The Packraft Handbook by Luc Mehl

Over the last few years, the sport of packrafting has grown from a small community mostly consisting of backpackers in Alaska and Tasmania to people from all over the world – potentially anywhere that you can find runnable rivers that are accessible by foot. In more recent seasons, my feed has exploded with river footage from all across the US, Central America, Russia, Austria, New Zealand, Lapland, Scotland, Japan, and on and on. Which in one sense is great to see so many new people discovering what packrafting has to offer. But as the community continues to grow, so does the likelihood of mistakes, injuries, and fatalities. To date, there are twelve fatal accidents recorded that relate to packrafting.

In response to this increasingly important issue, Alaskan boater Luc Mehl published the Packraft Handbook in June of 2021, which is a comprehensive guide to amphibious river running. With the help of illustrator Sarah Glaser, this book provides a very detailed yet simple guide to everything a boater needs to learn – from preparation, to paddling technique, to capsize recovery, and swiftwater rescue. Which I feel is long due in this community. Because while packrafts are generally very stable and forgiving as watercraft, they have given many boaters – myself included – a false sense of security to run bigger rivers where we had no business going without proper training.

It was Luc’s goal to change that trend with this book. By adapting many of the river rescue techniques already developed in the kayaking community to that of packrafts, the book encourages a #cultureofsafety as its core ethos – a community where we can continuously educate ourselves and others on the importance of river safety.

The book is divided into four parts, the first being Foundations. Here, Luc describes the types of packrafts available, equipment, boat control techniques, wet entry, and risk assessment. New packrafters especially will benefit from the knowledge it offers on how to get started.

The second section, Rivers and Open Water, explains the basics of navigating different types of rivers and open water crossings. There are different types of paddling environments with risks inherent to each. Technical swiftwater is different from a windy fjord crossing, but both can be dangerous. It is important to be experienced and prepared.

In the third section, When Things Go Wrong, Luc describes many different types of accidents and the proper rescue response to each, detailing things like self-rescue, throw ropes, entrapment, rolling a packraft, equipment repair, and various examples of First Response emergency treatment that hopefully won’t be needed. I think this section is truly the meat of what we need to understand out there.

And finally, Part 4: Putting the “Pack” in Packrafting has two chapters about planning and logistics. Because it is easy to overpack when you already have to carry ten pounds of river gear. But at the same time, you don’t want to cut too many corners and underpack supplies that you might need, like say, a first aid kit.

It makes me wish I had thought about this four years ago when I made the mistake of running a scary glacial river in Iceland. It was a mile-long river connecting two lakes close to the Jökulsárlón Lagoon in the south coast, and appeared friendly on the satellite. I crossed the first lake and started down the mouth of the river, which was swift but calm. Before I realized it, the current started picking up into a Class II section and I was flying down a center line. Suddenly, I was seconds away from dropping over a river-wide pourover ledge of four feet. And a big hydraulic. With no time to find the line, I charged at it unsuccessfully and got tossed out.

And then I froze. Not literally, but mentally. For about two minutes. Flying down a river.

I thought I could kick my way to an eddy, but the current was too strong. Another rapid was approaching. I snapped out of the fog, threw the paddle across my boat, and lunged forward. I climbed back in and regained control, navigating the breaking waves. Ten seconds after I recovered, I went flying past what might have been a pinning rock.

I had originally planned to run another Class II-III river the next day, but realized as I got to shore that I needed proper rescue training and other partners before attempting something like that again. It could have ended differently. I could have died.

I could have died.

The good news is this this book can give you answers wherever you’re at with your skill level. In my case, I needed more practice at wet exit and recovery. A lot more practice. To the point that it becomes second nature to fall out, flip the boat, and jump back in. I also needed to recognize a wild river when I see one from the satellite. And most importantly, to never go alone on a river like that again. To quote my friend Ben on a similar note, “I lived and I learned.”

Since that trip, I have only done solo trips on easier Class I-II rivers in the Midwest and east coast, usually at the end of the summer when the levels are low. Appalachian rivers like the Shenandoah are nearly all pool-drop flows, allowing for easier recovery between the rapids. And many of them are commercially run, meaning that outfitters are already proactively clearing them of strainers and debris, for pretty obvious reasons. But still, I remind myself that paddling solo will always make me inherently more vulnerable to accidents, and that I need to be extremely cautious. Also, I won’t be running the Gauley in my raft.

But most importantly, I’m due for a swiftwater rescue course – for the benefit of myself and others.

In scuba diving, they teach us that the primary objective of any dive is always to get everybody back safe and unhurt. This is my primary goal of any river trip – for myself and the others to get through it safely. The Packraft Handbook by Luc Mehl explains how. From novice to veteran, boaters of all skill levels can benefit from the knowledge that it offers. So let’s make the #cultureofsafety a worthwhile goal this paddling season.