Intermediate Packrafting: What I learned Photos, videos & story by…
Dan Thurber is a Class V kayaker-turned Class V packrafter. He has gone through about a dozen paddles in his career. His experience slants toward packrafting harder whitewater, but he has made his share of open water crossings and endurance downriver days. Dan is also a Swiftwater Safety Institute instructor, and he occasionally guides advanced classes for Four Corners Guides. Read Dan’s other article, “Bikerafting 101: Whitewater Ratings, How Rapids Are Classed.”
Paddles are to packrafts as ski boots are to skis
People often overlook packraft paddles as a secondary accessory. But you might want to reconsider. They may actually be more important for comfort and performance.
Many packrafters spend weeks ruminating over a boat purchase only to impulsively buy whichever paddle is on sale from a friend. Is that due to the seemingly intangible nature of paddle design, materials and specs? When ordering a new packraft paddle, one must decide on length, blade shape and size, blade material, shaft material and size, number of sections and feather angle. It’s a lot to process! The purpose of this article is to break down what all of these options mean for your paddling and help you find the paddle that’s right for you.
Bottom line recommendation
On a budget? Get a 4-pc Aqua Bound Shred. Got the cash for top-end gear? Buy a 1-piece Werner Powerhouse. Straight shaft, right-30 feather. Longer paddles for taller people: 202 cm for 6’ and 194 cm for 5’ folks.
Okay, now let’s back up. Is there even a packraft paddle?
Yes and no.
Packrafting is a relatively young subdiscipline of kayaking. It has a unique history where most seasoned packrafters have little or no experience as kayakers. The equipment we use is largely appropriated from kayaking with very few pieces of purpose-built packrafting gear. Paddles are a prime example. So we must take in what the manufacturers offer and translate it within the context of kayaking vs packrafting.
The principal differences are that packrafts turn more easily, are lighter and are wider than whitewater or touring kayaks. These characteristics drive the differences between the best paddle for you and what a kayak retailer may recommend.
The market of paddles in the United States is largely dominated by two manufacturers: Werner and Aqua Bound. Both produce excellent products domestically.
Supai Adventure Gear makes an exceptionally light paddle suitable for carrying long distances with intermittent flatwater packraft legs. If you’re the type to seek out a glitzy brand to distinguish yourself from friends (e.g. you drive a VW), take a look at Accent, Galasport, Mitchell Cataract, Lettmann, Select or Lendal paddles.
The right packraft paddle for you is dependent on the craft you’re in, the water you’re on and the types of paddle strokes you’ll be making. Two distinct categories of paddles exist: whitewater and touring.
Whitewater paddlers in rivers make critical, powerful strokes with a nearly vertical (high-angle) paddle shaft to punch waves, holes and eddylines.
Touring paddlers may take thousands of consecutive strokes and need to avoid muscle fatigue. As well, they often use a “cadence” stroke, where the paddle shaft stays at a lower angle across the paddler’s chest and the blades draw a sweeping arc with each stroke and subtly turn the boat.
Hardshell touring kayaks minimize the turning effects of cadence strokes with a feature lacking in packrafts: tracking. Tracking is the boat’s ability to maintain a straight path once traveling at speed and is achieved with keels and skegs in the stern.
Even if you never intend to paddle on rivers, your packraft handles more like a whitewater kayak than a fishing or sea kayak. No modern packrafts have a rigid keel and few include mounting for fins or skegs. Plenty of packrafters have retrofitted fin mounts to improve tracking and likely do fine with a touring paddle. But in the absence of an external fin, paddlers have to keep their boat straight themselves and are better off with a whitewater paddle. Personally, I find higher-angle strokes preferable for flatwater crossings.
Packraft Paddle length: How long should your paddle be?
It should be long enough to reach the water. When you take a stroke, the connection between the blade and the shaft should be right around the water surface with the entire blade submerged. If you’re taking high-angle paddle strokes, you want a somewhat shorter shaft. Low-angle paddle strokes require a longer paddle shaft to reach the water.
Beware of paddle sizing guides intended for kayakers! The extra width of packraft tubes demand longer paddles by about 3-5 cm. At 5’10” I prefer a 197cm paddle for whitewater kayaking and a 200 cm paddle for whitewater packrafting.
Similar to paddle length, blade shapes and sizes vary across the range of high-angle power strokes to low angle cadence strokes. Low-angle touring paddles tend to have gorgeous, long, slender blades that are poorly suited to packrafting. Those who truly plan on exclusively paddling flatwater may do well with a high-angle touring paddle, which lands in the middle of the spectrum.
High-angle touring paddles such as the Aquabound Whiskey or Werner Shuna are often substantially lighter than whitewater paddles. Whitewater blades are much larger overall, with a slightly shorter and much wider area.
The size of a paddle blade is somewhat inversely proportional to boat weight in order to minimize stress and fatigue on shoulders. It’s somewhat similar to gearing on a bicycle. When paddling a laden sea kayak, it’s nice to have a smaller blade to generate less muscle and joint stress over long crossings.
In whitewater scenarios, a large blade is helpful in providing a singular powerful stroke to punch a hole. Many paddles are made with different sizes of the same design available for people of different sizes. Although with such lightweight boats, smaller packrafters can often comfortably handle a larger blade.
Number of sections
People often ask why I use a one-piece paddle even on extended backcountry expeditions. And the list of reasons is long. They are lighter, stronger, stiffer and cheaper. This means better performance, more dependability and less heartbreak if I lose one.
Virtually all novice packrafters do themselves a great disservice by assuming “packrafting” means that everything needs to pack down. Slowly but surely, I’m seeing more packrafters come around to the idea of a solid, rigid paddle that maximizes your purchase, response and connection to the water.
So how do I carry it on long hikes? In my hand. I fidget with it, spinning it with my fingers. I occasionally use it for support on talus fields. It’s not a walking stick, just a stick. That’s not to say break-down paddles don’t have their place. If you are multi-sporting (bikerafting, skirafting, canyoneering etc.) a long paddle will be an ongoing annoyance. It is also useful to have a break-down paddle as a spare on remote paddling trips.
When you compare two paddles and see a huge price difference, it likely comes down to materials. I’ll simplify blade materials here by discussing three different categories: nylon, fiberglass and foam.
Nylon blades are cheap and extremely durable, but somewhat flexible and heavy. Their durability is particularly well-suited to the sandstone canyons of the Colorado Plateau, where abrasive rocks can quickly wear down a fiberglass blade. Nylon blades are also cost-effective for entry-level packrafters.
Fiberglass blades are significantly lighter and stiffer, though more expensive. The edges of fiberglass blades also wear down and will gradually shrink your paddle blade (they are still up for 500+ days of paddling).
This may come as a surprise, but foam-core blades are standard in the most top-end paddles. These involve a complex construction of a molded foam core with a protective fiber edge and carbon fiber layups on the faces. This results in a paddle blade with maximum stiffness, improved edge durability and a buoyancy that contributes more to paddle stroke power than you might expect. Or notice, for that matter. Foam core paddles, while high performance, are an unnecessary expense for most packrafters.
Most paddlers will benefit from a feathered paddle. This dimension is expressed as an angle: the angle of offset between the two blades when looking down the paddle shaft.
There are many explanations for why feathering is helpful, most of them valid. One advantage is minimizing air resistance on the blade that isn’t in the water. Another value is simply ergonomics. Without feather, a paddler needs to loosen their grip and rotate the paddle shaft on every stroke to achieve proper body mechanics. Feather allows paddlers to keep a “control hand” fixed on the shaft while the other hand loosely pivots
The direction of the offset dictates your control hand. Don’t conflate this with your own dexterity. Virtually all left-handed kayakers choose to paddle with right-hand control paddles. This is because finding a lefty is more difficult if you ever need to borrow a paddle, there’s a 98% chance you’ll only have right hand control to choose from.
Some break-down paddles have a system for adjustable feather angle. This can be a helpful tool for new and experienced paddlers alike to experiment with different feather angles.
There are a handful of additional features available worth mentioning. Most notable are bent shaft paddles, available from most brands. The bent shaft provides better wrist alignment and some experience stronger strokes and less fatigue.
About 80% of expert kayakers I’ve paddled with choose straight shafts, including myself. Straight shaft paddles are cheaper, more durable and allow more flexibility in hand positioning. Most 4-piece paddles are also straight shaft, making it easier to transition to a backup if you lose or break your primary paddle.
A less-common feature is forward offset, found in the Werner Strike, the Lettmann Ergonom and Galasport Manic. Forward offset refers to shifting the blade forward relative to the shaft to reduce flutter. This results in a stronger and more stable “catch” on forward strokes, but less stability when backpaddling. It’s nice, but not necessary. In running technical channels, it may not even be helpful.
The final option sometimes available is a small shaft. Smaller shaft diameters are more comfortable and secure for paddlers with smaller hands. Like a bent shaft, it’s not necessary for most paddlers and probably best to try going without it for your first paddle. If you experience wrist and forearm pain, consider borrowing a bent shaft or small shaft paddle to see if it helps before buying based on that feature.
Backup packraft paddles
It is common practice on packrafting expeditions, or even day trips, to bring a spare paddle. When choosing whether to bring one (or more!) I typically consider the consequences of a lost paddle. Sometimes those consequences are a comfortable hike out on a trail and I may be willing to leave a spare behind. When I do bring a spare, I want it to be something I can depend on rather than just survival.
My spare packraft paddle is typically on the same performance tier as my primary paddle. Depending on the objective and expected challenge, it can be reasonable to compromise with a lighter paddle if you have one. Hand paddles or webbed gloves may even be a reasonable backup. Just understand the limitations you are accepting.
So back to those recommendations. The Aquabound Shred is a great inexpensive entry-level paddle. Going with a 4-pc will let you tinker with feather angles and it can become a back-up paddle in the future and your go-to for desert canyons in southern Utah.
Eventually upgrade to a nice, stiff fiberglass Werner Sherpa or Powerhouse that will become your daily driver. If you are entirely paddling mellow water and can get away with lighter construction, save weight with a high-angle touring paddle. Just stay away from the long, skinny cadence blades and cheap construction that will hold you back on developing your skills.
It is difficult to overstate the profundity of a paddle. It’s more than just a thing that moves you forward. Your paddle is your connection to the dynamic and fluid medium on which you travel. Your paddle allows you to feel the movements and energy of the river that can never be seen. The blade will catch water and respond to minute rolls of your wrist. It will live in your car, or garage, or leaning in a corner of the den and every time you pick it up and close your eyes, it will bring you back to the river.
Discussion: What’s your favorite packraft paddle?
Head on over to American Packraft Association forum or Four Corners Guides on Instagram or Packrafting Revolution on Facebook if you have any questions or comments. Did we miss anything? What paddle do you use and love? Join the conversation!
Read Part 1 What’s the ideal bikerafting gear? How do…
Read Part 2. Bike-Packrafting Gear, Part 1: Bikerafting Bikes What’s…
An excerpt from, “Hellbiking,” Chapter 1 of The Bikeraft Guide,…
Part #2, What is “The Culture of Safety” and why…
Part #1, An Introduction to bikerafting safety and Risk ASsessment,…
A Testimonial for Four corners Guides Back in 2021, Mike…
Check out our 2023 summer kid’s packrafting camps! Sign Up…