Tag Archives: packstaff

Suilven Packrafting ~ gear report

Impressions of some of the gear I used on the Suilven trip. There’s an older ‘Packrafting in Scotland’ gear page here.

Made of the two shaft sections of my Aqua Bound paddle and now with a metal- tipped ‘nib’ riveted to a piece of old Lendal.
In the terrain I was tramping over, this is such a great walking aid. No need to expend energy balancing over tussocks and rocks with a pack on your back; take some of the strain off your legs and knees and just lean on the pole like a handrail, use it to probe a boggy patch that could be firm or knee deep; use it to vault over ditches, use it as a monopod to rest a camera on full zoom; use it as a tarp pole, tent peg – you name it, it will do it.
Mine happens to be well balanced, just the right thickness to grip securely (warm, too), and because you can easily slide your hand up and down as a sleep slope requires, it’s much more useful than a pair of trekking poles with a moulded cork handle. And when you get to the water it converts into a paddle!

I’m now using it for all our mountain walks around here, and most of the time it’s much more useful than a burden. Of course it’s nothing more than a shoulder-high stick which any self-respecting medieval pilgrim would have used along the way, but mark my words, some time soon a packstaff will be re-invented and become the new must-have trekking accessoire obligé

Kokatat Swift Dry Pants
I’ve been looking for an alternative to my full-on drysuit for less lethal packrafting (as opposed to sea kayaking), and the Swifts look like the lower half of the solution – the top half is yet to be pinned down, but will a regular walking cag will do.
I’ve only used them for half a day but I was not sweaty and they did not leak, but then I didn’t wade around up to my waist and was wearing the long SealSkinz over the top like riding boots. XL is my size which fits great, the waist is high and there’s a very handy thigh pocket – always useful on a packboat or open IK with no deck. I deliberately chose dry trousers with no sewn-in socks as my drysuit has those. With the Swifts in future I’ll just wear short Seal Skins and have no worries about the sewn-in socks getting holed by gravel. Time will tell how they wear and perform. They cost me around £100 from i-canoe in Ireland. Since then I glued on latex socks.

SealLine XL Mapcase
Never had a mapcase but now I find it very useful on the water for the obvious reasons. Ortlieb does a roll-top; SealLine uses a ziploc which as you can see on the left, works fine. The size means you can have a large map area or other info on view and so don’t need to open it unnecessarily, and there’s a ring in each corner for attachment. Again, time will tell how it wears.

Seal Skin long socks
I know, I look a bit of a knob wearing these in shorts. But the fact is these socks genuinely extend your wading ability while keeping your feet dry. The feet may get cold as you step into deep water and ‘feel’ wet, but that’s just foot sweat getting chilled – they soon warm up again. In the tent what to do with wet, muddy socks? Take them off and turn them inside out! No mess.
They’re like a pair of ‘Wellington socks’ or mini waders. As I left for Suilven I realised I should have grabbed my knee-high gaiters too, mainly to protect my woolly wellies from the brush. Sure enough, at the end of the trip there were bits of twig knotted into the woolly fabric, which was all roughed up and scuffed. Next time I’ll know; wearing gaiters may reduce the prat-effect too. They cost about £30. Quite a lot for a pair of socks and tbh, I expect them to leak eventually.

Watershed UDB
Watershed UDBHats off again to the UDB as a land and water submersible backpacking haul sack. No complaints, although I was only carrying 10-12 kilos. It just sits on your back like a coal sack and best of all you know it won’t take in any water and can act as a back-up buoyancy aid. More UDB here.

When I got back from this trip I was all set to give up on my Black Diamond Lighthouse (now called a HiLight) – a single-skinned tent using ‘Epic‘ ‘breathable’ fabric – I bet that’s now gone the way of Ventile from the 1970s. Reviews of the BD-L here – the lower rated ones reflect my feelings. It worked OK last year over two rainy nights, but as so often happens with Epic tents, it has its off nights which can mean a miserable experience: what you might put down to condensation (which is easily managed) is actually rain dripping off the top cross poles. If I’m to be doing more packboat touring in Scotland I’m going to need a waterproof tent. Using Todd Tex fabric, the famous Bibler Ahwahnee is exactly the same design as mine, but at double the price and double the weight (so what’s the point you wonder?). But it is actually waterproof.
I spent hours on the you-know-what researching possible alternatives. Although outside the stuff can go under the upturned raft, I do miss a porch as well as external clip- or sleeve poleage for easier pitching without opening the tent in a downpour. I considered a 1.1kg Tarptent Cloudburst 2, or a Macpac Macrolight. Luckily I didn’t get as far as Terra Nova or Hilleberg websites before I figured there’s nothing that wrong with my tent that a splash of Fabsil proofing over the vulnerable flat-to-the-rain roof section might not cure. Plus the fact that back at the house, while it was drying, pegged out in the garden, a gust of wind picked it up, blew it over our house, over the road, over the store and into the field behind before it caught on a wire fence. It survived all that without a scratch as far as I can see, so I’ll give it another chance. The steep sides can’t let rain in anyway, and it really is such a light and compact shelter that’s roomy for one and OK for two, it dries in a shake, stands without pegs (I never use guys), and has a nice big door. If the Fabsil doesn’t do the trick or makes the condensation much worse, I may have to give up on the BD for packboating in Scotland and go double-skin. I do like the idea of a tent that pitches fly first and can be used just fly, or just inner. There must be tents like that. Or maybe I should get a Nemo Morpho airtent to go with my airboats… More on tents here.

Paddles for IKs and packrafts

Updated summer 2019
See also: Anfibio Fly

shovelorspadepad-abmrLike most beginners I started my IK-ing with a super cheap 3-piece TNP shovel. Then, after picking up a much better used 2-piece fibreglass Lendal Archipelago which eventually seized up, for Shark Bay in 2006 I splashed out on a decent light, rigid, bent-shaft, adjustable, low angle 2-piece, 230cm Werner Camano. At £230, it cost more than my first two boats but over 13 years on I have no regrets. The Camano just works.
To me bent shafts and an indexed, ovalised grip make ergonomic sense for steady, all-day paddles rather than pulling fast moves in rapids. It’s just more compatible with the non-rectilinear human form. I did notice that when I swapped back to the slightly highangleheavier straight Lendal (before it seized) there was noticeably less flex, but well over a decade later, the Camano is in great shape and is still my favourite for sea kayaking.
The Camano is a low-angle paddle, but I think my style, if you can call it that, is high angle, and in fact I read that high angle is the right way to do it. I find that wide, high-sided and relatively unresponsive IKs and packrafts encourage or require an energetic ‘digging’ style compared to a smooth gliding hardshell.

A paddle for  packrafting
 The way I see it, even more so than most IKs, a packraft has high and fat sides and you sit low inside. So that ought to mean a long paddle to get over all that plastic and into the water. Paddling with the 220cm, big-faced Aquabound paddle, I didn’t really notice any issues other than some squeaking as I rub the sides occasionally. Longer would not have made much difference.
paddles3At less than 3kg a packraft is extremely light but it’s not an efficient shape for gliding through water. However, once on the water with a paddler in it, the total weight is nearly the same as a more glidey IK, so it boils down to the need to propel the hull using a paddle with a large surface area. Some might say a bigger blade will mean more yawing, but I figure you just dig less hard and anyway, with practice, yawing is easily controlled. Providing you have the strength, a bigger face ought to give the speed which packraft and IK lack. There are times (mostly at sea or on white water) when speed and power can mean safety.
In the US I got myself an Aqua Bound Manta Ray 4-piece high-angle in carbon (below, 220cm). Weighing under 900g this one feels more flexy than the Camano, but fits right in the bag and so makes a great packrafting or back-up paddle – apaddleinyourpack, so to speak. Mine has the two-position snap button offset which I run at 45°. You can also get an infinite-position Posi-Lok version.
mantaray1The compact and light Manta Ray (70cm longest section, left) is ideal on short day trips with public transport and with no load to haul on the water. It has been fine for UK packrafting and makes a great packstaff, too, but it doesn’t always come apart easily like the Werners. Dry or wet, don’t leave it assembled for days or weeks, especially after sea use (that probably goes for all multi-piece paddles).
I’ve used my Manta sea kayaking in Australia as well as packrafting – it was fine for both. For the price this is a great paddle – so good I sold it to my Ozzie mate and bought another. I’ve never seen a 4-part Manta for sale in the UK, but in Germany the Packrafting Store sells TLC Mantas.

paddles1I also have a straight, fibreglass-blade Werner Corrywrecken (£200 years ago). It’s the biggest paddle Werner do in 210cm+ 2-piece touring paddles, and anyway it’s only got 0.7m2 blades compared to the Camaro’s 0.65m2. At 220cm (same as the Manta Ray) I’ve also gone as short as I dare to get over the fat sides of a packraft.
paddles2There’s no indexing on the straight, carbon shaft, just a little ovalisation as on the Aqua Bound. The Corry’s face is a tad bigger than the Manta Ray (right and above) but the whole stick feels much more rigid (it’s 2-piece). It’s 7% lighter than the Manta Ray and 17% lighter than the stiffer Camano – initially you notice this. I compare my Corry and Camano in my Incept sea kayak here.

Weights & Measures
According to the kitchen scales the weights of these paddles are:

  • Werner Camano 230,  2-piece – 988g – stiffest
  • Werner Corrywrecken 220, 2-piece – 816g
  • Aqua Bound Manta Ray 220, 4-piece – 880g – least stiff but still fine

So now I have a long, comfy low-angle Camano for long, loaded IK sea trips; a straight, rigid, light, shorter big-faced Corry for packboating and guests (the Mrs likes it), and a compact, 4-piece Aqua Bound Manta for travelling.

Packrafting in Scotland ~ gear

This is the gear which worked for me (or not) on my first big trip to the Scottish highlands in summer. There’s plenty more chat about gear and tips on the Alpacka forum, among other places.

Backpack – TNF Terra 60
I bought this last year for Coast to Coast when my packframe and dry bag idea proved dumb, and then realised it’s the first new backpack I’d bought since the 1970s – a Karrimor Annapurna I recall. They’ve got a lot better since then and although parts of the Terra’s shell seem as thin as tights, it has all the features you want: adjustable strap height, shoulder pull and chest straps, fat padding, attaching loops and buckles for lashing on the boat wrapped in the pfd, and a lower access zip to save tipping it all out. The back ‘verti-cool’ panel is of course bogus, you’re going to sweat carrying this thing, but even at 2.3kg I couldn’t have expected better from the Terra for what it carried.
This year the colour has of course changed and the size has gone up to 65 litres or more. Mine cost around £70 in a sale, but for what I used it for it was only just big enough. PFD, boat, paddles and dry suit all had to go on the outside.
In late 2011 I bought myself a 65+10-litre Berghaus C71 (right). It had many of the handy features of the Terra: what they call wand (mesh) pockets where the paddle blades can slot and sit under the side compression straps, an elastic on the back to stuff the rolled up packraft under, as well as a pair of straps along the bottom to take a rolled-up drysuit and to stop the mounted packraft slipping down. Well that’s the way I visualised it while staring at the internet. Oh, and like the Terra last year, it was reduced drastically from £140 to 80 quid. More news in Gear when I’ve got something to say about it. 

Shoes – Keen Arroyo II
After years with Tevas, a few months ago I figured I’d try something that held the foot securely with more than Velcro and which had a better sole. The Arroyos turned up at half price – about what they’re worth – and have been OK for what they are. For some reason the sides carry the boast ‘waterproof’, but so what if it pours in and out of the holes?
I like the wide fit very much, the quick synching lace system is… quick; if you need more security you just tie a knot or convert to regular laces. My only complaint is that I doubt they’ll last long, especially tramping cross-country under a load, though to be fair they weren’t built for that and anyway, what gear does last these days?
Problem is, your shoes and socks will be soaked at the end of the day. Sure I had a spare pair of wool socks, but put those in the wet shoes and they get wet too. What is needed are knee-high Seal Skinz and around the bothy a light pair of ‘hut slippers’ or even just slip-ons to stop bare wool socks or Seal Skins wearing through. Some sort of roll up, unlined, no sole, Moccasin slip-on. Something like the hut socks on the top right, in fact.
When the Arroyos fall apart I have an OK pair of Karrimor trail shoes. They claim to be Goretex which is actually a pain for quicker drying, but I can tell you now I spent a lot of time last year looking for wide, non-Goretex trail shoes (for an annual desert camel trek that I lead) and gave up. As the Karrimor’s were cheap (and I have Meindls for proper walks), I think I’ll convert them to quick-draining river and trail duties by poking holes through each side, just above the sole. In Seal Skinz my feet will be dry anyway and the holes will mean I’m not walking around with an unnecessarily heavy shoes full of water. There’s more on that and packrafting shoes here.

Dry suit – Crewsaver Hyperdry Pro
I sold my nice yellow Kokatat Tropos Semi Dry suit the day before I decided to buy a packraft. That was a pretty good suit on the Spey one autumn, and the Crewsaver Hyperdry pro I picked up for £180 (rrp £300) looks as good, if not a bit better. It fits me great and like the Kokatat, has integral rubber feet – an essential feature IMO – as well as braces.
First thing I did was get it sent direct to a repairers to get a relief zip installed (£50-70). With a stiff back zip it can be hard enough to put on and take off; when tired you could wet yourself before that can be accomplished. Male or female (using a SheWee), you won’t regret a relief zip in your dry suit.
I knew if before I went, but what this suit also needs are some exterior draining pockets on the arms and legs for GPS, cameras and so on. It has a tiny key pocket on the left upper arm; can’t see much use for that. My Yak pfd has no useful exterior pockets and on my Kokatat pfd they’re a bit too small to be jamming in a camera while lining up quick for a rapid.
I found it a bit sweaty across Loch Morar, when I wore full-length under clothes and was paddling a bit too energetically. Next time, a couple of days later just in shorts and T-shirt on the Lochy it was just right, but they say far from a shore or bank in cold seasons some sort of thick underfleece is essential once you fall in, otherwise you get hypothermic almost as fast as without a suit. I’ve since given the Crewsaver a few immersion tests by wearing it for an hour or two in the water, practising rolls with a mate in a SinK. No leakage at all which may be to be expected but is still pretty amazing.
Packrafts and IKs are a bit different to SinKs in that a drysuit is handy against splash, even if you’re not falling in. And with the legs exposed and lacking a deck a quick draining pocket on the thigh, for a GPS for example, would be handy. If I get round to this I think I’ll get some velcro sewn onto the thigh front and the left forearm, so that any pocket construction is less critical. For the moment I’ve made an arm/leg strap-on pocket out of a spare Aqua Pack, some glue and a bit of the ballistic nylon left over from the floor. And I’ve now got a waterproof camera.

Paddle as Packstaff
My 4-piece Aqua Bound Manta Ray is OK as far as rigidity goes, but of course is very handy for travelling. I knew I’d need something like trekking poles with the heavy loads and terrain I’d be crossing, but of course didn’t want to take trekking poles just for that. In the end an old Lendal paddle sacrificed itself to make a 6-inch ‘nib’ to slot into the end of the Manta’s shaft, making a shoulder-high staff. While using it for what turned out to be a 3-day walk in winter, the fibreglass nib wore down, so needs some kind of metal over-nib.
sulpackstafferAs mentioned in the text, this proved to be a great aid on the gnarly crossing to Loch Arkaig and all the better for not having a trekking pole’s handle or loop. It’s just the right thickness all along of course, so you can vary your hand height, probe the ground, rely less on balance (so saving energy), use it to vault over ditches and streams and lean on it hard as you step around an outcrop above a mire. Plus you can lean on it when drinking by hand from a stream with a pack still on – very handy. I couldn’t see a £90 Leki pole taking such weight, let alone the cheapies I use which fell out of a cereal packet. Cross country in Scotland with a load, you need a packstaff or something similar.

Camera – GoPro mini camera
Short version, as these are well-known to kayakers and hair-boaters. They use two buttons but the menu is easy to learn. I set mine on SD (‘1’) but ran out of card in 2 days, long before the battery went flat. Looking at all the mounts which came with it, I settled on the headband which did most things for me. For back shots in the boat it tucked under the pack lines. With the cam on your head (make sure it’s not set too high), after recording in very still conditions you can hear the blood moving in your brain on playback; weird!
The 5mp stills are not as good as my heavier and bulkier LumixTZ6 (12mp), but for a fixed-focus, wide-angle, the video, even at SD, is OK. The only flaw is that it tends to underexpose (too dark) and the audio dies inside the waterproof housing when it’s not on your head. On your head your skull is a kind of amplifier when you talk, but you won’t hear what other people say. I may have the exposure set wrong but I’m sure it’s on auto. I expected this duff audio and removed it mostly when on dry land to do talking, or lately have got into taking and using the better Lumix for talking when not in rough water – but that means 2 cameras. If you’re talking to the Go Pro in the housing, get close or shout.
The best thing is the GoPro is so light and has a good series of mounts there’s plenty of scope to shoot good action creatively. But for £300 it’s too much for what it is and after a year or two I sold it. Check out this videos. Instead I use my waterproof Panasonic Lumix FT2 as a day camera and for paddling: better stills, better video exposure, easier to use, better sound and sells for a fraction of the price used. The GoPro is everywhere these days and lately improved, but to me is over-rated for the price.

Tent – Black Diamond Lighthouse
blackdiamondlighthouseI see packrafters talking about rigging their boats as shelters or setting up a simple tarp with string and using the paddles as tent poles. The way I see it, either you can sleep out in the open on your part-deflated raft or you need a tent for shelter from rain, insects or wind. In Scotland you need a tent for all three.
I don’t begrudge the 1.5kg of tent, poles and 4 pegs of my BD lighthouse. It uses a single skin of ‘breathable’ Epic fabric which in my experience breathes better some nights than others. Unless it’s freezing (and I’ve had minus 6°C inside) I very rarely sleep with all the flaps zipped up, but condensation seems to have a mind of its own, whether it rains overnight or not. No complaints about waterproofing (that failed later despite halfdomereproofing so I sold it). Like a packraft itself, it’s so small and light you don’t think twice about taking it and using it. They make it anymore as the fabric wasn’t fireproof (legal) in some US states. I bought it in Colorado in 2007 for about £200 – in the UK it was nearly double at the time. I since replaced with  conventional REI Half Dome (left) that can be pitched inner- or outer only. More on packboating tents here.

Sleeping bag – Mountain Equipment Sleep Walker U/L
Sometimes I look at this thing and think surely the Polar Loft fill has collapsed over the years when I compare it to my recently re-fluffed Yeti down bag which just makes you want to get in and hibernate. But at just under a kilo, it’s an ideal summer bag that works fine with a tent and a good sleeping mat plus a hat if necessary. It can feel sweaty and doesn’t feel half as nice as a down bag, but for watery activities with a risk of getting wet, synthetic does the job. If it’s too warm it zips right out into a blanket. It’s good to have a cheap bag for rough trips and save the down Yeti for when it’s needed.
They don’t make it anymore – or they probably do but it’s got a different colour and name. It cost me about £50 in a sale in 2005. Since replaced with a lovely down Marmot Arroyo Long.

Sleeping mat/raft floor – Thermarest ultralight
I slept on one of these for years before I moved up to an Exped Syn Air DLX after a period of back pain. Now the ¾ length Thermarest (118cm x 50cm, 535 grams) doubles up as a handy floor for the raft, something light to sit on and an OK overnight pad when lengthened with a pfd. I suppose the current version is the ProLite which is as wide and thick, but full length and 100 grams lighter. Since replaced with an Exped UL.

Dry bags
I got some imperfect Seal Line Baja bags years ago in Seattle that still have several more years left in them. On the Scotland trip I realised they also make a handy bucket (left) to save trips to the stream or lake.
The giant Mil-com bag (right) cost just £15 off ebay and make a great dry bag for my backpack. Alpacka advise that a simple, light inner dry bag will do inside the pack – let your pack take the hits. To me it seems obvious an exterior bag that keeps the whole pack dry up to a point is the way to go. It also makes a good sitting mat or door mat to the tent. The closure has no stiffener so isn’t as secure at a Seal Line or others, but it keeps the splash off and slows ingress if you capsize.
I’ve found a Decathlon compressor bag seals better than the fancy Exped ones I also have, most obviously because the smooth plastic rolling portion seals better than nylon fabric. The idea of a purge valve at the other end is definitely the way to go. Stuff the bag in there, roll it up and clip shut then sit on it to purge the air and plug the plug. A great space saver that’ll keep a bag dry underwater too, I’d hope. It only costs a tenner.

A mate put me onto Tatonka 500ml mug. With graduated lines inside showing the volume, it works fine as a cooking pot and drinking mug. One thing I’d do for next time is make an aluminium windshield to wrap around the mug and hang from the handles down over the burner. Speeds up cooking and so saves gas.
They’re a bit hard to find in the UK. Amazon sell them for £12, though they’re listed as €10 from Tatonka.com.

No-name butane burner
It’s like the MSR Pocket Rocket but at £14, it was half the price and better still comes with a piezo igniter so no lighter needed (though I carry one just in case). A great little cooking gadget.

Pack & Go meals
The last time I ate a freeze-dried meal was some awful stuff by Raven about 30 years ago. Never again, and since then I convinced myself that this sort of stuff was just more overpriced camping gimmickry; you can buy the same or better in Tescos.
But I’m not sure I’ve ever walked alone for over three nights between re-supply points until this trip. I saw a good review of Pack & Go meals and bought a few day menus. Breakfast is ready brek with raisins, plus an oatmeal bar, rehydration powder (left at home, used lighter/litre Zero tablets instead, below right), a chocolate drink, an evening meal and a pudding. All up £10 and less than a kilo per day, but as you’ll have read, I got pretty hungry by day three as no lunch is included. For that I had cuppa soups and tea.
In Fort William I bought a similar Mountain something meal, tasty salmon and potato but I realised what makes the P&Gs so user-friendly: you pull apart the base to make it stable, rip off the top, open out and pour in the given amount. This is often stated as too much and does not match the three suggested boiling water level lines marked inside – use those not that stated quantity. Then you zip it up, put on the water for the desert (variations on choc or custard or rice pud and fruit) and 6 minutes later dinner’s ready while pudding warms up.
As you’d expect, some meals taste better or are more satisfying than others. Boil-in-a-bag options may be tastier, but are twice as heavy and will use several minutes of gas for boiling. With plenty of water around, stew-in-a-bag saves gas and means no washing up.
I wouldn’t want to live off this stuff for days and days and I found the daily quantities not quite adequate for what I was doing. However, preparing for another Scottish packrafting trip in late November (when I imagine I’ll need more fuel to keep warm), I now see they offer two sizes: 125g at ~400 calories, and 180g with around 700 calories for ‘big eaters’. That’ll be me then.

Gear summary: what worked well in Scotland

  • Pakstaff – a great idea
  • Mini carabiners, great for lashing and attaching
  • TNF backpack (comfort, not capacity)
  • Mil-com dry bag (failing a submersion)
  • GoPro camera, all things considered
  • Garmin 76 CSX with OpenStreet mapping
  • No name Goretex light cag
  • And of course, the Alpackerai!

and what didn’t

  • Keen Arroyo II shoes
  • Sock/hut shoe strategy

What I could have left

  • Gloves
  • Head torch (as usual)
  • Water bladder (water everywhere)

What I should have taken

  • Ally wind shield for stove
  • Lid for the cup
  • Hut shoes or slippers for when day shoes and socks are soaked
  • A lighter that doesn’t fall apart
  • Another SD card
  • A brolly to try out as a sail. More on sailing here