Sunday, April 24, 2016

Cesar's First Packrafting Kit: Overview and First Impressions

Very Important Disclaimer:

This post deals with an outdoor activity that is inherently more dangerous, which is doing anything for an extended period in water while outdoors.  In the USA drowning is the number one leading cause of death in national parks.  You can read more about that and other dangers here.  Always swim, paddle, and do anything else involving bodies of water with caution and with the proper amount of preparation.  Know your skill level and the conditions you plan on encountering for a given body of water.

I have been regularly swimming for roughly three decades in a wide variety of conditions, and continue to swim throughout the year.  I love to swim.  I have also been an outdoors enthusiast/backpacker for over two decades, and am well aware of, and have even received professional training in regards to, things like hypothermia and first aid in general.

Before attempting to do things like packrafting, you ought to be aware of the dangers and have the skills and preparation necessary to deal with and/or avoid these dangers.  

This hobby can literally be a matter of life and death if not done safely and/or without sufficient training/research/experience.  You've been warned, and I will repeat part of the disclaimer I have for this blog in the "About" section (see: above): I am not responsible for any damages (personal harm, financial loss, or otherwise) that might be suffered as a result of any information found on this blog.

Okay, now on to my take on packrafting:

In the above picture, there I am in my raft under the bridge.  We took only a few pictures due to the difficulties involved with photography while there is water splashing around all around.

Three friends and I began what would be my first trip with my recently completed packraft kit in BorĂ¥s, a small city in south-west Sweden.  It was a bit of a strange place, perhaps, to start a outdoorsy-type adventure--in the middle of a city center, with lots of people outside, walking along the river and also enjoying the nice, sunny, spring weather.  We got plenty of people asking us where we were going, if we were having fun, and a few people even took out their phones and took pictures of us.  The answer to those questions, of course, is that we were going to paddle down the river Viskan as far as we could in a day, and yes we had a blast!

I had spent years dreaming of adding a packraft to my backpacking arsenal, but many packrafts (e.g. Alpacka) are quite expensive, as are many of the accessories, like paddles.  So my plans were put on the back burner for a while, until a few years ago I noticed that there was a new packraft on the market that was not only much cheaper than most rafts, but also lighter without sacrificing too much durability.  So I kept my eyes peeled on used gear forums for months until I finally found my very own Klymit LWD.

But my quest to put together my complete packrafting kit was far from over.  I did quite a bit of research on all the odds and ends that go along with paddling.  I'd need paddles, a flotation device, more drybags, etc.  Until finally just a week ago, I put the finishing touches on my kit, organized a trip with some friends, packed up, and finally we were happily floating down a river.  This trip would be a long day trip of paddling, but I packed my backpack as though I were going on a long section hike that I have planned for this summer, which I also plan on including some paddling along with hiking.  Here is what it ended up looking like the day before I set out:

The paddle shafts are in the side pockets, and the blades fit nicely in my custom front pocket of my Zpacks Arc Haul.  The raft and its accessories are packed up in that first big, gray drybag in the lower right hand side, and it fits well in my pack along with everything else.  What may present a minor challenge in the future is the bulk of food, but more on this later.  

First let's check out the contents of my packrafting kit in detail.  Note that this kit is designed and intended to be used on Class 2 or lower conditions.  This also roughly matches with my own personal level of swimming, so in short if I would not feel comfortable swimming whatever waters I may encounter, I would not paddle those waters either.

On to the raft itself:

  • Weight on my scale, including three tethers (just some nylon cord) and a mini carbineer: 1070g / 37.7oz.
  • Fabric: 210 D ripstop polyester top and bottom.

I timed myself inflating and deflating the raft at a "normal," i.e. not rushed but focused pace, and here are the results:

Inflation: 5:00
Deflation: 3:30

Inflation included attaching the drybag/pump and also adding several big breaths by mouth.  Deflation included rolling up the raft to packable size, as seen above, with can of beer for scale.

The three tethers are for my paddle, my backpack, and my flotation device.  This is in case I drop my paddle, or my pack falls into the water, or the rare event that I might fall into the water.  This way I don't lose my paddle or pack or even the raft should the whole thing flip over.

The paddles:

Proaqua double kayak paddles (AKA el cheapo, generic brand).  I bought them new here in Sweden, so not sure how available these are in other parts of the world.  But if you are located in Scandinavia and parts of the EU, you should be able to order them.  Here is where I found them, via Clas Ohlson

  • Weight: 650g / 23oz total.
  • Length: 220cm / 86inches.
  • Material: Aluminum shafts and plastic blades/connection pieces.

The paddles were the biggest surprise in both weight and price. I paid 180 SEK (22 USD) plus 70 SEK (8.50 USD) shipping. I bought them recently, the day after going to a canoe/kayak shop where they had carbon fiber paddles that weighed well over 1kg, and aluminum ones that were over 2kg. The CF ones cost over 3000 SEK (>370 USD), and the alu ones around 1500 SEK (~180 USD).

Flotation device:

National Geographic adult snorkel vest.  Found it here via Amazon

  • Weight: 295g / 10.4oz, including a mini carbineer on its D-ring.
  • Fabric: 220D coated nylon.
  • Options: Two cross-body nylon webbing straps, one D-ring, zippered pocket.
  • Note: Manufacturer is careful to point out, and rightfully so, that this is not a life vest.  Think of this more as a good aid to make swimming easier and keep one afloat.

Since I am an experienced swimmer and do not intend on rafting and/or swimming through anything above Class 2 waters, this is just to be extra safe--especially if I am, for instance, tired and/or paddling solo.  My backpack can also be used as an additional flotation device, as it would be covered in a waterproof drybag; plus inside of the pack itself there are additional drybags (e.g. sleeping bag), as well as at least 2 plastic bottles full of air (an inflated Platypus bottle and an empty water bottle), and an air mattress (Nemo Zor short) that would have some air inside it.

Speaking of my backpack, here it is along with its big drybag:

Sea to Summit Ultra-Sil drybag.  I think this is the 90l size.

  • Weight: 110g / 3.9oz.

And finally, here is the raft's inflation bag that also doubles as a drybag.  Below it is packed up with the raft, vest, and backpack drybag, as I would have it packed while hiking:

It came with the raft, and has a couple of D-rings on the roll top clips.

  • Weight: 110g / 3.9oz.

Total weight of my packrafting kit: 2235g / 4.9lbs.

First impressions

My first trip using this kit exceeded my expectations.  I am in general very happy with the results and performance of the above gear for packrafting.  There are a few small changes that I will make on my next trip.  

First is that I will not be taking the pair of webbed, rubber gloves (made by Darkfin) that I took on this trip.  As such, I have not included it in my finalized kit above, but if you are interested in my thoughts on them, I can briefly address that.  They weigh 120g / 4.2oz in a size large.  I got them because in theory they seemed to be a great addition to the kit for several reasons.  I thought they would provide my hands with some additional warmth, better grip on my paddle shafts, that I could use them for small adjustments to navigation to save the effort of using my paddles, they could be used as a back up should I lose my paddles, and that they could help me swim should I fall in the water.

They did not provide any noticeable warmth at all.  In fact, my hands were actually warmer after I took them off soon after starting off down the river, because my hands could dry off rather than be constantly wet with water that will inevitably get inside the glove.  And to my surprise, they also did not improve the grip on the paddles in the least.  They also were not easy to use to stroke or navigate with, because I had to put half my arm in the water for any kind of power or adjustment, soaking myself and pulling lots of water into the raft.  The tether I made for my paddles eliminate any reasonable concern for losing my paddles.  They are also difficult to put on and take off.

While they would surely help with swimming, in the rare event that should I fall into the water, I have both my vest and my backpack to keep me afloat, not to mention the raft itself (assuming it has not become punctured or damaged).  So I will bring them along on summertime weekenders and family camping where any kind of swimming is involved, but they have been nixed from my packrafting kit.

What I will be adding to my kit in the future is a small, super-absorbent towel to act as a bailing sponge for the inside of the raft.  I had no illusions that I would remain dry in the raft, but figured I could just bail the water with my hands without much issue.  I was wrong--well, at least half wrong.  I was able to bail nearly all the water out of the raft after it would get in, but it was not easy.  I had to squirm and contort to scoop, and it took a long time.  But a friend who came along that has some kayaking experience gave me the great tip: to get a bailing sponge.

Not only will a small towel help with keeping things dry in the raft, but they will also keep my sit pad in place better.  I used my small, foam sit pad inside the raft and it kept my rear end nice and warm.  The small, inflatable pad that is built into the raft I found uncomfortable and annoying to inflate and deflate, so I just didn't use it.  My sit pad was a great fix.

The raft was very comfortable it sit/lay in, and I also was surprised at how much space I had using it.  Now don't get me wrong, it's not like it's got loads of space while your floating in it.  It is of course pretty tight in generalBut I was able to position my backpack at the foot end while laying my legs/feet on the sides around it--this was the position I was in for most of the trip.  But on occasion I would want to reposition myself, and found that I could sit cross-legged, with my backpack covering my feet, to sit more upright for a bit.  We ate lunch while floating on a wider and calmer stretch of the river, and I had no problems opening up the drybag on my pack, then my pack, then my food bag to get out my chips and sandwiches.  I was even able to put my water bottle under my legs during most of the trip.

So the raft was a pretty smooth ride.  It kind of feels like sitting/laying in one of those Lazy-Boy type chairs.  For body size reference, I am around 183cm / 6ft tall and 85kg / 187lbs.

The first time I got into the raft (on water--I got in it at home several times to test it out), when I sat down I did so quickly, and a huge gush of water filled the inside of the raft.  Getting in and out of the raft to walk around damns several times on the trip taught me to find better methods to enter the raft.  My advice is to take your time and go slow, and don't sweat it if some water gets in.  This is packrafting, after all, so you are going to get wet to some degree no matter what.  Yet there were a few times I was able to get in and out without any noticeable water getting into the raft.  It also helps if the raft is fully inflated, and also make sure to put more air in the raft after getting into the water for the first time, as the warmer air inside from when it was blown up will be cooled by the water, and the air will be more compressed.

We had some mild rapids, and a small wave did send some water into the raft, but other wise while paddling on mostly calm to somewhat quickly flowing water, water stayed out.  When fully inflated it is also quite stable.  To test this I even got up on my knees a few times, though very carefully, and no falling in and was even able to keep the paddles and pack from taking an dunk the entire trip.

So I am very impressed and happy with the Klymit LWD, and very glad I bought it.  It will remain my packraft until I save up for the inevitable day that I choose to tackle higher class waters in the future, and need to buy a proper raft for the job.  But for what it was meant to do, the LWD does it quite well.

The paddles seemed to do just fine.  I've never tested out any fancy paddles before, so it's hard to compare it to anything.  But I will say this, for the price I paid for these paddles, I actually expected them to break.  They didn't of course, otherwise they wouldn't be in my kit still!  But there were times out of restlessness--being stuck in a lake that the river flowed into and the lack of any current--that I would row as hard as I could to make slow progress.  No breaks, no cracks, but of course this was just the first trip with these paddles.  So for now I am cautiously optimistic that I really found a great solution for paddles.

Should they break, I'd be willing to bet that it would be the plastic central connection piece that breaks.  In which case, I could still paddle, just with one or two smaller paddles rather than kayak style.  And if one of the paddles breaks, I could probably fix it with some super glue and/or duct tape that I have in my repair kit--otherwise, just switch to single, canoe style paddling.  So that gives me some peace of mind if it does fail me.

The rest of the kit worked as expected too.  My backpack was completely dry at the end of the trip, and the vest was comfortable enough and did not hinder my paddling or movement.  The vest is also very easy to inflate and deflate, the D-ring is perfect to attach a tether to, but I have to say that the zipper pocket is pretty useless.  While inflated it's pretty hard to put anything inside of it or take anything back out of it, so I just ignore it for now, until maybe in the future I find a good use for it.

The drybag/pump bag that came with the raft works great, as you probably assumed by the time it takes to inflate the raft that I mentioned above.  It's other job it also did well, keeping a fleece and my lunch dry.

I mentioned earlier the potential issue of food bulk on longer trips.  However this drybag I think would solve this problem.  The problem being that I have my doubts that I would be able to fit my backpack inside the STS drybag with say a full week of food packed into my backpack.  While I did pack some bulky luxury food (bag of chips, sandwiches) and an extra layer that I wouldn't have in the summer (a synth fleece), I was only able to barely close the dryback on my backpack, which you need to roll down a minimum of three times while closing it.  So on trips with more bulk, I can put my food bag (itself being a drybag) inside of the inflation drybag, and put this between my legs next to my backpack.  I could then tether both the backpack and food drybag together in case they were to fall overboard.

That being said, with a few days of food or so--maybe even up to 4-5 if done right--I don't think I will have to resort to this.  We'll see.

Okay, this has been a fairly long post, so time to wrap it up.  I really look forward to putting this packrafting kit to good use this summer, and will write up a follow up, long term review sometime in the future.  Until then, feel free as always to ask questions and give feedback.  Have fun and stay safe on the waters out there!