Packing for Packrafting

Packing for Packrafting

By Forrest McCarthy

This post originally appeared at and is published here with permission.


***Some of these items described in this article can be purchased directly from Jackson Hole Packraft, including Feathercraft BayLee packrafts, Hyperlite Mountain Gear backpacks, Salamander throw bags, Tyvek tape for repairs and accessory straps.***



I’m regularly asked by friends, colleagues and strangers what I take with me on packrafting adventures. My answer: it depends.

It depends on the season, the weather, the objective and the terrain. As my grandfather taught me, you need the right tool for the right job. Don’t turn a Phillips head with a screwdriver.

It also depends on what equipment is readily available in my garage, at the local outdoor store and river shop, or on the Internet. Free time is extremely valuable, and I’d rather spend it in the mountains or on a river rather than in my garage manufacturing or customizing gear. All the more power to those who do, but it’s not my style.

The other challenge with an equipment list is keeping it updated. No doubt, by the time you read this, new and better products are already available. Having the latest and greatest gear, however, is an endless consumer driven neurosis that may be good for manufacturers and the U.S. economy, but is hard on the environment and your wallet. I expect every piece of equipment I purchase to have a minimum three-year life span. If a piece of equipment is not worn out by the time it’s replaced, I sell it or give it to somebody who will use it.

Storage space is also a consideration. Just because you don’t mind gear taking over your garage doesn’t mean your wife won’t mind. In order to increase domestic happiness, my wife and I made a deal: we can acquire new equipment if we get rid of the old stuff. No hoarding.

Keeping it simple for wilderness whitewater in New Zealand


Intrepid wilderness explorer and renowned packrafter, Roman Dial, once explained to me three tenants for ultra-light wilderness travel: need less, share, and improved technology – in that order.

Need less: The most important question when packing for a wilderness trip is not what to bring, but whatnot to bring. Is it a necessity or a luxury? Have you ever used it before? What would happen without it? No doubt, experience and good planning assist in this process.

Sharing: Many pieces of equipment can be shared. How many knives are needed? Spare paddles? My wife and I will even share a spoon, toothbrush and sleeping bag or quilt (sharing heat while we’re at it). Many items can also have multiple uses. A packraft and life jacket make a great sleeping pad. Multi-purpose tools are stellar pot grips. A water bottle doubles as a mug for hot drinks.

Technology: High-tech products made from titanium, carbon fiber and Dyneema can reduce weight and improve durability. The result is increased safety, success, and comfort. But avoid the trap of taking an item just because it’s high-tech and lightweight. Even if it’s titanium your pack will be lighter without it.


The days of one packraft for all situations are all but gone. As the sport advances so does the diversity of adventures and adventurers. Equipment is becoming increasingly specialized. With this in mind, and for the sake of discussion, I propose the following categories: Ultralight Wilderness Flatwater, Lightweight Wilderness Whitewater, and Midweight Sidecountry Whitewater.

Ultralight Wilderness Flatwater (UWF)

UWF typically involves more walking than paddling. UWF rarely involves more than Class II water and weight is critical.

Modern packrafting originated in the wild and primarily roadless country of Alaska and the Colorado Plateau, where portable lightweight river crafts transformed rivers and lakes from barriers into thoroughfares. Classic UWF trips include: Utah’s Canyonlands Eight, Montana’s South Fork of the Flathead River, and many of the routes for the infamous Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic.


Supai Adventure Gear Canyon Flatwater 2: Weighing a mere pound and a half, this is the lightest and most packable packraft currently in production. The $299 Supai is a great option when every gram matters. These boats are popular for canyoneering trips in the Grand Canyon that involve short and flat sections of the Colorado River and its tributaries.


Flyweight Designs FlytePacker: Made of coated nylon, the FlytePacker weighs only 2 pounds, 2 ounces and packs down into a 9” x 12” x 2” stuff sack. It’s not designed for whitewater, nor does its shape allow for efficient travel on flatwater. The durability of the thin nylon, which is used for the main tube and floor, is limited. But at just over two pounds and FlytePacker is ideal when weight is critical and the water flat. With a suggested retail price of $299, the FlytePacker is reasonable choice when you need to simply ford a river or lake. The FlytePacker is also popular for fishing remote lakes.


NRS PackRaft: It’s exciting to see a company like NRS, with a long history of making quality whitewater products, enter the packrafting market. Unfortunately, the current NRS PackRaft is too expensive ($575) for what it offers. It’s heavier than other comparable packrafts (4 pounds, 8 ounces) and inadequate for whitewater. NRS can do better. But on the upside, the PackRaft is large enough to handle two passengers.


Alpacka Scout: The Scout would win the UWF category for price ($525), durability and weight (3 pounds, 3 ounces) except the small size makes it useless to anyone but halflings — it does make a great kids boat. Recently, Alpacka introduced a larger and heavier (4 pounds, 2 ounces) version called the CuriYak ($695) after adventure cyclists Mike Curiak. This is an exciting development that incorporates many of the ideas that have been suggested to Alpacka for years. The aqua-dynamic design of the Scout and CuriYak allows relatively efficient paddling on flatwater.

Alpacka Double Duck: As discussed above, the second tenant of going ultra-light is sharing. This can include sharing a packraft. The Alpacka Double Duck ($885) is designed specifically for that purpose. Without seats, the Double Duck weighs in at 5 pounds, 7 ounces (that’s 2 pounds, 12 ounces per person). My wife and I have enjoyed several tandem packrafting trips in Canyonlands National Park.

Lightweight Wilderness Whitewater (LWW)

LWW trips typically involve less hiking and more paddling, including technical whitewater. In this category performance is as important as weight.

Classic LWW trips include: Utah’s Cataract Canyon, Wyoming’s Dubois-Moran or “Du More” route, and the Arctic Circle route through the Central Brooks Range. These are the trips I enjoy the most.

Alpacka with a Cruiser Spray Deck

Alpacka’s Yukon Yak: The Yak has set the standard for this category, revolutionizing the sport of packrafting. The Yak is considered a size medium – for smaller and larger folks the equivalents are the Alpacka (size small) and Denali Lama (size large). While the Yak could fit into all three packrafting categories, it excels at Light-weight Wilderness Whitewater. At 5 pounds, 7 ounces (with a Cruiser Spray Deck) the Yak is amazingly durable and capable of handling serious whitewater. Including a spray deck, the Yak will set you back $1,050.

In 2011 Alpacka changed the hull design of the Yak to be longer and pointier. The result is a boat that tracks better on flatwater and is more stable in big whitewater. On the downside, they’re slightly heavier, less maneuverable when creeking, and have a higher probability of getting wrapped around rocks. While superior for big rivers in Alaska, the longer hull design can be a liability in smaller Rocky Mountain creeks and rivers.

Whitewater Spay Deck

Alpacka Spray Decks: Spray decks revolutionized packrafting, increasing whitewater capabilities. Two styles of spray decks are available for Alpacka Packrafts: the Whitewater Spray Deck and the Cruiser Spray Deck. A Yak with a Whitewater Spray Deck ($1,100) creates a very dry high-performance packraft that’s ideal for Mid-weight Side-country Whitewater (MSW). The whitewater spray deck requires a skirt and a rigid aluminum ring around the cockpit. This adds weight, bulk, and transition time.

The Cruiser Spray Deck is better for longer wilderness trips. While it will not keep you as dry as the Whitewater Spray Deck, it’s lighter and easier to get in and out of. For ultra-light wilderness flat-water (UWF) the Cruiser Spray Deck can be completely removed (zipper and Velcro attach it to the boat). One problem with the Cruiser Spray Deck is that the Velcro it uses to create a seal is inadequate and eventually wears out. Another problem is having the Velcro seam on the side of the boat along the tube. Active boaters running whitewater (the primary reason to have a spray deck) commonly bend forward and backward at the waist creating stress on the Velcro seam. The result is the seam frequently failing when you need it most.

Mike Curiak Packing his Alpacka Zipper Boat

An ingenuous idea developed by Alpacka is the Cargo Fly that incorporates a waterproof zipper in the rear hull. This zipper allows gear to be stored inside the hull of the boat. The result is better weight distribution and boat handling, and drier gear. On the downside transitions and packing become more complicated, the zipper and dry-bags add weight, and there exists the risk of the zipper failing.

Luc’s Pimped Packraft

Modifying Yaks with thigh straps, Feathercraft seats, and additional Velcro has mitigated some of the Alpacka’s limitations. To learn more about these modifications read Luc Mehls article Pimp My Packraft. I have found the bulky NRS Thigh Straps unnecessary and normally use lightweight accessory straps instead.


Feathercraft BayLee 1: Feathercraft is known for excellent craftsmanship and the BayLee does not disappoint. The highly durable polyurethane fabric is bonded using cutting edge welding technology. Unlike other packrafts, there’s little or no air seepage. The hull is constructed using two independent chambers and comes rigged for attaching thigh straps! The BayLee’s optional spray deck is very effective at keeping water out of the boat. At 7.5 pounds (with skirt) the BayLee 1 ($1,350) is a great option for both Lightweight Wilderness Whitewater and Midweight Sidecountry Whitewater.

Midweight Sidecountry Whitewater (MSW)

Technical whitewater is the focus here. These trips are typically done is a day or less and approaches are normally short or none at all. Performance trumps weight.

Commonly referred to as “sport boating,” MSW can be loads of fun and offers a great way to practice your skills and push your limits. Examples of MSW runs include: Utah’s Virgin River, Idaho’s Teton Riverand Alaska’s Six Mile Creek.

Feathercraft BayLee SB: As previously discussed, Feathercraft is known for quality construction and its line of packrafts is no exception. In addition to offering a two-chamber tube and high-tech welding, Feathercraft has introduced the first self-bailing packraft. The self-bailing design comes with both a figurative and literal cost: it is significantly heavier (10 pounds) and is more expensive ($1,530). For side-country boating, the BayLee SB is a delight. You never have to pull over to take a “dump” (and by that I mean dumping water out of the boat) and the absence of a spray deck allows for quick exits, increasing safety when exploring wood-chocked rivers. If you like to paddle with a dog, the open self-bailing BayLee is your best option.

Alpacka Orca: It’s no secret. Alpacka will soon introduce a Mid-weight Side-country Whitewater boat. This past summer Wyatt Roscoe, Tim Johnson, Mike Curiak, American Whitewater Staff, and others tested the new design. With a narrow hull and an aluminum frame, the 11-pound Orca is easy to roll and can punch through big turbulent whitewater. The boat will attract hardcore whitewater kayakers and revolutionize steep creeking. For beginners, however, the Orca is tipsy. And for multi-day adventures, there is limited capacity for carrying gear. The prototypes have sparked an entertaining debate regarding what truly constitutes a packraft. Rumors suggest a retail price of around $2,000.


NRS Bandit: OK, this is not a packraft, but it is the lightest high-quality commercially produced inflatable kayak that’s capable of navigating whitewater — a good benchmark for differentiating packrafts from inflatable kayaks. The self-bailing Bandit weighs 20 pounds, is highly durable, and reasonably priced ($700)

For last 10 years Alpacka Raft led a renaissance in the design and production of packrafts (for a more detailed history read Sven Schellin’s article Packrafting Europe). As a result, the popularity of the sport is growing exponentially. It is encouraging to see other manufacturers enter the market. And no doubt, in the next several years there will be more. Competition is healthy and will drive more choices, innovation, and affordability.

Repair Kits

The most common failures are small holes on the floor of the boat that can be easily fixed with a squirt of McNett Aquaseal. Larger tears may require a patch of extra floor material. Ace Flexible Vinyl Menderworks well for patching vinyl tubes (Alpacka). A squeeze bottle filled with rubbing alcohol is helpful for cleaning surfaces before gluing or patching. Glues require about eight hours to cure. For hasty field repairs use Tyvek Tape.



Similar to packrafts, deciding what paddle to use depends on the type of trip. Paddles are one of the most important investments and are not all created equal. Considerations include: weight, durability, function, length and cost. In reference to length, I’m a mid-sized humanoid and prefer a mid-sized paddle of around 200cm. Shorter folks might want to go shorter and longer folks longer.


Ultralight Wilderness Flatwater

Alpacka/Sawyer Trekking Pole Paddle Blades: At a mere 6 ounces, these carbon fiber blades ($40) are the lightest and least expensive option for Ultra-light Wilderness Flatwater. The paddle blades are designed to fit a variety of trekking poles. With obvious limitations, they’re only appropriate for paddling short distances across calm flat water.


Advanced Elements Packlite 4-Partaddle: At $80 this 4-piece paddle is a great value. And at 32 ounces the Partaddle is worthy for flatwater or as a spare on a wilderness whitewater trip.


Lightweight Wilderness Whitewater

Alpacka-Sawyer Packrafting Paddle: Sawyer is a reputable paddle manufacturer that lowered its standards when producing the overpriced ($295) 5-piece paddle for Alpacka. These paddles have not proven to be durable. Their only redeeming qualities are their adjustable length and weight (29 ounces).

Aqua-Bound Manta Ray Carbon: This is a 4-piece sea kayaking paddle that has proven to be a worthy lightweight (30 ounces) option for wilderness trips. The carbon fiber shaft and plastic blades sell for $210.

Werner Ikelos: Designed for sea kayaking, the Ikelos is made by arguably the best paddle manufacturer in the universe and is ideal for wilderness whitewater. The 25-ounce straight shaft version is available as a 4-piece paddle. This quality paddle ($400) is a good investment for those serious about wilderness packrafting.


Midweight Sidecountry Whitewater

Aqua-Bound Manta Ray Fiberglass: This durable and economic ($135) paddle is available as a 4-piece. At 35 ounces, it’s stiff and whitewater worthy.

Werner Sherpa: This fiberglass whitewater kayaking paddle provides Werner performance at a reasonable price ($250). The 197cm Sherpa weighs 34 ounces and is available as a 4-piece.


Life Jackets

There are many life jackets on the market – more than I have time or space to discuss. Below are a few of my favorites.


Ultralight Wilderness Flatwater

Stearns Chest Pack: According to Stearns the chest pack weighs less than an ounce (I’m skeptical) this inflatable Type V US Coast Guard Approved Life Jacket provides Type III flotation. The chest pack can be inflated with or without a CO2 cartridge, provides up to 22.5 pounds of buoyancy and costs $120.


Lightweight Wilderness Whitewater


Stormy Seas SV100: This Type V US Coast Guard Approved inflatable life jacket ($140) is lightweight (26 ounces without CO2 cartridge) and packs up small. It can be inflated with or without a CO2 cartridge. Fully inflated the SV100 provides 21 pounds of buoyancy.

MTI Livery: Weighing less than a pound, the Livery is the lightest non-inflatable Coast Guard approvedType III life jacket on the market. This highly affordable ($40) life jacket provides 15 pounds of buoyancy and doubles as a nice seat cushion at camp.


Midweight Sidecountry Whitewater

NRS Ninja: Designed for kayakers, there is no shortage of quality life jackets on the market suitable for side-country whitewater packrafting. The Ninja is one of them. It provides 16.5 pounds of floatation, is compact, and sells for $130.


Safety Equipment

When paddling swiftwater, packrafters need to be adequately prepared for hazards and mishaps. This includes both training and equipment. Consider enrolling in a Swiftwater Rescue Course — I wish everyone I paddle with would.

In addition to a Personal Floatation Device (PFD), basic safety equipment includes a throw bag, river knife, and helmet. Similar to PFDs, there exist many choices for packrafters. Below are a few of the best:


Salamander Little Big Mouth Throw Bag: Salamander throw bags ($58) are a quality lightweight option. On larger rivers it’s prudent to carry the 70’ model ($78). Throw bags can double as a clothesline, bear rope, and hand line when negotiating short sections of technical rock.


Bern Macon Helmet: At 17 ounces the Macon ($45) is one of the lighter full-fledged whitewater helmets available. Bern offers a lighter (12.5 ounces) more expensive ($199) Carbon Fiber Macon.


Va2or Kip Carbon Helmet: Made in France, this 8-ounce multi-sport helmet ($290) will protect your cranium while skiing, mountain biking, and packrafting.

Gerber E-Z Out Rescue Knife: This blunt nosed folding river knife weighs 2.6 ounces and sells for $25.

Spyderco Ladybug: The .6-ounce Ladybug folding knife ($60) is an ultra-light option for wilderness trips. The knife can be improved for river running by rounding the point on a grinder.



Backpacks for packrafting can be categorized into three styles: waterproof backpacks, lightweight backpacks lined with a dry bag, and open-style portage packs. All three categories have pros and cons, and deciding what to use is driven primarily by personal preference. Below are the best from each category:

Exped Torrent 50: This 2.65-pound waterproof 50-liter backpack ($160) is made of durable laminated 420 D nylon fabric that’s been high frequency welded. While heavy, there’s beauty in the simplicity and conveyance of a fully waterproof backpack.

Hyperlite Mountain Gear Porter Pack: HMG handcrafts a line of innovative ultra-light cuben fiberbackpacks that – among other great attributes – utilize a roll-top closure lid and highly comfortable harness system. The 56-liter Porter Pack ($280) weighs less than 2 pounds. If requested, HMG will include two daisy chains on the inside so it can be secured to a packraft when inverted (inverting the pack creates a cleaner and safer package without the hip belt and shoulder straps dangling on the outside). While the fabric is waterproof, the pack should still be lined with a lightweight dry bag. The HMG Porter Pack is my personal favorite for packrafting, and I also use it on long ski tours.

ULA Epic: The open-style portage pack ($275) weighs just over 2 pounds and works in conjunction with a 30 to 70 liter dry bag. Roman Dial has been a long-time advocate of this type of backpack, and used the Epic during the Arctic 1000, a self-supported 400-mile traverse of the Brooks Range.


Dry Bags


A growing number of outdoor equipment manufacturers are producing lightweight dry bags. I have found the Outdoor Research ($18) and Sea to Summit ($25) dry bags to be the most durable.

For extra insurance, important items, like a down sleeping bag, can be packed in ultra-light ditty bags.Outdoor Research ($10) and Sea to Summit ($15) make the best.


Accessory Straps

Outdoor Research ($4), REI ($4) and HMG ($10) manufacture lightweight accessory straps that are perfect securing packs to boats. The straps utilize a durable yet simple plastic fastener. This type of strap is lighter and less expensive than the classic steel buckled NRS strap ($8). Lengths of at least 48” are recommended.



Along with a boat and good paddle the proper clothing system is one of the most important equipment purchases you will make. This is not the place to cut corners. Packrafting is meant to be fun and being cold is not fun; it is miserable, even dangerous. Staying warm, dry, and happy is priceless.

NRS HydroSkin S/S Wetsuit ($130): For Ultra-light Wilderness Flatwater or running whitewater in warm weather, I often use a thin neoprene Farmer John style wetsuit. HydroSkin can be worn under other layers to prevent core heat loss.

Alpacka Stowaway Drysuit ($720): Alpacka recently partnered with Kokatat to produce this lightweight (22 ounces) dry suit designed specifically for packrafting. Feedback so far has not been positive for the Stowaway. It has been found to be far from dry. If you are committed to getting one, I would ask around for a used one. Everyone I know who has bought one would gladly sell you theirs.

Kokatat Front Entry Dry Suit ($915): While more expensive and heavier, the 52-ounce Kokatat dry suit may be one of the best investments you make. Being wet and cold takes the fun out of packrafting (not to mention the risk of hypothermia — a life-threatening condition). Booties further increase your comfort level by keeping feet warm and happy. And the relief zipper is a wonderful thing. The Kokatat dry suit is also available in a women’s version.

Kokatat Lightweight Paddling Suit ($760): For the weight conscious hoping not to swim this is a better option than the Alpacka Stowaway. The quality paddling suit weights only 35.3 ounces.

NRS Hydroskin Wetsocks ($29): When paddling without a drysuit with booties I normally wear neoprene socks to ensure my feet stay warm. I have also found them highly comfortable to hike in. The slick surface seems to prevent hotspots and blisters.

NRS Hydroskin Mambas ($40): When cold hands become a problem I prefer paddling mittens over gloves. In addition to having found a paddle mittens warmer than gloves, the Mambas provide better grip.



Shoes made for both the river and trail have improved significantly in recent years, and continue to evolve even as I write. A few important attributes are timeless. They include: comfort, sticky rubber soles thick enough to protect the bottoms of your feet, non-absorbent and quick drying construction, secure lacing systems, and durability. Below are currently my two current favorites:

Salomon Techamphibian 3 Water Shoes: The Techamphibian ($70) provides good traction and foot support in a water-shedding design. It is proficient on trail and in the water.

Keen George Boots: When packafting sandy desert rivers, high-cut Neoprene river boots prevent sand from building up inside. Built to Keen’s high standards, the George Boots ($80) are designed for the river but adept on trail or slickrock.


Sample Gear Lists

Ultralight Wilderness Flatwater: Bob Marshall Wilderness

The Bob Marshall Wilderness extends for 60 miles along the Continental Divide between the Flathead and Sun River drainages. Tom Turiano and I spent five days connecting the two drainages in a grand 120-mile packrafting loop. There were equal parts hiking and paddling. None of the paddling was harder than Class II. I shared my boat with my six-month old border collie.

Boat – Alpacka Double Duck
Paddle – Werner Ikelos
Life Jacket – Stormy Seas SV100
Throwbag – Salamander Little Big Mouth Throw Bag
Knife – Spyderco Ladybug
Backpack – Hyperlite Mountain Gear Porter Pack
Dry Bag – 25-Liter Outdoor Research Lightweight Dry Sacks (2)
Accessory Straps – 48-inch Outdoor Research (2)
Clothing – NRS HydroSkin S/S Wetsuit
Footwear – Salomon Techamphibian 3 Water Shoes


Lightweight Wilderness Whitewater: The River of Return Expedition

Mike Curiak, Jim Harris, Andrew McLean, Tom Turiano, Moe Witschard and I utilized packrafts to challenge the century old idea that paddling is a one-way event in the Frank Church—River of No Return Wilderness. After eight days, which included 35 miles of walking and 120 miles of legendary whitewater, we arrived near the confluence of the Middle and Main Forks of the Salmon – exactly where we started.

Boat – Alpacka’s Yukon Yak (with spray deck and thigh straps)
Paddle – Werner Sherpa (197cm)
Life jacket – NRS Ninja
Helmet – Bern Macon Helmet
Throwbag – Salamander Little Big Mouth Throw Bag
Knife – Spyderco Ladybug
Backpack – Hyperlite Mountain Gear Porter Pack
Dry Bag – 35-Liter Outdoor Research Durable Dry Sacks (2)
Accessory Straps – 48-inch Outdoor Research (2)
Clothing – Kokatat Front Entry Dry Suit
Footwear – Salomon Techamphibian 3 Water Shoes


Midweight Sidecountry Whitewater: Bonsnia-Herzgovini

The origin of the name Bosnia dates back to the Roman Empire and the term bosana, meaning water – the regions most plentiful resource. On route to either the Adriatic Sea or Black Sea, Bosnia’s many rivers have carved dramatic canyons and exciting passageways ripe for exploration by intrepid paddlers. All have road access. Last May, Moe Witschard and I joined river advocate Aleksander Pastir for a 10-day whitewater tour of Bosnia & Herzegovina.

Boat – Alpacka’s Yukon Yak (new hull design, spray deck, and thigh straps)
Paddle – Werner Sherpa (197cm)
Life jacket – NRS Ninja
Helmet – Bern Macon Helmet
Throwbag – Salamander Little Big Mouth Throw Bag
Knife – Spyderco Ladybug
Clothing – Kokatat Front Entry Dry Suit
Footwear –Keen George Boots

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