Packrafting for beginners in the UK

So, whilst I'm away trying not to die on a Swiss glacier, a few words about what is still a fledgling activity here in Blighty: Packrafting.  I'll try not to dwell on too many basics, but I will tell you I have recently joined our island's relatively small band of inflatable dinghy users and am feeling pretty enthusiastic about it.

I went on my first solo trip the other week.  Just an afternoon paddling down the River Tyne in East Lothian, at low water after a long hot summer.  This was just about the perfect level for a first solo float: lots of slack water, and a fair few tiny rapids for equal parts fun and tweaking some basic technique, in particular ferrying, using eddies, reverse paddling, positioning the boat in the water and myself in the boat.


I set off from a gravel bar after a weir and immediately ran gently aground, stuck on the rocks where the water was too shallow.  I got out of the boat quite a few times that afternoon.  You are going to get wet doing this.  I saw scores of plastic bags,  5 shopping trolleys, 3 kids tricycles, 2 footballs and 1 enormous tractor tyre.  Despite this, these first few hours alone in my own boat were spellbinding.  I wasn't alone at all.  I also saw hordes of dippers, mallards, 2 swan families (at pains to avoid me and I them), a heron or 2... and the highlight, the quicksliver flash of a kingfisher.  Small fish catching flies plopped out of the water just yards away.  I didn't see Otters but certainly saw (and smelt!) their presence on the sand bars.  My first solo paddle was a mixture of giddy fun and quiet intimacy, real magic.

And the river is barely used by humans at all, just the odd fisherman.  It's a window into another world.  And another way of moving through the environment, expanding ways of seeing and experiencing what's around me.  Traveling 3 foot above the water, the vegetation on either bank flush with the growth of mid summer, I saw the river as the 'artery of life' that it is.  Whether animal or vegetable, we all need water.  This is where it's all happening!  Despite the human flotsam, it was lush.

It also allowed me to begin to figure out the logistics.  There is a fair bit more faff to deal with, with bag straps and bowlines and paddles and portaging that will take more than just one trip to get ship shape.  Keeping anything dry is an extra effort, as is trying to take any photos with a non waterproof camera.  Reminding myself to keep checking the wavy blue line on the map and not be distracted by the others was also a novel discipline.  There were lots of willow tree sweepers and one or two sharp and pointy strainers to look out for, and the faster sections provided some nice puzzles in how to translate water patterns on the surface into what was actually happening underneath.  I also bounced off some stuff and gained some confidence in the boat's durability.

When I reached my destination, the medieval husk of Hailes Castle, I got out, packed up my floating palace for one and walked back out to my starting point.  I've canoed a fair few times before, both open and kayak and always loved it, but you can't pack a hardshell in your rucksack and walk away.  The sun was setting and I was so happy a two hour road walk didn't even touch the sides.

If you're wondering what a sweeper, strainer, and ferry is in this context, there's more where that came from.  And fair enough for asking, by the way.  Mostly the language of packrafting is borrowed from canoeing, and you can learn all about it in Roman Dial's book.  This book is just excellent, worth getting just for the expedition stories at the back alone.  If you are considering owning a boat it's essential.

I ended up getting my boat from a German company, in the end.  They import the boats direct from Alpacka in Alaska so we don't have to.  If you'd rather buy direct, Alpacka do a regular 10% christmas sale which can be a slightly more economical way to do it, but I decided I didn't want to wait.  Sven was infinitely patient with my endless (no, really, endless) questions and were competitively priced once import duty was taken into consideration.  They stock the new whitewater spraydecks as standard but can retrofit the older 'cruiser' decks, which some maintain are a more flexible choice for backpackers, on request.  In the end I purchased a yak (medium) and an old style deck.  With a paddle and a PFD (that's a life jacket to you and I) it came to a bit over £1000.  Yeah, I know.  This is alot to spend in one go when part of your brain is still telling you it's a kids pool toy, so it's worth pointing out you can try before you buy; they also rent boats out. 

I didn't rent mine but I knew I was ready to take the plunge (sorry), because the trip on the Tyne wasn't my first.  I spent a weekend in Inverpolly with Rob from Backcountry Biking, who run the only packrafting and bikerafting courses currently running in the UK.  I was there reporting for The Great Outdoors and Outdoor Enthusiast but this can only very loosely be described as work.  It is quite frightening using over £2k's worth of uninsured camera in a rubber dinghy whilst a 15 knot swell grabs your paddle, but otherwise their 'essentials' course was the perfect grounding in the basic skills, and Inverpolly is the perfect environment for this kind of adventure.  Both tutors are fully ML, MBL and BCU qualified and run a small, very friendly and bespoke cottage business.  They also plan and run expedition style trips in the Northwest and the Cairngorms.  I honestly can't recommend them highly enough.  More detail about the course I attended, water safety and further resources in the September issues of the magazines, which are out shortly.

The eagle eyed amongst you may notice that fellow Edinburgh resident David Hine was also along for the trip.  David makes impressive solo packrafting trips here at home, taking off for 2 or 3 weeks at a time across Scotland, rafting his pack and then packing his raft from Munro top to river glen and loch.  He has opened my eyes to the potential for using a packable boat in the UK, as a way of building more diversity into my trips, and in some cases going places I couldn't access otherwise. Thankfully he's still happy doing some of the smaller stuff for kicks and giggles, which is great inspiration for beginners.

A couple of weekends ago, David and I popped to the Borders for a brief touring packraft loop from Fairnilee via Walkerburn.  In the morning, an easy walk on the Southern Upland way, with the heather just starting to bloom, and in the afternoon, a straightforward paddle back to base.  A classic 'half and half' trip, this was the ideal progression onto a deeper, wider and slightly swifter river.

Again, it's the abundance of wildlife that lines the river that really captivates for me - this time, many more heron, goosanders, and a buzzard.  Sometimes near a road but with the river being lower in the landscape it's only occasionally we notice - the intrusion is minimal.  Good to watch David choose the deepest water channel where the rapids were still fairly shallow, as well as plenty of drifting along and discovering neat little places to camp for the future.  Perfect bite size introductions to a new skillset. 

So, who and where else?  I've looked briefly here at the UK and first strokes, but a packraft proves once and for all that no one is an island.  Rafters of the UK variety are still fairly few and far between, but it's growing slowly and supported by a very vibrant European scene - if you're on facebook this is an active hangout to find like minded folks across Europe, and this is the UK specific group.  There are dozens of great sources of information and inspiration abroad - JoerySteve and Katrijn, Willem and Joe in Europe, Luc, Forest, Roman and Mike in the States are just a handful of favourites.  In Europe, Jaakko  Mark and Hendrik can outfit and provide more courses and expedition help.  Lastly, there are hundreds of packrafting videos to watch online, including these 3 introductions to technique, but this one is on constant rewind on my tube - it's not just the sun and the soundtrack, honest.  When I feel ready to tackle anything like that volume of water I'll be going back to Andy and Rob for my whitewater course.  Might be a while yet, but I'm in no hurry - I've just discovered the fifth dimension, it's too much fun already.