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Packrafting in Scotland - All You Need to Know

Far lighter and more packable than a conventional solid boat, yet seaworthy and durable enough to be used safely on open water, packrafts make it possible to enjoy amphibious journeys combining walking with paddling. With so many remote lochs and extensive river systems, the possibilities in Scotland are almost unlimited, says packraft evangelist Robert Taylor.


Scotland lies divided, cut to pieces by water. Maree, Morar, Assynt, Veyatie, Laggan, Shiel, Monar, Ericht; these splashes of blue on our OS maps are, by and large, an obstacle to the mountaineer. A well appreciated, scenic obstacle, but an obstacle nonetheless. Scotland's rivers are much the same, winding their way through our hill days, something between an uncrossable barrier and a hoppable trickle. We plan our forays into the hills giving little thought to the water that lies in the glens, other than to consider bridges, likely crossing-points, fords and shallows. We may check recent rainfall and pack a pair of old trainers for shin-chilling wades.

Setting out from Slattadale for a packraft tour of Loch Maree and Fionn Loch  © Robert Taylor
Setting out from Slattadale for a packraft tour of Loch Maree and Fionn Loch
© Robert Taylor

There is, however, another way. Enter, the packraft.

For fans of long, wild journeys, the idea is compelling - an inflatable craft that's 'sea'worthy enough for long miles on inland water, yet sufficiently compact and lightweight to be carried in or on your rucksack, allowing you to make big amphibious link-ups of lakes and rivers without the arduous portaging necessary with a non-inflatable boat.

A packraft will fit comfortably in your pack and in the back of your car. Once dried out, it will live happily in the bottom of your wardrobe. A canoe won't do that

It helps to have a big pack!  © Robert Taylor
It helps to have a big pack!
© Robert Taylor

What is it?

Inflatable boats are nothing new. Since becoming available as military surplus immediately after the second world war, rafts of various descriptions have been used in river descents and loch crossings.

The packraft, however, didn't get going until the early 1980s, when a few designs of lightweight, inflatable boat became available and they found their way into the hands of hunters and backcountry adventurers, largely of the North American variety.

Challenging conditions on Fionn Loch  © Robert Taylor
Challenging conditions on Fionn Loch
© Robert Taylor

In 2002 Alpacka raft began offering high-spec, lightweight rafts for sale. Material technology had moved on in leaps and bounds; welded seams and lightweight, non-stretchy TPU (thermoplastic polyurethane) had replaced the clumsy rubber dinghies of yesteryear. Weight came down and designs proliferated, from open rafts usable only on flat water to spraydecked models capable of running rapids normally the domain of the whitewater kayak. Features such as ti-zips began to appear, offering the possibility of storing camping gear inside the inflated tubes.

Pack size of a small packraft, minus the spraydeck  © Robert Taylor
Pack size of a small packraft, minus the spraydeck
© Robert Taylor

Today's packrafts weigh from 1kg to around 4kg, depending on the thickness of the material used, their size and features. They fit, rolled up, under the lid of a pack and you can dry them out over your bathroom door. They are inflated using a bag, then topped up with a few lungfuls of air, similar to a modern inflatable sleeping mat.

The availability of robust, lightweight packrafts, and accounts of the adventures of hardcore early adopters, have fuelled an explosion in interest in this once ultra-niche activity. Packrafting has flourished, in particular in Canada and New Zealand.

And now, in bright colours and with a flashing of paddles, they are here. But can a sport born in the Alaskan wilderness and coming of age among the aquamarine fjords and rivers of New Zealand take root in Scotland?

Packraft, loaded up and ready to go  © Robert Taylor
Packraft, loaded up and ready to go
© Robert Taylor

If you fancy giving packrafting a go, there are places in Wales and Scotland where you can spend a day with an instructor and all the requisite kit. Otherwise, you'll need:

  • A packraft
  • A padde (ideally one that breaks down into four peices; many packrafters use ultralight carbon fiber models)
  • A personal flotation device. Also called a lifejacket and generally held to be a good idea
  • A helmet, drysuit, paddle leash/boat leash, depending on where and when you are going and what you're doing there

It goes without saying that water poses a set of hazards all of its own. It isn't within the scope of this article to provide a full run-down of best practice and safety guidance. Speak to canoeists and kayakers and consider seeking professional instruction. Some instructional material is available, with Luc Mehl's 'Packrafting Handbook' being the most up-to-date work on the subject.

Rachael and Rhum enjoying a mirror-flat Loch Sionascaig  © Robert Taylor
Rachael and Rhum enjoying a mirror-flat Loch Sionascaig
© Robert Taylor

Should you get a packraft?

Packrafts are not a panacea. They are still an expensive, niche item, though some big retailers have got involved (most notably Decathlon) and begun to bring down the price of entry. Packrafts have serious limitations when compared with other watercraft. 210 denier TPU, the industry standard tube material, is surprisingly durable but it is not impervious to scrapes and punctures, from rocks or barbed wire. A packraft has a relatively low 'hull speed' compared to a canoe or kayak; it's easy to kick along at 3.5 to 4 km/h but any attempt to go faster will be met with rapidly diminishing returns. And as for paddling into any significant wind, forget it.

But a packraft will fit comfortably in your pack and in the back of your car. Once dried out, it will live happily in the bottom of your wardrobe. A canoe won't do that. As with many items of kit a packraft is a set of compromises which, if you understand and accept them, can open up a number of possibilities. Those possibilities are limited only by our imagination and some quirks of topography.

While fun can certainly be had in the Lake District and elsewhere, highland Scotland, with its long lochs and extensive river systems, is the most obvious part of the UK for some serious mileage linking up bodies of water with on-foot sections in between.

The River Bran near Achnasheen, a crucial link in a cross-Scotland epic  © Robert Taylor
The River Bran near Achnasheen, a crucial link in a cross-Scotland epic
© Robert Taylor

Scotland's watershed lies close to the west coast; our prevailing winds are westerlies. Therefore, if planning a monster packrafting trip across the country it makes sense to go from west to east. This is exactly what Alastair Humphreys did when he started at Loch Morar and ended by rafting down the Spey, following in the intellectual wake of several zany, week-long canoe crossings of the country by masochistic canoeists over the years. The classic of this genre has to be starting from Poolewe, paddling Loch Maree to its east end, portaging to scenic Lochs Clair and Coulin before undertaking the gruelling (with a canoe) cross-country trek to paddle Loch a' Chroisg and the River Bran, before finishing down Loch Luichart and the Conon system to Conon Bridge. I've done sections of this in a packraft but I've yet to try for the whole thing.

Of course it's not always plain sailing - caught in a squall on Loch Maree   © Robert Taylor
Of course it's not always plain sailing - caught in a squall on Loch Maree
© Robert Taylor

There are of course many shorter and more sensible options.

Loch Maree and Fionn Loch

Loops based on Loch Maree and Fionn Loch have proved popular. Two friends and I were looking at a day of strong westerlies, followed by a day of relative calm and then a day of strong easterlies. We left a car at Tollie Farm car park and put-in at Tollie bay. Hugging the north shore for a bit of safety, we paddled and were blown (and occasionally beaten down by squally rain) until we could cut across into the relative shelter of the Maree Islands. These are well worth a visit; a pristine little archipelago of Scots pine and juniper. We camped for a night on a beach on Eilean Sùbhainn; home to the geographical quirk that is an island in a loch, on an island, in a loch, on an island!

Portage in the Maree islands - packrafts are a lot lighter than solid boats!  © Robert Taylor
Portage in the Maree islands - packrafts are a lot lighter than solid boats!
© Robert Taylor

The next day we paddled to Isle Maree (home to a quirky cemetery and much pagan history) and then to Letterewe, where we deflated our rafts just west of the mouth of the Allt Folais before starting the long walk up and over Srathan Buidhe, camping that night by the east end of Fionn Loch.

We woke to find that the forecast hadn't let us down; all we had to do was stop the strong easterly from pushing us onto the south shore of the loch and we'd be fine! After a wet and wild paddle we took out at the 'Bad Bog' boathouse and began the long walk along estate tracks to Inveran. There we inflated our rafts for the last time and paddled the River Ewe to just before the first set of rapids. We clambered out up a steep bank and walked for ten minutes back to our car.

Cross country from Ft.William to Dalwhinnie

For those searching for a more linear journey, Fort William to Dalwhinnie offers a challenging three day trip. I decided to aim to paddle on the windiest of three days, with a strong southeasterly forecast.

Ready to paddle the length of Loch Treig, day two of a three-day Fort William to Dalwhinnie trip  © Robert Taylor
Ready to paddle the length of Loch Treig, day two of a three-day Fort William to Dalwhinnie trip
© Robert Taylor

A mild and sunny January day took me, on foot, from Fort William to Staoineag bothy via Glen Nevis. The next morning a short walk brought me to Creaguaineach Lodge and a fast paddle up Loch Treig with the wind at my back. Forestry tracks from Fersit led to Laggan dam and the realisation that the woods on the south side were too thick for me to reach the shore of the reservoir! A quick walk across the dam and a clamber over some spiky railings saw me putting in and padding, with a light wind at my back, to the River Spean at Moy. I had wondered if I'd need to take out and portage here, as I'd be paddling against the flow, but as it was I managed to paddle clean through to Loch Laggan, camping that night by the shore north of Binnein Shuas.

Day three, after a night of atrocious weather, saw me abandon my original plan of paddling to Kinloch Laggan in favour of taking a more direct route through the hills to Dalwhinnie.

One day wonders

The weight of camping kit and a packraft can be a serious fun-sponge; fortunately, not every packraft trip needs to be a multi-day affair.

The far northwest, with its landscape of loch, sea loch and sandstone behemoths is ideal terrain for packrafting. A short walk from the shore of Loch Lurgainn had a friend and I putting-in on Loch an Doire Duibh. Often quirky, complex little lochans are more fun to paddle than big, impressive lochs; we got into Lochan Gainmheich and portaged along the little sliver of water connecting this to Sionascaig. This was like a mill-pond, with not a breath of wind disturbing the reflections of Suilven and Cul Beag. After an enjoyable break on Eilean Mòr we paddled to Boat Bay, took out and walked to our stashed car.

Boat Bay at the NW end of Loch Sionascaig  © Robert Taylor
Boat Bay at the NW end of Loch Sionascaig
© Robert Taylor

The Polly Lochs, putting in at Boat Bay, exploring Sionascaig and returning via Loch Uidh Tarraigean with a short portage to Loch Call an Uidhean is an excellent introduction to packrafting.

A popular day-loop (and one offered by one of the few commercial outfits to specialise in packrafting) is to walk or cycle from Aviemore to Loch an Eilein, paddle to the far end then walk to the Spey and paddle back to Aviemore.

A springtime trip to Slioch, where paddling saves a long walk-in  © Robert Taylor
A springtime trip to Slioch, where paddling saves a long walk-in
© Robert Taylor

Amphibious approach to hill days

As for accessing hills, I have has packrafted in to near Shenavall bothy (via bike, then up Loch na Sealga) and to Slioch (exchanging the walk from Incheril for a quick paddle across Loch Maree). A daytrip to climb Fionn Buttress on Carnmore was made feasible by a short paddle rather than a very long walk. We'd have been quicker in a canoe or a kayak, but we couldn't have deflated those and hidden them under a bush while we were off climbing. Ben Alder Cottage, Oban and Sourlies bothies; they've all been accessed by packraft. Suilven via Loch Veyatie, starting from Elphin, would be another superb day out.

Where else?

Knoydart has proved a draw for the more adventurous packrafters. Bikerafting - using a packraft and a fatbike - has its advocates, with teams finding surprisingly logical routes through our landscape. For those with whitewater skills, packrafts open up the possibility of catching remote Scottish rivers in high condition and running sections, with first descents there for the taking.

With a packraft and some planning, Scotland's yer oyster  © Robert Taylor
With a packraft and some planning, Scotland's yer oyster
© Robert Taylor

Where will packrafting in Scotland go? We don't have tracts of Alaskan backcountry or New Zealand's extensive fjord and river systems. There are roads by many of our lochs and rivers. With a bit of imagination though, and a willingness to think outside the box, I think we can have a packrafting scene of our own. I've a list as long as my arm of potential packraft trips, now I just need to find the time to get out and do them!

On Loch Maree, with Slioch in the background  © Robert Taylor
On Loch Maree, with Slioch in the background
© Robert Taylor


About Robert Taylor

Rob Taylor doesn't mind whether he is climbing, walking, packrafting or mountaineering; provided it is somewhere nice, with good company. He works variously as a seafarer and an Antarctic guide, and spends as much time as possible in the hills.

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