A Beginner's Guide to Packrafting


So, you want to try packrafting but have no idea where to start!? Further Faster, Team Athlete Holly Weston is here to break it down for you with what she has learnt! 

Packrafting has finally made its mark on the adventure world (beyond the avid rafters who have been doing it for years). This has led to more people than ever hitting the rivers and experiencing the beauty of easily carrying a boat around on your back (in or strapped to a backpack, like a tent). Packrafting allows you to cover more ground than you would on foot and see more within a shorter time. Some would say they make you go 'Further, Faster...' 😉

But getting started is no joke. The rivers in New Zealand (and worldwide) are places to be respected (from a safety and Taonga perspective). I'm going to be touching on general things to be respectful of, safety things you should know and also a super handy beginner gear list.


Let's be responsible and respectful rafters! 

Make sure you leave no trace behind you. If you puncture a packraft or run into trouble, the wilderness is not a dumping ground, so take out what you take in (even if this is a ruined packraft, even if your packraft floats away or you lose a paddle and have to go find it).  

Didymo is a real issue with NZ rivers. The best way to reduce the spread of Didymo between rivers is to thoroughly clean and dry your gear before changing waterways. The MPI (Ministry for Primary Industries NZ) has some great info about this you can find here, and if you come into Further Faster, there are info pamphlets and free spray bottles for you to take to help with cleaning. 


How to stay safe!

- It is worth booking into a paddling course, either a grade 2 or a kayaking course at a kayak school - PRANZ (the Packrafting Association of NZ) has a list of places you can do courses, including packraft-specific classes. 

- Make sure your swimming skills are up to scratch - I feel like this is important to mention because you don't want to be caught out if you fall out.

- You should also know how to read a river and to self-rescue as a minimum. 

- Developing your river safety skills is part of the journey. We never stop learning and you can always improve. It's also really fun!

- The network of rivers in New Zealand has a wide range of grades. Stick to your limits and 'portage(exit the river and walk) if you aren’t sure (for a River Grade/Class Breakdown, check out this link). It's all part of the sport (and a good gym workout). Figure out how to best secure your gear to the raft so that it's easy to walk across rocks and it won’t encourage you to 'just send itbecause you can’t be bothered carrying your boat around a dodgy-looking hazard.

- Strainers (any object in the river that water can go through but would catch items like boats and people - logs, dams...) and trees are not your friends. 

- Get out onto some flat water first. Use this to figure out the small things like how to blow the packraft up, turn it and what it feels like with your gear on board. It is much easier to do this in a controlled environment when you aren't freezing cold and getting eaten by sandflies. Hot tip – after inflating your raft put it in the water to cool down and then put more air in it. There’s a bit of science to this (that I am not going to embarrass myself by explaining wrong) but it works. Paddling a half-inflated boat is pretty hard.

- Go in a group and look out for each other. There is safety in numbers and more experienced people are great to watch what lines they take around objects and through the river. You’ll be surprised about how many people are willing to give up their time and want company on trips. There are a few different packrafting pages you can join to find people keen to go if you don’t know anyone. But don’t head solo if you are a real beginner.


Gear, Gear, Glorious Gear!

Here are my tips for gear that you should always have with you on the water!

- A light paddle. I prefer a four-piece so it can be put in your bag and is unlikely to get lost in the bush. Paddling with half a paddle makes things a bit harder for sure) - I use the manta ray carbon four-piece.

- A PFD – one with pockets for food is perfect! It should also have a whistle and pocket knife attached. 

- A packraft (obviously) – before going anywhere check it doesn’t have any holes in it, don’t forget the device to inflate it! Top Tip: If you're putting your gear inside the packraft walls (some packrafts allow for this), make sure you have your essentials accessible. It is the worst, realising you might need to deflate the boat to eat!

- Warm, waterproof clothingDon’t be afraid to carry extra in. Being warm enough seriously improves the experience and is a safety must. A paddle jacket and waterproof pants are a good starting point. There are some great dry suits you can buy too.

- Spare clothes for emergencies – thermals, hat, gloves, jacket, survival blanket, thermal socks. Have them somewhere safe in a dry bag.

- A helmet. (As Bowen on the shop floor says: "You've only got one head.") 

- Booties. You can wear trainers, but make sure you can swim properly in them. You can also get water-specific trainer-like shoes

- A dry bag for your pack

- Bungee cords – enough to hold your pack secure on the boat


- A personal locator beacon.

- A throw bag (and learn how to use one)

- A repair kit – you should have enough to fix your boat in the event of a puncture.

That's a lot of information to take in, but it's all super important, so you can stay safe on the water, be respectful and make sure you don't have to deflate your packraft at lunchtime because your lunch is stored in the inner walls! 

If you've started your packrafting journey and want to know more about caring for your packraft, make sure you check out our three-part series on setting up and inflatingcleaning and storing and troubleshooting

Top 5 packrafting safety tips for beginners:

1. Make sure your swimming skills are up to scratch.

2. Know how to read a river, use a throw bag and self-rescue. 

3. Practise with your gear in flat water first. 

4. Don't paddle above your grade, there is no shame in knowing your limits and sticking to them to keep yourself safe! 

5. If you're not sure, book into a Grade 2, Kayak or Packrafting course.


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