After my snowboarding post, there is a danger that this blog might slowly morph into a bucket-list of silly sports a middle aged man really ought not to be trying for the first time. Tune in next week to see Ben sky-dive! (FWIW, not happening. Ever) Regardless, I need to talk about an awesome new addition to our outdoor activities here in Montenegro – packrafting.
What is packrafting?
I’ve been an advocate of inflatable kayaks for the whole decade we’ve been running Undiscovered Montenegro. Super stable, super light and massively portable, they allow us to paddle to and from places that many others would consider impractical and inaccessible. I mean, check out our Lake Skadar kayaking trips!
What they aren’t so good for is white water – and that’s where packrafts come in.
Packrafts take the inflatable kayak idea to its natural zenith – what is the least amount of boat you require to navigate anything, including up to Class 4 rapids? The answer, according to our awesome kayaking guide, Gigo, are these amazing little vessels from US firm Kokopelli. Short, stubby and built for one person only, they are self-bailing (ie, they have holes in the floor to instantly drain the water out), inflate/deflate in less than a minute and weigh about 3 kilos, one fifth the heft of my tandem inflatables. Their makers claim that you can roll them up and stuff them in your rucksack, then when you get to the water, you can then let them carry you and your rucksack until you decide to hike again. More expensive variants even allow you to carry gear inside the pontoons via a tricksy waterproof zipper. Gigo, though, was more interested in using them purely as a hyper-practical water craft that he could carry to a remote launch point, and then just throw over his shoulder when he was done instead of lugging his usual 25kg sit-inside boats through forests and up steep slopes.
“I tell you, Ben – these things are so good, I’m never going to buy a kayak again.” Would I, he asked, like to come try them out on a packraft whitewater course over the weekend, on the Cijevna and Morača rivers, both within 45 minutes’ drive of Villa Miela?
What do you think?
First impressions on dry land: these things don’t weigh 3kg. It’s more like two. They look like ugly little yellow bath toys but you can feel straightaway that the design is right on point when you get on the water. The inflatable seat and backrest holds you snuggly in place, and with nice wide volume, flat water stability is excellent. Tracking – going straight – is obviously rubbish, you’ll be steering with your paddle, but overall maneuverability is what you’re after on white water, and one flick will spin the packraft through 360 degrees instantly.
First Gigo took me and fellow noob Zoran through a safety briefing, covering the equipment and signals, how to enter and exit “eddies” (calm spots on the side of the river, out of the way of the main current), and protocols and contingencies for if we fell out, for which we were equipped with full wetsuits, helmets and buoyancy aids. This last section was unusually thorough, giving me the distinct impression that falling out of the boat was more a matter of “when” than “if”.
On flat water, the packrafts are a doddle to pilot, but because they are so light (and because the heaviest part of the package – you – is sat on top), it doesn’t take much to tip you over. Entering and exiting those eddies on our practice runs saw both Zoran and I take early baths into the fresh snow-melt of the river, like snowboarders attempting their first turn. Eddy technique requires you to cross the current at over a 90 degree angle and then perform a sweep-stroke turn to face down-river, edging (leaning) into the turn as you do so before stabilising yourself with a paddle in the water the other side, all in one swift movement. Edge too far in one of these and you capsize. Don’t edge far enough and you turn backwards, overbalance the other way and you capsize. Get it right, though, and the current will whisk you away with almost no effort. Then you get to the exciting bit, riding over, under and occasionally through the rapids. It’s tremendous fun, and the natural surroundings are absolutely stunning.
Get the balance wrong and…well, you’ll fall in. It’s not actually as scary as it sounds. On one occasion on the Cijevna I tumbled out backwards after getting snagged in a tree while almost stationary at the side of the river (graceful!). Gigo, ever the pro, zipped in front of me and caught my packraft while I kept hold of my paddle (the number one sin is to lose it). Floating round the corner to an eddy, I clung on to a rock. Giggling in embarrassment, I wasn’t quite in position to get back in the raft once Gigo had brought it to me, but before I could try, Zoran came careering around the corner and in attempting to enter the eddy at speed, succeeded only in capsizing himself and knocking me free.
And that was how I came to be negotiating two series of rapids over about 300m without a boat.
After the initial alarm – which I admit is something like “oh, b*****” – you soon realise that with a buoyancy aid on, there’s no chance of going under. Feet in front of you to deflect off the rocks, paddle in hand, I felt unusually calm throughout the experience, despite being one packraft short of the normal allocation. After bouncing off some rocks and entering calmer waters, I eventually managed to spot an eddy on the right. By far the most strenuous bit was attempting to swim out of the current, but I made it, and hauled myself onto the rocks for a breather. I knew that Zoran was upstream but had no idea if he was still in the water or not, while I’d already seen Gigo zipping off downstream, presumably to catch whichever runaway packraft he hadn’t already secured.
Watch this video to see if I made it
Gigo had us well drilled. After a few minutes I heard the blast of a piercing whistle, and like a good doggy I relied on my training.
“If we are separated, we all go to whoever is furthest down river,” Gigo had explained. “If you hear the whistle, get on the water and come to me.”
Well, ok then! In I jumped, and sure enough, a few bends further down, there was our implacable instructor, waiting with my boat. A few minutes later, Zoran rejoined us and we were free to continue after a quick debrief. Contrary to what you might think, this episode was actually less nerve-wracking than it was hugely reassuring. First, it proved that Gigo was in complete control, even though both his students had lost their boats and ditched in two different places. He had our backs. Second, it proved that swimming through the rapids was no big deal. Unlike sit-inside kayaks, you can’t really roll a packraft (though Gigo reckons it can be done with some strapping and a death wish), so there’s no danger of dangling upside down underwater, every kayaker’s major fear.
The upshot was that these canary yellow packrafts actually inspired confidence like very few other boats I’ve been in. Soon, I was tackling rapids that would have previously made me nervous, knowing that the worst that could happen was another little swim and a gulp of cool, fresh water. By the time we had finished our second day on the Morača, my control had improved enough to have toppled out only once on a 15km stretch of gorgeous white water, and that right at the start. By the end of the day, Gigo trusted me enough to have some fun of his own – not always possible when you’re instructing! I would have been up for going back to the start for another go but sadly, fin means fin. Clambering out of the water, we deflated the rafts, tucked them under our arms and walked back up the steep slope to the car we’d left waiting for us. As Kokopelli say – ain’t no portage like a 2kg portage.
So what’s the verdict?
Packrafting is brilliant fun, and with so many sparkling, natural rivers right here on our doorstep, it’s a natural addition to our roster of activities from April-June. I’m less convinced about the Kokopelli marketing suggesting you can go mountain-biking and hiking and then just take your gear with you on the water (not on rapids you won’t!), but I have to agree with Gigo – if you’re into white water and want the easiest, most beginner-friendly, portable option there is, to access the most remote – ahem – undiscovered – rivers, there’s genuinely no need to buy a traditional kayak again. These little boats are where it’s at.
Want to give it a try? We have an exciting long weekend trip launching soon – keep an eye on our Facebook and Instagram feeds. Packrafting is also now available May-June as a free day activity on our hosted lake adventures and from July-October on our active mountains adventures. 15+ only.