David Lintern attended a mini outdoors festival with a difference
Back in May 2017, a small group of outdoor folk congregated at a riverside venue just outside Aviemore for the very first UK packraft get-together. What’s a packraft? The clue is in the name – it’s a raft you can pack on your back when you need to, then blow up when you get to water… a burly, blow-up rubber dinghy, developed in Alaska in the early 2000s as an aid to backcountry travel. The Great Outdoors have featured them in the print magazine for a few years now. They are a perfect way to spice up an adventure on foot or bike, and work especially well in the Lakes and Scotland – places with lots of water in between the hills!
The roundup was the brainchild of long-term packraft advocate and all-round outdoor guru Andy Toop. Andy’s company Backcountry.scot is now the UK distributor for the original Alaskan boats, made by Alpacka Raft. The venue was Inshriach House, a campsite and event space with some pretty funky glamping options, a sauna made from a converted horse box, its own gin distillery, and the rivers Spey and Feshie nearby.
Packrafting is still a small scene, and has yet to reach the high street – it’s growing, but thankfully, it’s doing so organically – and that’s in no small measure down to Alpacka and Andy themselves. The idea here was to gather the UK clan together for the first time. It was a perfect chance to meet some of the family, share stories and best practice for outdoors safety, both on and off the water.
People travelled to attend, and it was great to physically meet people whose adventures I’ve enjoyed digitally for a few years – that’s in the nature of a nascent scene. Among others, Konstantin of Hike Ventures, Gordon from Song of the Paddle, and David Hine, an early adopter who probably has more Scottish touring experience than anyone. A tiny gathering in the scheme of things, but an important one. The owners of Alpacka Raft, Thor and Sarah Tingey, also flew over to attend.
Andy drafted in the support of Mick Spencer of Paddle Active, with over two decades of paddling experience, for the white water session. Most of those trying packrafting for the first time come from a backpacking or mountain biking background, so developing river knowledge is key to the long-term health of the activity, and those involved in it.
Kevin Maule of the First Aid Training Co-op was also on hand for one of the most informative first aid sessions I’ve ever attended, showing us how to adapt the gear we carry anyway to a rescue situation and mitigate emergencies with minimum fuss. The tenor of the taught sessions was all about encouraging personal responsibility and developing self-rescue techniques.
In between the training, there was plenty of time to head off for some time on the water. Some pushed their boat out into the gorge at Feshiebridge, while others headed for the pubs at Aviemore via the more languid River Spey. There was something for everyone.
The evening’s entertainment was provided by Dundee bluegrass outfit Wire and Wool, whose music was as beautifully shambolic as their drinking. The Pixies never sounded as good. Talking outdoor adventures over beers and BBQ, I was struck by how the packraft scene is developing and diverging. For some, it’s all about big, wild tours in the north of Scotland combining walking and boating; some enjoy day tours on canals and waterways; a few strap bikes to their boats; others push the envelope in white water. Yet others were interested in how the boats could be used in creative ways in new outdoor businesses.
This is all healthy for a fledgling scene – and, to Andy Toop’s credit as a convenor, provided just the right amount of structure, allowing the magic of like minds to do the rest. The roundup may have been small but it was perfectly formed.
I know there will be many more packraft gatherings in the future, but there will only ever be one inaugural UK packraft gathering.
The writer: www.davidlintern.com
The host, and supplier of the boats with the most: www.backcountry.scot
The first aid course: www.firstaidtrainingcooperative.co.uk/courses-3/Outdoor-First-Aid/
The white water training: www.paddleactive.co.uk
The venue: www.inshriachhouse.com
The sounds: www.wireandwool.co.uk
All images © David Lintern