Packrafting for beginners is not something I thought I would ever be writing about. I am so passionate and involved in hiking and camping in the backcountry that I never made time for another hobby. Little did I know that I would find such passion and happiness in exploring the outdoors in a completely different way than I knew to date. So, how did I end up on my first packrafting trip? I set a goal in early 2023 to push myself out of my comfort zone and challenge myself with where I travel, how I travel, and who I travel with. So when an opportunity came up that would bring me to the shores of a remote river in Mexico with eight strangers and gear I had never seen before—a packraft, paddle, and a PDF—I had to say yes. And boy am I happy I did.
The outdoors has been my passion for over a decade. It’s where I want to spend all my time. I’m fully an outdoor advocate, lover, and everything else you could think of. So when I say, I have a newfound love for the outdoors after my first packrafting trip—it means a lot.
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In this post, I’ll cover the below.
- What is packrafting?
- My experience in Mexico
- Gear and clothing for packrafting
- My learnings from my trip
Packrafting for Beginners: General Packrafting Overview
So what is a packraft? It’s a lightweight, packable boat that can be inflated to access rivers, lakes, and areas where hardshell canoes or kayaks can’t safely get to. They are way lighter and more compact than canoes or kayaks which makes them really popular for backcountry exploration. You can deflate it, roll it up and store it in or strap it on a backpack. Even though it’s lightweight it’s really durable.
Packrafting for Beginners: The Remote River in the Mexican Jungle
I spent seven days on the river—which is the most I’d ever camped consecutively. The river I went on is very remote and is incredibly hard to logistically get to without help. I was led by Nahua Expeditions so if you’re interested in this trip, I recommend checking them out. They work with locals from villages close to the river by employing them to help with guiding, portaging, general logistics, accommodation in the villages, and more. On top of this, Nahua Expeditions also donates a part of their earnings to improve the living conditions of the people in the villages (they are building new and safer ovens for each home) and to help preserve the river and surrounding areas.
I went at the end of April and early May when it is Mexico’s dry season and the best time to paddle. The river itself is not very deep so there are very few consequences as you learn—which makes it a great beginner river. It was so low at times that you had to butt scoot over rocks or even get out and walk your packraft to deeper water.
- Getting into the canyon: After the long trek to a remote village in Mexico, we hiked two hours in the 30 degree (celsius) heat to the edge of the river. Thankfully, we had horses and porters to help with our bags but on other trips, you’d most likely have to carry your gear yourself.
- On the river: Each day was filled with 6-8 hours of paddling. The river was filled with calm sections and class II and III rapids. It was nice to float down in the calm sections but then be super focused and motivated on the rapids. Getting down them without flipping the packraft felt so good. Although, when I did flip, it was a nice refreshing dip so that wasn’t too awful either. Each night we camped along the river and it was some of the most incredible places I’ve ever slept before. Other than packrafting, we also climbed, hiked, explored, and marveled at all the beauty around us.
- Getting out of the canyon: We used a foot system to repel 25m up to a point where we then hiked for two hours to the nearest village. This afternoon was quite the adventure in itself! Our wet shoes from the river and the humidity and heat made it challenging but we were thankful to have porters to carry our bags and packrafts out.
Packrafting for Beginners: What to Pack
Packing for a packrafting trip can be intimidating but I’m here to help with everything you need to pack. Note that because my experience was in Mexico and in 30-40 degree heat (celsius), my list will be different than if I were to be packing to packraft in Alaska, for example.
Packraft: Since I just started packrafting, I’m not going to give advice on which is best to buy. I was given an Alpackaraft by my guide and was told they were the best in the game. It was self-bailing and didn’t have a skirt. I also have heard good things about Kokopelli. Since you’re reading this, I will assume you’re a beginner like me, so it may be useful to rent gear before purchasing as they have a hefty price tag.
Paddle: I used an Aquabound paddle. They are made of carbon which is the lightest option available and great for paddling. These paddles can break down into two or four pieces so you can pack them for the approach or way out.
Personal Flotation Device (PFD): I wore the NRS Ninja PFD every single second of every day while on the river. It has a great pocket in the front for snacks and a phone.
Helmet: I wore the NRS WRSI Current Helmet.
Pump: Packrafts come with a lightweight inflation bag that you use to inflate the raft. You can either use this or bring a small pump.
Repair kit: Most packrafts come with a repair kit so you can patch a hole if one develops so definitely bring this as holes could puncture your packraft!
Long sleeves: UV sun protection is key because of how long you’ll be exposed to the sun especially because you’re on the water which makes sun burns more common. I prefer the Backcountry SunTrace Cropped T-Shirt but if you prefer a full-length top the Outdoor Research ActiveIce Shirt and Patagonia Capilene Shirt are perfect options.
Tanks: I brought the Girlfriend Collective Bra and something similar to the Sweaty Betty Longline Bra and wore them as tank tops. You can crisscross the straps at the back of the prAna Crop Top if you like some extra support.
Additional layers: Due to the warm climate, I didn’t pack as many layers as I would at home in Canada. It didn’t drop below 20 degrees Celcius. I love the Stoic Micro Fleece and brought it but I don’t think I even needed to. It was light enough to bring for an emergency though. The Patagonia Micro Fleece is a great alternative as it is thin and pretty compact as well. Packing something like an Arc’teryx Beta Jacket with GORE-TEX is really important to pack because it could (and it did on my trip) rain in the jungle.
Shorts: I would’ve loved to wear shorts the entire trip but it was just too much sun exposure so I alternated between pants and shorts. I am a huge fan of these Outdoor Research Ferrosi Shorts… so much so that I bought two other colors right when I got back into service. I loved the Patagonia Outdoor Everyday Shorts as well, but they do feel a bit bigger/baggier when wet. Both shorts dried really quickly which is key for river trips. They are both 5″ so if you like a shorter seam, these Running Shorts may be a good option.
Pants: I brought the Fjallraven Nikka Trousers since I already owned them but they were a bit too thick for this trip. The Arc’teryx Gamma Pant is a more lightweight option or Kari Traa Ane Hiking Pant is great if you like a looser fit.
Closed-toe footwear: I brought a pair of Danner Trail Hiking Shoes that I already owned to wear on the river and they worked well. They didn’t dry entirely every night though that didn’t matter since they got wet instantly the next day. My friend, Danielle, wore and suggested the Salomon Trail Running Shoes that dried a bit better.
Sandals: I wore my Chaco Mega Z Cloud Sandals at camp and when we did little hikes. I absolutely love them. If you prefer a strap on the toe I suggest going with the Chaco Z/Cloud 2 Sandal. The Columbia Alava Sandal is a more affordable option that may not have the best support for hiking but would be great for camp.
Headwear: Hats were key on the river! I basically lived in my Tilley Ultralight Hat. The Outdoor Research Solar Roller Hat is a really good budget option. Alternatively, bring a cap like the Fjallraven Helags Cap.
Sun protection: I am terrible at wearing sunglasses… but don’t be like me and protect your retinas! I like something like Goodr Circle Gs Sunglasses because they are budget-friendly. I wouldn’t want to invest in an expensive pair and risk losing them. There’s a growing popularity for Oakley Bxtr Prizm Sunglasses which, let’s be honest, would look really cool on the river! Whichever sunglasses you decide to wear make sure to bring a Sunglasses Retainer or leash so you don’t lose them if you take an unexpected swim or flip.
Socks: I went with merino wool Smartwool Socks although some days they didn’t dry fully. It didn’t matter too much since they would be soaking wet the moment I stepped into the river at the start of the day. You could bring along NRS Hydroskin Socks which could prevent some blisters and probably feel a bit better than wet wool socks.
Tent: I brought my tried and true MSR Hubba Hubba Tent on the trip weighing only just over 2 lbs. The Big Agnes Copper Spur Tent is up there with quality, is the same weight, and is super reliable. If you don’t want to break the bank on a tent, the Eureka! Suma Tent is a great option. If you’re sleeping on your own, I’d suggest bringing the MSR 1P Tent or renting it for the trip.
Sleeping liner and pad: Due to the heat, I brought a MEC Camino Sleeping Bag which was perfect. One side was a sheet and the other was quilted. Another option is to bring a Sleeping Bag Liner and left my -9C and -30C sleeping bags at home. If you run cold, you could bring something like Sea To Summit Traveller Bag. The NEMO Equipment Sleeping Pad and Sea To Summit Sleeping Pad (this one is great for side sleepers) are both great light options for this trip (and for future backpacking).
Dry bags: I used the Watershed Westwater 65L Backpack for my main bag and (I wished I had) my contents packed in smaller Outdoor Research 5L Stuff Sacks drybags so my clothes, food, and miscellaneous were seperated (and extra protected) because the 65L is just one big space with no organization. I used the Watershed Ocoee 10L Dry Bag for my camera equipment and anything that I wanted easy access to.
Pillow & headlamp: I love my medium-sized MEC Deluxe Pillow because it’s so cozy and it packs small. The Sea To Summit Aeros Pillow is very similar. My favorite headlamp is the BioLite Head Lamp 425 because it recharged and is super bright. The Black Diamond Revolt is also great!
Camp Kitchen: I didn’t have to bring a stove this time around as the guides boiled water for everyone, but if I needed one, I would bring my MSR PocketRocket 2 Stove so I cut down on weight. Usually, my MSR WindBurner Stove System is my go-to (and doesn’t weigh much more, to be honest). I brought a Hydro Flask Mug for coffee and my Sea to Summit Spork for eating out of dehydrated food bags. The long length is a must!
Water purification: I brought my Grayl UltraPress Purifier Bottle to filter water and Nalgene Graphic 32oz Wide Mouth Bottle to store and drink more water with me on the river. I usually bring my Platypus GravityWorks Filter System in the backcountry and, in hindsight, I think it would’ve been really useful at camp for the group to all use.
Other: A lightweight (1lb to be exact) chair is necessary for seven days of camping. I brought the Helinox Camp Chair and I loved it. It is such a backcountry luxury! If you want an even lighter option you can go with the Therm-a-Rest Z Seat. A First Aid Kit is a good thing to bring, even if the guides on a trip have one for the group. I stuffed Advil, melatonin, and Pepto Bismol (because… Mexico) in the kit. I used the Garmin InReach Mini 2 to let my family know I was safe every night. brought a few Black Diamond Carabiners to strap stuff onto my packraft like my water bottle and my friend brought a Leatherman Multi-Tool which helped me with eating my mangos! I need Nuun Electrolyte Tablets when I’m outside so I loved bringing a tube of 10 with me on this trip since it was so hot outside. I brought the Packtowl Luxe Towel but it was a bit too heavy and big for this adventure. I’d bring the Packtowl Ultralite Towel next time.
Other things to pack include cozy camp clothes (I brought a cotton t-shirt and shorts), a swimsuit, underwear, food, electrolytes, toiletries, feminine hygiene items, toilet paper/wet wipes (and something to pack it out with), hand sanitizer, passport, biodegradable soap (if you want), credit cards/cash, a gear repair kit, ear plugs (if you need them), camera gear (and loads of batteries), power bank/charging cords, sunscreen, and bug spray (although we didn’t need it).
Packrafting for Beginners: My Learnings
This was my first packrafitng trip so of course I learned a few things!
- The hike in and out (of this specific trip) was dreadfully hot and I wish I brought something to hold more water in as I only had one Nalgene.
- Cut your nails so there’s a smaller chance you’ll get dirt under them. They get incredibly dirty, incredibly fast.
- Bring hand or body lotion! Your skin gets so dry after being in the water all day. One gal in our group had lotion and it felt like a luxury to have.
- Get the Helinox Small Chair One Ground Sheet to put on the Helinox Chair so it doesn’t sink into the sand. Gamechanger!
- You spend a lot of time at camp, so make sure you’ll be comfortable in the clothes you bring and make sure to keep them dry.
- Since we camped on sandbanks, sand went everywhere. You could use something like the Therm-a-Rest Z Seat as a place to put your feet before you clean them off to go inside the tent.
- Bring hard water bottles like Nalgenes as some of the soft water bottles ripped on the rocks.
- Closed-toe shoes were a must! Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
- Your hands get a bit raw and will get some blisters from holding the oar and touching rocks so if this would bother you bring small water gloves.
- It’s a good idea to bring something like Tenacious Tape or any waterproof/resistant patching gear for patching holes in sleeping pads or jackets. My sleeping pad had a hole on day two and I patched it to avoid five more nights of sleeping on a flat sleeping pad.