do anything for beer; they are kind of suckers that way. If you are jumping into a packraft, don’t have kayakers to lean on, and aren’t familiar with the kayaking literature, this is meant to be a quick-and-dirty gear and safety guide for class IV rapids. Get some books, watch some videos, and take a swiftwater rescue course.
Practice re-entries in the river. Learn to read water: T-bone linear features, punch through waves, lean into rocks, practice eddying.
Boat Rigging: (Pimp your packraft) Thigh straps, seat forward, kayak backrest, extra tie-down loops on stern, grab cord through bow and stern loops, tail. No non-locking carabiners! No random loose straps/cord floating around (other than the tail)! You want the rigging to be very tight, to have to struggle to squeeze into your boat. I have never had any issue exiting from my boat, and the bigger hydraulics have sucked me out instantly. I think this is a good thing.
Rescue vest (Type V): The Astral Green seems to be the most popular model with kayakers, though the other options are cheaper. The Kokatat Ronin is well-reviewed, featuring more flotation and a lower fit. The Brits like the Palm vests. It doesn’t do a lot of good to own these vests and not understand the features and designs. Get comfortable with the quick release towline. Whistle. Knife.
Shorter paddle: 197 cm is popular, 205 cm feels like the upper limit (the popular Aquabound 220s are too long).
Dry suit: Time to retire the rain gear. Latex gaskets are a must, tighter is better, and attached booties are a really good idea.
Helmet: Get a whitewater helmet, preferably with a short bill. The bill protects your face from rocks and can create an air pocket.
Swimming: Hold on to your boat. The floatation is a huge asset when going through rapids. If you have to choose between boat and paddle, keep the boat. For re-entry, flip the boat upright however is easiest. If you have a pack on the bow, use the pack to flip the boat. You will want the pack to be very securely attached to the boat- not just to keep it attached, but so that flipping the pack will cause the boat to overturn.
Rolling: I think rolling is more of a party trick than anything else. I don’t have it consistently enough to depend on it, and I can usually re-enter my boat about as quickly as a kayaker’s 2nd roll attempt. Chicks dig it: Backdeck roll, handroll.
Waterfalls: Unlike kayaks, packrafts can’t plunge the nose under the water to absorb shock. Therefore waterfall landings need to be flat, which requires a big boof stroke at the waterfall lip. There is a huge difference between greenwater (dense, low air content) and frothy (high air content) flat landings. Based on limited experience, a 20 ft drop to greenwater is about as jarring as a 30 foot drop on froth. My spine wouldn’t want to take much more than those heights.
- Low/High Brace
- Boof Stroke
- Body Position
- Punching through holes
Buy a kayak.
Take a Swiftwater Rescue course. Swiftwater Safety Institute offers a packpaft-specific course, maybe the other companies do as well. Anchorage-area folks can take a course through Alaska Kayak Academy. I’m not very impressed with the youtube videos linked below, but they are better than nothing.
Communication: whistle, hand signals.
Swimming: Nose and toes up, feet first. When transitioning between back (nose and toes up) and front (aggressive forward swimming strokes), roll, don’t stand. Standing can cause foot entrapment (more on this below). You don’t ever want to contact the river floor until you are in calm/shallow water. When approaching strainers, aggressively swim toward the obstacle and fight to climb over it. Defensive swimming, over a strainer, aggressive strokes, unconscious swimmer, and more
Throw rope: primary throw, rapid recoil and rethrow. Keep the throw rope on your body, not clipped to the boat. Additional rescuers should grab onto the thrower’s PFD to stabilize the belay. Throw rope techniques
Shallow water crossings: tripod, two-man A-frame, 3-man pivot, wedge. Crossing techniques
Anchors: girth anchor, two-bite anchor, no-knot anchor, 3-loop pull-2 anchor, equalizing anchors. An example
Foot entrapment: Don’t contact the river floor until you are in calm/shallow water. If you do trap a foot, try everything to create an air pocket and wait for help. You will need to pull the foot out the same way it came in. Rescue: if the water is calm enough, use a 3-man or wedge crossing technique to stand upstream and create an eddy for the victim. If the water is too swift, you will have to get a rope to and around the victim (tethered-in with a rescuer, two-ropes with a snag plate, or one rope by throwing a bight over the victim). The objective is to get the victim wrapped in a bight, lines crossed so that one end of the rope goes to an upstream rescuer and the other end is wrapped entirely around the victim’s body and help by a rescuer in a lateral position on the shore. video, text
Roman Dial, Timmy Johnson, Paul Schauer, the other Anchorage-area kayakers, Eric Riley and Zac Seipel from SSI. Please let me know if you are familiar with better online resources to link to.