Packrafting with Roman Dial

By Bill Hatcher December 7, 2012
Reading Time: 5 Minutes Print this page
Photographer Bill Hatcher on packrafting genius Roman Dial.

IN 1983 ADVENTURER Roman Dial first climbed into a 2kg, one-man inflatable boat as a means for crossing rivers on his way to win the Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic, a 250km mountain adventure race.

During that event he realised the potential that lightweight river boating – later called packrafting – could play in wilderness adventures.

Since then, Roman has extended packrafting to be included in many of his epic adventures in Alaska and around the world.

With the growing popularity of the sport, Roman released his book Packrafting! An Introduction and How-to-Guide in 2007.

Today, nearly 30 years since his first time in a packraft, Roman’s enthusiasm for this micro watercraft has not diminished.

He guesses he has packrafted about 250 rivers over four continents and has done paddled over thousands of kilometres in the process.

Last year, he boated for more than 70 days including multi-day trips like the Landsborough River in New Zealand and the Copper River in Alaska.

On his blog, The Roaming Dials, Roman posts frequent accounts of his and his family’s packrafting adventures, and many links connecting the world’s packrafting community.

His YouTube channel has over 70 videos of his packrafting adventures, including to Kakadu, the Kimberley, and Tasmania.

During the 20 years I have known Roman we’ve enjoyed many packrafting adventures, including a 1300km mountain bike traverse of the Alaska Range, a trek across the Brooks Range in the Arctic, and a tour of Utah’s Canyonlands National Park that included crossings of the Colorado and Green rivers.

Recently, Roman and his 24-year-old son Cody visited Tasmania with their packrafts. I joined them for two weeks, culminating in a five-day trip down the Franklin River. During our busy two weeks together in Tassie I grabbed a chance to ask Roman a few questions about the sport.

So, where is the sport of packrafting right now?

Right now, the cutting edge of packrafting is whitewater: people running big water in the Grand Canyon and steep creeks in Alaska, Colorado and Wyoming.

Outside of the USA the whitewater potential of the boats is just starting to catch on. In Tasmania people use packrafts because they are light and there are lots of traverses with rivers that are better to float down than bush bash alongside.

So older guys, like John McLaine and Matt Brain, and younger ones like Elliam Hedges, are doing really hardcore wilderness traverses that are like Alaska wilderness trips in that they link boating and walking, but they are doing them in Tasmania.

The extreme of wilderness packrafting are the trips that Erin McKittrick and Hig Higman do, such as their Seattle to the Aleutian Islands, a 6500km trip! They left Seattle and walked north – they aren’t athletes or skilled boatmen – and used the boats to cross bays and paddle coastline that was too steep to walk.

They used the boats for about a third of the distance. It took them over a year to do this trip.

The other extreme of packrafting is the grade 5 kayakers who have gotten into packrafts – these are relatively young kids. Since few grade 3-4 first descents for kayaks remain with easy access – they were all swallowed up by older guys years ago – young hot shots eye packrafts as “first-descent machines”.

Adrenaline-addicted boaters will shell out money for a helicopter put-in for a first descent on a grade 5 river, but they won’t for a grade 3-4. So these kids, these 20-something kids, are looking around thinking about what they can do and they think, “Ahh the packraft… I can walk in and clean up the last of the undone descents!”

And they’re good, grade 5 kayakers. They’re the ones who put thigh straps in the packraft and started Eskimo rolling these boats; they’re the ones familiar with grade 5 creeks and they know when water levels are good to do these drops and they are running grade 5 water in packrafts, hucking 10m waterfalls and staying in their boat! So those are the two extremes.

When did the use of packrafts for whitewater become common in Alaska?

Since about 1998 with the introduction of the Alpacka packraft. This woman Sheri Tingey started making the Alpacka boat and it was the dreamboat: this was the boat we wanted.

And she was talking with me. Here was this designer asking me, “What ideas do you have?” And I said… I have ideas. So I brought a prototype to come do the Franklin [in early 2002]. That boat was one of the first Lama models and it is still a popular boat today.

What do you see as the greatest attribute of the packraft?

It’d have be the weight. The whole packraft kit weighs 20 pounds (8kg) and fits in a day pack. That’s a boat, paddle, PFD, dry suit, and helmet and it weighs only 20 pounds! With that you can run 90 per cent of all the rivers people run in the world. You can take this anywhere. It’s awesome.

If weight isn’t the issue, why choose a packraft over a hardshell kayak?

In a kayak you have to know how to roll, even in grade 3 and in grade 4 rivers if you don’t have a roll… grade 4 is out! Packrafts, especially with thigh straps and a spray deck, are much more forgiving.

Also, you can run super-low water and it’s still fun!  Water that would be frustrating in a kayak is fun in a packraft. People who want to learn to read water in a kayak have to learn how to roll first.

Learning a combat roll [a roll in rapids and moving water] is a tricky technical thing. I hate to say this, and kayakers will sneer, but packrafts are for people who want to get into whitewater but can’t roll.

I’ve hardshell kayaked and I owned a hardshell briefly in the ’80s, but I don’t like how hard they feel. It’s like being raised on a mountain bike then someone handing you a road bike and saying “ride this”.

The road bike is a hard ride, touchy and twitchy. Sure it’s fast and responsive but not nearly as much fun as a mountain bike. I think the packraft is to a hardshell what a mountain bike is to a road bike.

How can a packraft change my life on my next trip into the bush?

Once you get a packraft and start hiking and boating you tend to look at maps completely differently. All of a sudden it’s, “Hey, let’s link up this hiking trip with this river”.

I think a great traverse in Tasmania would be to hike the Overland Track to the headwaters of the Franklin then float the Franklin to where it meets the Gordon and then somehow – I don’t know how – you get over toward Lake Pedder and float the Crossing and Davey rivers out to the coast and then take the South Coast Track out.

So you would traverse the whole World Heritage Park from north to south – that would be incredible! I like to see big landscapes and a variety of landscapes so a trip like this would be a fantastic transect. The packraft opens up so much more potential.

What is the best river you have packrafted in Australia?

I think the Franklin is one of Australia’s best packrafting rivers, and the packraft is the ideal boat for the Franklin. When I first rafted this river [solo] in 2002 it was a great trip, but scary. I came back this year with my son Cody to run the Franklin with the new boats.

I wanted to see if the Franklin is as good as it was 10 years ago. Now I see that it’s even better. For 100km it has great pool-drop style rapids, world-class wilderness, and a variety of landscapes. And the portages are super easy with the light boats.
I would rank the Franklin as the best packrafting river in the Southern Hemisphere, better than any multi-day trips I’ve done on NZ’s South Island or Chilean Patagonia.

What is your dream packraft trip?

My dream packraft trip would be about seven days long – I think a week is a perfect length for a packraft trip. My trip would be a half float and half hiking trip, but the boating and hiking would not be in just two big chunks.

I would walk a day then boat a day, and then walk again. Ideally, I would start with a hike to a river, the boating would start easy, with grade 2, then another day hiking. The third day I’d do a grade 3 river.

Another day of hiking then near the last day when my pack is light I’d boat out on a grade 4 river. It’d have good friends and family and no bridges, roads, fences or farms. There’d be wildlife and mountains and finish at the sea. That’d be my dream trip.