Packrafts: 3 Reasons To Use Them in Zion’s Narrows

Light, Flexible, Easy to Fix Packrafts: The Perfect Vehicle to Navigate the Narrows

Text & photos by Dan Ransom

This Trailhead is a Total Yard Sale: Packrafts, Paddles and Drysuits Hanging Out to Dry. A couple tents looked haphazardly pitched, and the trucks are caked in thick mud. Our arrival is probably not a very welcome alarm clock.

Kind of an odd scene I thought, when a voice calls out from one of the tents: “You guys running the narrows?”

This is the start of Utah’s Zion Narrows, one of the most beautiful canyons on the entire Colorado Plateau. It’s an incredibly popular destination, one I’ve descended all or in-part nearly a dozen times either as a backpacking trip or an exit to a nearby technical descent. But today we aren’t here to hike it, we’re here to float. And I’m using a packraft.

The guys we are waking up–they paddled this stretch yesterday. It’s an incredible trip they say, one of the best ever. But the approach. It’s miserable. There isn’t enough water. Takes way longer than anticipated. Beats the hell out of the boat. And by the time they got off the river and rallied back up the hill to snag their shuttle vehicle a quick moving thunderstorm blasted through the area and turned the road to complete shit. Hence, this morning’s yard sale.

And now, a little bleary-eyed and sleep deprived, they are looking curiously at our small packs, and wondering if we aren’t about to make some poor decisions ourselves.

“Those packrafts aren’t durable enough…. Right?”

I am not sure if it was meant to be a statement or a question. But it illustrates a common misconception–that by going light we are inherently less prepared and adding unnecessary risk.

In reality, I explain the opposite is true. The primary reason for going light is to move more efficiently and increase the safety margin. The boats are just one of many deliberate gear choices in our backcountry strategy, and it’s when you look at the cumulative effect of all these decisions you see how packrafts punch way above their weight.

Conditions in the Narrows are extremely variable and often flow-dependent. In most conditions, it has moderately challenging paddling whose difficulty is amplified by an inescapable canyon that is notorious for deadly wood. This isn’t a roadside whitewater run, where losing your boat just results in an uncomfortable hike out. The high consequences and essentially no chance for a rescue means if you lose your boat, you may lose your life.

From car to car, we are looking at roughly 16 miles, which makes for a big day. As our friends at the put-in bemoaned, the first seven miles of ELF (extremely low flow) boating is a rock-bashing boat-cracking sufferfest through ankle deep water. One kayaker was forced to turn around only one mile in after cracking his boat. Think a punishing one mile-per-hour-pace of pushing, kicking, portaging and cursing. It might be late afternoon before we even catch a glimpse of boatable flows. But we did it, and with packrafts. These are the reasons why I use a packraft. And we did it carrying incredibly light packs.

Why go light? By going light, we actually have more capacity to pack for contingencies if something does go wrong. In such a high consequence zone, we prepare for the trip as if we will spend the night. There is absolutely no chance of rescue if things get sideways. There is only one way out, and it requires a boat.

So we carried a spare boat.  And spare paddles.

The rest of our contingency plans center around multi-purpose gear.

Even though temperatures outside the canyon will be above 80 degrees, the canyon floor almost never sees sun, and this river was snow just a few miles uphill. Drysuits are mandatory. With an additional layer of insulation, they are surprisingly warm in case of a bivy. The packraft makes a conveniently comfortable place to sleep, PFDs become pillows and a single UltaMid can provide shelter for four if the weather completely turns to shit. Round out the kits with additional food, firestarter and water filter, and there is still room to spare in our 3400 Porter Packs.

For me, the crux of every good wilderness experience is taking what I once considered an obstacle–and rethinking it as a possibility.  And the best pieces of gear contribute to a complete system that is lighter, safer, and more liberating.

3 Great Reasons to Carry a Packraft on Deep Canyon Adventures

#1 Lighter

With a packraft, we can quickly shoulder our packs and in just a few hours make the hike to the Deep Creek confluence–where flows will quadruple. This pays big dividends during the rest of the day as we are less fatigued and more mentally alert; two huge advantages for a long day on a committing read and run river.

#2 More Flexibility

We targeted flows of 250cfs or below, which is considered fairly low. Packrafts are lightweight and draft relatively high, so when the flows are too low for hardshells, it’s still prime for packrafts. Coincidentally, as the gauge height drops so do the consequences. Generally speaking, water slows down, hydraulics and waves get less powerful, and the safety margin increases.

But it’s not just about conserving energy, it’s also about taking that notoriously tiny window for boating in the desert southwest, and prying it open just a few more inches. When the snowpack is marginal, many rivers in the southwest are just plain impossible.

#3 Easier to field repair

Even if durability were an issue, there is always the chance of stuffing your boat into a pile of wood or gashing your tubes on a sharp rock. Field repairs are surprisingly easy and can be done with very lightweight kits, sometimes as easy as a simple peel and stick repair patch. Compare that with a kayak that can often require heating the plastic to punch out a dent, or extensive site preparation in a warm and dry environment before applying a bituthene patch. It’s tough to argue durability as a major factor, especially in bony conditions when a packraft is far less likely to get damaged in the first place.

Rich Rudow navigating The Narrows.
Rich Rudow navigating The Narrows.