How to Packraft: Teaching Friends & Family
By Lizzy Scully, photos by Steve “Doom” Fassbinder from a family trip we did summer 2020 on another river.
A handful of miles up from a small town near my hometown of Mancos, Colorado, there’s a perfect stretch of river for teaching beginners how to packraft. The put in is hard to find. There’s an inconspicuous turn off to a parking lot with a tiny sign that I drive by every time.
The parking lot sits in a slice of forest of Douglas fir and ponderosa pines. And the river is lined with willows and thin leaf alder, a deciduous shrubby tree.
No one’s ever at this put in. The turnoff is easy to miss, you have to practically bushwhack through the woods to get to the river, and you won’t find it on any whitewater rafting/kayaking websites.
I’m being vague for a reason. I’m sure the locals want to keep it a secret. I respect that. My point is that you likely have a run just like it within an hour or two of your town. This river is generally Class I or II- at most, but can be Class III at peak runoff. But at low levels it’s the perfect entry-level run to teach beginners how to packraft.
How to Packraft: What Makes a Good Run
This stretch of river can be pushy and splashy and fun waves allow for easy surfing even for the newest of newbies, but there are long stretches of flow where you can kick back and check out the ubiquitous Great Blue herons, Bald eagles, ducks and American dippers. And while most of the river corridor is private (so don’t get our of your boat), until you are closer to town it still has a wilderness feel. I love it. And I love sharing it with friends.
I’ve taken more than a dozen people on this stretch of river, teaching them everything from how to hold their paddle to how to tighten their PFDs to how to blow up their packrafts. One of my great joys in life is sharing my love of the outdoors with family and friends. And one of my ulterior motives has been to convert my former climber friends to packrafting.
It worked! December 2020, my friend Jason did the Grand Canyon with me, and February 2021 I convinced another friend, Haley, to do the 225-mile BIG water trek with me and Doom. Score! New packrafting partners. (Click here to check out my Grand Canyon gear list).
How to Packraft: The Freedom to Explore
“Packrafts allow people the freedom to just be free and explore,” the mother of modern packrafting, Sheri Tingey, once told me. “They are an incredible exploration tool. I rarely see people in packrafts that aren’t smiling. It’s just a giggle toy.”
Yes! So true. While I appreciate new partners, my ultimate ulterior motives in taking friends and family packrafting is seeing their perm-grins all day. The transformations are incredible, and more often than not lead to to a packraft purchase, generally from our local manufacturer, Alpacka Raft, an anchor business supporting 50 employees in the town of Mancos.
So what qualifies me to teach my friends how to packraft?
Qualifications: Knowing what the guides know
I’m not a guide (I just run our guide service!) However, I take my job as CEO seriously. I need to be almost as experienced as my guides for many reasons:
- I need to know what they’re learning in training sessions.
- I need to know how to talk to guides and guests alike about safety and skills.
- I need to be current in all my certifications in case anything happens at Scullbinder Ranch, on the way to the Ranch or to put ins and take outs if I am shuttling.
- And, in case of an emergency, I need to know how to communicate with my guides about where they are on a stretch of river, what they are doing, and what specifically happened.
So, I have put in many hours on many rivers over the past five years, often under the tutelage of my business partner and head guide, Doom (aka Steve Fassbinder). And I organize and partake in yearly spring trainings for my guides, including packraft instruction training and risk management training.
Qualifications: Getting certified
As well, I have taken three packraft-specific Swiftwater Certification Courses, and am scheduled for my 4th along with an advanced paddling and expedition course this May 2022 (there’s one spot left as of April 28, 2022, if you want in). On this course, I’ll not only learn advanced paddling skills, but how to better make decisions with a group of packrafters. I’m generally on a constant quest to learn more, to be safer and to have more fun.
Qualifications: learning from better boaters
Finally, I invite packrafers who are better than me to go on trips, or I take courses with them. Dan Thurber is one of the most prolific packraft-specific safety instructors in the world, along with Luc Mehl, who wrote the definitive book on packraft safety, The Packraft Handbook. I’ve taken two courses with Dan, and invited him on my first Grand Canyon adventure. Lucky for me, he went!
I’m never going to be a Luc, Dan or Doom. I’m too busy running the business. But I aim to share my love of packrafting with as many people as possible. So I want to be as dialed in as possible.
How to Packraft: The Packraft Put-in Safety Talk
For me the best way to share what I love is to ensure the people I love stay safe on the river. So I always start out my day with a complete run through of the safety talk I learned in the Swiftwater Rescue courses and have since honed for the guide service. I do the complete talk if:
1) I haven’t boated with someone who is on the trip for a while;
2) Someone in the group is less experienced or hasn’t boated in a long time;
3) There’s one or more brand new or relatively new person/people on the trip, or;
4) If I am nervous about the water levels, weather conditions or someone’s mental state.
My goal is to prepare people for emergencies that might happen.
If I have boated regularly with someone for awhile and/or I know for sure they are more experienced than I am, I may run through an abridged version of the Safety Talk.
What do I tell people? A lot, but not too much. I want them to be safe, but I’m not going to try to teach them all of packraft safety in one afternoon. To me the most important things include:
I share signals that I’ll regularly use on the water, such as those for eddying out, stop, go, etc. I’ll also talk about how I will use my whistle: one blow to get their attention, two blows to get them to stop and three blows to signal there’s an emergency and everyone should get to the side of the river.
I discuss how far apart people should be on rapids and in general.
Always double and triple check your PFD (personal flotation device) to make sure it’s snug and on correctly. And always wear your PFD on the river when you’re paddling, scouting a rapid or setting safety.
Float on your back, downstream, feet up. Push off rocks and obstacles. Don’t lock your knees. Backstroke at an angle to the current to get to shore or an eddy, or roll over on your stomach and swim aggressively to avoid dangerous obstacles.
Don’t try to rescue another inexperienced person if the water is fast moving and you are also inexperienced. The more experienced people on the trip will do this. However, if you fall out of your boat and another packrafter approaches you to help, you have a few options.
1) You can hold onto a rope often on the back of a person’s boat and let them drag you (very hard for the person helping you), or;
2) Wrap your arms and legs around the front of the boat like you’re hugging it (a bit easier for your friend).
I once took a brand new packrafter through three rapids in Durango’s Whitewater Park on the front of my boat. I kept telling her calmly, “Hold on. One more rapid. You’ll be fine.” She was cold and shaken up, but thankful for my calm and the fact that she had something to hold onto.
Hold onto your boat and paddle if you can, and pull yourself back into your boat WITHOUT pushing off the ground. If you can’t get back in your boat, still try to hold onto it. Your boat offers extra flotation and will keep your head above water if you end up swimming a rapid.
And you certainly don’t want to be left up the creek with no paddle, so don’t let go. However, if you are in any danger whatsoever, take care of yourself first and swim to shore or an eddy.
“Never stand up or put your feet down in the water, unless the water depth is below your knees or the water is calm.” My first instructor impressed upon me the need to remind people of this repeatedly. It’s easy to die even in shallow water if you get your foot caught on a root or rock. Read this excellent article on foot entrapment on the NRS website.
Listen to your trip leader
One of the more difficult things to convey with good friends is the need for them to listen. I once took a group of my very Alpha female friends on a three-day packraft trip. Everyone thought they knew what was best, though no one had any packrafting experience. At one point on the river I finally told them in no uncertain terms that they had to listen to me whether they liked it or not because I knew what I was doing and they did not.
I don’t care if the river is Class II and “feels” easy, if the group is not listening to the more experienced trip leader, I will end a trip immediately. If they aren’t listening when things are calm, they will be less likely to listen when s**t hits the fan. I’d rather walk home.
Packrafting is a friendly, easy sport. But it can be dangerous, especially if you don’t take it seriously. Remember Luc Mehl’s #CultureofSafety.
Other stuff to consider
- Don’t tie yourself into your packraft.
- Don’t use non-locking carabiners anywhere on the outside of your boat or your person.
- Likewise, lock any locking carabiners you are using.
- Always wear your helmet in whitewater.
- At all costs avoid strainers (i.e. piles of wood debris or trees/bushes hanging in the river). This is the time to aggressively swim away.
- If you hit a rock, lean into it instead of away from it. If you lean away from the rock, the river will immediately flip you over.
- Only “Point Positive.” I.e. don’t point at dangerous obstacles.
- Stay hydrated and use sun protection, hats and/or tech hoodies.
- Be careful when getting in and out of your boat on slippery, riverside rocks or moss.
If, unlike me, you are keen to become a professional packrafting guide, we highly recommend you take a course with Doom, Luc or Dan. Or, sign up for one of the American Canoe Association’s brand new packrafting accreditation courses. The first of these courses will be held this July! Very exciting. They offer three courses.
- Level 1: Introduction to Packrafting
- Level 2: Essentials of River Packrafting
- Level 3: River Packrafting
Plus, you’ll also need to take a Swiftwater Rescue Certification course, preferably a packraft-specific course. And certainly you need to read Luc’s book. Finally, paddle often, on a wide variety or rivers and with safety in mind.
Other Companies That Offer Packrafting Courses
- If a Colorado or Utah trip doesn’t line up with Four Corners Guides, Packraft Colorado teaches basic and intermediate courses in the Roaring Fork Valley.
- Backcountry Scot teaches the full gamut of Swiftwater Certification to bikerafting courses, and they rent gear.
- Packraft Europe sells packrafts and teaches a wide variety of courses in Europe.
- Kennicott Wilderness Guides rents out packrafts and runs tours and courses in Alaska.
- Backcountrypackrafts.com rents out the full spectrum of packrafts and gear.