How-To Do a Self-Supported Packrafting Trip on the Grand
Story by Lizzy Scully. Photos by Steve Fassbinder. Illustration by Jeremie Lamart.
Please note we do not guide the Grand and will never guide the Grand. However, we can teach you many of the skills you need to know to eventually do your own Grand Canyon Packrafting adventure. Want more Grand Canyon story telling 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.
Lesson #1. You need a decked boat if you’re going to run the Grand in the winter time. It’s just too cold to paddle a self bailer. I mean just imagine paddling eight or more hours per day with your feet sitting in water that is always 52 degrees (because it flows from the bottom of the Glen Canyon dam) and getting constantly splashed in the 80 or so rapids. Even the “small,” unnamed rapids are bigger and splashier than anything you’ll find on normal rivers. I’d be using Doom’s decked Wolverine, made by Alpacka Raft, and he’d be borrowing a Gnarwhal from Thor Tingey, Alpacka’s owner.
Unfortunately, both of my personal boats are self bailers (yes, I’m spoiled because I worked at Alpacka for 2+ years). Why did I poo-poo decked boats? Because water petrifies me. I forced myself to kayak for nine years and hated it for nine years… So when I started packrafting I swore I’d never do anything as big as the Grand Canyon. I had seen Doom’s photos. He, Roman Dial, Mike Curiak and Brad Meiklejohn were the first to do a fully self-supported packraft trip in the Grand. And half of Doom’s photos are of little tiny people swimming in really huge, frothy, insane looking water. Plus, I run cold. Why would I spend two weeks of my life freezing in a dark canyon?
Lesson #2: Bring a “moon” suit (or at the very least, plenty of thick, warm, quick-drying layers because you’ll manage to get your inner layers wet no matter how bombproof your drysuit is). A full year before I even considered doing the Grand, Doom bought me a scuba suit with a water resistant outer layer and a fleece inner layer. This would be worn underneath another necessity, a drysuit.
“What do I need this for?”” I asked him when it arrived in the mail.
“For the Grand Canyon!” he replied.
“Are you nuts?” I asked him.
“Well, it was just $100, so why not?” he suggested.
Whatever… I hung it up in my closet and didn't think about it again for 12 months.
The moon suit turned out to be the best present Doom has ever gifted to me. I wore it every day on both my Grand trips, sometimes with extra wool layers underneath and sometimes, on the warmest days toward the end of the trip, with a bikini underneath (that never saw the light of day).
Lesson #3: Bring lots of things you love to consume--beer (though not a “beer pyramid,” carried on big boats) and booze, lots of salty treats and plenty of fresh foods, cheese, tea, coffee and veggie broth. In various stuff sacks, I stashed a half dozen large onions, a dozen garlic bulbs, eight sweet potatoes, 10 blocks of cheese, all of which I roasted over the fire, fried up for breakfast for the crew and/or added to my dehydrated meals to improve their flavor. Both Doom and I stuffed the front of our boats full of salty bags of chips and Boom Chicka Pop, all of which was eaten by our group of six, even though most of them also brought countless bags of chips. We also had at least four bottles of hot sauce between us, Tyler brought kale and cabbage, and Andy brought salmon, crackers and a bunch of healthy, hearty, organic soups and rice mixes. We mostly cooked and ate our own meals, but we did share some nice potlucks.
Lesson #4: You can’t carry firewood on a packraft. So go in the winter (Nov 1-Feb 28) so you can collect wood and have nightly fires. It’s also much easier to get permits in the winter. And, bring a fire blanket (per regulations) and a sweet fire pan made by Tom Weatherill of Suspicious Devices (if you can get one). It weighs just three pounds and easily fits inside the tubes of a packraft. Just be careful in big windstorms, as it and its contents can very quickly and easily blow away.
Lesson #5: Be prepared to swim unless you are already a Class V kayaker/packrafter. Swimming comes with the territory. Packraft+the biggest rapids in North America=lots of time in the water, especially for newbies like me. And it’s really hard to not freak out when you can’t breathe, when you inhale water, when huge waves or big eddies drag you under, or when you lose all your gear and feel like you’re in a giant, angry washing machine on “extreme” wash cycle. Just remember, if you swim the rapids last 10 to 30 seconds.
Lesson #6: Bring extra important items. The Park Service requires you to bring extra paddles and PFDs. Consider also bringing an extra packraft and drysuit. On our trip, Chris ended up lashing two PFDs together because his single lightweight PFD was inadequate for his size, and his first few swims were scary enough that he almost walked out (Lesson #7: bring a big, beefy rescue vest as opposed to your standard, lightweight PFD). Bring an extra drysuit. Doom blew out his neck gasket and Tyler ripped a wrist gasket. We taped Doom’s neck up every day, and luckily he only swam twice on the entire trip. Tyler also swam only twice, and both times before his wrist gasket tore. Still, both of them got wetter than they normally would have. And bring a spare packraft. Both my and Andy’s zippers failed completely on the last day. Luckily we were only two miles from the take out, so I rode on and/or swam behind the back of Haley’s boat, while Andy rode on the back of Chris’ boat.
OK, so now really what do you need for a self-supported Grand Canyon 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. This is my list, plus my EXTRAS.
- 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 forgot his entire sleeping kit, so he ended up borrowing my extra lightweight bag and another person’s 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
- 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 HMG Summit Pack for our 2 canyoneering missions and one peak bagging mission
- Doom brought 24 beers, 2 for every day plus one bottle of scotch
- 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 twice daily), 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,
- 3 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)
- Harness and belay device for canyoneering
Other Shared Items:
- 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