In part 1, I gave an introduction about the types of gear that are related to packrafting and what you should have to get started. In part 2 I laid out some reasons why people love packrafting. In this third instalment, I wish to give a crash course on the essentials skills necessary for packrafting with the hope that many future packrafters can start their journey in the wonderful sport of packrafting better informed and with more courage. In the concluding fourth part I provide an ever growing list of resources for teaching yourself packrafting online.

Basic packrafting skills – what you should know before your first trip

What skills are required for packrafting depends very much on what you are planning on accomplishing with your raft. A leisurely paddle on a small flatwater pond will  not challenge you even if it’s your first paddle. A first descent on a challenging whitewater course requires a thorough command of your packraft, confidence in your river reading skills, knowing how to use your equipment and lots of practice in less challenging environments.

This is my (made up on the spot) attempt at splitting packrafting into a set of skills:

  1. Use of basic equipment (short trips on flat water)
  2. Basic paddling skills (longer trips on flat water)
  3. River paddling skills (class I)
  4. Basic river reading skills (class II)
  5. Scouting and rescue
  6. Advanced boat handling and river reading (class III+)
  7. Trip planning (long trips, first descents)

In parenthesis is the type of rafting you might consider once you possess that skill level. Let me give you a short explanation on what I mean with each item, what skills the categories might entail and how to go about learning more.

Before we begin, please note that I consider myself to be in step 4 at the moment, so I’m extrapolating above my own skillset quite a lot. I still think this can be a quite useful roadmap for those just starting packrafting.

Also you should not worry about having to know too much before setting out (although learning just a little makes packrafting a whole lot more fun). Just be aware of your skill level so you don’t get in over your head and always keep safety the #1 concern.

How to learn the skills

For most of these skills, I reference youtube and vimeo videos on kayaking or canoeing. That is because there’s a huge amount of kayaking resources out there, but relatively little packrafting specific material. Don’t be afraid to apply kayaking or canoeing tutorials for your own learning. Mostly the material applies very well to packrafting as well.

Take a course

One thing I cannot really emphasize enough is that the best way to learn is by taking an actual hands-on course. If you have a packrafting course available locally, take that. If you don’t, then take a river kayaking course. If you want to become really good, take both. I do believe it is possible to learn advanced packrafting just by reading and watching material online, but a course with an actual experienced guide will speed that process up significantly

1. Use of basic equipment

You have to know how to inflate your raft, how to get it properly taut, how to enter the raft, possibly how to attach spray skirt and how to paddle. How to smoothly enter and exit a packraft are skills that you learn through repetition.  This is firmly a category where just having a lot of fun with your packraft is the way to go.

2. Basic paddling skills

On longer trips the way you paddle really starts to make a difference. You have to use your torso and not only your hands. Here is a good video showing you basic paddle stroke, turning stroke and draw stroke for sidewise maneuvering.

Be sure to also check Packrafting 101: Strokes and Eddy Turns for basic paddling, sweep stroke, draw stroke and reverse stroke.

3. River paddling skills

Once you have command of basic paddling maneuvers, it’s time to learn paddling on the river. A lot of these skills are demonstrated in Packrafting 101: Strokes and Eddy Turns. In that video you also see them applied in packraft specific ways.

The basic river paddling skills include:

  1. Ferrying
  2. Paddling through waves
  3. Entering an eddy
  4. Leaving an eddy

Most of the videos I link to are using whitewater kayaks, but they are still excellent resources. The dynamics of a packraft are a little different from that of a kayak, but usually to packraft’s advantage (i.e. packraft is easier to handle).

Ferrying

The most basic skill for paddling on river is ferrying.  Ferrying is the act of crossing a river in approximately 45 degree angle and using the river’s flow to aid your movement so that you drift as little downstream as possible and get across with as little effort as possible. Sometimes you will only want to cross a river on your packraft and continue on foot, then ferrying is what you do, literally. Check also this good video on ferrying and an article on ferrying.

Paddling through waves

After that, you should learn paddling through waves. Most rapids up to class II can often just be paddled through with little need for hopping from eddy to eddy and route design. It is important to remember to stay an active participant. Don’t lift your paddle out of the water, but keep paddling and keep touch with the water so you stay in charge instead of becomin a passenger.

Entering an eddy

Possibly even more fundamental skill than ferrying, is the use of eddies to your advantage. Eddies provide you a safe spot to rest and plan your route. Check these videos on entering an eddy using a  eddy turn or eddy out

Leaving an eddy

Leaving an eddy is called peel out (existing an eddy). Another video showing the peel out.

4. Basic river reading skills

After basic paddling and river paddling maneuvers, you want to start learning how to read the flow of the river. The flow of the river is based on the topology of the river bottom, which itself is shaped by the flow. A metaphor often used for the river is a conveyor belt, where water can flow in multiple layers and in different directions.

Basic river reading skills for packrafting include recognising the following features:

  1. Wave
  2. Hole
  3. Pillows
  4. Downstream V-shape
  5. Upstream V-shape
  6. Strainer

Waves

Waves are formed by obstructions in the flow of the river that causes the flow to ramp up. Often waves are smooth faced, but may sometimes have a foaming part that flows back upstream similiar to a hole. Here is a short video on how to paddle through waves.

Holes

Holes (also known as stoppers) are formed by the river flowing over an obstruction near the river surface. As you can see in the conveyor picture above, the water then rolls back on itself, creating a circulating flow of water.

Holes are a lot of fun but can also serve as eddies. This video explains hole dynamics in an excellent manner. Boofing is not as relevant for packrafts, but this video is an excellent continuation on hole dynamics. Read more about different types of holes here

Pillows

Pillows form when a large body of water presses against a large obstruction and flows backwards, piling up or boiling against the rock. Pillows are also known as “pressure waves”.

Downstream V-shape

The series continues with river reading. A V-shape in the river flow that points downwards indicates a deep moving flow of water that is usually safe to take. Just target the middle of the V and paddle onwards.

Upstream V-shape

A V-shape that points upstream (i.e. you are looking at the pointy end) usually indicates a rock or other obstruction of some kind that you will in general want to avoid.

Strainers

A strainer is any obstruction that the water can flow through (or around) but that will trap a human or a packraft. The classic example is a fallen tree trunk, but almost anything can become a strainer in the right circumstances.

Generally, you will always want to avoid strainers if possible.

Summary

At this stage, you should have a basic understanding of the various formations you will encounter on the rivers. For those that prefer video, the Packrafting 101: River reading is an excellent resource for  basic river reading skills. An excellent visual summary is provided by Kayak: The New Frontier: The Animated Manual of Intermediate and Advanced Whitewater Technique (go buy that book, it’s good)

5. Scouting and rescue

Scouting and rescue are skills that are less immediate than many others (paddling methods, river reading) but just as important.

Scouting

Scouting is the act of surveying the upcoming rapids before entering them. You can scout from your packraft, for example by eddying out for a moment and seeing if you can find a line through the rapids you are confident you can succesfully take. If you are uncertain or can’t see the rapids ahead in sufficient detail, then you need to exit your boat and find a vantage point where you can ensure that there is a line that you can take through the rapids. If you are uncertain, then it is often best to portage that portion of the rapids. There is no shame in portaging a too difficult portion of rapids. Safety comes first.

An excellent video on scouting, and another good video and a third one

Rescue

You may end up in a rescue situation, if you tip over. Your goal in such case is to 1) keep hodl of your gear 2) reach a safe point (i.e. an eddy) and 3) re-enter the packraft. This is known as self rescue. It is surprisingly hard even in still water, so it’s definitely something you should practice.

Here’s an excellent video on basic river rescue, getting help and helping others. paddleeducation.com also has excellent resources on rescue techniques.

Exiting the raft and swimming

If you tip over, very often you are also tossed out of the packraft. Sometimes the spray skirt is so tight that you need to open a latch and give a little push to exit the raft. Just don’t panic, and you will usually get out of the packraft with little hassle.

After that, you try to hold on to your gear and swim to safety. The key to swimming in rapids is to do what’s called defensive swimming: have feet first, floating near the surface. This allows you to avoid any obstacles that might trap you on the bottom of the river. If you need to release your gear to get to safety, you might want to consider letting go of the packraft first. It is more buoyant and often bright colored, and can be found easier than a paddle. Often it is also easier to swim with a paddle than with a packraft.

If you are heading for a strainer, try to swim around or over it

Using a throw rope

As mentioned in the first part on packrafting gear, a throwrope is an essential part of your safety gear. You should also have practiced throwing the rope before you end up needing to use it. Here’s a good video on using throwrope for rescue. Always have the rope on you instead of attached to the boat. That way you will have it available if you capsize and lose your raft.

 

6. Advanced boat handling and river reading

All in all, this is the territory I’m least familiar with. I’m not going to list any playboating moves that river kayakers practice here, although skilled packrafters  could probably pull off quite many of those. However, I will try to lay out some more advetanced skills you should learn as you progress to more difficult rivers. I will also keep updating this section as I learn more.

Note that some of the techniques here start to require (or at least benefit) from a level of control over the packraft that at the very least requires a very tight fit in the packraft but more preferably a gravity grip or better yet thigh straps. Thigh straps are available on many Kokopellis, MSR Alligator 2S and the Alpacaraft Alpackalypse.

The Packrafting 101: River Navigation is an excellent video on many of these concepts.

  1. Planning your descent
  2. Lean into rocks
  3. Bracing
  4. Carving
  5. Surfing
  6. Boofing
  7. Rolling

1. Planning your descent

What planning your descent means is that basically, you want to always know the line through the rapids that you are taking. From where you are, you identify the next eddy or other calmer place you want to reach and see if there’s a line through the rapids that you can take to get you there. If you cannot find a route you are comfortable taking, then you portage past those rapids.

Planning your descent requires you to be able to read the basic features of the rapids and knowing your skillset so you can evaluate if the rapids are safe for you to take.

2. Lean into rocks

If you encounter rocks sideways, the intuive thing might be to lean away from them. The right way, however is to lean into them and try to push yourself away.

3. Bracing

Bracing is the act of using your paddle to restore your balance, if you are about to tip over. Learn the low and high brace from these links: Low braceHigh brace

4.Carving

Carving is basically just leaning into a turn, but it’s a powerful move that you should practice first in easier water. As you start navigating more difficult rapids, the control you have over your boat becomes more important.

Quoting from the link above:

“Once you learn how to use the inherent carving ability of your kayak, you’ll be able to use every eddy as the rest stop it was meant to be and also open up the world of carving turns just for fun”

When you have a control over your packraft that is anything approaching this, then you know you are set to handle most anything the rivers will throw at you.

5. Surfing

Quoting paddleeducation.com:

Surfing is the name given to the process of catching a wave and moving / crusing around. It is achieved when you park your boat on the green face and use the power of the wave to allow you to carve back and forth across the face of the wave.

Surfing a hole or a wave is often more about having fun, but being able to stop and assess your surroundings, gather strength and plan your next step is a valuable skill. An excellent video on front surfing 

6. Boofing

Quoting paddling.com:

Boofing is the act, or art, of keeping the bow of your kayak from diving underwater, and it is without a doubt the most important skill to learn for paddling creeks. Most notably, you can boof waterfalls and steep drops, but you can also boof holes, pourovers, reactionaries, and even eddy lines.

In packrafting, we do not have the option of diving bow first so the landings need to be somewhat horizontal. Boofing is the solution to that. Here is a video teaching boofing, and here is another

7. Rolling

In Class IV packrafting, Luc Mehl categorizes rolling as more showmanship than necessary skill. Get better in self rescue instead. But it is doable: Eskimo roll and hand roll

7. Trip planning

The last major skill set is planning your trips. For this I have quite little to say myself. I may expand on this section when I get the experience. Willem Vandoorne has written an excellent article on packraft trip planning that you should definitely check out.

Also check the upcoming article on packrafting resources where I hope to have more planning resources.

Summary

This turned into somewhat of a monster in length, although I just tried to give a quick overview on packrafting skills and mainly link to outside resources for learning. As it is, this is rough work but hopefully useful to many who are just starting packrafting. I hope to keep polishing and improving this article for years to come, so check back from time to time.

Be sure to also check the part 1 of this series, The ultimate guide to packrafting gear and part 2: The reasons why people do packrafting

Photo credit: USDA Forest Service Alaska

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Kalle
I am a software engineer by day and outdoors aficionado whenever family life allows. I live in Finland and have roots in Finnish Lapland so arctic outdoors are close to my heart. Special interests include outdoors photography, packrafting, ski trekking and ski expeditions.

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