Sunday, November 22, 2009

Why a "Guard Rail" is worth installing on your packraft

This video is of a kayaker in a long, high-water swim in Idaho.

If you are considering gluing thigh strap patches into your boat think about putting more patches to encircle your boat and attach a "guard rail". It may save your life.

Mike Swims & Almost Drowns from Dave Hoffman on Vimeo.

A similar incident could happen with a packrafter on rivers here in AK or elsewhere: it's worth watching.

I take two lessons from it:

(1) This kayaker was unable to roll. Most of us will inevitably fall out of our boats, too. What do you have to hang onto your boat with? Consider putting six additional tie-down patches around your boat and tying onto each with a poly-pro hand-line. Don't rely on bungies stretched through the four, stock, bow patches or a dragging tail of webbing from the stern. You want what Brad calls a "guard rail" to encircle your boat. When you flip, you can just reach up and grab it from any point on the boat and it will feel so much better than the fat, slippery tube. Take it from a guy who's swum more rivers and creeks after falling out of his packraft than likely anyone. If you can't/won't glue the patches on yourself, then ask Alpacka or a local shop to do it. Alpacka really should do it on all their boats.

(2) One difference between packrafts and inflatable kayaks and hardshells and big rafts/catarafts is that we packrafters can flip our craft and get back in. This is a self rescue, and after the glue dries on your guard rail, get out there and practice getting into and out of your boat, preferably in moving water, but even in the deep end of a pool is valuable. Again, the unfortunate level of experience I have, due to the high frequency of falling out of my boat, suggests that the side-entry boats with codpieces are harder to self-rescue into than the old center entry. If you have an old center entry boat, don't send it back to Alpacka for a retro fit. Watch this blog here: I will soon post how-to make your old center entry boat dry.


  1. Why would a packrafter being going down a class 3/4 river like this, ever? Not only that, these guys are wearing drysuits because the water is cold - and I can't imagine a lightweight hiker wanting to bring one along on his trip.

    Seriously, I think you've missed the point of this video completely. It's about paddling in big groups that have sufficient resources to perform a rescue and using the skills that are taught in whitewater rescue classes properly. It's not about boat design.

    I've kayaked big water for years and backpack/hike and the combination of packrafts and big water is a bozo no-no in my opinion. It seems like the packraft community is rediscovering everything the ww kayak community has known for years about the dangers of ww kayaking. Please stick to class 1 rivers and ponds for your own safety, and don't paddle in cold water without the proper thermal protection.

  2. Philip, Thanks but no thanks for the advice on sticking to Class I river. Much too late for that. The new generations of packrafts (and packrafters) are perfectly legitimate and safe water craft capable of negotiating Class III/IV water. Using a packraft I have successfully and safely run many classics including: Cataract Canyon, Middle Fork of the Salmon, Snake River Canyon, etc,.,.

    Working with swift water rescue instructor Scott Solle (Rescue 3) packrafters have developed, tested, and trained in swift water rescue for packrafting.

    Your comments suggesting whitewater is for Kayaks only is amazingly close minded. I wonder what people thought of kayaks when they first showed up on rivers? Did anybody tell them that they only belonged in the ocean and had no right to be on rivers?

    Forrest McCarthy

  3. Sorry about my perjorative tone. I am glad to hear that you are working with a swift water rescue instructor - that does put my mind at ease. As long as you all know how to self rescue and group rescue then please paddle anything you like down the river.

  4. I understand both sides of the arguement. You kinda have to admit: when someone sees a pack raft for the first time it looks like a glorified innertube for yuppies:^) BUT, once you see these little rafts on the water you will probably be more impressed than expected, you can even roll them like a kayak if outfitted properly. They can definitely get you into more difficult water quickly before good judgement is built, but education & safety can help offset some of the danger.

    As for the video: big rafts use a rope called a "chicken strap" that surrounds the raft. While this strap that surrounds the boat makes it easier to hold on to... I feel that they are extremely dangerous in a one air chamber raft. I actually got my foot wrapped up in one of these lines when a raft instantly deflated around me in a class III+/IVish creek and definitely scared myself. If you put thigh straps in your boat, you will be able to grab the boat by the thigh straps if necessary. Hmmmm...

  5. Oh, almost forgot the most important thing I was going to say!!! If you watch the video you will notice the guy swimming is not being very proactive at all... it looks as though he just floats on his back down half the river instead of turning on his stomuch & swimming aggresively to shore. It looked like he could have been out of the water within 20 seconds if he would have swam hard.

    My point is that if shit hits the fan, NEVER count on anyone & get yourself OUT of the river!

  6. try swimming to the bank in the yukon, the susitna or the colorado.

  7. Phillip,
    Thanks for the concerns and the warnings, but like Forrest said, it's a little late -- the raft is out of the pack.

    You are right on the money about how many packrafters have little or no background in whitewater (put me in that group). That's why many of us take swiftwater rescue courses, paddle with people who have more experience than we do, and outfit our craft with safety gear. Indeed, the point of this post was to encourage people to be more safety conscious -- but I evidently failed to communicate that.

    Also, while the video-maker's point was quite clear, my point is that packrafters are also vulnerable to flush-drowning. In fact, another packrafting friend of mine (who spends more time outside than on the 'puter screen) sent me this same video just yesterday!

    For a Class V kayaker's new, informed view on packrafting see

  8. Wow. Nice river. The safety training is clearly evident. You had helmets - some with face guards, traveled in a group of 3, chunkly life vests, elbow protectors for creeking, at least one throw bag, dry suits, evident scouting, strainer removal, and there were some self rescues.

    Can I suggest that you add a cloth handle to the front and back of the boats that a buddy can grab if they are out of the water and need to be pulled to shore. WW kayaks have these and I once rescued a friend out of the drink on the worst CL IV section of the Dead River (Maine) this way. He was in danger of being pummeled to death by a half mile of rocks in fast moving water.

    So the big question I have is how this meshes with the ultralight backpacking credo. Clearly a packraft is a great extension for long distance cross country travel. But when you factor in all of the safety gear, the weight savings don't add up.

    Has the pack raft diverged from UL and developed a life of its own? I'm really trying to understand this. I've got a backpacking buddy in scotland obsessed with packrafting now and I'm trying to see how the two disciplines mesh.

    Who knows, I just need a packraft myself to get hooked. I have all of the other creeking gear in my garage, and frankly, I'm kayaking a lot less these days and hiking mostly. It'd be nice to combine the two again and get back on some water.

  9. I had a friend that swam to shore in Devils Canyon. Kayaking buddies of mine have swam to shore by themselves on the Grand Canyon of the Stikine. It's difficult, but it's not impossible.


/* Use this with templates/template-twocol.html */