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What Makes a Competent Packrafter? - The Tirio Take...

Spring has sprung and whilst things are a bit different right now, many of us are taking the additional time afforded to us to start planning our summer and autumn adventures. As many of us can’t get out adventuring at the moment, when we are finally set free, many of us are going to be rusty; skills and judgement will be tarnished and yet the desire to get ‘out there’ will be bigger than its ever been.

Here at Tirio we’re constantly evolving our Packrafting Education Program. Our on going commitment to packrafting education has led us to focus our research on Decision Making and examining how it impacts on packrafting and our community. This is the first of a series of articles that will examine ‘how we think’ and how it can help us on our adventures.

The purpose of these articles is to help the reader to think about how and why we act the way we do, on our adventures. Their purpose isn’t to be prescriptive, but to stimulate self-reflection. The articles are based on our on going research as part of the development of our latest professional Thesis with the University of Central Lancashire’s Elite Performance Program.

Being a Good Paddler.

When chatting with other packrafters, answering questions we’re sent via email and on social media, I continually get the impression that many folks look at their paddling ability as the main focus. This is totally understandable; Paddling a packraft involves a lot of psychomotor skill – that is those skills that involves things like movement, dexterity, strength and speed – amongst others. Learning to forward paddle, turn, roll etc. Are all good examples of psychomotor skills.

Once we start to relate these skills to different environments – its known as psychomotor learning.

A classic example of this would be the paddler who has mastered forward paddling, edging and turning on flat water and is now progressing to combining these skills as they learn to enter and exit flow on a river.

Psychomotor learning continues as we develop our skills to tackle more difficult moves on harder water. Till, “Bingo!” we’re nailing that grade 3 run… HoooRah!

So it’s hardly surprising that when we examine most traditional paddling education we can see that it has, for years, heavily stressed the acquisition and development of performance in psychomotor skill. This may also contribute to why newcomers to packrafting often believe paddling ability should be their main focus – because a lot of paddle sports’ educational media out there concentrates mainly on how to paddle.

Spoiler Alert…

The truth is, it’s just not that simple… Packrafting is much more than just paddling. It’s a real paradigm shift in adventure sports. It allows us to blend disciplines and undertake more varied self-powered journeys and access places that would be very difficult for traditional watercraft. And I’d suggest that with a little thought most of us would agree. For anyone who’s done anything from a simple day journey to a remote multi-day expedition, you’ll know that there are plenty more things that you need to be good at for any trip to be successful.

As packrafters we operate in extremely complex and hyper-dynamic environments – by this I mean, environments that are widely varied and constantly changing(1). From lakes to sea, from river to estuary, in wind, hail, sun and snow. So, as we all know, if we’re going to play in these places we need to understand and decide on lots of different things.

There’s the route to plan, kit to be chosen and readied, food to prepare. Then there are forecasts and maps to interpret. And, once we’ve done that and got a plan together, we realise that in dynamic environments thing change, often at short notice. So, now we need to look at plan B and even C!

Once we’re on the journey, there’s navigation, communication, transitions, shelter, food, cooking, incident management – like first aid and rescues, etc, etc.

All of these can and do affect our performance. So, it’s fair to say that being good at paddling alone isn’t enough to make us good at packrafting. There are so many things we need to be aware of and understand. The more you think about it the bigger the list gets. Sure, there are people who get out there and do some epic trips without much expertise and don’t understand too much about these areas, and generally speaking, they make it back. But my question was “What makes a competent Packrafter?” and I don’t want to confuse competence with luck.


“Know what you know” and “Know what you don’t know”(3).

Accepting that there’s more to paddling than just ‘er… paddling. We will need to be proficient in a whole range of other areas if we want to be competent packrafters. So, it's essential to develop our understanding and skill in all of the areas that can affect us. To do this we got to know stuff…

As well as having a good knowledge of all the different aspects of packrafting. It’s also important to have a good handle on what you actually do and don’t know. I first came across this idea whilst studying at the UK Defence College – it’s used a lot in leadership and management schools. Basically, it’s designed to get you to think about what you know. I guess it’s not always immediately straightforward and it has become a bit clichéd and is often misquoted these days, but hold off from making a decision just yet(3)…

If you’re prepared to persist, the more you think about it, the more it starts to make sense, and the easier it is to see it’s relevance to Packrafting. Here are some paddling examples of each:

Stuff I know I know is right – I’ve paddled this river before and round this bend is a nasty weir. Lets get off and portage. I understand that I know the river and that the weir is nasty. This Is OK.

Stuff I know that I know is wrong – Billy knows the rapid round the next bend and Billy tells me it’s always straight forward. I know that rivers change all the time, so I know that if I can’t see the rapid, I can’t be sure its straightforward. I understand and know Billy is wrong. This is also OK.

Stuff I know I don’t know – I can’t see round this bend and I know this river in unfamiliar, so I don’t know what’s coming up. We should proceed with caution. We understand there’s definitely a gap in our knowledge here, so Caution is a good idea.

Stuff I don’t know I don’t know – Billy has recently bought a packraft and is new to paddling. He’s sat at home looking at some white-water packrafting pics on Instagram. There’s a river nearby that all the kayakers use so he’s going to head out and have a go. How hard can it be? Basically, Billy doesn’t understand. He doesn’t have anywhere near enough information or experience. For Billy to go ahead with this would be foolish and possibly dangerous. If Billy chooses to go and paddle and doesn’t have any problems, he is pure lucky. ( No offence intended to anyone called Bill out there!! ;0)

If we want to be as safe as possible we should stick to the Green boxes. This way we have all the relevant knowledge and experience and so just know what to do. However, if we just stuck to that formula things would be pretty boring; we’d always be paddling in places we know really well: the same stretch of river, the same lake. Packraft Adventures aren’t all about certainty. At the core of most packraft adventures is exploring unfamiliar places. It’s going into the unknown that makes them so special. In reality, we’re often heading off to places we haven’t been or environments that are dynamic. So, it’s not surprising that we commonly find ourselves in the Orange. As long as we understand where the gaps in our knowledge are, we can take appropriate precautions or employ suitable tactics to allow us to proceed. That’s OK too!

Where we NEVER want to be is in the red. If we do happen to find ourselves in there, then we need to stop and quickly re-assess. Because we haven’t a clue about what can happen or how bad it can be. We have no understanding.

So, knowing the right stuff will help us to make good decisions. The common thread that runs through all of this is our understanding of all the different factors that come into play and our ability to assess them.

So what sort of factors do we need to understand to be a competent packrafter? Well, there’s a lot, but for starters we could include things like:

- Weather.

- Water.

- Route choice.

- Difficulty.

- Remoteness.

- Rescue.

- Length of trip.

- Kit.

- Food.

- Confidence.

- Paddling ability.

- Group ability.

- Rescue.

- Time scales.

There are many more factors we could list; paddling ability is just one of them… One thing to bear in mind about understanding is that it depends massively on a quite a few things. In particular, our knowledge, training and experience(2). Having an accurate understanding of these external factors is sometimes called having a good Situational Awareness. Armed with a good understanding we are now in a position to make a Judgement about the situation and it’s options.

Judgement and Decision Making.

“Once I’d visualised the themes and places and put the choices into words, the decision made itself.” Audrey Sutherland. Paddling North(4).

To make the right Decision we need to understand the situation, then compare and assess options. This is process is done using Judgement(5,11). Once we have Judged the options and assigned a preference, we will then Decide which option to take.

Judgement and Decision Making are very closely linked and the terms are often used to mean the same thing. However, how many times have you heard that someone has acted ‘despite his or her better judgement’? This is too often the case; we judge one option to be the correct thing to do, but we do something different. Because of this I’m going to keep the two terms separate for now, so we can explore why this might happen.

When a choice is deemed to be obvious to most people we say its “Common Sense”. This always make me chuckle, because as we know, common sense isn’t that common! That’s because how we make a choice is based on how good our judgement is.

Judgement can be seen as “how we choose”(2), which sounds simple enough, right? Just like considering how we choose between running a rapid on sight or getting out to inspect it first. Easy?

Er’ no… Once we delve into how our brains actually work, we quickly see judgement is a pretty variable commodity and is massively affected by things such as: memory, personal preferences biases, habits, fitness, current frame of mind, emotion, sleep and energy levels(6). So, to make good decisions we need to understand all these factors too. Our ability to be conscious of these factors is known as our Self-awareness. The list of things is growing!

So ‘How’ do we actually make judgements? Well, first of all we need to consider that Judgements aren’t just made in one way, they can be split into two poles:

Rational(7,11) – Thought out, information based, systematic. These tend to be considered and take time to weigh up the details. It takes effort to think in this way!

Intuitive(8,11) – Habitual, gut-feeling based. These tend to be spur of the moment, fast judgements that don’t take much, if any rational thought.

It doesn’t take much, to see that neither these is ideal in every situation. Where one takes up time that you may not have – say when you’re halfway down a rapid. The other doesn’t consider enough information – say when you’re choosing whether to run a rapid or to portage.

It probably more appropriate to see these as a continuum, rather than Poles. Because the truth is most adventure decisions require us to use a blend of both. It’s also common for humans to take decision shortcuts, or heuristics and these aren’t always helpful to us as adventurers. (We’re going to explore this more in a later post.)

The other thing we need to be mindful of is that decisions have a lifespan. In that, a decision’s effects are felt long after the decision was made.

For instance, electing not to wear a drysuit on a flat water trip, in good weather may seem like a fair decision – until you slip on the bank while getting into your raft and take a swim; then, realising you’re going to be cold and uncomfortable for the rest of the day means it doesn’t seem like a good decision at all!

So, what might seem like a good idea in the beginning may not turn out to be when it matters. It’s important to consider how long the effects of any decision will last. Often it’s too easy just to see our decisions in the context that we are currently in rather than the context we could be in. This has a particular importance to Packrafters. Commonly, our adventures will involve hiking or biking over significant distances between bodies of water, often over periods of days. The weight and bulk of the gear we carry become a significant consideration. Travelling light is ultimately a balancing act, between many conflicting factors, such as: Speed, safety, comfort, ease, cost, time, manoeuvrability and weight. Of course, we are more often than not forced to make our gear choices for an adventure at home before we depart, which makes it particularly difficult to assess gear choices in the context of where the gear will be needed.

What Makes a Competent Packrafter?

To us it seems that there are many things, but the bedrock of them all is our ability to make appropriate decisions. Sure, paddling ability is important, but as a very experienced coach once told me years ago when I was training for my Advance Canoe Leader Award. If you know you can’t paddle a stretch of water, you can always decide to use another technique to get where you want to go… If in doubt walk!

The decisions we make are like a web of tendrils that stretch out, along and around any adventure we have. How good each decision is will depend on: the depth of our knowledge and our awareness of any gaps in it, how well we understand the situation and any relevant factors and, finally, how self-aware we are to our biases and the judgements we make.

Your psychomotor skills, like your navigation, rescue skills and camping skills, etc, are just like the tools in a mechanic’s box. To fix the car you need to understand what’s happening, judge the best course of action and decide which are the best tools to use…

To be a competent packrafter is pretty much just the same.


Co-founder of Tirio




1. Collins, L., & Collins, D. (2013). Decision-making and risk management in adventure sports coaching. Quest, 65(1), 72–82.

2. MOD Development, Concepts and Doctrine Centre (2016) MOD Joint Doctrine Publication 04 Understanding and Decision Making 2nd Ed.

3. Paraphrased from a quote by Donald Rumsfeld (2012), “There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don't know we don't know.” Although, the origin of the phrase has been attributed to Confucius.

4. Sutherland, A. Paddling North. Patagonia Books. (2018).

5. Collins, L., & Collins, D. (2015) Integration of professional judgement and decision- making in high-level adventure sports coaching practice. Journal of Sports Sciences, 33 (6). pp. 622-633.

6. Hilbert, M. (2012) Toward a Synthesis of Cognitive Biases: How Noisy Information Processing Can Bias Human Decision Making. Psychological Bulletin, Vol 138(2), 211-237.

7. De Martino, B. Et al (2006) Frames, Biases, and Rational Decision-Making in the Human Brain. Science, Vol. 313, Issue 5787, pp. 684-687.

8. Klein, G. Naturalistic decision making.  (2008) Human Factors The Journal of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society 50, 456-60.

9. Bridge, D & Voss, J. (2014) Hippocampal Binding of Novel Information with Dominant Memory Traces Can Support Both Memory Stability and Change. Journal of Neuroscience. 34 (6) Summarised in interview with Marla Paul of Northwestern University - Here

10. Gigerenzer, G & Gaissmaier, W. (2011) Heuristic Decision Making. Centre for Adaptive Human Behaviour and Cognition. Max Plank Institute for Human Development. Annu. Rev. Psychol. 2011. 62-451-82.

11. Kahneman, D. (2011) Thinking, Fast and Slow. Published by Penguin Books


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