The basic gear you need for packrafting adventures.
For general camping kit (sleeping, eating, washing, etc) you’ll find lists all over the internet and beyond. I prefer a 1-kilo down bag, a roomy tent, a thick, full-length air mat and a Pocket Rocket-like burner with a big Tatonka or MSR 500ml+ pot/cup.
Below, I suggest cheap alternatives in green. A cheap alternative to a proper packraft is of course… a Slackraft! You’ll only every buy one once ;-)
1. A pack for your raft
Do you use a regular hiking backpack packed with your boat and dry bags within drybags, or a purpose-made drybag pack with usually a rudimentary integrated harness, or carried in a separate packframe harness (below right)?
If you’re a first timer and own a regular hiking backpack, make do with that, but having tried both I prefer the latter. You’re on the water so waterproofness trounces all-day carrying comfort. I find the best combination is a submersible UDB duffle with an easy-to-use full-length drysuit zip closure that’s as airtight as your packraft. It also provides high-volume back-up flotation should you get a flat on the water. This is important and reassuring. And with a genuinely submersible bag like this there’s not need to pack stuff in endless dry bags ‘just to be on the safe side’. A UDB or similar is as airtight as a jam jar.
For short approach walks like on the Tarn, or the Kimberley a few years ago, I used the UDB’s basic integrated harness. For Turkey which was mostly walking, I fitted it into NRS pack harness (above left and right) whose capacity probably exceeds its straps and your back. In Germany Packrafting Store sell the more sophisticated American Six Moon Flex Pack (right), a ‘drybag hauling system’. You can lash anything that fits within the straps in these harnesses, including your rolled-up boat.
Remember: with any big backpack the key to support and comfort is a stiff connection or frame between the hip belt and shoulder strap mounts so the weight can be carried low around your hips, not hanging from your burning shoulders.
Cheap alternative: any old rucksack and a tough bin bag.
2. Four-piece paddle
Get a paddle that breaks down into four pieces for easy transportation. A paddle like this may not be as stiff as a one- or two-piece, but a good one like the Aqua Bound Manta Ray pictured will still be under a kilo and anyway, you’re in a slow packraft not a razor-thin surf ski.
Some four-parters don’t like being left assembled when wet; don’t leave it more than a couple of days or it’ll be hard to come apart.
Even cheap alloy-and-plastic ‘shovels’ come with adjustable feathering; an ability to offset the blades. Flat (zero offset) works OK, but most find a bit of offset makes paddling more efficient. I’ve got used to 45° Right (right blade rotated 45° forward) over the years. Left handers will go the other way.
Cheap alternative: A TPC 2-piece or similar.
3. PFD (‘personal flotation device’)
A proper foam pfd is bulky in transit but is essential for remote solo paddles or white water (as might be a helmet). For flatwater paddles Anfibio’s lightweight inflatable Buoy Boy jacket (left) has twin inflation chambers, rolls down to less than a litre in volume and comes with handy net pockets and a useful crotch strap to stop it riding up when you’re flailing around in the water. Aired down at any other time, you’ll barely know you’re wearing it.
Cheap alternative: A used foam PFD.
4. Wet shoes
I’m on my second pair of Teva Omniums (left) which are pretty good do-it-all wet shoes that are OK for walking too. If trekking the wilderness for days with a full pack over rough terrain, you’re better off with proper lace up trail shoes or boots, but bear in mind that anything with a breathable membrane takes ages to dry once soaked inside out. I use membrane-free desert boots. SealSkin socks are another solution, while they last. More here.
Cheap alternative: Old trainers or Crocs.
5. Day bag or case
You want something light to carry your valuables when away from the boat in populated areas. Choose a bag or case which fits under your knees without getting in the way. Whatever it is, it will sit in water, get splashed or even submerged, so it needs an airtight seal. If it has handy external storage pouches or pockets, so much the better.
I adapted a Peli 1400 (above) with a seatback net on the outside and a strap inside the lid to hold my Macbook Air (right). Volume is a useful 9 litres, but at 2kg the 1400 is a bit over the top. I don’t really need to throw it out of a Hercules from 14,000 feet, but I do want reliable submersability so I don’t have to think twice if I flip the boat.
Recently in France I used a smaller Underwater Kinetics box (22cm x 16 x 8; 540g, left) used on ebay for under a tenner. It’s about the size of a Peli 1150 but a bit less deep and took my Kindle Fire and bits, or camera and wallet and bits. Its light enough to carry away from the boat and also happens to make a handy camera stand for self timer shots. Otherwise I use my old yellow Watershed Chatooga bag (left, yellow), a 30-litre holdall with a big rubbery zip-loc seal and made from a hard, polyurethane that you can’t imagine getting pierced too easily. I can pack a flysheet, sleeping bag and airmat in there, but on the Tarn as a daybag I found it a bit too big to get my feet out quickly, and after years of use one flat seam was separating (easily glued up).
With both the Peli and the Watershed, I find opening a bit slow or effortful if, say, you want to get to a non-waterproof camera quickly. Nothing you can do about the Peli’s heavy clamps, but a drysuit-type zip instead of the Watershed’s seal would be better. I hear something like this may be in the works and I also have an idea for and under-knee day bag.
Cheap alternative: large, clip-seal lunchbox and a plastic bag to carry it in.
6. Repair kit
A couple of feet of Tyvec or similar tape and a small tube of Aquaseal is probably all you need for quick repairs. Something I’ve never had to do in years of packrafting
Cheap alternative: Duct tape and a rabbit’s foot.