Story by Lizzy Scully & Steve “Doom” Fassbinder, photos by Doom. Stay tuned for a feature Q&A with Doom to be published May 24!
What You Absolutely Need For Bikerafting! Boat, Paddle, PFD, Bike & Bike Straps
There are only a few things you absolutely need to go bikerafting… You need a boat, a paddle, a PFD, a bike, something to carry your gear (bike bags or a backpack) and bike straps of some kind (bungees or OK, burly Titan Straps are ideal). But really it could even be twine or a vine you find on the side of the river, or straps on your backpack that you take off.
If you’re doing an overnight trip, add camping gear to the mix. Running cold water or whitewater? Bring a drysuit. And always, of course, bring the proper clothing for the climate, weather and altitude where you’re bikerafting.
The ideal scenario with bikerafting is to bring things you’ll use for both the bike and boat portions of the trip. Titan Straps are useful to lash a boat to your handlebars or water bottles to your downtube, and also to lash your bike on the boat. Just remember, don’t carry extra stuff. You’ll regret your heavy load immediately as you’re pedaling (or more likely walking) that first hill.
Now to do a deeper dive into your packrafting gear…
What boats are ideal for bikerafting? Are there some that are better than others? Why or why not?
There are a million different combinations of putting a bike and a boat together. The high-volume Alpacka Caribou is the only boat made specifically for bikerafting. It has a larger bow and allows you to keep the bike a little higher out of the water. But, that boat is ultra-light, and the fabric not as strong as the fabric on Alpacka’s other boats or on boats sold by other companies. So, you wouldn’t want to take it in a situation where you’re going to abuse your boat a lot (dragging it over rough terrain, running rocky whitewater, etc).
Most people will want to use a whitewater-style boat for Class III and harder whitewater trips. You’ll want your thigh straps and back bands to navigate the rapids. Whitewater boats typically have a higher volume and are more useful if you’re running more technical water. Unfortunately, they are bulkier and heavier than the flat-water counterparts.
The easiest of the boats to bikeraft with are open boats with no decks. Decks interfere with the bikes. Just leave your skirt and coaming behind.
However, if you only have one boat and it has a spray deck, don’t worry. Just be really careful about how you set your bike up on your boat so you don’t damage the deck. You can pretty much do a bikeraft trip with any boat out there without any trouble whatsoever. It just may be a bit less comfortable.
Can you still use a spray skirt when you use a decked boat?
Spray decks leave less room for a bike. When you don’t have a spray deck you have much more flexibility as far as where you can put the bike and how much you can adjust it to balance the weight. So, it’s better to not have a spray deck.
However, some people only have one boat. In that case, you need to consider a few things. You’ll have to run your bike really far forward to make sure you can easily pop the spray skirt off should you flip and you need to get out of the boat quickly. The bike can get in the way of that because it sits on the coaming and doesn’t allow you to pull the skirt off. Practice in a safe, flatwater scenario before you try to bikeraft with your bike on your boat while using your spray deck and skirt.
It’s really important that you make sure you have an escape plan when you’re using a spray deck.
Should I bring a drysuit?
That’s a big question. Whether or not you bring a drysuit depends on a lot of things. Where are you’re going? What time of year are you’re going? What are your abilities? How long is the water crossing? How much cold you can tolerate? What boat you are using?
Basically, if you get cold easily, err on the side of having a drysuit and/or a decked boat. If you’re crossing a big, cold body of water during the shoulder season or running a cold river, not having a drysuit can mean the difference between life and death. I never bring wetsuits, as they are too heavy. You’ll find your optimal balance the more experience you get.
Should I bring a PFD?
Yes. You should bring the appropriate PFD for the water you’re paddling. See the chapter, “Bikerafting Safety” for more details.
Should I bring a helmet?
If you are doing any sort of whitewater, you must always bring a whitewater helmet and wear it at all times in rapids. We do use bike helmets at times on trips in order to cut down on the weight. However, bike helmets are not ideal for running whitewater as they don’t give you sufficient coverage. They can also be easily and quickly rendered useless by impact. Paddling Magazine regularly runs reviews on the best whitewater helmets (and other gear). So, do a Google Search to get the best recommendations, or call your local raft store and ask for their opinion.
Can I bikeraft with a two-person boat with two bikes?
Note, because Doom has no experience bikerafting with a two-person boat (and few people do), we asked Liz Sampey to answer this question since she embarked on a lengthy, international bikerafting expedition where they bikerafted for many days with two bikes on a two-person boat.
(Liz Sampey) Yes, it’s possible to strap two bikes onto a two-person packraft. And it can make sense to only bring one boat for a few reasons. You may have space/weight constraints on the bikes. One person could be a much stronger paddler than the other in whitewater. A duo of paddlers may want to use the strength of two people paddling together to travel faster over longer distances in flat water.
On my recent three-month winter expedition in Pakistan/India/Nepal, all three of these circumstances were the case. Thus, my teammate and I decided to take a two-person Alpacka Forager.
How do I deal with two bikes on my boat?
In these situations where you want to put two bikes and two people in one packraft for long-distance travel, I recommend various things. Nestle the two bike frames head to tail on the bow, with one bike’s chainstay sticking out one side and the other bike’s fork sticking out on the other side. Make sure the bikes are not too far back, and that the front paddler can get a full paddle stroke.
The front seat cushion may need to be pulled back slightly. To compensate for that you will want to stow some of the heavier gear in the front of the tubes in the bow. Depending on the weight of the front versus rear paddler, think about the most optimal weight distribution with paddler and gear positioning and pack accordingly.
Then, place just one wheel on top of the frames. Any more and it will impair the front paddler’s vision.
The remaining three wheels nest on top of each other on the stern. Take care to pad any rotors if necessary, and check that no rotor or cassette is making contact with the boat. Make sure the bottom wheel isn’t dragging in the water. Also make sure the rear paddler can sit atop the stern in their paddling position. The top wheel can be a nice backrest for the rear paddler!
Of course, you need bike straps. Everything needs to be lashed to the boat very well with something like Titan Straps. The load should not be loose or floppy in any way. If the bikes are well-positioned and well-strapped, the boat is still very easy to self-rescue in the event of a whitewater flip. Having the bikes and wheels on board doesn’t affect that ability at all if they’re well-secured (and yes, I’ve field tested it several times).
Other thoughts on putting two bikes on boats?
Some paddlers may prefer to use the recommended C2 paddling technique with two canoe style paddles. But it is also possible to do it with two kayak paddles. This is not commonly recommended. However, this is how my teammate and I chose to do it after playing with both configurations. People will tell you it isn’t possible, but it is. It’s all dependent on what you’re comfortable with and how you and your teammate paddle together best.
You may also end up modifying the boat with straps to help secure you so that you can better maneuver the boat. This is also not recommended by manufacturers for safety reasons.
What paddle should I bring?
The ideal bikerafting paddle is light, packable and reliable in terms of strength and durability. However, the specific paddle you choose depends, again, on many things. Do you run whitewater? Are you going to a place where the likelihood that you’ll hit low-lying branches or bridges is low? Will you try to go as super light as possible?
There are lots of great paddles out there, but ideal backcountry bikerafting paddles break down into four pieces, such as the Aqua Bound Whiskey four-piece paddle (our favorite). Four-piece paddles are easy to pack and travel with. However, problems can arise if you get sand or grit into the attachments. Attachments are subject to wear and tear and can also stick or become overly loose if not taken care of. They are also often heavier due to the extra components.
If you’re not traveling far (and you’re not going to hit overhanging branches or bridges), you may choose a two-piece breakdown paddle. These can be lighter and more stable, but are still typically pretty packable. They can also be more affordable. Whether you take a two- or four-piece paddle, remember to take them apart, clean them and dry them after use. They’ll last longer and function better for you in the future. And, they’ll be less likely to get stuck together… this can happen when the metal attachments in paddle segments corrode and cause joint swelling.
We don’t recommend you take either one-piece or three-piece paddles, as their configurations aren’t packable.
What about paddle blades?
In terms of blade shapes and shaft lengths, there are also a lot of options. If you’re running rocky, whitewater terrain, you’ll likely want a more powerful, shorter-shafted, “high-angle” whitewater paddle with a larger blade to maximize the power of your stroke. This type of blade allows better maneuvering.
If you’re going to be paddling mellow lakes, you might want to take the lightest, “low-angle” carbon bladed paddle you can find. Low-angle paddles have longer shafts and thinner blades and require less upper-body motion. Most bikerafters will want a higher-angle paddle, unless you never plan to use your boat for anything other than flat-water bikerafting.
In regards to paddle lengths, that also depends on your paddling style, your height and strength, your boat, and other things. Bikerafters and packrafters typically run paddles that are between 200-210cm. Check out Aqua Bound’s “Packraft Paddle Sizing Guide” on their website for specific packraft paddle size recommendations.
Check out our blog post on Titan Straps owner, Cameron Lawson’s bikerafting adventures on the Lost Coast of Alaska.