When the snow starts to melt on the high plateaus above the canyon country of Utah, intermittent rivers start to flow, and I start refreshing the USGS site every few hours looking for an upward trend that means it’s time to go boating. Often these rivers flow between February and May, so this gear list is a direct reflection of that. In the high deserts of Utah in mid-March anything could happen. You could see rain one year, snow the next, and even some 85-degree days that leave you squinting through the glare for a shaded alcove under which to hide. Because of this variability, the gear list I have made accounts for chillier spring weather scenarios. I will offer some suggestions for pushing this list towards summer.
This list is also mostly tailored for rivers maxing out at about Class II. I am interested primarily in using packrafts as a means of expanding the backpacking experience, not as tools for getting an adrenaline fix. I’m going to assume that if your trip has a backpacking emphasis, as mine do, then you will not often be carrying everything you need for a real whitewater experience and will be portaging anything higher than Class III.
This list is also designed for trips around five to seven days long and can accommodate longer or shorter routes with minro modification. Much of this list will look a lot like a typical backpacking gear list with an obvious focus on carrying a lot more weight than one normally would, and trying to keep it all dry.
My gear list is broken into the following categories to make it easier to describe and read about. If you’re not interested in a section you can scan ahead to one that holds more interest.
- Hiking Clothes
- Water Storage/Treatment
- Boating Clothes
- Clothes for Camp and Sleeping
Almost all backpacking-focused packrafting trips start with some walking. My usual setup emphasizes clothes I can wear both while hiking and floating, and which dry very quickly. Many things on my list are typical backpacking items, so I won’t discuss those in detail.
The Rab Forge Crew Long-Sleeve Shirt is a merino wool baselayer with some added synthetic material to aid in durability. This is by far my favorite hiking shirt I’ve found. It’s warm when it’s cold or wet, not too hot when it’s warm out, and it dries very quickly in camp. I almost always hike, paddle, and sleep in this shirt for the duration of a trip.
For shoes, I would recommend any light trail running shoes that drain well. So far, my best backpacking shoe experience has been the Salomon Sense Ride Trail Runners with Superfeet Carbon Insoles in them. Without the Superfeet they’re great for running, but they don’t give me enough support for hauling 42 lbs around on my back. This was a much better option than a boating specific shoe like the Teva Original Universal sandals which are about 11 oz a pair in men’s size 10. There are times I’ve wished I had a camp shoe, but it really wasn’t that big of a deal.
I prefer hiking in shorts in most conditions. All I really need in a short is something that is quick-drying, light, and has some small pockets for lip balm or pretty rocks. Usually, I do not wear shorts in the boat unless it’s quite warm. For underwear, I like the Saxx Kinetic Boxer Briefs because they keep things in order and dry very quickly. For socks, I recommend the Darn Tough 1/4 Sock Cushion. I have two pairs of these that are going on six years old. What more can I say? They’re incredibly durable socks.
It’s nice to have a pair of polarized sunglasses for hiking, but they’re more important for boating when the angle of the sun creates a blinding glare on the water. Chums are might also be a good idea so the river won’t swallow your glasses.
|Seek Outside Divide 4500||This pack is comfortable, durable, water resistant, and versatile. I don’t think there’s a better option out there.||55 oz|
|Zpacks Packliner Dry Bag||Ensures that everything will stay completely dry.||1.8 oz|
I recommend the Seek Outside Divide 4500 for packrafting. The best packrafting packs on the market are being made by Seek Outside. Their Gila, the Divide, and the Unaweep backpacks are comfortable, durable, water-resistant, and versatile packs for boating.
What do you want in a packrafting pack anyway?
- I think the most important feature is comfort. You want something that is going to ride well with 45 lbs. Seek Outside’s superior suspension system does this well.
- Next, is versatility. You either want a pack that allows you to attach weirdly-shaped items like paddles and PFDs all over it, or you want one that is large enough that you can put everything inside. On a recent trip down the Verde River in Arizona, I was able to fit my boat, PFD, and helmet inside the pack. Only the paddles and water bottles had to be on the outside.
- A packrafting-specific pack should be both durable and water-resistant. The Xpac VX42 used by Seek Outside doesn’t absorb much water and dries very quickly.
- It should also be nearly waterproof. This feature keeps the majority of water out even after a complete dunk.
- Weight might be the least important feature of a packrafting pack. Comfort under heavy loads should take precedence over this. I would recommend finding ways to save weight elsewhere. That said, I do try to veer away from packs heavier than 3.5 lbs in weight.
For a number of years, I used the Hyperlite Mountain Gear Porter 4400 pack. This is a decent all-around packrafting pack with good features and good materials. It is, however, excruciating to wear. When I’m wearing the size HMG recommends the shoulder straps dig into my trapezius. It also has no load lifters, so the load rides back a bit. I am much happier with the Seek Outside Divide. When trips are more hiking-oriented and/or in warmer weather I sometimes take a Hyperlite Mountain Gear Southwest 3400 Pack which I’ve augmented with load lifters.
A pack liner, such as the Zpacks Packliner Dry Bag, is also an essential piece of packrafting gear! Pack liners are also much more effective than pack covers for packrafting. If you flip your boat, which you will, everything will remain completely dry.
I use a Zpacks Pocket Tarp with Doors. I don’t know if there’s an ideal packrafting shelter, but there are a few features I’d recommend having:
- Modularity. When dealing with cold, wet, muddy, rainy, windy conditions I want to have a shelter that can be set up without an attached inner. That way I can float into camp, set up the tarp, and get inside completely muddy and wet if need be without getting the floor of the shelter messy. I can then deal with all my wet gear and change into dry clothes before setting up my sleeping area. Floorless shelters offer a nice place to play cards or cook together when it’s raining or snowing.
- Long guylines for dead-manning stakes in sandy beaches. I’m almost always pitching my tarp on beaches with less than ideal soil. This means I’m anchoring my stakes with rocks, or burying them in the sand. Make sure your guylines are long enough to accommodate these conditions
- No zippers. Choose a shelter without a zipper because sand will get embedded in the coil making it difficult to zip or cause it to separate. If you do have a tent with a zipper take extra care on beaches to keep sand out of the coil and consider carrying a couple extra stops and sliders for field repairs.
As for stakes, I like MSR Groundhog Stakes because the Y shape allows them to wedge between rocks horizontally when they won’t otherwise hold in sand. They’re also quite durable and decently light. I wouldn’t recommend titanium shepherd’s hooks for packrafting if you think you’ll be camping on sandy beaches.
I also like having a designated sleeping area that is not attached to the tarp, such as the Borah Gear Bug Bivy. If the tarp is wet in the morning from rain or condensation I can pack it up separate from the bivy, thus keeping the bivy from getting wet, which keeps my sleeping bag from getting wet. For the last four years, I have slept in the Katabatic Gear Alsek Quilt for almost all packrafting trips. I now use a Nunatak Arc UL 20 Quilt. Any high-quality three-season quilt should do. But these are my two top choices. Check out my Arc UL 20 review here.
I prioritize a good night’s sleep so I’ve been using a large Therm-a-Rest NeoAir Xlite for a few years now. When I roll onto my back the 25” width keeps my elbows from sliding onto the ground. And when I’m on my side I can sleep in all sorts of various positions without ever feeling like I’m at risk of falling off a cliff. The only downside is the noise. If your camp partners can’t handle the hamster-cage sound don’t buy this pad. I’d also recommend taking a pillow such as the Sierra Designs Animas Pillow. This is one of the cheapest, light inflatable pillows I could find. It’s half the price of the Sea to Summit Aeros Pillow and basically seems like the same thing.
In canyon country during the spring the wind blows fairly consistently, so choose a stove that can handle it. Camp is often made on beaches where there are no windbreaks, so you often have to rely on the wind-resistance of the stove. Lately, I’ve been using the MSR Pocket Rocket Deluxe which is decent in the wind.
Boating does not require anything different with regards to electronics. I carry a phone for navigation and photos. I also carry a Garmin InReach Mini for peace of mind, which came in handy on my last trip. My friend was unable to pick us up at our planned exit point due to rivers flooding the road. She sent me a message and we were able to reroute and walk to a road where she could get us. There are no special packrafting considerations for headlamps or power banks. All that said, you are more likely to get these things wet while boating, so store important electronic items in drybags.
I prefer the Platypus Platy 2.0L Bottle for most trips. These bottles really hold more like 2.3 liters, so three of these is close to 7 liters. Seven liters is about 15 lbs and that’s about the heaviest water haul I want to deal with in the desert. Adjust accordingly.
I use Aquamira for water treatment when I can. If the water is clear, Aquamira works great. In canyon country things are different. The rivers are filthy, dirty, silty sleuth streams, and need to be settled in a bucket like the Sea to Summit Folding Bucket 10L before filtration. Alternately, I have also filled up my boat and let the water settle in it overnight.
On desert trips consider having some redundancy in your group. Have someone who is willing to destroy their cartridge for the greater good in a Platypus GravityWorks Water Filter System – 4 Liter, and then rely on Aquamira when you come across clearer water.
I usually wear a minimum of rain pants, a hiking shirt, and a rain jacket while boating. If it’s cold, I’ll add a mid-layer such as the Patagonia Capilene Thermal Weight Zip-Neck Hoody to the mix. This is my favorite mid-layer/baselayer crossover piece. It’s lighter than merino and very warm. Consider the crew neck if the hood seems redundant.
In the boat, the main purpose of a rain jacket is to keep your torso moderately dry and block the wind. Without some sort of rain layer, it could be easy to get to hypothermic conditions quite quickly while sitting in a boat. Though you are often paddling, the level of exertion sometimes drops to zero as the current sweeps you lazily downstream. These moments, if accompanied by rain or wind, provide the right conditions to make you start shivering. So, bring a rain jacket! I know you’d probably have one anyway for backpacking trips, but I want to emphasize that this is one of the most important pieces of packrafting gear.
Rain pants may be the second most important piece of packrafting gear. It took me a few trips to figure this out. For a couple of years, I hauled a wetsuit all over the desert with less than satisfactory results. Wetsuits are made to keep you warm while in the water. As soon as you emerge from the water and the wind hits the neoprene, you start to cool down quickly. In the case of packrafting, water will spill over the tubes onto your neoprene-clad legs and then the wind will hit them and start wicking that moisture away. This in combination with sitting for hours on end creates conditions ripe for my legs to go completely numb, which they have a number of times. Rain pants are a much better option. Water will pour over them too, but when the wind comes, they will block it, and you will be much warmer than you would be in neoprene.
Often, I wear only underwear under my rain pants and the Rab shirt under my rain jacket. Light neoprene pants or baselayer bottoms are also sometimes a good idea under rainpants. If I’m making an effort to keep my feet dry I may wear the Kokatat Launch Socks inside my shoes. If I’m going this route I may be also wearing my Darn Tough hiking socks as well.
What about a drysuit? Great question. I have used the Kokatat Meridian Hydrus 3L Drysuit for spring packrafting, and it is really incredible to be dry all the time. But drysuits are very heavy, which brings up further questions. What if it is going to be raining when you’re hiking? Are you going to hike in your drysuit or carry an additional rain layer? Answers to such questions will be dependent on expected temperatures and length of the hike. If you’re looking at daytime temperatures below 50 degrees and frigid water temperatures with a good chance of dunking, maybe consider hauling a 4 lb drysuit in your pack. If temps are closer to 60 during the day, there’s a chance of sun, not a huge chance of full submersion, and you have a long hike in addition to your float, maybe don’t carry a drysuit, and plan to stay warm and dry other ways. Some considerations for this scenario could be:
- Don’t fall in! I understand this is sometimes easier said than done. But the subtext is don’t take risks. If you know the air and water are cold, portage any rapids that have the potential to get you wet.
- Improve your fire-building skills.
- Carry an emergency blanket.
- Check-in on your partners frequently. Look for blue lips, chattering teeth, and fogginess of thought. And don’t be afraid to be the one who says, “Hey guys I need to pull over and get warm.”
Finally, I want to emphasize the importance of a good pair of waterproof gloves for boating. The Showa 281 gloves are the best I’ve found so far. I have tried the Mountain Laurel Designs Rain Mitts and the REI Co-op Minimalist GTX Mittens as paddling gloves with decent results. The MLD mitts seem a bit thin, and the fit is very strange. I’d recommend the REI ones over the MLD for fit and durability. But the Showa gloves are probably a better option than either of these, mostly because they’re completely waterproof.
Clothes for Camp and Sleeping
In-camp clothes will not be any different from those you would wear on typical backpacking trips. Something like the Patagonia Capilene Thermal Weight Bottoms will be the first thing you put on after you throw your wet rain pants over a branch to dry. Even if my hiking shirt and fleece are still a bit wet I will usually just throw an insulation layer like the Montbell Superior Down Parka over them and let my body heat dry them out. This works well in the west, but may not work as well in more humid climates.
Most of the accessories in this list are going to look pretty familiar with a few exceptions. For many packrafting trips you will need Wag Bags with a designated drybag to contain them. Many rivers like the Green and Colorado require that you poop in a bag and pack it out. Write “POOP” on this drybag with a sharpie so that you know what it was used for and don’t accidentally use it as your food bag on the next trip, wondering what that subtle odor is every time you open it. The Cleanwaste GO Anywhere Toilet Kit Waste Bags can be found at your local REI and work fine.
Many rivers also require that you carry a fire pan. Check the regulations carefully, but the Fat Daddio’s Anodized Aluminum Pie Pan, 12 Inches meets the regulations for many rivers and is 9 oz. You will usually only need one of these for the entire group.
If your river is in a National Park or National Monument, there may be a National Geographic trails illustrated map for the area. These are nice because they are water-resistant so you can tuck them in your PFD pocket and consult them when you know there isn’t a fast-approaching rapid. If I’m in a lesser-known area, I usually print out 7.5-minute USGS topos of the area and double bag them in some Ziplocs bags.
On Class I-II rivers I use the Alpacka Scout, 51 oz. It is light and packs down extremely small. I use this boat on hiking-oriented trips such as those in Canyonlands National Park. If the trip is around 50% hiking 50% floating and Class II or below, I would ideally take the Scout. I’ve used this boat on the San Rafael River, Dirty Devil River, and the flatwater sections of the Green and Colorado Rivers. This changes a bit, however depending on the weather. I get cold quite easily, so I do like having a deck on my boat if it’s going to be raining. And I am willing to carry the extra weight and endure the extra discomfort while hiking just to be more comfortable on the water. If you don’t get cold easily, you might not make this same decision.
The PFD I usually use is the MTI Journey w/ Pocket. It is 13 oz in the small/medium size. There could be a lighter PFD out there, but I haven’t found it yet. This one is simple, light, and makes a great cushion to sit on while in camp. If I was doing anything higher than Class III maybe I’d consider something a bit burlier or with more features, but then the weight is going to start to go up.
The Aquabound Manta Ray Carbon is my paddle of choice. It’s strong and stiff, with very little “flutter.” It does seem somewhat heavy, but I don’t really see a way around this without spending an insane amount of money. But, when you start getting into lighter paddles, the durability is also going to go down.
While this list is targeted towards shoulder season trips in the southwest, I hope it provides a framework for making packrafting gear decisions in other landscapes. If you know it will be warmer than the conditions I laid out in the intro, you can leave some of these items at home. As well, regulations will sometimes determine your gear list; you will not always need a fire pan or wag bags. Most of all, I hope that this gear list reflects the essence of packrafts as tools for expanding the backpacking experience.
Disclosure: The author owns the products mentioned in this article.
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