Text and photos by Bjorn Olson
A new breed of cycling has exploded around the world in recent years. Fat bikes and plus bikes now allow people to go places outside the confines of traditional mountain bikes, ushering in an era of creative adventure and discovery. From forests to beaches, desert to tundra and all bioregions in between, fat bikes and plus bikes fill an organic niche for people seeking raw wilderness experiences from the saddle of a bicycle. With omni-terra bicycles, the only limitations are skill level and imagination.
Another piece of equipment has expanded the potential of adventure cyclists: packrafts. A packraft is a sub-six-pound, one-person, inflatable raft that rolls up to the size of a packed summer sleeping bag and is capable of carrying camping gear and a bike. Incorporating a packraft into the bike adventure quiver allows for an enormous variety of otherwise unattainable adventures. The ability to cross creeks, streams, rivers, and lakes or to get around steep headlands, for example, provides access to new cycling terrain.
While there are several brands in the packraft market, Colorado-based Alpacka Raft is perhaps the most storied. Alpacka brand packrafts emerged from Alaska in the 1990s and have constantly evolved ever since. The original Alpacka Rafts were remarkably resilient and lightweight but over the last decade, the design and variety of rafts has seen a surge of improvements. There are now a host of packraft shapes and configurations for specific needs, bike-rafting among them.
Before taking the plunge on a packraft, there are a few things worth considering. First, what types of trips do you plan to undertake? If bikerafting is your primary objective, then that helps narrow down the options.
When bikerafting, a slightly longer boat is preferable, as it allows for an efficient full-forward stroke even when loaded with cargo. Furthermore, these expedition rafts require few bells and whistles and are therefore easier to pack and carry. If you’re planning to run serious whitewater, however, it’s crucial that your packraft fits you perfectly. Whitewater paddling requires dynamic body language and strokes that can’t be accomplished with a loose-fitting raft. Whitewater paddling is for experts only; we encourage all novice packrafters to start out on flat water to learn, practice and develop paddling and packraft-specific skills before progressing to moving water.
Many modern packrafts come equipped with a waterproof zipper on the stern of the boat, which allows you to stow gear inside the raft. This zipper is a good idea for several reasons: your gear stays dry and out of the way while you are paddling, and the raft becomes more stable when the weight is low rather than up high on the deck. However, zippers require extreme care, as one piece of sand in the teeth can spell disaster. As long as you take precautions, zippers are worth the extra attention they require.
Another decision you’ll need to make is whether to equip your packraft with a spray deck or not. Spray decks fit around your body to help keep you dry when paddling. They come in two flavors: Whitewater and Cruiser. If you plan to roll your raft or expect to be in big waves, the Whitewater deck is the better option. For expeditions, the simpler Cruiser spray deck is sufficient for keeping your lower body dry from rain and small waves. You can also opt to save a little weight, space and money by foregoing the deck entirely.
Once you decide which raft suits your needs, the next step is to learn how to use it. Novice packrafters would do well to read Roman Dial’s book, Packrafting! and seek personal instruction. However, here are a few beginner tips for rafting with a bike.
The first thing you’ll want to do is get efficient with your transitions. It is ideal to be able to switch from pedaling mode to paddling mode in the least time possible—and do it properly. Hitting a class 3 wave train or being slammed by a 25-mph gust of wind is not the time to realize you neglected to strap your bike down tight enough or that your load is lopsided.
Most of the time, while cycling, my raft is rolled up tight and strapped to the handlebar with the tougher hull fabric facing outward. The exception is when I know I am going to be pushing my bike for several miles and I want it to be as light as possible. I carry a large, lightweight backpack on many expeditions, so when the riding is bad or non-existent, I put my kit in the backpack and push the unloaded bike.
There are two main ways that I strap the bike to the raft when I am in paddle mode. One way is very fast and simple, but I only ever use this method when making short and calm crossings. This involves inflating the raft, removing the non-drive pedal (create good habits and always store pedals in the same place every time. I put mine in my frame bag. Always!) and laying the bike across the bow. I then use one strap to keep the bike from falling overboard. The front wheel ends up being in the water with this configuration but if you only have a short distance to cover and the water is calm, this is okay. Once I am in the raft I place my pack on my lap and make the crossing.
For longer crossings or crossings in moving water, it’s well worth the extra time and effort to secure your bike properly. While everyone’s method varies, this generally involves removing both pedals and at least the front wheel, placing the frame driveside up on your raft, and finding the balance point before loosely strapping down the frame and wheel(s). Once the load is equalized on your raft, tighten the straps to secure your load.
Learn to use the inflation bag to its full potential. Practice inflating your raft in your yard until it feels natural. Once the raft is as full as you can get it with the inflation bag, continue to force air into the raft with your breath. Then, before launching, place the raft in the water to let the air inside of it cool down. This will allow you to get a couple more breaths of air inside the raft before you launch. You want it as full and taught as possible. On wilderness trips with a packraft, the transition between one mode to the other eats up time; being proficient with these transitions is an advantage on any trip.
Pro tip: if there is a breeze, inflate your raft with the stern facing the wind. Use the wind to quickly refill the inflation bag and then force the air into the raft with big compressions of the sack.
Packrafts are very stable but they are nearly impossible to re-right by yourself once upside down, in deep water, with a bike strapped to the bow. Rescues require either swimming to the nearest shore while holding onto your paddle and raft, or assistance from another rafter. With you helping in the water, a rescuer in a raft can re-right your raft and then stabilize it while you jump back in. Make sure you never let go of your raft or paddle when you do capsize. If it is windy and you let go, it only takes a second for the raft to blow away.
Work on rescues in calm water with friends until the techniques become second nature before you venture out into the backcountry. Panic is your enemy in emergency situations. The solution is familiarity, good teamwork and enough practice that these maneuvers become reflexive.
Other pieces of equipment you’ll want are a four-piece breakdown kayak paddle, paddle leash, a personal flotation device (PFD) and perhaps a dry suit.
There are many suitable kayak paddles on the market but the ideal packrafting paddle is a breakdown paddle that separates into four pieces: where the shaft meets the paddle blades and in the middle of the shaft. This allows you to stow the paddle without long ends sticking out to catch on brush and tree branches as you cycle along. I also prefer a slightly longer paddle for packrafting than I would use for kayaking.
The lightest paddles are made entirely of carbon fiber but there is a strong argument for nylon blades, as they generally last longer and withstand abuse better. I often use three sections of my packraft paddle as the center pole in my floor-less shelter and I sometimes use the blade as a shovel to scoop dirt, sand or gravel around the edge of my shelter to help keep it anchored in windy conditions. For many, the slightly heavier blades are worth the weight penalty because of the increased durability and dual-purpose nature.
There are many PFDs on the market and choosing the one that suits your needs is a personal choice. Some people like PFDs with a lot of bells and whistles but, for packrafting, I prefer a very simple, snug-fitting one. Inflatable PFDs are nice because they stow away the smallest and you can inflate them to just the right amount to use as a pillow in camp.
When paddling on flat water such as lakes, bays and fjords, a paddle leash can keep your raft from floating or blowing away if you capsize. A leash can be a simple 3- to 5-millimeter diameter cord tied to the middle of the paddle on one end and the bow of the raft on the other end. Make sure the cord is long enough to achieve a full forward stroke as well as your sweep and rudder strokes—6 feet is a good starting point. Never use a paddle leash if you are in water that has a current, as the leash can wrap around an obstacle such as a rock or tree, and you can quickly become entangled.
Although packrafts are remarkably tough, they are not indestructible. Learning to repair your boat in the field is as important as knowing how to fix a flat or true your wheel. Always carry a repair kit and learn how to use it. The items I always carry are:
Once you’ve caught the packrafting or bikerafting bug, you’ll likely consider the purchase of a dry suit, depending on your climate, trip plans, etc. Dry suits may be bulky and heavy, but they are a remarkable piece of safety and quality-of-experience equipment, especially in cold climates. Mine stays home for most bikerafting trips. Instead, I rely on my rain gear and do everything in my power to keep from capsizing. If I plan to run whitewater or make long crossings, I might wear an Alpacka/Kokatat dry suit. Because these suits are so lightweight, it is recommended to wear rain gear over it to help prevent abrasion and tearing.
There are countless other gear and technique considerations for the wilderness cyclist looking to expand their range with a packraft, but step one is getting out there and trying it. Start with small, low-consequence trips. Always make safety your top priority. Keep your expectations honest and conservative, and always go with at least one reliable buddy. Once you feel efficient, safe and comfortable, take it to the next level. There is always a next level—whatever that is is up to you. But in this era of wilderness exploration with a Salsa bike and a good packraft, the equipment won’t be what holds you back.
BONUS: BIKERAFTING TIMELAPSE VIDEO SHOWING TRANSITIONS FROM BOAT TO BIKE, AND BIKE TO BOAT
DOUBLE-BONUS: HUNTING FOR MONSTERS BIKERAFTING SHORT FILM
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