Chantelle Kelly explores the hills of Wales by foot and paddle on her first overnight packrafting trip
The closer the trip got, the more nervous I became. I knew I was in capable hands, but the thought of wild camping in Wales in mid-November was unsettling – especially for a camping newbie like me – let alone staying afloat in a blow up boat!
My guides Jason and Marianne Taylor put me instantly at ease when we met at my hotel the night before. Jason showed me the route we were going to take and checked the kit I had packed so far. Unsure my backpack was big enough, the couple leant me a large 40L pack as well as some essentials I didn’t have at home: neoprene shoes, waterproof socks, headtorch, cagoule, thick mittens, two dry bags (one for spare clothes and other for my camera) and a foldable pocket knife.
Once we reached our starting point the next morning in Chirk, Jason attached the packrafting equipment to the outside of our backpacks: two foldable paddles and a deflated boat. He advised that it can be a good idea to keep the boating kit on the outside of the pack, to prevent the gear on the inside from getting too wet. Once we were packed and ready to go, we set off on the first hiking section.
It was an easy flat trek to begin with as we walked along a canal, beautifully peaceful and surprisingly mild for the time of year. I relished the warmth of the sun on my face; I was now ready for the adventure ahead!
Leaving the canal behind, we headed up into the hills and were greeted with fantastic views of Chirk Castle. Dark clouds were soon circling above, but we didn’t let it dampen our spirits. I was happy to keep plodding along, enjoying the rolling hills and countryside. By lunchtime, we still hadn’t met another soul, and all you could hear were the birds in the trees. A heavenly haven, compared to the busy city I am used to.
We soon returned to the canal at Froncysyltte, the starting point for the paddling section. At the canal edge, Jason and Marianne recommended taking off my hiking boots and socks, replacing them for the waterproof socks and neoprene shoes. We then turned to setting up our packrafting kit. Untying the packraft and paddles from each of our backpacks, we first attached the paddle parts together. Jason instructed me to put mine together as a standard paddle with the ends equal and explained that as you progress, you can ‘feather’ these at an angle to each other (which is how he and Marianne have theirs set).
We rolled the packrafts flat across the grassy bank and Jason demonstrated how to inflate it using the inflation bag. Attaching the bag to the valve, you catch air into the bag – filling it as much as possible – before compressing it into the packraft. After a couple of attempts I got the hang of it and was surprised by how easy and quick it was to inflate. We placed our rucksacks in each one and Jason carefully attached them, he explained this would a) prevent the boat from blowing away and b) make it easier to find my bag, if I was to fall in to the water.
It was crunch time. Jason stood in the canal first, placed his packraft carefully on the water before turning around and dropping backwards into it, bum first. He then did a little wiggle to move into place, using his backpack as a cushion for his back. As I stepped into the canal the coldness of the water shocked me. I quickly got my packraft into position, gritted my teeth and took the plunge. Result – I was safely in the boat and not in the freezing water!
I did a little shuffle to get comfy and was surprised by how stable the packfraft felt. Due to the inflation and shape of the packraft, you’re almost sitting down inside the water, so you don’t feel like your going to topple over. I practiced paddling along, and seemed to get the idea quite quickly – possibly due to my previous canoeing experience for our last issue of the magazine!
It is different to canoeing, though. The packraft is super light and has a flat bottom, so if you really push the paddle, you end up veering off to one side. I realised it was best to lightly dip the paddle and slowly pull it through the water, with little force, and then do the same on the other side. Jason advised keeping my hands shoulder width apart and to aim for a punching motion with the rising hand. To help with stability, he told me to point my toes and lightly push down on the packraft. After a few practice runs I could manage staying in a relatively straight line.
It took a little time to gather speed, but eventually we were travelling at a steady comfortable pace. The highlight of the day was the paddle over the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct (a World Heritage Site) offering fantastic views 126ft above the ground. Peering over the edge of the canal and seeing the drop to the ground was equal parts terrifying and exhilarating.
Then the weather really turned, and we were faced with gale-force winds and buckets of rain. We had a hard time paddling against the breeze and to make sure I wouldn’t get blown away, Jason tied his packraft to mine, and we pushed on until our arms grew tired, enough to pack away and walk the last of the route to our campsite.
By the following morning the weather had cleared, and we were treated to glorious sunshine for the whole day. We trekked uphill to Castell Dinas Bran, a medieval castle offering stunning views high above Llangollen. As we continued through the forest, Jason talked me through some of the different plants and trees.
After lunch by the canalside at Froncysyllte, we inflated the portable boats once more. This was a completely different experience to the previous afternoon. We took our time and peacefully paddled along, appreciating the views of nearby birds and animals foraging for food.
I was apprehensive about packrafting, but it was a fantastic experience and unlike anything I’ve tried before. It’s a wonderful invention that allows you to hike, bike and paddle all on one trip and I love how it’s easy to set-up and pack down, making it suitable for all levels, ages and adventures. I urge you to give it a go.
Have boat, will travel
Jason and Marianne Taylor offer a number of guided packrafting tours throughout the year, including half day, full day and overnight trips. For more information and to book, visit www.tirio.co.uk or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you’re in need of a place to stay, I highly recommend the Meadowsweet Hotel in Llanwrst. The rooms are beautifully decorated and spacious, the owners Nelson and Mary Haerr are warm and welcoming and they offer the best breakfasts, including American-style pancakes with all the trimmings. It’s also superb value for money. www.hotelmeadowsweet.com