Packraft hunting isn’t a subject often discussed by hunters in the western U.S. Alaskan hunters have been using them for over a decade, but most hunters in the Lower 48 haven’t even heard of packrafts, let alone have an idea about the hunting possibilities available by using them.
Packrafts are small, light, packable rafts. Weights vary, but most weigh between 5 and 15 lbs. The rafts themselves roll down to the size of a two-man tent (slightly larger for some rafts). Because packrafts were perfected in Alaska, most of them (at least the ones worth having) are durable and many can easily handle Class III whitewater.
So how does that help the average big game hunter? There are a few common hunting scenarios where packrafts can be total game changers.
Water crossings: Whether you have to hike in two miles and cross a roaring river or your hunting spot is on the other side of a lake, packrafts can save time and energy, create entrance to areas otherwise inaccessible, and keep you dry on the way to your hunting location.
Floating animals out: If your hunting area has a river running through it, you can use the river to float the animal out and give your back a rest. As long as the animal is somewhat close to the water, transporting it downriver can often cut off several miles of meat hauling. Hunting upriver and floating out can also save time and energy even if the hunt is unsuccessful.
Landlocked public land: Big game animals congregate on private farms and ranches located near rivers.Sometimes hunting permission can be hard to get, but packrafts make it possible to hunt land-locked areas that are adjacent to rivers. These areas often have prime habitat and minimal hunting pressure. You don’t even need road access to the river; just a strip of land that touches the river on both ends of the float (to walk in and out on). Note: Make sure you understand the specific laws on river access/legal ingress-egress for the state you are hunting.
Specs/ Raft Types
If you’re planning to use a packraft for hunting, there are a few features that are important to consider: load capacity, in-tube storage, water-repellent options, pack weight, and price.
Load Capacity: Most packrafts that are built for backpackers can handle the weight of a boned-out deer, but few will handle an elk. Even those that can handle heavier loads won’t be as maneuverable with an animal on the bow.
In-Tube Storage: Dry bags are clipped to the inside of the raft tube toward the rear of the raft. The tubes are then inflated with the dry-bags inside. This option increases the load capacity because it helps counter-balance the weight of the animal.
Water-Repellent Options: Cool/cold fall temperatures, plus water in your raft, is a recipe for hypothermia. Spray skirts keep out 95% of the water that comes over the bow. Self-bailing floors are also a good option for keeping water in the raft to a minimum.
Pack Weight: 8 to 15 lbs. for a pack raft is a significant amount of additional weight to carry all day. Consider how much weight you can add to your normal hunting pack without impacting the distance you’re willing to walk.
Price: Packrafts, like most outdoor equipment, are not cheap. Also, you typically get what you pay for in quality. If you’re not sure which raft to choose, or you don’t think you’ll use one often, renting a packraft can be a good option, too.Disclaimer: This article originally appeared in the Spring 2016 issue of Western Hunter Magazine. These prices and specs were current as of then. Please check with the individual brands for updated information.
In general, packrafts are hard to tip and safe to operate. However, if you add a heavy, awkward load to the front end, some Class III rapids, and cooler fall temperatures, you have a potentially hypothermic situation. Here are 5 tips that will keep you safe on the water while hunting:
- Know the river, or at least talk to someone who has been on the stretch you plan to float. I tipped my packraft and went for a cold swim last May because we hadn’t scouted the river.
- Put anything you don’t want to get wet into a dry bag and prepare for hypothermic situations. A dry bag should contain a change of clothes, fire starter, food, and any important equipment (phone, GPS, map, etc.). Even without tipping your raft, rapids, rain, and your paddle stroke can put a lot of water in your boat. Guns are fairly safe in large garbage bags, tightly taped.
- Always wear a life jacket. I started a packraft hunt during archery season and ended up walking out alongside a river because I forgot a life jacket. It just isn’t worth the risk.
- Have a long p-cord attached to the raft. In the event that you are dislodged from the raft, you or your hunting partner can grab the p-cord. This is also helpful for keeping the raft close if you have to get out.
- Take a whitewater safety course. It might not be convenient, but this is a good idea if you plan on packraft hunting in areas with serious rapids.
Montana Packraft Hunt
This fall I hiked 2.5 miles upriver and shot a mule deer buck. I floated him back to my truck whole. He weighed between 150 and 200 lbs. field dressed and I used an Alpacka Mule with in-tube storage. The raft was harder to maneuver than normal, but the river was calm and I made it back without incident. A group of hunters watched me float up to the public access parking lot. The puzzled expression on their faces was worth the entire hunt. I’m now planning an elk hunt with the same raft for this season. Packraft hunting might seem different, and it is. However, with some planning and a good, applicable area, this can be a great tool to add to your arsenal.
About the Author
Matt Harrington is the owner of Backcountry Packraft Rentals which rents and ships packrafts all over the U.S. Matt and his wife, Allie, live in Browning, Montana. They spend much of their free time hunting, fishing, rafting, and hiking.
This article originally appeared in Western Hunter Spring 2016. To purchase the complete issue, click here!