Raft craft From confirmed landlubber to amphibious transformer, David Lintern took the King’s shilling and spent a weekend messing about on the water
What is it? A packraft is a small, tough polyurethane raft, stored flat in a backpack, that can be inflated with a bag made from tarp fabric to enable river travel or lake crossings. If that sounds ridiculous or just downright dangerous, please bear with me a moment longer. Imagine walking in the Southwest, the Lake District, or anywhere in Scotland, and arriving at a canal, river, lake or loch – a common enough occurrence. Elsewhere in the UK we are blessed with an aging but extensive canal network as a legacy of the Industrial Revolution. Normally water presents an obstacle to be surmounted, forcing detours or even funnelling the walker onto roads and into towns. Footbridges may be washed away in the spring, and water in spate can mean at the least wet feet, or be outright dangerous to the traveller on foot (see following pages). River or lake crossings can completely determine route planning and limit available choices. Now, imagine you are carrying a two-kilo boat, one-kilo paddle and a lifejacket. Look at the map again.
Suddenly, what was in your way is now a further opportunity for exploration. The mountain can be walked up, and paddled down. Miles of tarmac can be avoided, and rivers used as arteries for graceful travel, as they once were. This little rubber dinghy means almost complete freedom from the tyranny of dry land. What’s more, water travel allows you to see the landscape differently. You can glide by rocks and trees with a fisheye view at a stately pace, watching birdlife coming in to land, enjoying the breeze on the water. You save time and energy by using waterways where off path walking is difficult. White-water river adventures await the more experienced. It’s a very different, but utterly captivating and complementary experience to walking.
How does it work? You carry the boat rolled up in your backpack, you arrive at the water’s edge, blow it up, get in and paddle away with a huge smile on your face. It’s that simple. Developed in Alaska for ‘backcountry’ wilderness and hunting, packrafts are small and extremely durable with
shallow hulls perfect for river travel. The fun factor and manoeuvrability of these little boats really has to be experienced first hand to be appreciated. Compared to a kayak or open canoe, packrafts aren’t as easy to paddle into a headwind, and don’t ‘track’ as well, but have a distinct advantage when portaging: You simply let the air out, pack up and resume walking as normal. It helps when planning to know that the prevailing winds in the UK in spring and summer are south-westerly!
Where to learn? I spent a weekend in the watery far north-west of Inverpolly with Rob from Backcountry Biking. Don’t let the name put you off – Rob and the team are mountain bike and canoe specialists who have been converted to the possibilities of amphibious adventure travel. They also run ‘bikerafting’ courses fusing their two passions into an unholy pedal-paddle-powered gonzo machine. This was a step too far for me, and I stuck to the ‘Introduction to Packrafting’ course. However, I can officially confirm that packrafting is by far and away the most fun you can have with your waterproofs on.
The essentials A polyurethane raft, for example, those made by Alpacka. A PFD – a personal flotation device (aka lifejacket). A split paddle – a 4 or 5 piece kayak paddle (it needs to be packable hence the ‘split’). An inflation bag (used to ‘catch air’ and blow up the boat – it really does work!). Straps (to tie your backpack onto the bow). A ‘spray deck’ (optional in calm water, but essential for rivers, bigger lochs and white water). Full hillwalking waterproofs. Your wits about you!
THE GREAT OUTDOORS