Packraft-Specific Training

Over the last few years, I’ve found that when taking anyone out on the river - new river-runner, experienced kayaker, Ex-Navy SEAL - there are some packraft-specific drills that help someone learn about the capabilities of the boat and/or themselves a LOT more quickly. Drills I currently do myself and subject my poor buddies too are:

  1. BUMPER CARS! Go careening into each other at top speed. This teaches a new packrafter how the raft absorbs shock and responds to obstacles. It also teaches them about their boat’s top speed: When they get excited and come charging out you, make sure they have a chance or two to do it when you’re not paddling: you give them a fixed frame of reference (yourself), and they start unconcsiously registering how fast their boat can actually go for a given effort of paddling.

  2. THE SPINS. Get them spinning. Alpacka’s spin so well, and that spin can be so useful to roll around obstacles - and it happens so often involuntarily - I find that giving new users a quick mastery of spins is useful. It’s also pretty fun, a lot of times. Get them spinning around obstacles and down through riffles. Now they’re learning to handle one of the most unique maneuvering properties of a packraft.

  3. HIGH-CENTER. If possible, demonstrate to your buddy & get him to “high center” on a little horn or boulder. He’ll learn more about scootching off & “anchoring” onto mid-stream obstacles.

ALL RIGHT! Kindergarten’s over! Now for the cool stuff:

  1. CAPSIZE & RE-ENTER. This is just as relevant for a long-time kayaker as it is for someone who’s never boated before. Why? Because kayakers are conditioned to view wet-exits in the river completely different from packrafters, and they react in different ways. THE DRILL: Self-capsize, dumping yourself into the river. Immediately flip the boat back right-side-up, get back into it, and resume paddling. THE TRICKINESS: If you don’t do this much, you’ll rapidly see that some of the trickiest aspects are paddle management (what do you do with your paddle? Drop & recover? Clamp it in your legs?) and dealing with shallower water where you don’t want to put a foot down and risk foot entrapment. This trick is best learned in deeper flows or pools.

  2. HAND-PADDLE TO SHORE. Get to shore with no paddle. Many folks rapidly find the best way to do this is by lying face-down on the raft, reaching their arms down into the water. I often combine this with capsizing & re-entering.

  3. SWITCH BOATS IN MID-STREAM. You & your buddy actually switch boats in mid-stream. This is a good way to start learning about boat stability principles & learning how to think & move with flexibility in your boat.

  4. SWIM! Roll our launch out of your boat in a suitably mellow section of river, with your paddle firmly stowed in it. I like to dive underwater (if I don’t have a PFD on - I just float if I do) and swim underneath my boat. Get back in the boat, and keep boating. This is really fun, and gets you accustomed both the versatility of the packraft and to the eventuallity of taking an involuntary swim.

  5. RIVER-SWIM. This is probably the most advanced drill I do with people. I have them properly swim (feet first, face up) down through a riffle or safe rapid. More than any other excercise, this one is psychological. I almost always do all these drills first, to demonstrate & demystify them for my buddies, but this one I ALWAYS do first. This drill teaches something very important: how to swim a rapid. I notice that, for my friends, most of them realize -afterwards - how important staying calm in such a situation is, and how dangerous it is to lose your cool & fight the river. They also realize that, in a shallow rapid, they’re likely to take a few bumps. Watch out!

I think the MOST IMPORTANT thing I do is execute all these drills in actual rivers. Real rivers - at least in the North Cascades - tend to be cold, fast, loud, dark, and scary. Swimming pools are not. Lakes are only marginally so. I try to choose safe locations, like kind riffles without big horns above deep, long pools: I want someplace pretty safe, but where I and my friends get some of scariness factors that we’ll really deal with. Fight how you train, train how you fight.

Woof woof!

If I can ever get anyone down here to go with, I will use these good tips for sure! Thanks… :smiley:

Some good points here - having done some preliminary relatively flat-water rafting, I then fell out on the first run of a flooding wilderness NZ river, hitting a big boulder side on, and rolling (falling) out upstream, losing my raft and paddle downstream, together with x $1000 gear attached to it (anxiety +++++++++++++++++++), and then having a long float/swim before luckily catching it before the next rapid. Caused enough grief that I was far less enthusiastic over the rest of the trip than I should have been. They are remarkably stable and forgiving boats, and I look forward to NZ in Jan 08, but will probably try rolling one in the surf, and getting back into it again before then.

Shaggy has some good ideas. I have been teaching a packrafting class every other year or so since 1999, and plan to incorporate some of his ideas – however, we also work on getting run-away empty boats, flipping loaded boats, and rescuing swimmers all in moving glacial melt-off whitewater here in Alaska.

run away empty boats – a short 6’ length of polypro line with a small “toy” carabiner to clip onto the run-away raft, holding the other end in paddle hand (not tied or clipped to the rescuer’s boat)

flipping loaded boats – get upstream of upside down pack-laden boat. Reach over and grab downstream tube and pull toward you, letting the current push upstream tube into water and flipping boat (works best in current)

rescuing swimmer – paddle over to swimmer, pivot and have them grab stern on top of tubes, they kick and you paddle to shore or eddy, using forward, upstream ferry.

Also practise with throwbags…


FYI, when Roman talks about this stuff, I listen. He knows what he’s talking about.