Pass/Fail: Packraft the Desert

Can a group of novice packrafters make it out of Canyonlands in one piece?
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packrafting in a canyon

PFDs and paddles banged into my shins as I schlepped the last load of gear from the shuttle van and dropped it in the red dust at my feet. That’s when I heard Andrew’s voice cut through the air: “Hey, did anyone grab my raft?”

I did not have Andrew’s raft. Based on the looks Will, Stew, and Kalen exchanged, they didn’t either. Our shuttle driver, having received his payment for the 2-hour journey from Moab to the Lathrop Trail on the White Rim Road, made a hasty exit. “Don’t call me!” he yelled before driving away, leaving us with a one-raft deficit in the middle of Canyonlands National Park.

Despite this blunder, we weren’t completely new to packrafting. Will, Stew, and I had recently voyaged to Alaska for a 5-day packrafting trip on the Alatna River in Gates of the Arctic National Park. Since they’re lightweight and portable, packrafts are ideal for hiking-paddling hybrid adventures. But on the Alatna, we spent five days on the water and never hiked. We wanted these inflatable boats to enable the kind of land-and-water trip we dreamed of, so we set out to link the Green and Colorado Rivers—by boat and foot—through all four districts of Canyonlands on a 50-mile journey over three days. It was an ambitious schedule, but we figured a swift current would do much of the work and our stout constitutions could handle the rest.

But we’d lost a boat. Dauntless, Kalen offered to paddle Andrew in her raft if the rest of us could manage his gear. Stew’s boat was fun-sized, barely fitting him and his pack. That left Will and I to wrangle all of Andrew’s belongings. After lashing down the final item on the bow of my craft, I watched as the stern popped up in the air, forfeiting its battle with physics.

Andrew’s legs dangled over the sidewall of Kalen’s raft as she paddled behind him. Within minutes, we had a second problem: Where was the current?

Based on beta from a park ranger, we’d planned the trip around a 5-miles-per-hour flow rate. Instead, we found a lazy current moving at less than half that speed. His face obscured by a mountain of drybags, I heard Will say, “this is slower than bath water.” We’d never cover 23 miles to Spanish Bottom by sunset as planned. So we nixed the Green River and The Maze from our itinerary, instead aiming for a more direct paddle to a hikeable drainage we’d scouted on the map before the trip.

We paddled through the rest of the day, our red-and-yellow boats meandering through the murky brown water like Skittles floating in chocolate milk. We set up camp on a sandbar, then continued paddling the next morning. Our new schedule had us arriving at the confluence of the Colorado and the Green Rivers at dusk. From there, we would deflate our boats, hike 1 mile off-trail up the drainage, and pitch our tents on the canyon rim.

But now we had a third problem: We couldn’t find a way up the drainage. We fumbled through the dark, tortoise-like, with 75-pound packs full of raft gear and water teetering on our backs. After an hour of reconnaissance, we hit an impassable 20-foot-tall rock band. Foiled.

We returned to the river at midnight, bedraggled and exhausted. I’d never struggled so much with routefinding on a hiking trip—the packrafts had let us access an area that was unreachable on foot, and in doing so they’d gotten us into trouble. We were stuck a thousand vertical feet below the rim, hours before Stew’s flight home. Our ambitious weekend suddenly felt like a bad idea.

After an impromptu bivy near the shoreline, we awoke before dawn with renewed optimism. We’d inflate our boats once again and paddle a quick mile to Spanish Bottom. From there, we’d deflate the rafts and hike 11 miles up the Lower Red Lake Canyon Trail to return to our vehicles.

And so, with our rafts packed up for good, we toiled upwards. At some point, the waist belt on my pack ripped open the skin on my hips. Blood stained my pants as I struggled up the steep trail, cursing the rubber boat weighing down my monstrous backpack.

Eventually, we arrived back at the cars, 9 hours late, Stew’s flight from Denver long departed—and having travelled just 38 miles of our planned route. I’m not sure which fared worse: our feet, coated in dried blood from opened blisters, or our egos, having taken such a massive beating. I’ll call this one a draw. 

The Verdict: Fail

Turns out an adventurous spirit and a tight schedule weren’t the best fit. We needed everything to break in our favor, but we kept getting skunked. 

Master the Basics of Packrafting

Multisport voyages take double the preparation. Here’s how to get started.

1. Pack strategically.
With the addition of a raft, your kit will need some rearranging. Cinch paddles and your life jacket to the outside of your pack to free up room inside for your boat and camping gear. Leave behind non-essentials; you won’t regret it.

2. Start easy.
Packrafting involves a lot of variables that regular hiking doesn’t. The gear adds around 15 pounds to your back, so plan to hike at half your normal speed. Paddling pace largely depends on the current, but beginners can expect to cover around 2 miles per hour.

3. Get to know your boat.
Practice inflating and deflating your raft at home—it will save time in the field. Getting the hang of paddling on flat water ahead of time will also make your trip smoother.