Packraft School: The Journey from Packrafter to Paddler


I learned to paddle when I was a teenager. I was fortunate to spend my summers at a canoe and kayak school, with coaches and mentors who constantly drilled into me the routine of practice, refinement and reflection. They saw as much value in refining strokes as getting worked in holes. We practiced rolls, eddy turns, peel outs, ferries and caught surf waves to warm up, and again throughout the day for both fun and to improve our skills. When we scouted a rapid and ran the line, we reflected on how it could be better the next time. As Bill Mason so artfully described, “The Path of the Paddle is more than just a stroke, but rather it is a combination of art, philosophy and a way of life.”

In my experience, packrafters are different in both how they learned to paddle and the practice they put into paddling. Through many multi-day and multi-week packrafting trips from the far north to the far south, the distinction between those who travel downstream in a kayak or canoe and a packraft has become clear. On these remote wilderness packraft adventures, be it low-water creek or voluminous river, a kayaker or canoeist can transition their skillset to a packraft without hesitation. On the other hand, while skilled mountaineers, backpackers and wilderness travelers have the athleticism, grit and wilderness skills to excel at adventures, they’re missing the endless hours of practice and the “Path of the Paddle” philosophy needed to become paddlers.

Photo: Marlena Renwyck

By design, packrafts are forgiving. They’re easy to maneuver. The low center of gravity, buoyancy and width make them incredibly stable. In addition, they tend to punch up and over wave trains with ease, which can increase a novice paddler’s confidence into thinking they are ready to charge into more challenging rapids. In a packraft, Class III is attainable in a few days rather than the few months of experience needed in a kayak or canoe. I think this is why confident outdoors people are easily drawn to packrafts. When the typical trips start to feel stale, packrafts introduce a whole new genre of fun and adventure.

I recently traveled to Ecuador with a group of seventeen enthusiastic packrafters on our journey to become paddlers. Due to the complexity of the logistics, the incredible diversity of the rivers, the unpredictable river flows due to variable rainfall and the lack of reliable gauges to measure the flows, we signed up with Small World Adventures.

SWA literally wrote the guidebook and have been teaching and guiding kayaking in Ecuador for over 30 years. I’ve kayaked extensively in Ecuador and I firmly believe that Ecuador and more specifically, the Jondachi River, is the most amazing paddling in the world. It’s also the perfect place to transition from being a packrafter to becoming a paddler in a packraft.

The Jondachi’s warm clear waters flow freely through a remote and wild jungle canyon. The canyon is filled with so many different and vibrant shades of green trees punctuated by brilliantly colored flowers, such as the punk rock pink mohawks of the Yutzos Tree. As you float, the vibrant birds such as parrots or the fire red Andean Cock of the Rock take your breath away; breath that you desperately need for all the rapids!

In addition to the spectacular scenery, the Jondachi has an incredibly high density of whitewater with dozens of fun pool-drop rapids per mile at levels that will both challenge and make everyone smile. The “Upper” Jondachi is a 10-kilometer run featuring at least eighty-six Class IV to IV+ rapids; the “Middle” is a bit longer in distance with easier Class III rapids and a couple of Class IV thrown in, which can be easily portaged. The “Lower” Jondachi is just as beautiful but more suitable for novice and intermediate boaters at Class II/III. Paddling this much whitewater day after day can turn any packrafter into a paddler. And the Jondachi is just one example of the many different rivers we paddled in our week in Ecuador!

Photo: Trevor Deighton

Each day our group members were able to choose a run that pushed their ability to paddle harder. As they improved, they were able to pick a more challenging run for the next day. From low water and high water to technical boulder gardens and pool drops to continuous whitewater, the versatility and diversity of Ecuadorian rivers vastly improved everyone’s boating skill and provided the perfect venue for our “Packraft School.”

Along with with the opportunity to paddle every day, in warm water, long after the paddling season was over back home, another advantage of Packraft School was embracing challenging day runs with empty packrafts. Paddling an empty boat for a week is really different than spending a week in loaded boats on an expedition, as most adventurers-turned-packrafters do.

When you have to make miles, it’s all too easy to skip eddies and surf waves, pass big rapids to the inside of bends, and neglect opportunities to practice and improve. Paddling a boat loaded with everything you need to survive also gives you a strong incentive to run conservative lines and sneak big rapids. And the relatively low density of rapids on long wilderness runs also limits the opportunities for packrafters to practice. Teeing up to punch a big wave or hole is much more fun when a flip means a low-consequence swim in warm water where it’s easy to self-rescue, flip your empty boat back over and hop in to try it again.

At the end of the week, the entire crew agreed that Ecuador, Small World Adventures and the paddling was awesome. Everyone got the river miles, challenge, practice and expert instruction that was needed to increase their skill and take the big step from packrafter to paddler.

On the first day, everyone was timid, passively floating down the river. By the end of the week, after a ton of river miles and practice, everyone was scouting and running lines, aggressively forward paddling and bracing versus swimming when the line didn’t go quite as expected. Along with this improvement in skill comes an improvement in safety. The team came together, had an amazing and fun week, left with new friends, new rivers and new dreams to return to Ecuador!

Photo: Marlena Renwyck

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Writer’s Note: Sadly, the Jondachi river, and many of Ecuador’s incredible rivers, are under threat from dams, oil and gas development and more. The Ecuadorian Rivers Institute is fighting to save these incredible rivers. You can help by paddling in Ecuador and being a part of showing the government the value of long term, sustainable river tourism. Learn more, get involved and donate to the Ecuadorian Rivers Institute, so they can continue to work to protect these incredible rivers and water resources for future generations.

Guest contributor Trevor Deighton is a mountain guide, a river guide and a middle school science teacher who lives in Teton Valley, Idaho. He’s passionate about getting into the backcountry for short or long adventures.