Editors Note: This article has been excerpted from the book Packrafting! An Introduction and How-To Guide , by Roman Dial (ISBN 978-0-9748188-3-2, Published by Backpacking Light, 2008).
Packraft Rating (PR) System
Standard whitewater ratings are not always a good indicator of packrafting difficulty. Some very technical rapids that are low volume and shallow - dangerous in a kayak - feel easier and safer in a packraft. Meanwhile, big, high volume but technically easy rapids can be tough in a packraft. Hence the following system, which should be considered open ended.
Good sport in a packraft. Running Ship Creek's Two by Four rapids (PR 5), near Anchorage, Alaska.
PR 1 Flat water, little or no current, no obstacles. No special techniques or gear needed. Lakes and slow rivers.
PR 2 Gentle current, small waves. Ferrying technique necessary to maneuver and avoid sweepers, strainers, and shallows. Floating is relaxed. Rain gear and garbage bags sufficient to keep dry.
PR 3 One to two foot tall wave trains, eddy lines, and holes can swamp and/or flip boat. Ferrying and back-paddling necessary to avoid obstacles, miss holes and rocks. Drysuit or wetsuit is insurance against swims and waves. Dry-bag protects gear. Requires novice boating-with-a-backpack skills. Bicycles or passengers manageable in boat.
PR 4 River powerful, often Class III for canoes, kayaks, and paddle rafts, meaning water reading necessary and scouting recommended. Flip potential high with loaded boats. Swamping avoidable with good technique or spray cover. Throw ropes and swift-water rescue training advised, although self-rescue easy.
PR 5 Generally Class IV or high volume Class III for canoes, kayaks, and paddle rafts. Scouting of rapids necessary. Spray skirts or decks, drysuits, helmets, and unloaded boats strongly recommended as well as safety personnel. Bracing, forward paddling, and confidence while big waves crash overhead needed. Precise maneuvering necessary through intense and powerful water. Swimming is risky. Throw ropes and swift-water rescue training strongly advised.
Learning to Packraft: A Suggested Sequence of Waters
Below is a suggested progression from first-time in a boat to longer trips. The progression was developed successfully through month-long classes in packrafting I have taught at Alaska Pacific University from 1997-2007. It is meant to be a step-by-step guide - using skills described in the following chapters - to quickly get beginners to the stage that took many of us years to reach.
Step 1: Stillwater Basics
Pool or lake boating to learn paddling strokes, both side to side and backwards, and t...