At the end of August, I spent a week packrafting down the Alatna River in Gates of the Arctic National Park with a fun group of people. My account of this once-in-a-lifetime trip is published over on the Adventure Travel website. For those of you looking to try your own packrafting adventure someday, below you will find my recommended gear list.
The following list includes not only a high-level look at the main gear I brought with me to Gates of the Arctic, but also the gear I really wish I would have taken on our adventure.
1. Packraft: Alpacka is by far the most popular packraft company. We all rented ours for the trip, with everyone but me getting theirs from Northern Alaska Packrafts in Fairbanks. Top tip: make sure your packraft comes with tie downs and a sprayskirt. Even on calmer water, you will get soaked just from paddling.
2. Waterproof Duffel: Unless you plan to do a ton of hiking on your trip (not an easy feat in the Alaskan wilderness) ditch the backpack and go straight for a waterproof duffel. The Aquapac Upano is absolutely perfect for this kind of trip, with detachable backpack straps for the occasional portage. I recommend using at least a 90L, if not larger, to ensure you can fit all your gear inside for transport or portage, including bear can, packraft, PFD, and paddle.
3: Drysacks: Between the river, rain, and condensation, you and all your gear are going to get wet. Minimize damage by putting everything in drysacks. The PackDivider Drysacks from Aquapac are super light and color coded to help you organize. Sea to Summit also makes great lightweight Ultra-Sil Drysacks. I brought a combo of both. The Caravans from Innate are useful for storing cooking gear and toiletries. Keep in mind the Caravans are not fully waterproof- something I found out the hard way when leaving my cooking gear out in the rain for the night.
4. Footwear: One thing is certain about adventuring in Alaska, your feet are going to get wet. In my personal opinion, ditch the hiking boots and go with one of these two options instead: take the water shoe route as I did, accepting that your feet are going to be wet and cold for most of the day, then change into warm, dry socks and shoes once at camp.
A better option would be to go the tried and true Alaskan rubber boots route. You are going to be wading in and out of deep water and mud most of the day, so these boots will hopefully keep your feet relatively dry and warm. Bring lightweight camp shoes to change into once you are setup for the night.
5. Tent: I originally brought the Sierra Designs Mojo 2 for sleeping, but ended up sharing next year’s MSR Papa Hubba with Will and Heather. Whatever tent you bring, make sure it has a foolproof rain fly, while ample vestibule space comes in handy for helping to keep your gear dry.
6. Sleeping Pad and Sleeping Bag: This summer, I have been sleeping on the Therm-a-Rest Antares Sleeping Bag and NeoAir XLite camping pad combination. As the Antares features a comfort rating of 34°F, I brought along the the SOL Escape Lite Bivvy for those nights I knew it would dip below freezing. This “emergency” sleeping bag liner turned out to be one of the absolute gear stars of the trip for me. Weighing next to nothing, it added a tremendous amount of warmth (15+ degrees) and made all the difference to sleeping comfortably at night. Top tip: I would recommend a synthetic or hydrophobic down bag if possible as your gear is going to get wet as the trip wears on.
7. Satellite Phone: As no cell service is available for hundreds of miles, a satellite phone was absolutely crucial for communication with Brooks Range Aviation to arrange our pickup. A sat phone is also a nice to have in case of emergency. As noted in my SPOT Global Phone review, check the coverage area before buying. Iridium appears to work best in Alaska.
8: GPS: We did not bring a GPS with us, as the topo map was more than sufficient to navigate the river. In hindsight, a GPS or GPS watch would have be useful for creating waypoints when portaging or hiking in order to retrace our steps (much more efficient than using Drew’s PFD hung on a tree).
9: Walkie Talkies: I took a pair of the Cobra Walkie Talkies with me to Alaska, but left them in the car for fear of not making the float plane weight limit. In hindsight, they would have been worth the extra weight. Throughout the entire trip, our group of 5 was consistently split up at some point, whether it be during a portage or just paddling at different speeds down the river. The ability to communicate with each other would have saved us a huge amount of worry and frustration. These will be a must have item for me when next adventuring in a group.
10: Bear Can: Alaska is bear country. For both your and the bears safety, use a bear can. I brought my own, but the Bettles Ranger Station loans them out for free.
11: Bear Spray: We elected to go the bear spray route as our protection from possible attack. You can either buy a can once in Alaska or rent them from Bettles. Once on the ground in Gates of the Arctic, everywhere you go should be with your bear spray at your side.
12. Tarp: A nice to have for creating a dry cooking area on those less than sunny days and also doubles as a spray skirt.
13: Rain gear: Some people wear waterproof paddling jackets, but I found a rain jacket and pants were more than sufficient to keep me dry in the packraft during the day. I wore the Columbia Compounder II Jacket and Storm Surge Pants.
14: Paddling gloves: Paddling does an absolute number on your hands. Neoprene paddling gloves will save your skin, while adding some warmth and wind protection on those colder days.
15: Warm clothes: I wore a merino wool shirt and fleece under my rain jacket while paddling, then changed out of my rain gear and into an insulated jacket (synthetic) and long underwear bottoms at night. I brought one extra merino wool layer, along with wool socks, warm gloves, and a warm hat.
16: Stove: I used the Jetboil Sol Ti to cook all my meals and boil water for coffee and tea. You can buy fuel either when you land in Alaska or from the store at the Brooks Range Aviation office in Bettles.
17. Water Filter: Unfortunately, Gates of the Arctic does have Giardia in their water so you will need to filter. The 4L Platypus Gravityworks Filter was sufficient enough to filter water for all 5 of us each day.
Any questions on packrafting gear?