Safety gear for packrafts

I don’t usually jump on the forums, but i am tossing some stuff around in my head that I would very much like to put out to general discussion. I just completed the packraft rescue training course that Forrest set up with Scott Sole in Jackson Hole. The course was excellent and i came away with several helpful ideas. However, what i was really struck with was how much of the course DIDN’T apply to packrafting. First of all, no packrafter will carry all the stuff they recommend having for rescue. Second, packrafts in trouble don’t generate the tremendous forces that larger craft do when they are trapped in the water. So the situation is a bit different. My question is this…What should we take? How light in weight can we make this package?

So many people who are avid packrafters are also avid climbers. Many of you are professional guides with lots of experience in rescue work. So i am putting the question out to all of you…what do you think would make a good rescue kit that would be light enough in weight that you would take it with you on a trip? What would it consist of? I would like to hear opinions on rope options for throw bags, what kinds of caribeeners, pullys, etc. you consider important or necessary. It would be great to eventually develop a concensus for what works for packrafting safety because it is a different set of problems and criteria than regular river rescue gear .

Cheers, Sheri

Here’s Forrest’s list:

Type III life vest.
Whitewater helmet.
Appropriate warm clothing.
At least a 50 ft throw bag.
Two lightweight non-locking carabineers.
One lightweight locking carabineer.
A swimmer tow line in the stern.
A haul line proactively attached to the bow.

Here’s my list
Type III foam life vest.
Knife on my PFD.
Whistle on my PFD.
Whitewater helmet.
Appropriate warm clothing.
At least a 50 ft throw bag clipped to my PFD.
A “Grand Canyon style” grab line encircling the boat and clove hitched to 10 grab loops around the boat (4 in front, 4 in back, 2 in middle).
An 6 ’ haul line proactively stuck in my PFD pocket with the lightweight non-locking locking carabineers on its end.

Question for the Climbers:

I picked up a 50 ft. Dyneema-core throw bag from Scott. I’m interested in whether it’s possible to attach prusik-like brakes to such a line. However, a couple things jump out at me:

  1. It’s already 5mm line - very small.
  2. Dyneema has a low melt point. I’m worried that friction would generate heat and damage the line.

In a gentle experiment, I tried a very light spectra & nylon runner tied in a kleimheist and (unsuprisingly, I imagine) found the Spectra far to slippery to grasp the rope.

Roman, Forrest, others: What do you think? Is the very desire to put a brake on a 5mm Dyneema line wrongheaded?

I believe situations in which mechanical advantage would be needed in packrafting rescue are limited. However, anyone with a good imagination (most packrafters) could think up a couple sceneries; a pinned boat or moving wood that some one or something is pinned on.

My thoughts are that a couple light-weight carabineers would be the minimum to allow a packrafter to add mechanical advantage to a rescue haul. You can set up a 3:1 by tying a knot to the throw rope instead of a friction hitch. To do this you would need to prepare the system before it is deployed and under tension. Additionally, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to reset it. It may allow you to move a packraft enough to dislodge it. A single carabineer would allow you the option of a 2:1. As Andrew demonstrated in the rescue course, utilizing vector forces by pulling latterly on the haul line may more easily create the needed haul forces.

Out of curiosity I tested friction hitches on the 5mm Dyneema SolGear throw rope. A fuzzy 5mm rescue prussic grabbed well with a four rap kliemheist. I tried two different sewn runners. The newer waxy Spectra runner would not grab. But an older fuzzier .5 inch sling did grab. I used a kleimheist on both. For curiosity I tried a .5 inch accessory strap (tied off with a water knot) which did not grab.

My conclusion: I can add mechanical advantage capabilities to my rescue quiver without adding much additional gear. A couple lightweight (belay strength) non-lockers and one locker, that have multiple other uses, would allow me to deploy mechanical advantage and other rescue techniques if needed. At most it might be worth adding one fuzzy 5mm rescue prussic for a single friction hitch in a 3:1.

Thanks Forrest, that helps.

Something I was thinking about: I’m wondering if there’s a real merit for parachute cord (or similar weight cord) for some non-critical / life-bearing applications, like foot entrapment snag lines, etc. P-cord is light, compact, and strong: the lightest p-cord I use is still 220-test (type II gutted cord, meaning the “guts” are removed and it’s a flat ribbon). I got to thinking of this since a throw rope could stabilize a foot entrapped rafter, and an equal length of P-cord could act as a snag line for the foot.

Plus, p-cord is an ultimate multi-function tool: fixer, bear-bag-hanger, etc…

P cord might work is some of those situations. Keep in mind that cord strength is not the only consideration. The smaller the diameter the more prone cord/rope is to knotting and getting snagged. It would also be more difficult to handle.

I currently use P-cord for the haul-line on my bow.

Safety gear in addition to training for me may include

  1. Hypothermia kit- heat sheet, small candle lantern, REI matches, chemical heat packets (3), warm hat
  2. Proper clothing for water temps
  3. Whistle
  4. Cutting tool- EMT shears or blunt-tipped knife or sheathed line cutter
  5. PFD
  6. Rope for throw bag/grab line/haul line
  7. Helmet

In Ryan J’s early packrafting gear list article on BPL, he mentioned 1. pfd, 2. whistle on lanyard, 3. throw bag with 50’ cord when not alone, 4. clothing

Question: Would you ever make your rope multiuse such as grab line also used as haul line? What rope strength would you use?

Just a quick comment on those “REI” matches. Those have let me down BIG TIME in the past. A small Bic lighter is great. I have also started carrying a small striker and magnesium/flint tool and am really liking it.

These Glenn?

I’d be surprised since everyone I know thinks they are mini torches that don’t go out when put under water. Anywho, a second or third backup way to start a fire is always good for sure. The hypothermia kit thing I saw on a kayaking website. It’s good info, but needs to be pared down a bit.

When practicing hauling during the rescue course we found that it was easier to keep a boat (with a pack on the bow) up-right by towing from the stern instead of the bow. However, the grab loop to rescue a swimmer is a relatively small closed loop while the haul line needs to be at least 6 ft. And you would not want 6 ft of extra cord dangling off your boat when not in use.

Haul Line Stow
Right now, using an experimental set-up: a p-cord haul line girth hitched to a grab loop and stowed in very small, snap-closure pouch (I built it, but you could probably find similar things at army surplus, medical supply stores, etc.). The pouch is taped w/ Tyvek tape to my bow, an the end of the line is clipped to my boat with a quickdraw carabiner (smooth gate; no hook). It’s a gnarly-looking jury-rig, but I’m just testing the idea out as a way to stow that line out of harm’s way.

I liked Forrest’s observation about the stern tow being more stable with a loaded boat.

Swimmer Grab Lines
This seems like a place of trade-offs: the more of line or loop you have, the better it is for a swimmer, but the higher the hazard of entangling if you plough into brush, etc. On one raft, I’ve got hanging lengths of 4mm cord w/ figure-8s at the ends (about 10" long each). On the other, I’ve got cord strung between two grab loops, on bow and stern, so there’s a positive handle for a swimmer to grab. The latter set-up feels way more secure to me, when I’m cold in the water & trying a grab a line.


My son and I have been boating with a single piece of polypropylene (same as throw rope material-- indeed cut from our throw ropes) tied to each of the four loops on the front of our boats for about 3, maybe 4, seasons now – just to be clear: the ends are tied to each of the grab loops that are slightly back of the bow, and the in between grab loops on the bow are tied with figure-8s or clove hitches. I pull it not too tight but not too droopy either. I want to be able to grab it but not have it tangle. (If you look closely at the photo on the cover of my book, you can see the yellow cord on the bow of the red boat. It’s a bit too loose looking to me there).

Like you, we boat fairly often, and perhaps unlike you, I flip quite a bit. Neither of us has yet (knock on wood) entangled ourselves, but each of us does have a knife on our PFD to cut ourselves free should we need to.

However, on many occasions this full continuous bow line tie has been very nice and convenient for grabbing the boat – far better than a dangling piece of p-cord which I used for maybe 20 years previously. Indeed, if the current set-up wasn’t so far superior to a dangling piece of p-cord, then I would have gone back to the old P-cord style years ago.

Maybe you should give it a go. You might find it convenient for manipulating the boat, and you can also use a bow line to tie the boat to shore. And if you don’t like it, you can also take it off. I have never caught it in bushes or sticks (even when running the brushy tunnel of Fossil Creek in Arizona), even though I have snagged my boat on a stick as Forrest likely recalls.

In the Grand Canyon I rigged A “Grand Canyon style” grab line encircling the boat and clove hitched to 8 grab loops around the boat (4 in front, 4 in back). And again, I flipped daily, never had a foot entangled but loved being able to grab the boat. There’s a good reason every big raft gets rigged this way and a reason even a little ol’ packraft should be rigged this way too.

Again, Shaggy, I would suggest you try this and give us a full report of how well it functions in practice on an Alpacka.

By the way, it wasn’t my idea to go all the way around. It was suggested by several GC boaters with upwards of 50 runs each down GC to their credit. But I highly reccommend it and suggest that 10 grab loops on the boat would make this sort of safety rig even safer.

Roman… could you post a pic of this? I have been thinking of doing it after adding some more grab loops. At your earliest convenianvce ??? Thanks.

Full-Raft Grabline

I would like to try this, Roman. Your method makes sense for big water: I would have found something like it handy on several occasions out in the middle of the Colorado. As that trip went on, I actually rigged cam-straps as a “rail” through all four front grab-loops. My thoughts above are what I’m trying on creeks, etc., and I’ll state for the record that I have a habit of ploughing nose-first into the brush. My half-grabline was nice out in the middle of cold rapid; I can see how a full line would be great. And I do indeed flip a lot on big water!

Roman, how much weight do you find the extra grab loops + line add to the boat?

I’m also wondering if anyone carries mechanical advantage systems.

Somewhat off topic from the grabline stuff, but relevant to the lists put up so far I suppose (thanks for those btw)…

What, if anything, do you more experienced folks take out by way of spare paddles?

I’m planning for multi-day solo trips next month and am very hesitant to take more than the barest essentials, but I’ve also had several friends tell me that I’m a fool not to take a backup paddle of some kind (though they also think I’m an idiot for going out by myself…). I’ve been contemplating just bringing a cheapo replacement blade and if i have to use it, jury rigging something from a tree branch as a compromise. However, I can imagine this being less than ideal (i.e. lose the paddle in a canyon section w/few or no trees).

Between food, stove fuel, a small filter, a poop-tube, cordage, some minimal gear for fieldwork (couple of notebooks, tape, GPS), pared down 1st aid kit, tarp, light sleeping bag, etc…things are definitely starting to get away from the light and fast, but if a backup paddle is like a third ice tool on a long climb then I guess I’ll have to make room…

Having an extra paddle, or at least a method to make one, is wise. I don’t normally worry about it on day trips within a reasonable walking distance of a road. But on longer wilderness trips, especially involving whitewater, with multiple people, we normally carry an extra 4-piece Manta-ray. A spare paddle is required by the Park Service in Cataract and the Grand Canyon.

During ultra-light trips, without committing whitewater, I carry a couple el-cheapo blades from a pool toy paddle. These combined with my trekking poles, a couple straps, Tyvak Tape, and ingenuity would, I hope, be enough to get me out. The right sized stick could replace the trekking poles.

After a desperate swim and a lost paddle in the middle of no-where I did construct a paddle from a stick, some mangy wood from an old poacher’s cabin, some outfitter cord, and a few rusty nails. The paddle surveyed 70 miles of paddling back to civilization. The wood saw on my Leatherman was invaluable. I have heard of people successfully constructing crude blades from alder branches, a couple stuff sacks, and Duct Tape.

Those are the ones. The box I had had gotten damp from how I stored them I guess, and none of the matches would light when I needed them. I suupose if you took brand new dry matches and got them a little wet, they would probably work, but have matches that were held damp for a while are worthless. I know it could be considered operator error, I still except my safety gear to work no matter what. I guess the lesson here is carry a back up fire source.

Just to echo what Forrest said, the pool toy paddle blades are very light and easy to carry. There are two kinds: brittle plastic and soft, more flexible plastic. Get the soft plastic as it’s stronger.

Also, you don’t really need the handles, if you are saving weight, as you can drill holes (pre-drill, if you so desire) with a knife in the field, then use p-cord or straps to lash the blade to a sturdy branch or skis, or trekking poles. By leaving the handles/shafts home, you will be forced to extend the branch/ski/trekking poles past the end of the blade, which is absolutely necessary in using cheap paddles. Stiffness is what makes a paddle function best.

I once broke a paddle in the middle of the Alaska Range’s Yanert River. My wife and I were both in a single boat and were stranded on a gravel bar. I repaired the paddle by taking the cheap pool toy plastic blade and drilling holes in with my knife. I then strapped it on and we continued, two in one boat with the repaired paddle.

The photo below is from another trip: three of us w/mtn bikes and one boat. We carried the short shaft and the blades to make a paddle, here with a cottonwood limb. This was our only paddle and it worked well. Notice that the stick extends to the end of the blades.

Here’s a makeshift paddle. Maybe others could post there’s, too?


Here’s a photo.

You can see I have the standard 4 grab loops up front, plus 4 in the back. I want two more in the middle (one on each side). You can see the 1/4 inch polypro going around the boat. It’s clove hitched to grab loops.

Also see my PFD with throw rope, knife, whistle (green) and PFD chest pocket filled with repair kit, fire starter, and lip sunscreen. The pcoket under my left arm has food (Cadbury bar) and the six foot tow rope with a lightweight carabiner. No helmet, as we were told people don’t wear them often in the GC and we had to walk down and up and were saving weight.