Packraft Rating System

This review of Packrafting! from

Valuable Information and thought-provoking, August 11, 2008

By SwissPete (McCarthy, Alaska) - See all my reviews

For the wilderness traveler, this books offers some very essential insights, tips and information. For many, in and outside of Alaska, this ‘new’ way to get around will open all sorts of opportunities not considered before and Roman Dial deserves credit as one of the fore-runners in this activity.

However, is it really necessary to put forth one’s own terminology and white-water-rating system, just because a different craft is used? Somehow I cordially disagree. Water doesn’t really care what sort of craft one propels oneself down a current in. If you swim in a rapid such as ‘Jaws’ on Six-Mile or you do the same in a large raft or C-1, the rating is the same, although much more troublesome for the swimmer. So why the PR system? To leave a personal, romanesque touch? If one wants to do a serious run, one might as well learn how the rest of the boating community rates rivers. It’s like the Euro: No more deutsch-marks, french-francs, kroners etc. Everybody understands the meaning of a Euro. Perhaps the second printing will see some adjustments there. Still, I’m glad I got the book:-)

The PR rating system is open ended, unlike the current whitewater rating system, which results in down-rating of waters. It’s well known that Class III and Class IV rated waters are packed with a heterogeneous grouping of rapids. There are the original III and IVs as well as the downrated IV to IIIs and Vs to IVs. Imagine what would happen if rock-climbing had been capped at 5.10…well, that’s what’s happened with the whitewater system. The current 5.15 would be called 5.10 and 5.5 would be filled with old 5.5s and downrated 5.10s! This sort of mismatch of rating is what I found and so I came up with another, more informative system to use in my upcoming guidebook.The PR rating system is based on techniques needed to get down, not on danger. SwissPete is mistaken: for example, becasue “swimming Jaws on Six-Mile” used to be Class V in Embick’s book but is now just Class IV in Timmy J’s.

Moreover, SwissPete like other critics is likely a former/current kayaker, and kayakers also have their “own terminology” for their sport. For example, big rafts don’t Eskimo role and I don’t think canoes boof, both techniques of kayaking.

Anyway, I’d like to hear others’ thoughts on these topics.

Water really doesn’t care as it lacks the capacity to do so.

What water, particularly whitewater does is to have differing effects on crafts which have different hull designs, materials, size, weight, volume, capacity, displacement, performance and therefore handling characteristics than that which existed previously.

By definition, a rating system has to have relevance, and that means developing a system which reflects that which is relevant.

Why learn how the rest of the boating community rates rivers when that community will have nothing like the experience, knowledge and understanding of Packrafting as the fore-runner in this activity whom literally wrote the book on the subject!

Terminology is created and amended as new factors require, infantile, glib remarks which undermine the credibility of the critic, whilst being aimed at the author of a truly groundbreaking book which will have a profound impact, serve no constructive purpose.

I prefer sticking with a standardized whitewater rating system over creating systems that are specific to different boat types.

The function of a rating system is to communicate information. The function of this specific system is to communicate the general difficulty of given rapids. By using different rating systems we reduce our ability to communicate. Someone who knows only the packraft rating system will not be able to exchange information with someone who uses the standard rating system, and vice versa.

No simple rating system is capable of conveying all the information needed to make good judgement calls. All boaters, regardless of boat, who want to assess the difficulty of a rapid before they’re actually looking at it, need to gather more information than just the difficulty rating. Flow amount, i.e. CFS, and how that CFS relates to the river channel, whether a given cfs is low, medium, high or flood for that particular run is very important information.

Packrafts have their strengths and weaknesses, but so does every other boat. (Here’s the Appeal to Authority Argument that you knew was coming) I’ve been running rivers for 25 years in a variety of craft; large oar rigs, small 3-person paddle rafts, whitewater canoes, kayaks, boogie boards, and - because of the canoeing - PFDs. The difference in manueverability and handling between a packraft and a high-volume creek boat is much less than the difference between a kayak and an oar rig, so I don’t think the different strengths and weaknesses of a given craft is a good reason to create a new rating system.

Apparently the whitewater rating system has become open ended. Don’t know how new this is, and don’t know how widely it’s used. Looks like they adopted a YDS style:

If the system weren’t open-ended then changing the current system to be open-ended would seem to be a more direct solution to that problem. Branching off into protestant sects - a PR rating for packrafts, an OC rating for open boats, a CR10 rating for 10’ catarafts, etc., etc. - will only serve to make communication between the sects more difficult.

Cheers, and see you on the river.


The function of a rating system is to communicate information.


And the kayak beta I get is not as useful as the packraft beta I get.

So to pull the “Appeal to Authority Argument”, I have been packrafting pretty much exclusively – only enough paddle-rafting, oar-boating, whitewater & sea kayaking, and canoeing to discover that packrafting satisfies my lust for adventure and discovery in ways that the big boats never will – for 26 years (got you beat!). In those three decades I have discovered that the whitewater system is fatally flawed.

Particularly for packrafting.

But all established sports are conservative by nature, and the water-sports, which has chosen to ignore packrafting until Alpacka, would only be expected to resist any change or suggestions of change.

"And the kayak beta I get is not as useful as the packraft beta I get. "

  1. That’s true for all craft, and always will be, not just kayak vs. packraft. The best way for someone to deal with this is to get in other boats and play - to educate oneself on the differences between craft. That way when someone who was rowing a heavily-laden 16’ self-bailer says a run is technical, not pushy, there’s more understanding of their perspective.
  2. This thread is about the rating system, not beta outside of the rating system. Yes, rating systems are a form of beta, but they are a standardized form of beta that attempts to transcend local slang. They are, by necessity, simple.

    “In those three decades I have discovered that the whitewater system is fatally flawed”
    Because I’ve never heard this before I’m interested to hear some specifics on this one. What makes it fatally flawed?

Hey, Roman,…any books coming this way!!! A

I see the points of both arguments. However I see nothing wrong, and as a non-kayaker, only advantages to the PR scale. Anything to give me just a little more info to start with. There are a lot of things a kayaker or commercial raft group would have no problem with that might kill me on a packraft. And while the wife has had her eyes on my 8 year old Subaru, I’m not quite ready for that yet.

That being said, any scale is ripe with flaws and for a particular river/creek is useless without a lot of details. Just telling me that something is class III or PR IV helps me not one bit. As a packrafter, more importantly as a solo-packrafter, I need much more info to go with, an off-the-top-of-my-head-list follows:

  1. Observed/ran water level, whether gauged or relevant eyeballing. I think the difference in low/med/high flows has a much more profound impact on a packrafter than a kayaker or big-rafter. Guesses, reports, and observations of higher/lower water than when run are also helpful.
  2. Rocks. Sharp or not so sharp? Scraping or bouncing? A kayaker might not care so much about scraping or bouncing. I really don’t feel like breaking out the Aquaseal in the bottom of a canyon.
  3. Pool/drop or non-stop continuous? Basically, if I become separated from my packraft is there opportunity to be reunited with it downstream? A kayaker might be able to do rolls to stay with his kayak, I haven’t perfected (or even tried) to roll a packraft, it goes over, I exit asap.
  4. Emergency egress options. Other than losing a $900 packraft if calamity strikes, what are the options to get myself home to see the wife before she claims the Subaru? While Six-mile scares me (not that that is a bad thing), I know that at absolute worst if I manage to get out of the water, there’s a road no more than a 1/2 mile away or so from any one point. I just this week aborted a run on the Tonsina because, even though it probably is no worse than class III, basically the water was much higher than I had previously observed and without any good intel on what its like at high water, it was not worth finding out because the emergency egress would be class V in its own right (don’t panic, I turned it into an enjoyable bike/camping mini-trip in Wrangell). Had the run been next to a road the whole time, it wouldn’t have been a problem paying the price of admission to find out. This, I know, is important info for all boaters and not just relevant to packrafters.
  5. Portaging. None or every 5 minutes? While a kayaker wouldn’t think of having a bike on his kayak, I want to know whether I’m going to have to try to jump out of a speeding packraft and lug it out of the water in the middle of rapids with a bicycle weighing it down, not to mention tight spots where having a bike in the front might not help with maneuverability.
  6. Access. While a kayaker/big-rafter is more than likely limited to road or air access, packrafters can, even if it takes a week, get to just about anywhere. Helps me to know whether the hike/bike-in has its own problems.

So you can argue the pros/cons of different scales all you want, what I truly appreciate is seeing detailed trip reports on this site, any and all info is valuable. And maybe, the above and whatever other suggestions others have, could be semi-standardized into a useful PR system???

OK, you can return to your battle-royale of packrafters vs kayakers… :smiley:

I like the idea of having a separate and open ended rating system for PackRafting. The boats are similar yet very different than kayaks, canoes or big rafts and when I’m considering a river, I want to know what other packrafters thought of it.

I also think it is essential to have it open ended as there is no telling where this, or almost any other sport is going. The problem with capped rating systems is that the top ratings are suppose to be almost impossible, yet the bottom ratings cover a broad variety. As harder and harder things get done, the top and bottom stay fixed, while the middle gets so muddled that it becomes meaningless.

Another important concept (at least to me, and I probably think about it more than I should), is the most successful rating systems compare one similar experience to another. A 3 star restaurant rating says nothing serving size, atmosphere or anything else about a particular eating establishment - it just means that it is better than a 2 star restaurant for a variety of reasons. With rock climbing, there is no definition of a 5.6 route, other than it is harder than a 5.5 and easier than a 5.7. When rating systems get sidetracked with sub-qualifiers it is pretty much the end of them. If you need more detail, like in skiing, mountain climbing or packrafting, that is where route descriptions come in.

I really like what Andrew has to say above. The only thing I might add is that climbers have ice, rock, and mixed rating systems and the same vertical expanse might receive, if not ratings for all three, then at least two. In a sense climbing with tools and crampons rather than rock shoes and fingers is a lot like boating in two different kinds of boats.

Furthermore, there is far less consistency among whitewater ratings than you’d hope for. Compare for example Fast and Cold, Alaska WHitewater, and the Alaska River Guide. Compare America and New Zealand.

Maybe big rafters and kayakers should consider diverging their ratings anyhow. As far as I can tell, Ship Creek is unnavigable by a 16 foot raft. Most guidebooks are already rating almost separately by saying “oh, this river’s not suitable for craft x and y” and then they give it a rating for craft z! What madness! Looks like they are already using a separate system but not owning up to the logic of it.

Wait – the Grand and Cataract Canyon have their own system that was likely built around rafting, no?

And then I have gone out on occasion with Class V kayakers and they have shoved a lot of what looks like (according to the rather soft definitions posted on what’s Class II, III, etc) class III rapids into Class II categorization.

Anyway, I’m sure my frustration is coming out in this post, and there’s little doubt that I am a poor debater/convincer/salesman, but I will continue to use a separate rating system, if for no other reason than to stir the pot a bit and get some of the old sediment and dead wood off the bottom. And furthermore I will continue to run steep and big water to figure out how hard it really is in a packraft.

I invite the rest of you to do the same.

I think with the higher end of the whitewater, that regardless of the system used there needs to be some accurate flow data. 6 mile is the perfect example. saying it is PR 4 or class 3-4 is meaningless unless you say it is that rating in July or October.
But at the low levels, sure - 20 mile will always be 20 mile :slight_smile:

Yes, but couldn’t the same thing be said about rock climbing ratings? A 5.8 climb is going to be much harder if it is wet, covered with verglass or you are doing it in ski boots. Almost any whitewater rating is going to be skewed at flood stage water levels. Rating have to be assumed to be under “normal” conditions.

Adding complexity to a rating system to cover things like this just dooms it and these type of details are best covered in a guidebook or by common sense. If you show up and the trailhead is under 3’ of water… watch out.

right but you Know that a 5.8 climb frozen in ski boot is going to be hard, where as you don’t really know if something is class 3 is at 400 cfs or at 2000 cfs. Like what is the base line? 5.8 sunny in tee shirt is assumed, but you don’t have that with water since it is more variable.

You can tell by looking at the river whether it’s low, med, high or flood. Someone who’s new to observing rivers in this way may not be able to, but it will come with time. Many runs have different ratings attached to them for varying water levels, so sometimes you do know what the rating is for different levels. For the runs that don’t have multiple ratings just assume that higher water equals harder rapids. While this isn’t always true it is more often the case than not, and it’s just a good conservative approach. Rating systems are just to give people an opportunity to not get in dangerously over their head. They are by necessity simple. They can’t give you every bit of info about a run, because conditions change, rapids change, rocks move, wood moves. If someone wants to know every detail about a run then perhaps they should stick to more controlled environments. I hear the Wii Packrafting game is pretty fun.

An earlier argument for a packrafting specific rating system was that there are some regional and guidebook inconsistencies in the current whitewater system. Every rating system has inconsistencies. Inconsistencies are not a function of the rating system, they are a function of the people who create the ratings. We keep using climbing ratings as an analogy. There are regional differences in rock climbing ratings. Compare Vedauwoo and Smith Rocks, Yosemite and Joshua Tree. The rivers and climbs that have a rating that has stood the test of time were rated through consensus of many people, not just the first de/as cender. The river was run many times and there was much discussion before it was ever written up in a guidebook. Having multiple rating systems will only exacerbate the problem, because instead of having inconsistencies in one rating system, there will be inconsistencies in multiple rating systems.

Wow, looks like this is a road to nowhere. The truth is, you can’t please everyone. The fact that there is a PR only scale isn’t a bad idea, but it is another means to confusion on the water if used incorrectly. The truth is, a rapid is not rated based on the type of craft. If a canoe has a more difficult time than a pack raft running a class III drop, than that does not make the drop a class IV… that simply means the class III rapid is a bit more difficult in a canoe. The reasons are obvious. The canoe can’t turn like a pack raft, so getting around “that rock” is tougher.

The International Whitewater Classification Scale rates rapids on size, consequence, the moves to be made (taking into account kayaks, canoes, innertubes, rafts, cheap pack rafts from Walmart w/ good ole’ boys & an innertube w/ a cooler trailing behind… the craft doesn’t matter), and the flow/cfs.

The reason my book ratings are different from some of Embicks ratings are because many things were overrated in Embicks book (in the majority of other boaters opinions) because he slightly veered away from the I.W.C.S., using Alaska as an excuse for the whitewater being more difficult. While I understand his point, I chose to put the rivers & creeks back to their actual I.W.S.C. the best I could. So, that’s why the ratings changed a bit from his book to mine.

As far as saying a run is for “x” , “y”, or “z” craft… I was simply referring to whether or not a 14 ft. raft could even FIT into half of these steep creeks… which it can’t, so I basically warned people straight up in the BETA section of each run that a raft will or will not fit on the creek. Roman suggested I put a small section for pack rafters in the book on whether or not the run had been done or could be done in a pack raft… so I stated whether the run had be done in a packraft, not been done, or just like the 14 ft. raft that “can’t fit down the creek” I also had to make a call saying “no… or not recommended” for pack rafting.
And let’s be truthful… some of these creeks are simply impossible to run in a pack raft even remotely safely (IE: Bench Creek would absolutely shred a pack raft apart on a few of the drops).

So, that’s where the beta in the book originates from. I don’t mind seeing a pack raft conversion rating, but I don’t think it is wise to completely disregard the I.W.C.S. and only stick with a PR rating scale, as too much confusion will lead to undesirable consequences in the end.

Anyway, there’s my opinion. After paddling class V-VI whitewater for 13 years now, I’ve seen enough to know that progression in whitewater in all crafts is amazing, particularly in kayaks and pack rafts the last decade, and I understand the desire to start a new scale, but in the interest of keeping EVERYONE safe, it would be wise to not toy with the I.W.C.S.

Tim, for some reason I keep getting my emails bounced back from your hotmail account – I sent you a PM on this forum.

Sorry to clutter up this wonderful and informative discussion with something as mundane as a message to check your PM box here…

Hig & Erin interrogated me pretty good about the IWCS system, and a conclusion we (or at least I) came to is that the usefulness of a rating system also tends to hinge on your interaction with the local boating community. This social network develops a set of shared understandings about the system, based on collective experience & conversation. So… there’s a “local calibration” that occurs, which goes two ways: the individuals calibrate both to the shared community experience and the book-written ratings.

The implication is that boaters who tend not to be a part of local community using the rating system use a lot of the utility.

Summarized: “A rating system is a loose technical system, but also built on common social understanding. If you remove the social aspect, you lose much of the utility.”

Maybe not completely accurate, but it seems like a potentially useful way of looking at it.