Part #1, An Introduction to bikerafting safety and Risk ASsessment, an Excerpt from The Bikeraft Guide
In 2022, Steve and I published the first edition of The Bikeraft Guide, a book we assembled during the pandemic. I interviewed dozens of people and read from dozens of obscure blogs to report the history. And we gathered stories, illustrations, poems and photographs from some of the most well-known adventurers in the world to people we thought were simply interesting and had a good story to tell. Most of the how-to section and a good portion of the photos come from Steve’s brain and his 12 years of experience bikerafting around the world.
And, last but definitely not least, we commissioned one very important section of the book from Luc Mehl. Luc is the packraft community’s safety guru and author of The Packraft Handbook, a book ALL packrafters should own and refer to as if it’s the packrafting bible. For The Bikeraft Guide he wrote a special, safety-focused, how-to chapter. In honor of the American Packrafting Association and Luc’s Culture of Safety Month (May 2023), we’ll share some sections of this chapter, along with other things we’ve learned over the last few years in various blog posts throughout May. Check out “Bikerafting Safety: How to Pair Bikes & Packrafts,” and soon to-be-published articles on The Bikeraft Guide and the APA websites.
~ Lizzy Scully
Introduction: Bikerafting Safety
Reprinted with permission from Luc Mehl. We are not including Sarah Glaser’s awesome illustrations, but you can see them in The Packraft Handbook or The Bikeraft Guide.
I came to packrafting as a backpacker, excited about using the boat to access new peaks and valleys in Alaska. I spent several years using the packraft as a backpacking accessory before I recognized boating as its own sport; “paddling water for the sake of water.” I quickly discovered a love for running rapids and realized I didn’t know what I was doing. The gaps in my understanding became brutally clear when my friend Rob Kehrer capsized and drowned. Rob and I were different in many ways, but we shared a deep appreciation of being able to travel through wild Alaska under our own power. And we cut many of the same corners to do it, wearing rain gear instead of drysuits, leaving the sleeping bag at home during summer trips, and so on. I got away with those decisions; Rob did not.
Rob’s drowning forced me to review my relationship with water. I reevaluated my risk assessment and searched for gaps in my knowledge. I’ve taken an intentional path to fill those gaps since Rob’s incident. My approach has included getting trained for swiftwater rescue, becoming an inspector for swiftwater rescue, learning to kayak, and writing The Packraft Handbook—a comprehensive guide for people who want to make the most out of their packrafts and do it safely.
the packraft handbook
This chapter is primarily derived from The Packraft Handbook and customized to meet the bikerafting community’s needs. The critical concept I want to convey is that having a bike strapped to your deck significantly increases your vulnerability. The bike makes the packraft less stable, harder to maneuver, and harder to recover after capsizing. Bikerafting is amazing and worth pursuing, but to do it safely, you should compensate for this increased vulnerability by choosing low-risk destinations, training, and frequently practicing recovery techniques. Master risk assessment and mitigation in a controlled setting before advancing to higher risk environments.
Bikerafters who know they will want to paddle long open water crossings or river rapids should seek in-person boat control and swiftwater rescue training.
what you need to know
Moving water, open waterways, and remote environments all have inherent risks. While some bikerafters will seek risk (and its companions: adrenaline and dopamine), others will fail to recognize that bikerafting is a risky activity. It’s an easy mistake to focus on biking and consider the packrafting as “free miles.” But the ground under our wheels is predictable, and we have brakes to maintain control. The failure to recognize danger in the water will likely be a failure to identify the potential for rapidly changing conditions and the power of moving water.
Safety is caring, and paddling safely is empowering. Caring will motivate you to learn to anticipate what can go wrong and respond appropriately when it does. This process can be gratifying. There will be surprises—that is part of the fun—and developing the skill set to respond to surprises and support your partners provides a sense of accomplishment. Cultivating curiosity and continuous learning will set you up for success regardless of your objectives.
Even with meticulous planning, things will go wrong in the water environment—especially with a bike strapped to the deck. Boating requires near-constant risk assessment: what are your options and the potential consequences of those options? All bikerafters expose themselves to some risk level, so this process is more about risk management than risk avoidance. The hardest part of risk assessment might be recognizing what you don’t know. Be humble and embrace the learning curve.
The risk assessment community (natural disasters, avalanches, etc.) uses specific terminology to talk about risk. We benefit from adopting this terminology as well.
Risk is the probability of harm due to exposure to a hazard. The degree of risk depends on hazard, exposure, and vulnerability:
Hazards are environmental dangers, the things we can’t control. Open water hazards include waves, currents, wind, temperature, etc. River hazards include holes, waves, strainers, temperature, precipitation (water level), landslides, etc.
Exposure refers to the people and possessions that the hazards can influence. In bikerafting, exposure includes ourselves, our partners, boats, bikes, and other equipment. An open water crossing involves exposure while you are far from shore.
Vulnerability is the likelihood that exposure to a hazard will have harmful consequences. For example, a bikerafter without a life vest is more vulnerable than a bikerafter wearing one. We can influence our vulnerability by making good decisions about equipment, destinations, training and so on. These decisions determine your safety net—how well prepared you are for surprises.
Get in the habit of evaluating and discussing risk in terms of hazard, exposure and vulnerability. Your risk assessment should balance these factors to match your risk tolerance. For example, an increase in vulnerability (fatigue, bike strapped to the bow, incomplete safety gear) can be compensated by decreasing your exposure (waiting for better conditions, choosing to portage, etc.) or limiting hazards by choosing a safer paddling destination.
Want to read the whole series? Check out Parts 1 & 2 on this blog: “Bikerafting Safety & Risk Assessment” and “Creating a Bikerafting Culture of Safety,” and Part 3, “How to Safely Lash Your Bike to your Packraft,” on The Bikeraft Guide website.