How-To Do a Self-Supported Grand Canyon Packrafting Trip
Story by Lizzy Scully. Photos by Steve Fassbinder. Illustration by Jeremie Lamart.
We can teach you many of the skills you need to know to eventually do your own Grand Canyon Packrafting adventure. However, please note we do not guide the Grand and will never guide the Grand. Want more Grand Canyon storytelling and photos? Read about Doom’s self-supported Grand trip from a few years ago, “Be Forever Altered – A Grand Canyon Packraft Adventure.”
The Grand Canyon scares me. The first time I did it I felt like barfing daily for about three weeks before I blew up my packraft on the banks of the Colorado River. But, we had a small “big” boat with us, and we planned to run the 225 from Lees Ferry to Diamond Creek in 16 Days. So it wasn’t actually that committing. Gordon, of the big boat, carried our poop and a blaster (high-powered camp stove) for cooking, plus we had beer and four nights of salmon and pork chops in our one cooler. And I could, in fact, ride the big boat if I freaked out at any point. I didn’t actually do that… ride the big boat, that is. I did freak out, flipping my boat and yard sailing my gear numerous times the first few days (i.e. losing my paddle, boat, shoes and other sundries). The waves… they were so BIG and my packraft, so little.
I eventually got used to the giganticness of the Grand’s 10- to 20-foot tall rapids. Sort of. I stopped losing my boat after one of our crew of six, Sensei Dan Thurber (a swiftwater safety instructor and Class V boater), taught me how to stay calm while upside down. Hint: after flipping, go into the kayak roll position and wait a few seconds before exiting the boat, all while holding onto your paddle and thigh straps. It works! I didn’t lose my paddle again. And, I even successfully ran all the rapids upright post-Phantom Ranch, known as the most challenging day on the river (Granite, Hermit, Crystal, oh my!)
I did, of course, swim Lava. I didn’t even clear the first lateral. Or well, maybe I did, though upside down and backwards. Some random phantom wave picked me up from behind, and endo’ed me right into the V-Wave. I held onto my boat for dear life for five seconds, keeping my head somewhat above the maelstrom of madness until the Big Kahuna wrenched it from me, and washing-machined me out into the final wave train. All very frightening really.
Thus, I totally surprised myself and Doom just 14 months later when I accepted a winter lottery offer for a February 14, 2021 start date. Without much time in the schedule, we opted for a 12-day self-supported trip. This would be a truly committing packraft adventure. We’d be carrying all our own poop.
Grand Adventure Lessons
After packrafting for four years and adventuring with Doom, I did have an idea of what it might be like to do 12 days in the world’s most beautiful big ditch in the world’s lightest-weight and smallest white-water capable inflatable boat. We would go light, of course, carrying minimalist gear. You can’t put a blaster or a groover (portable toilet for river trips) in the tubes of a packraft, after all.
But, the nice thing about packrafting a point-to-point trip is that you don’t have to go that light. And, in fact, a heavier boat is actually advantageous in big water, as it helps stabilize the raft. Want to learn some of the things I discovered I *had* to bring with? Check out my GearJunkie.com article: “Self-Supported Grand Canyon Packrafting in Winter: 6 Must-Dos.”
Scroll down past the photos for my Gear List.
Grand Canyon Packrafting Gear List for a Self-Supported Adventure
For normal packrafting adventures, especially ones where you hike in or out to get to the take out or put in, you want to take just what you need and nothing more. Adventures like the Grand Canyon are point-to-point, so you don’t need to go ultralight. You just have to make sure everything, including your poop, fits into the tubes of your boats.
This is my gear list:
- Sleep Kit
- Sleeping bag. I run cold and so brought a 20-degree down bag (Big Agnes’ women’s Torchlight is my favorite)
- Extra: I brought a second ultralight synthetic bag that I used the few nights it froze. On my first Grand trip, Sensei Dan Thurber (the Class V boater/Swiftwater Safety Instructor who joined us) forgot his entire sleeping kit, so he ended up borrowing my extra lightweight bag and another person’s extra sleeping bag as well. Another good reason to bring extras.
- An insulated, air mattress style sleeping pad, such as the Big Agnes Q-Core SLX for winter temps and comfort.
- Extra: I have gotten into the habit of taking a closed cell foam pad on all packraft and bikepacking adventures. I use it as a ground tarp and as a backup sleeping pad. I also just like having something warm to sit on when I take breaks. Cold rocks or the ground can quickly whisk your body heat away (conduction).
- Lightweight tent: We used the Big Agnes Fly Creek HV UL2. Next time I’ll bring a Copper Spur HV UL3, which is slightly heavier, but way more spacious. (shared)
- Lightweight camp chair. Essential for camp fire hang out sessions.
- Ground cloth or tarp. Every boat needs one for minimizing crumb spillage, but they are also super helpful for minimizing the sand that will get into everything you own.
- Water bottle
- Lots of food that you like to eat
- Small super-light backpack for canyoneering and peak bagging mission
- Doom brought 24 beers, two for every day plus one bottle of scotch. I brought four ciders and found one can of Italian wine floating along the way. Tyler brought margarita mix and tequila for after Lava.
- Personal first aid or small first aid kit (every boat is required to carry one)
- Toiletries–toothbrush, a small tube of toothpaste, small package of baby wipes, lots of hand salve (I had two tins and used the entire contents of both on my face and hands.
- Chapped hands and face are standard), half roll of toilet paper, at least half a dozen wag bags (you’ll use each one twice), little mirror, extra Ibuprofen, small bottle of soap, small bottle of leave in hair conditioner,
- Three lip balms.
- A poop container (sealable and padded) to stash your beer at the beginning of the trip and your poop after a few days
- Warm wool hat
- Trucker hat
- Head lamp + extra batteries
- Stuff sacks/bags to organize gear
- iPhone, camera, battery charger, power cord, solar charger (which I didn’t use because there wasn’t enough sun!)
- Puffy with a hood
- Synthetic lightweight puffy, no hood
- Mid-weight, long sleeve wool long sleeve shirt
- Mid-weight long sleeve wool leggings
- Wool T-shirt
- Lightweight pants for hiking
- 3 pairs of wool underwear. Doom only brings one. But to avoid UTIs and being smelly and gross, I wash both my underwear and private bits every few days.
- Waterproof jacket (which I didn’t use the entire trip)
- Cotton shorts and cotton tank top for sleeping
- Three pairs of wool socks
- Lightweight tennis shoes for hiking
- River Crocs, 1.5 size too big to fit over my neoprene booties and drysuit
- Puffy booties
Stove & Cook Kit
- Pocket Rocket type stove (shared)
- Large fuel canister, but I’d bring a second one next time. (shared)
- Set of two pots with lids that double as pans (shared)
- Spoon, fork, bowl, mug, handkerchief
- Knife (one between 2 to 4 people is sufficient). I used my river knife, but then Haley mentioned that I might not want to have a dull river knife if I actually ever have to use it in a sketchy situation. Good point.
- Aqua Mira drops, though we boiled our water at night (shared)
- Whitewater packraft with back band, thigh straps and a foot pillow
- Whitewater helmet
- Drysuit. Check for and fix all holes before you leave.
- Neoprene booties. They protect your fragile drysuit feet from abrasions you might get walking around.
- Whitewater paddle
- Neoprene pogies. I had to stop using these after about a week because they were destroying my hands. I had cuts and abrasions, and the backs of my hands were rubbed raw and started cracking and bleeding. I started wearing fleece gloves with leather palms, which kept my hands warm enough, protected the from the sun, and were not as abrasive on the skin.
- 2 locking carabiners. Do NOT use non-lockers. I actually got the little webbing loop on the back of my shoe caught in a small non-locker that was securing my Expedition Bow
- Bag onto my boat on my first Grand trip. Don’t ask me how it happened, but luckily I was close to shore and could stand on one leg and extricate myself. It took quite awhile, and got me thinking, “What if that happened while I was in a rapid?” SCARY.
- Throw bag
- “Twinkies” (super handy, inflatable stuff sacks that Alpacka used to make that you place in each tube of the packraft)
Other Randoms & Shared Items:
- Harness and belay device for canyoneering
- Suspicious Devices fire pan
- Fire blanket
- All the safety things the Park Service requires for the trip
- All the paperwork the Park Service requires for the trip
- 2 InReach devices
- One rope for canyoneering
- J-Mo Pump (the awesome, new, lightweight hand pump Alpacka recently designed–that’s not it’s real name)
- Big, cheap drybag to carry out your ashes
- Strainer to strain the food from your dirty dishes (and throw it away, as opposed to throwing it in the river)
Things I Wish I Had
- A sarong for bathing and walking around camp
- Green Goo First Aid Salve
- My ukulele