Part #2, What is "The Culture of Safety" and why is it relevant to bikerafters? Plus Luc Mehl''s Safety & Rigging tips
By Lizzy Scully, Steve “Doom” Fassbinder, Luc Mehl and Andy Toop.
There’s much adventurers need to consider to safely start bikerafting. I won’t cover all points here, but I want to give you an overview. Plus, we’re including an excerpt from the safety section of The Bikeraft Guide, courtesy of Luc Mehl, author of The Packraft Handbook. This is part of a series of bikerafting safety posts we’re publishing on The Bikeraft Guide, on American Packrafting Association’s website and here. Read Part 1.
No big deal. it's just bikepacking with a raft, right?
Not exactly. Bikepacking and bikerafting may share a lot of the same gear and some of the same terrain. But they’re vastly different sports.
Bikepacking can be dangerous if you dive into it without any skills, and you don’t do any research on gear, routes, weather, etc. In fact, any sport can lead to your death if you adventure stupidly. But most people have ridden a bike at some point in their life. And most people reading this post have probably backpacked as well. So we’re assuming our readers are at least somewhat experienced in backcountry travel.
Packrafting is a totally different game. Sure, people buy packrafts all the time and fling themselves into Class III and even Class IV rapids. And most live to tell the tale, even bragging about how they paddled Class IV. I cringe whenever this happens. As kayak master and one of the most badass instructors in the world, Kent Ford, says, “Making it to the bottom of a rapid is only a partial measure of skill.” And often, he adds, it’s totally a matter of luck.
Packrafting Culture of Safety
Luc Mehl spearheaded packrafting’s “Culture of Safety” (CoS is inherited from other industries including whitewater kayaking) campaign at the 2016 APA Roundup Keynote to address the inherent dangers of our sport. While a packraft might look like a super buoyant, fancy pool toy, you can easily get in trouble if you are not prepared for whitewater and even flatwater travel.
So what exactly is the packrafting “Culture of Safety”?
“It’s an effort to normalize safety,” he explains. “We want it to be normal to wear a life vest, paddle at appropriate water levels, seek training, and feel comfortable pointing out dangerous outfitting or habits that you notice at the put-in.”
He wrote The Packraft Handbook to serve as a common framework as packrafters develop our Culture of Safety. Check out his Zoom presentation for the American Packrafting Association to learn about this strategy, and follow these hashtags on Instagram for ongoing updates #cultureofsafety and #packraftsafety.
Why is all this relevant to bikerafting? Well, adding a bike to the packraft mix increases your danger exponentially. Having a 20- to 30-pound mechanical device lashed to the front of your packraft makes it much more difficult to steer. Not to mention, there are parts and pieces and chains sticking out that increase the possibility of entrapment.
You may take your pedals off (or cover them with something), lash your chain to the frame with a Titan Strap, and tuck away all extra straps from your bike bags. But no matter how tightly you package your bike up, the fork, handlebars and frame still stick out.
On top of that, packrafting is yet another skill you need to acquire on top of cycling, bike maintenance and backcountry travel. Make mistakes packing up your bike, such as front loading all your gear because you don’t have the right bike bags. That might make it difficult, even dangerous, to ride singletrack. But you’ll quickly figure out you can’t ride and hop off your bike to hike.
It’s much harder to stop in the middle of a Class II rapid to fix the lopsided bike on your packraft or the strap that comes loose on your handles, leaving them flopping around in the water. Or what happens if your boat starts to deflate in the middle of a cold lake in Scotland because you didn’t put your cap on correctly or your zipper leaks and you didn’t notice?
So what can you do?
“Bikerafters need to acquire and be proficient in a wide range of skills (cycling, backpacking, packrafting, navigation, etc),” says Andy Toop, owner of Backcountry Scot (a packrafting and bikerafting guide service and shop in Scotland). “They can’t take just one swiftwater rescue course and be ready to go bikerafting.” Bikes and boats offer a ton of freedom to adventurers, allowing us to “blaze a trail through roads and waterways less traveled.”
But, he adds: “We need to be careful about how we help people gain the knowledge and experience necessary to enable their adventures, ensuring we keep them grounded. It’s very easy to feel like a superhero in a packraft.” In other words, it’s easy to get into a situation where the bikerafter would need “a considerable depth of experience” (or luck) to extricate himself from if it spiraled out of control.
Andy draws on over 20 years of outdoor experience in kayaks and canoes, commercial rafts and almost 10 years in packrafts, being in the mountains on feet or bicycle or rope, backcountry skiing and snowboarding, and he still has ‘Oops’ moments, he explains. “But, I can quickly work out a get-around or pull it back from the brink.”
Andy's Toop's recommendations
“I thoroughly recommend doing a course, but providers need to be explicit in the journey that the packrafter has begun and how to progress,” Andy adds.
In addition to taking courses, he suggests practicing in a simple, familiar environment. “Make sure that you’re dialied with each element separately before you bring them together. You need to be comfortable with a boat in a wild place and with a bike in a wild place. And then there’s the third dimension of camping.” You’re not going to gain the experience you need overnight, so be patient, he adds.
“You definitely need to be unconsciously competent with both bicycles and packrafts before you put them together and become consciously incompetent at it,” he says with a laugh. Bikerafting is hard and the learning curve is steep. When you think you’ve got it dialed, you’ll get something wrong next time you transition because something different has happened.
“You’ll wonder: ‘Why does my boat keep falling out? And why does it now want to rub on my front tire?’” he says. “You have to have that problem solving mind around it all constantly. The freedom of bikerafting is really good, but you’ve got to be really good to enjoy that freedom.”
I don’t think we need to add anything here. It’s plain and simple. Get the skills you need in all areas before you try bikerafting.
Luc Mehl's Recommendations
Here are some additional safety recommendations from Luc Mehl, excerpted from The Bikeraft Guide with permission from Luc.
safety equipment: Don't Leave Shore without it
Choosing appropriate safety equipment depends on your paddling experience and objective. A river’s difficulty is universal. Your vulnerability to river hazards depends on your equipment, training, and experience. Having a bike on the deck increases your vulnerability. And it would be wise to compensate by wearing proper protective equipment, getting training, practicing recovery techniques, and paddling with capable partners that can help in an emergency.
Cold water has been a factor in all but one known packraft fatalities. Dress for the swim, and wear a drysuit in cold water.
Water-specific helmets are the only helmets designed to withstand multiple impacts while underwater. It is annoying to buy another helmet, but cutting corners doesn’t make sense when your head is underwater. Bike helmets are known to disintegrate in water.
Life vest (PFD)
Coast Guard approved Type III vests can be as light as 1 lb (0.5 kg) and offer insulation, a seat cushion and save your life. Safety equipment is not the right place to cut weight, especially with a bike on board.
Rigging the packraft involves everything from adjusting the seat height and position to attaching cargo to the bow. There are two priorities: paddling position and entrapment hazards.
Adjust the seat, backband, thigh straps and foot brace (if applicable) to place you in the “proper paddling position.” The proper paddling position allows you to sit tall and use your strong core muscles to paddle. You want to be seated high enough to see clearly over the bow and generate power by rotating your core, not your arms. The backband should be snug against your lower back. Ideally, the seat and backband position will allow the boat to sit flat in the water instead of the stern dragging deeper. Not all packrafts can be outfitted to support an upright position, but do the best given your options.
Make all outfitting decisions with entrapment hazards in mind. This is a little bit of a losing battle since a bike is a huge entrapment hazard, but do your best to remove loose straps or cord that could wrap your arm or snag your foot during a swim. The big offenders are loose cord, a long tail, storing cargo in the cockpit and non-locking carabiners. Evaluate your partners’ boats for entrapment hazards too.