Packrafting - a beginner in whitewater

Turer A clever person would of course have taken a basic course in packrafting, before going on a trip like mine this summer, between Abisko and Nikkaluokta. For those who have read about that trip here and in Outside Magazine it's pretty obvious I needed it. Well, you can't always be clever, but at least I was really motivated when going to Bozeman, Montana to join the BackpackingLight.com course in September. It was quite an experience.
By Jörgen Johansson

The course convened over muffins and coffee at a pond just outside Bozeman. Half a dozen students and four instructurs where pretty soon inflating the rafts. Andrew Skurka, our head instructor, pretty soon had us easing out onto the pond.
What we practised on the pond was 'wet reentry', which basically meant that we sat down in our packrafts and threw our weights around until it capsized. You then had to get out of the spray skirt, turn the raft the right way up and heave yourself back into it. Not as easy as it sounds (if it does), since the thing had a tendency of flipping you right back into the water again. The trick was to, with a mighty heave, get your center of gravity as far inside the boat as possible. We kept this up for an hour or so, much to the delight of a couple of classes of schoolchildren, whose faith in grown-ups must have taken a beating that morning.
After this we got on our bus and drove up to the Yellowstone River, which was going to be our home for the rest of the course. We started out in the lower parts of the aptly named Paradise Valley, with new practises of wet reentry, now in moving water and with a pack strapped to the foredeck. This turned out to be considerably more difficult, so the practise in the pond was really valuable.

Our instructors where hovering while we tried to offset the current pushing our legs under the raft, while flowing downstream, and do the mighty heave that would get our chest well into the boat.
The rest of the afternoon was spent flowing sedately down the Yellowstone, and getting increasingly familiar with the packraft and other members of the course.

The September weather was really benign, and packrafting with a group in circumstances like this turned out to be a really sociable activity. Lots of time to drift around and talk to various members of the group. The occasional stretch of rippling water where fairly easy to negotiate and when the sun set we made our camp and built a fire on the beach. Due to land restrictions we were only allowed to camp on public land, which had to be below the high water mark. This was reasonably easy this late in the season.

The second day we bussed up to Gardiner, on the border of Yellowstone National Park, and then got on the Yellowstone River again. Since boating of any kind, execept of course for power boats on Yellowstone Lake, is prohibited in the park we didn't enter it. But upstream from yesterday as it was, this was a different river. At least to inexperienced land lubbers like most of us students.

Going up to Gardiner we stopped the bus along the road, which followed the river the whole time, and walked over to watch some of the major rapids in Yankee Jim canyon, like The Boxcar. Looking down at this foaming maelstrom from the road certainly made it's impression. So this is what we would have to go through before nightfall? All of us students were very carefully not saying anything at all.

On this, the second day, we practised paddling in whitewater and rapids getting increasingly more difficult. I got dunked once, inspite of my spinsterish approach, leaving the more aggressive stunts to the young guns. Some of those got dunked more than once, some just breezed through the whole thing.
The main lesson for me in whitewater this day was: Lean forward and bully your way through. A good addition to this was: Once you've committed yourself to a route, go for it with all you've got. I guess this could be a lesson for life as well. Changes in midstride will usually land you on your ass.

As the afternoon progressed we went deeper into the canyon and the rapids became more and more challenging. After going through some particularly white whitewater, we rested in an eddy. Our instructors then said: Congratulations, you've just run the Yankee Jim.

Yes, we had in fact run the rapids we had looked at from the road earlier that day, with some trepidation. For me it was really good psychology not to tell us this beforehand and it felt like a great victory at the end of the day, with arms and shoulders turning into noodles and blood sugar going down.

We camped in good spirits that evening, with an interesting assortment of light shelters. They were pitched on a perfect beach below the high watermark and carefully anchored with stones. However, around 10 pm the Sheriff turned up with an aggravated land owner and evicted us all. Unknown to everybody there was obviously some law stating that even if you were on public land you couldn't camp closer than 500 yards to somebodys house. So we had to move the whole camp. Made me pretty grateful for the Swedish law of common access, which lets you camp on anybodys private land for one night, as long as it's not on their actual lot.

The third day included more pratice with whitewater. We went down the same stretch of the Yellowstone as the day before, but this day was really different. We knew that we had taken Yankee Jim without casualties yesterday, and that made for a more relaxed day.

Above is shown some practise around a 'hole', which is the washing machine thingy between the instructor and the packraft coming over the rock-induced wave. A hole tends to suck you back, and being under water in a hole can be a dangerous thing. The water is so churned up and filled with air that you get no flotation even with a PFD. If you are unlucky you'll be churned around in this until the river freezes, at which time most people would be dead.

Here I am, tightening the straps before heading into Yankee Jim canyon for the second time. The lesson for day three that stayed in my mind was: Finesse your way down.
If the day before in Yankee Jim hade been like going into the jaws of hell, this day was more like a walk in the park. It's seldom after childhood that you will experience going from not being able to do something at all to being able to do it at least moderately well in in only three days. I came away from this course feeling very satisfied and also a bit addicted...

Below you'll find links to some films. The first two show me in some of the practice parts of the Yellowstone River on day two. They're from Andrew Skurka and Backpackinglight.com.

The third film shows Andrew and Ryan Jordan scouting the Yankee Jim a couple of days before the course. It shows some of the tougher passages of this canyon, where everyone was to busy to film during the course.
Comment on this article in Swedish on Utsidan here and in English below.

Andrew Skurka - going far, going light

Teori-praktik One of the more visible individuals in ligthweight backpacking right now is Andrew Skurka. He's done some hikes in later years that most of us just dream of, and he's only just begun. I had the good fortune to have Andy as an instructor on a Backpacking Light course in packrafting recently, and decided that I wanted to know more about him.
By Jörgen Johansson All photos by Andrew Skurka


Andrew started his backpacking career, if there is such a thing, in 2002 along the Appalachian Trail. Since then he's done a number of really long hikes, and he carries very light loads. In 2004-2005 he walked 12 500 kilometers across North America. In January 2007 he tested lightweight gear in "America's Icebox" during a 620 kilometer hike in northern Minnesota. In April 2007 he started out on the Great Western Loop in the US and finished 11 000 kilometers later in November. In the summer of 2009 he hiked and packrafted 1100 kilometers through four mountain ranges of Alaska, and wound down as one of the first non-Alaskan rookies to win the Alaska Wilderness Classic.

Jörgen: Andrew, you’re 28 years old and have done an amazing amount of long hikes in the last 4-5 years. I don’t exactly imagine that you’re making a fortune from this, so something else must be driving you. What is that?

Andrew: Before delving into the heart of your question, I’ll address your financial assumption since there are many who probably are thinking, “I’d love to have that life but I need to work.” You’re right, I’m certainly not making a fortune from this, but since 2006 I’ve stayed financially profitable by developing a handful of income streams – including public speaking, course instruction, private client guiding, writing, website sales, and sponsorships – that cumulatively have been greater than my expenses, which is of course the other side of the equation and which I fiercely keep to a minimum. Remember, you don’t need to earn much if you don’t spend much.

This life works for someone like me – I’m a 28-year-old bachelor who has not outgrown the frugality of my university days and I am proud if I end up sleeping more nights on the ground during a year than I do inside – but I don’t think it would work for anyone who has high lifestyle standards, has a lot of debt, or who needs to support someone other than themselves.



Now, regarding the motivation for my trips, I’d say that it boils down entirely to the potential for personal growth, challenge, and reward. I once thought it necessary to wrap a trip into a greater purpose, but nowadays I’m quite comfortable with saying that I do these trips because, in essence, I can and want to – my life is at its best when I’m “out there.” I have a really good civilian life too – I come from a great family, I have great friends, I travel a lot through business, and I am based out of the beautiful state of Colorado – but it just isn’t quite as fulfilling or as rich as my life outdoors.

Jörgen: You are carrying very light loads nowadays. That wasn’t always so. Tell us about your conversion and why have you shifted from “traditional” to lightweight gear.

Andrew: My first long hike – in fact, my first backpacking trip, really – was in 2002 on the famed 2,170-mile Appalachian Trail. I had never heard of “lightweight backpacking” before, and I definitely had never seen a “lightweight backpacker,” so I started the AT like most people do: with a pack that weighed too much, consisting mostly of worthless items. I think my pack weighed 38 lbs minus food and water when I started.

In my first journal entry I started a list of things I was going to throw away or send home as soon as I had an opportunity – the relationship between my pack weight and my hiking experience had become clear by the first hill, and I knew if I was going to hike fast and far, and enjoy it, then I would need to hike light too.


Jörgen: When you are advocating lightweight equipment some people say that ultra light gear makes for less comfort and safety than the usual stuff. Have you encountered this and what is your opinion?

Andrew: Lightweight gear can be less comfortable and less safe than traditional gear, but it entirely depends on who is using it. Lightweight backpackers are able to carry less because they offset what they do not have with skills. It’s no accident that I call one of my speaking presentations a “Lightweight Backpacking and Skills Clinic” – lightweight backpacking is not just about gear; it’s about skills too.

A skilled lightweight backpacker knows how to find comfort with a 3/8-inch-thick torso-length foam sleeping pad by bedding down on a soft layer of pine needles or forest duff; and they can safely camp under a handkerchief-sized tarp by finding a protected campsite and achieving a taught pitch. An unskilled backpacker, in contrast, will be uncomfortable because they will sleep on soil that’s been packed down and denuded of needles and leaves; and they will be unsafe because they will find an exposed campsite and they don’t know how to pitch their tarp correctly, leaving it limp and susceptible to the wind.

So, I do rely heavily on my backcountry skills to compensate for equipment that I am not carrying. But there is no reason that relatively inexperienced and unskilled backpackers cannot go light – I would not recommend that they immediately jump to my exact gear kit, but I’m quite confident that they could drop to a 15-lb base weight and have everything they needed and wanted for a 3-season trip. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that no person, however ill experienced, should go backpacking in 3-season conditions with more than 15 lbs. You can squeeze a lot of foolproof equipment into a 15-lb pack: fully enclosed shelter, gas stove, good rain gear, warm sleeping bag, etc.

Jörgen: Regarding footwear for short and long hikes I know you prefer light shoes of the trail runner type. There are boots for “demanding expeditions in rough terrain”. Most of your trips seem to qualify on this aspect, so why don’t you use heavier shoes?



Andrew: First, I have been a competitive runner since I was 14-years-old so I am biased towards running shoes – my feet feel at home in them. That said, there are many good reasons to wear running shoes for long, technical trips: they are lighter, they dry faster, they breathe better, they are more sensitive (i.e., for scrambling and boulder-hopping), and they are lower to the ground for improved stability.

I do not like “waterproof” shoes in wet conditions: they are ineffective in keeping the feet dry (Water comes in over the tops or it wets through; or sweat builds from the inside.), they take longer to dry out, they are heavier, they are more expensive, and they are hotter and less breathable when it’s not wet. I find that waterproof shoes are fairly effective in dry, snowy conditions (Fall, Winter, early-Spring).

I will not say that boots are not necessary, for example, I prefer them for snowshoeing and hiking in snow (when there’s not enough to warrant snowshoes) when temperatures are between 10 and 40 F. But I am still using a lightweight boot – either the Timberland Cadion GTX or the La Sportiva FC 3.0 GTX – and extending the boot well beyond is recommended use; these models are considered “light hikers,” not winter backpacking boots.

Boots are probably not necessary for the majority of applications for which people use them – I see many people wearing boots (often waterproof boots) for easy day hikes and for weekend backpacking trips in 3-season conditions. I firmly believe that these individuals would be better served by breathable, lightweight trail running shoes.

Jörgen: With a load as light as yours a light backpack seems to work very well, but for people who just recently has started to pare their packweights towards 5-10 kilos baseweight, what size and weight of pack do you recommend? When would you suggest that a person could shift from a pack with a frame to a frameless pack?

Andrew: I have to refer you to manufacturer recommendations for this question – there are too many variables here, and the answer will change from person to person. For me, I go back and forth between two packs: since 2004 my 3-season thru-hike pack has been the 50L GoLite Jam; I size up to the 70L GoLite Pinnacle for winter trips, for 3-season trips with large food volumes,and for instructing or guiding.



Both of these packs are frameless, and I always cut out their built-in foam pads because I prefer to use my own sleeping pad as a “virtual frame.” As far as when to go with a frameless pack versus when to go with a framed one, if my load is regularly going to be 12-15 kg or more I think it starts to make sense. Last summer I used a framed pack for the for the first time since 2002 while hiking and packrafting in Alaska – but my base weight was 10 kg and I was regularly carrying a week of food (so up to 18 kg total).

Jörgen: You’ve been to Iceland, infamous for high winds, and you’ve been to Alaska, parts of the world which are similar to the above timberline and tundra mountains of Scandinavia. What kind of shelter, ie how light, would you choose for this type of terrain and how do you motivate your choices?

Andrew: I have had good success with fully-enclosed tarps in both locations – I used a 22-oz GoLite Shrangri-La 2 in Iceland and a 16-oz Mountain Laural Designs DuoMid in Alaska. (The Shrangri-La works well with trekking poles, whereas the DuoMid pitches nicely with a packraft paddle.) I got caught by windy storms in both locations and was very comfortable and confident. The additional challenge in Iceland is the dust that gets blown around by the storms – but I can think of only two good solutions that that (a house and a car) and neither of them are packable.

Jörgen: One thing that I find truly interesting and stimulating are your thoughts on “lightweight living/lifestyle”. Could you explain what this is all about? And how could people like myself, sitting in a suburban house with a couple of children and a job, connect to this?


Andrew: I’m not ordinarily much of a philosophizer, but I have spent a lot of time thinking about what I want from life and how I can best achieve that. The answer is this “lightweight lifestyle,” which promotes some of the same principles that guide lightweight backpacking – including “Less is more,” and “Simpler, not more complex” – as general life principals, in order to focus more on the one thing that actually leads to personal happiness and fulfilment: one’s relationship with self, others,and nature (and/or a God).

I don’t understand why Western culture seems to push this false idea that the pursuit and accumulation of stuff (or “gear”) is desirable, because it actually undermines one’s relationships. Think about it – instead of spending time with our family and friends, in the outdoors, and building community, we are captive to jobs that consume our energy and that stress us out, and to bills for things that we are “supposed” to have like nice cars, big homes, and flat-screen TV’s.

The solution seems pretty clear to me: figure out how to spend less so that you can work less, so that you can spend time with the things that are really important to you. I think this quality of life argument is the best reason to adopt the lightweight lifestyle, but another big motivation for me is that it’s also more compatible with my love of the outdoors – my environmental footprint is much smaller because I consume and waste much less.

Jörgen: What’s on the agenda for you this upcoming year? Are you going to spend it on a porch somewhere, or will you be going on some other wilderness treks?

Andrew: The porch scenario was meant to be a joke, right? Next year I am planning to do another “long” trip, and the most attractive idea I’ve developed is a 6,500-km effort through Alaska and western Canada.


This trip is on a whole new level from what I’ve done before: I learned how to go “far, fast, and light” by following the Lower 48’s extensive trail system, and over the last two years I’ve learned how to “adventure” by going to places like Iceland, Alaska, and the Colorado Plateau. This trip will merge the “far, fast, and light” experience with the “adventure” experience – it’s going to be big, and interesting, so stay tuned.

Jörgen: Thank you, Andrew. You bet we will stay tuned, and a pretty good place for this is of course www.andrewskurka.com

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