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The Newest Adventure Sweeping New Zealand


New Zealand has long been known as one of the world’s greatest adventure travel hotspots. From bungee jumping, whitewater rafting, and heliskiing, to jet boating, mountain biking, hiking, and swimming with sharks and dolphins, the list of experiences on offer is long.

Now there’s a new one to add to the list: packrafting.

Done with ultralight, small, inflatable boats made for stowing in backpacks, packrafting opens up the possibility of paddling hard-to-get-to rivers; crossing lakes and rivers to access new terrain on foot, bike, or ski; and linking up trails and routes otherwise made impassable by bodies of water. Durable and forgiving, packrafts are great vessels for beginner paddlers—which is one reason guided packrafting trips are increasingly popping up around New Zealand.

Huw Miles runs Packrafting Queenstown, which offers guided trips along with courses and rentals. Originally from outside London, Miles began his adventure career as an outdoor educator, teaching and taking kids hiking, sailing, and climbing. He trained as a river guide, and did first descents of rivers in Ecuador and Nepal. And he worked as an expedition leader, taking groups of tourists to Machu Pichu, Kilimanjaro, the Grand Canyon, and Atlas Mountains.

“I’d always had to choose between disappearing into the mountains on foot to explore, or taking my river gear to run remote rivers,” he said. Then, when he put down roots in Queenstown, a friend of his in the guiding industry introduced him to packrafting. “I thought, oh my god, someone’s invented a sport for me.”

Miles opened Packrafting Queenstown in 2017, and he’s seen the demand for this particular brand of adventure explode. Part of what’s driving the rise is New Zealand’s perfect-for-packrafting topography: swaths of gorgeous wilderness made up of mountains, canyons, and valleys with no road access, but glacier-blue rivers running through.

“It’s like a mini-Alaska here,” Miles said.

And the country’s extensive and well-maintained hut system makes for easy overnights in remote territory, lessening the load needing to be carried by eliminating the need for a tent or sleeping pad.

A typical trip with Packrafting Queenstown starts with a moderate hike up a characteristically stunning river valley. After dropping gear at a hut where the group will stay the night, Miles leads his guests on a walk upriver and then introduces them to the fundamentals of packrafting: how to inflate the boat, fit a lifejacket, position oneself in the boat, paddle basic river features, and—crucially—what to do if the boat flips and sends its paddler into the current. While Miles keeps his beginner guests on mellower water, rivers can be volatile and the safety aspect of packrafting is not to be underestimated.

Because of their stability and appeal to inexperienced paddlers, packrafting culture as a whole is struggling to play catchup on the kind of safety mindset that defines whitewater kayaking.

“A kayaker has to have quite a bit of an apprenticeship before they can be good enough to get down even small rapids,” says Daniel Clearwater, who runs the Packrafting Trips NZ website, a community-supported database of river and trip information. “Whereas on a packraft, it’s so simple that most people just jump in and go without any background in river sports.”

An easier-to-handle boat doesn’t make rivers less volatile, though, Clearwater emphasizes, or reduce the need for skilled partners to aid in rescues. New Zealand Geographic recently reported that a Packrafting Association member survey found that 30% of people packrafted solo—a practice almost unheard of in kayaking, where companion rescue is lifesaving—and that out of the eleven packrafting fatalities on record globally, six involved solo paddlers.

All the more reason to go with an experienced guide who knows the terrain, river, and safety techniques, including teaching their guests to paddle as a team. After imparting the basics of packrafting, Miles leads his guests on their first paddle, back down to the hut that’s home for the night. After that, dinner might be more simple than a traditional raft trip—remember, all gear and food must be carried in on backpacks—but no less delicious.

Evenings with his group tend to be Miles’s favorite, sitting on a riverbank swapping stories after a good day of hiking and paddling through beautiful country. The following day is a paddle out the river that the group walked up the day before, over blue water and frothing ripples, swirling eddies and kaleidoscope reflections on the moving surface. By the end of such a trip, Miles says, it’s often become a life-changing experience.

“When you’re doing challenging adventures that push you further,” Miles said, “whether it’s physically or emotionally—maybe you’re tired because we’ve been carrying our gear and on our feet for a full day, or maybe you were a bit intimidated by a section of water but we overcame that together and got through it as group—those are really profound moments that create strong bonds with the people you’re with. These are lifelong memories we’re creating.”

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