Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Packrafting in Scotland

Although I only have a week to devote to my spring packrafting trip this year, I'm still really looking forward to the break. April is a great time to be among the Scottish mountains; the midges aren't yet fully established and the hills generally aren't too busy. For a packrafter, the added benefit of snow-melt off the hills, swelling water levels in less-than-reliable rivers, seals the seasonal deal.
Taking a break beside the River Ba (Rannoch Moor, Central Highlands), May 2011
It's a little over three years since I received my packraft direct from Alpacka in the US (and, of course, paid the parcel-force ransom note to release it from captivity). The overall cost seemed like a lot of money then, and it still seems like a lot of money now. But I've got a lot of great use out it and, although it shows scratches and scrapes, it still does what it's intended to do and it still does it well.

My first year with the boat saw a packrafting expedition through the Southern Highlands of Scotland, a trip to the arctic region of Northern Norway, and my first flip (in anger) on the cold River Spey (it was December). There was also lots of practicing the basic stuff, both on still water and on various Scottish rivers (most frequently the river Tweed). Basic stuff like manoeuvring the boat, like ferrying across a current, and like trying to understand the deep water channels and eddies. Subsequent years have seen more trips and more progress against the learning-curve. I've become a comfortably amphibious backpacker. But a backpacker I've remained.
I've tried again and again to sum up what is I think is so great about packrafting, and it always comes back to the backpack. But there's a world of potential in these little boats, far beyond the simple backpacking aspirations I've had these past few years. The dark arts of bike-rafting and white water spring to mind. And while I'm not a biker, I confess I've been feeling more drawn to the splashier stuff over the past 18 months.
So messing about on the river, and just teaching myself, has enabled me to get what I wanted out of my packraft up to a point. But my paddling stroke has remained technically lacking and I haven't taught myself the real white water skills to get the most out of my boat in more significant rapids. I wanted to learn from people who are more than backpackers-in-boats, and luckily I had the chance to get out and do that.
Meall Bhuide ridge, Knoydart,  April 2012

In February I was pleased to finally meet Andy Toop who, along with his business partner Rob, is the man behind Backcountry Biking & Backcountry Boating (Scotland's only packrafting instruction and adventure guiding outfit). Andy and Rob have succeeded in making a business out of a passion, in getting packrafts on the telly (BBC no-less), and also in becoming the official UK distributor of Apacka Raft packrafts .
My friend David and I spent a very snowy night out on the Cairngorm plateau before meeting up with Andy to get acquainted with the River Feshie.  The day out with Andy was a whole-lot of fun and skills I'd attempted to practice by myself were finally made clearer to me. My white water technique has a way to go yet, but I've definitely been bitten by the bug.

In retrospect, the wiser route for learning about packrafting probably would have been to seek out guys like Andy & Rob. Although having said that, I've had a great time and personally have no regrets about going it my own way. It's been an adventure!
River Feshie, Cairngorms, February 2014 (Photo by Andy Toop)
Scotland is a good place for packrafting. And it seems to me it's getting more popular both here and across Europe. If you're on Facebook, you might find the Packrafters Liberation Front and Packrafting in Europe  Groups of interest. Or if you engage via google or Twitter it isn't hard to find people who are getting out there. Quite clearly, the air-pressure is building and Our numbers are growing.  Maybe one day this fetish for extremely high-quality urethane-coated nylon won't seem as weird as this sentence makes it sound...


Loch Morlich, Cairngorms May 2013 (Photo, Sarena Hackenmiller)


  1. I mainly blame your trips in making me spend excessively on mine :-P
    Currently looking at all the areas that I now want to combine my passion for backpacking with the packraft. Scotland seems to excel in this type of adventure.
    Now do I continue to have fun 'going it alone' or get some proper help even though white water doesn't tickle me at the moment.....
    Thanks for the inspiration and I really ought to go through my photos and video and put together my humble offering as a real novice for folk to see that anyone can enjoy these superb rafts :-)

    1. Thanks! Yea, Scotland has quite a bit going for it. Once you get your head in the maps it's easy to see the potential. Sutherland and Assynt are worth a look, as are Torridon and Fisherfield.

      May your boat serve you well!

  2. Hi David. Love your posts. I am a keen backpacker/hiker whatever you wana call it and I have an urge to go for something more adventurous; so packrafting and Scotland seem like the perfect combo. From your advice to a newbie in the area of packrafting which beginner bodies of water, like the lochs or even easy rivers would you recommend to paddle in to start maybe around the Fort William area that can be combined with a hike? Something like Loch Lochy or Loch Rannoch and doing some of the rivers off those? Would you also recommend a course for packrafting or just get out in some calm waters and build it up over the years? Thank you in advance. You are inspiring.


Creative Commons License
Grid North by David Hine is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.