Last August, Jason and Marianne from Tirio invited me to join one of their tour groups for a weekend of packrafting in Wales. The two-day tour I took part in is called “Mountains to Sea”, because, as you guessed, you start in the mountains of Snowdonia and you finish at the shore of the Irish Sea.
What is packrafting?
I will be frank: I had not heard about packrafting before. Apparently, this new sport developed in the 1980s in Alaska. Packrafting refers to a combination of rafting and hiking, often combined with camping. Each member of the group carries their own light-weight inflatable rubber boat (strictly speaking TPU or “Thermopolyurethene”), paddle and any other hiking gear. This includes camping gear, when staying out in the wilderness for more than one day.
Sounds like a hassle? Well, I should mention that the raft, inflatable seat, pump, life jacket, and foldable paddle weigh less than 3kg and an experienced packrafter can switch from hiking to paddling or back in under three minutes.
All photos (c) BerkeleySqB except where specifically mentioned otherwise
Is hiking not fun enough?
So it’s easy to do, but what’s the attraction? Carrying your own little boat opens up completely new avenues of exploring the outdoors. Within your skill level and the parameters of the respective national park’s rules, you are now free to choose any route on water and land.
No need to do lengthy detours to cross a river over a bridge. Maybe Scotland has the perfect use-case for packrafting with its long Lochs. Those needle-shaped lakes can stretch three dozen kilometres and more, limiting hikers’ movements enormously, if they do not carry a raft or rely on a ferry. Packrafting in Wales, where all lakes are small, can still save a hiker up to an hour.
Personally, I greatly enjoyed the fun that comes with switching back and forth between different modes of movement. Your legs can relax a little bit while your arms do most of the work and vice versa.
How much does packrafting in Wales cost and what’s included?
Packrafting in Wales is £260 per person and includes an experienced, very well-trained guide, assistance at the campsite (fresh water supplies, set-up of bush shower, i.e. plastic bag with a valve, dangling from a tree; bush toilet, wind protection around the camp fire, fire wood, rubbish bins and disposal, etc.), rental of packrafting gear, and insurance.
The activity does not include your travel to and from the starting point, travel from the finish point back to the starting point (if applicable), any B&B stays before or after, food supplies, hiking and camping gear.
You can hire some hiking and camping gear for an additional fee.
What does a typical timeline look like (plan will vary from tour to tour)?
Number of participants: Usually 8 during Covid times, more during normal times; our group only included two other guests, because 5 people had cancelled on short notice
Number of guides: Usually at least 2 (+ 1 staff member to prepare, stock, and clean campsite, drive the van); our group had 1 guide
Start: Saturday, 9:00am, long-term car park, Betws-y-Coed railway station
Arrival at campsite: Saturday, 5:00pm
Departure from campsite: Sunday, 9:00am
Finish: Sunday, 3:30pm, Conwy Castle, Conwy
Length: 38km (16km on water); 21km linear distance
Tirio have made every effort to make packrafting in Wales COVID-secure to the extent physically possible. There was no moment when it did not feel safe. Social-distancing was taken very seriously. Everyone was required to bring and use hand-sanitiser. Where appropriate, face masks were prescribed, for example on public transport.
Packing List and Guidance
During the weeks before your trip Tirio will send you lots of information, including packing lists and detailed advice, guidelines, and FAQs. Nothing will be left to chance, and Jason and Marianne are always happy to answer any questions you might have via email. You will have plenty of time to purchase any items you might not yet have in your arsenal, to optimise your packing, and to get ready for this challenge.
As a kid, I had been camping with my parents and my sister for weeks every summer. However, I had not done any of this business since an ill-fated visit to Glastonbury ten years ago, when it had been constantly raining for the whole three days of the festival. This is why I initially had been a bit panicky about the prospect of exposing myself to the elements, but Tirio put my mind at ease.
How to get there
Nearly half of all Tirio clients who are in for some packrafting in Wales come from the South of England. There are good train connections from London Euston that take around four-and-a-half hours to Betws-y-Coed.
Many guests choose to stay at a B&B or hotel in Conwy from Friday to Saturday. Conwy Tourist Information is a great place to look for good accommodation. The most popular option is the 6pm train from Euston (no interchange), which takes three hours. This has the added advantage, that they do not need to return to Betws-y-Coed at the end of the tour.
On Saturday morning, they take the 7:30am train, which arrives in Betws-y-Coed at 8am. The Alpine Café right next to the station is the perfect place to fuel up for the tour ahead.
In August, when I was visiting, there were plenty of issues with train connections, so I took the train to Birmingham (under one-and-a-half hours), then a rental car from there. I left at around 2:30pm on the Friday and arrived at my B&B in Betws-y-Coed just before 7pm.
I set my alarm clock to 6:30am. When breakfast started at 8am, I had already applied sun lotion and mosquito repellent. I had optimised my packing and locked all unnecessary bits of luggage in my rental car’s boot. Two poached eggs on toast and a Cumberland sausage later I was walking the few hundred yards over to the train station with my gear on my back.
Jason and his wife and co-owner of Tirio, Marianne, arrived a short while later and gave me a warm welcome. Another ten minutes later James and Sarah, the other two guests on our tour, rocked up.
A few checks before departure
Our guide handed us the packrafting gear, namely the package that contained the raft, seat, and pump, as well as the paddle which splits into four parts.
Then a 10-minute, pretty intense exercise we had been told about, started: each of us unpacked everything. Then Jason went through every item with us, regularly saying “needs to go”, “only one of these”, “better leave this in the van”, etc. He would never insist and left it up to us, but all of us followed his advice and left plenty of items inside pre-prepared bags in the Tirio van.
In my case, Jason even offered to lend me one of his spare backpacks. I had only purchased my backpack a week earlier and never used it. It had felt very comfortable when I checked it out at the outdoor gear store, but on the way over from the B&B to the station, with all the gear in it, I could already feel the carbon-fibre frame of the backpack cutting into my back and hips. So I was very glad I could use one of Jason’s backpacks, which felt much more comfortable.
Let the adventure begin
We said our quick goodbyes and thank-yous to Marianne, who we would meet again at the campsite later that day. Then we were on our way. Despite the fact that each of us had slimmed down our carry-weight by around 3kg, we were now also carrying the additional 2.9kg packrafting gear.
The first two hours of hiking included a fair few pretty steep ascents and we all felt like we were getting a decent workout for our money.
Our first transition
Then we arrived at a mountain lake, no bigger than perhaps 1km times 250m. We felt relief that our legs and shoulders were about to get a rest. Everyone felt a tad tense about our first so-called transition.
First, we took our gear out. We unfolded our rafts and put them flat on the ground, after having checked the ground to make sure that there were no sharp objects. Then we attached the so-called inflation bags to the one-way valves of our boats. Those 100l nylon bags have a corresponding nozzles on their bottom. You take the top of the bag and shake the top of the bag up and down. On the upward move the bag fills with air, on the downward move some of the air gets pressed out of the bag again.
When you can feel a lot of air in the bag on an upward movement, you fold the top of the bag in a few swift moves, one side of the rim of the bag over the other side, thus sealing the air inside. Then you squeeze the bag between your extended arms and your body to press the air into the boat. I could not believe how effective this method is and how easy. It takes no more than 15 or 20 repeats and the boat is nearly fully inflated. You then replace the bag with the tiny manual air pump to complete the mission.
You use the pump to inflate the seat. Then you attach the seat and your luggage with all gear to the inside of the boat. You attach the different parts of the paddle to each other and you’re ready to go. Well done!
Considering that this was our first time, we all felt very pleased to have completed the task in under 15 minutes. Jason showed us how to place the boat on the water and how to hop into it without risking it capsizing.
Paradise of Tranquility
Floating on that serene lake in the middle of nowhere, no sound, not even birds singing… just the water, the sun, a handful of tiny white clouds in the sky, the trees lining the shores… it felt so relaxing and calming, like a massage for your soul.
Jason let us take it easy for five minutes and enjoy ourselves, before he started training us up on how to command our vessels. I had done a fair bit of rowing and kayaking before. James and his girlfriend Sarah had not had much prior experience, but picked up very quickly.
When we had finished the brief training session we started rowing towards the far end of the lake.
Our second transition
You’d imagine that the transition back to land would be much easier, because instead of pumping you simply have to open the valves and let the air out. However, the time you save pumping goes for meticulous folding and packing. I had to give it three shots until the raft was folded the way it was supposed to be. It felt like a remarkable achievement to have completed the second transition in under 15 minutes, too.
Most of the hiking path that followed was relatively flat, so our legs were not having too hard a time. Even the shoulders felt more relaxed than before. Maybe it was the little break, or maybe we had found a better way of strapping the backpacks to our respective backs?
It was a blessing, that two thirds of the path were in the shade of the forest. Whenever we were crossing meadows and other open stretches of land the sun was burning down fiercely on us and the heat was intense.
Picnic next to a mine
We stopped next to an abandoned mine, perhaps fifty metres up a major hill, to have lunch. As instructed, each of us carried our own food for the whole two days. I took out an apple, a small bag of nuts, a bag of beef jerk, and some gummy bears. The food, while rather basic, tasted better than anything I had eaten in weeks. I must have built up a huge appetite.
Clouds and Conversations
Less than 30 minutes later we were making our ascent up the steep hill in front of us. The first section near the abandoned mine had stairs. Most of the path was a mud track that slowly meandered up the mountain with little regard for limitations of humans’ capabilities.
Luckily the exercise was over in under 30 minutes and we were up on a giant plateau with grass meadows, some more forest, and mountain tops in the distance. We were also thankful that the sky had started to fill up with a few more clouds, so that the sun wasn’t constantly scorching our skins.
Each of us had started to find our own rhythm and hiking became much easier. It wasn’t something you had to focus on, more like something that happened in the background, nearly automatically, without your doing.
This gave us the opportunity to engage in some conversation. James and Sarah told me about their life in Manchester, their jobs as social worker and as engineer, how they would spend most weekends outdoors and regularly go camping each summer. Jason told us some anecdotes from previous tours.
We arrived at a sizeable lake, perhaps 2km in length and 500m wide. Different from the other lake and our hiking path so far, there were crowds of people, both on the lake and on the shores. There were two large car parks and even some stalls that were selling ice cream and hot dogs.
We found a quieter pebble beach and dived right into our third transition. James and Sarah finished their job in under 10 minutes. I had only improved my time to 12 minutes.
All went very smoothly. The rafts are super-robust. As a result of their very low centre of gravity (i.e. your bum on the plastic floor of the boat) they are very stable on the water and easy to steer and propel.
Routine is everything. Even the fast motorboats that were pulling water skiers behind them and throwing up big waves didn’t phase any of us. As Jason had taught us, we turned our boats towards the waves and just rode it out. This was not our first rodeo. Not by a long shot.
It is a whole lot of fun rowing around such a large lake in a small boat. We mainly stayed along the shoreline, shouted some hellos back and forth with the people on the shore. On the far end of the lake there were three or four tiny rocks sticking out of the water. Several seagulls made it clear that they claimed sovereignty over those islands and we kept our distance while paddling around the rocks.
Fourth transition and arrival at the camp
The fourth transition back onto land was very quick. The path to the camp included some of the best scenery of the day. Some of it was through marshlands along a little stream, then a steep ascent up a hill through thick forest. We briefly stopped at a medieval church while Jason told us about the history of the building.
Shortly thereafter we arrived at the camp, where Marianne was already waiting for us. She had begun to set up the camp and start a fire.
Setting up our tents
While Jason assisted Marianne, James and Sarah started setting up their tent and I got ready to set up mine. As expected, James and Sarah were very quick. I took slightly longer, but those modern tents are so easy to set up, a blind person could do it in under ten minutes with their hands tied behind their back.
Heavy rains were forecast for the night and it was going to get dark soon. As per the instructions, we had all brought torchlights and replacement batteries. Our guide had even gone through the effort of setting up some light reflectors along the path from the campfire to our tents and further from there to the bush toilet.
We made sure that we had everything prepared before nightfall. Last thing you want is going through your stuff in a tiny tent with your torch in your clenched teeth, looking for your tooth brush, your pot (the cooking pot, not that pot), or your spork.
Jason and Marianne
It was only that evening and only after some gentle nudging, that Jason and Marianne finally told us a bit more about themselves. Jason spent his whole career in outdoor professions. He took part in several climbing expeditions across a number of continents before settling as a Medic and Training Officer with the RAF Mountain Rescue Service.
Marianne still works two days a week as a primary school teacher. Like Jason, she is a qualified packraft guide, paddlesports coach, and white-water rescue technician. Whenever the group size exceeds 6 participants, she joins Jason as guide. Marianne is the driving force in making Tirio as family-friendly as it is today and ensuring that there are activities for all skill-levels.
In 2017, Jason and Marianne founded Tirio to turn their love for packrafting in Wales into a business. It has grown from strength to strength since then.
Around the campfire
Marianne had to run some more errands, so left again in the van. The rest of us gathered around the campfire. We unpacked our camping stoves and dehydrated food containers, boiled some water, and poured the hot water over the food. Once the hot water has had some time to sink in and do its work, the food tastes surprisingly well.
James told us, that he had turned the testing of camping food into a hobby of his. He had tried most of the food you can find in outdoor stores. After careful consideration he had arrived at the conclusion that the macaroni cheese and the beef stew he had brought for himself and Sarah that night were among the best deals on offer. I was quite happy with my tomato meatball pasta.
Jason turned out to be even more of a camping food aficionado than James. Over the years he had perfected his camping cooking. His master stroke, according to his own, humble words, was a chocolate cookie custard concoction which he described in great detail, while gobbling it down.
We spent another three hours after dinner around the campfire doing some serious story-telling and banter business. At 10pm we were all in bed, lights switched off. The rain did come. And it did come hard. It rained extremely heavily for about three hours non-stop, pretty much until 7:30am, when we all got up.
Leave no trace
Marianne joined us again in the morning and she and Jason dismantled the camp. Tirio take the “Leave no trace” motto very seriously. No trace was left of the camp fire, no trace of the bush toilet. We even un-flattened the grass. Anyone who would arrive here the minute we had left would have no clue that we had been here.
We were pleased that the second day would only involve two hours of hiking, because we could all feel our legs. The path was partially downhill, partially flat, some of it along a little river with a lovely waterfall.
Paddling towards the Irish Sea
The transition was a tiny tad intimidating at first, because different from the previous ones, there was no shallow water and beach, no ground to stand on. You had to slide from the edge of the riverbank into the boat. Thanks to Jason’s training and instructions it all went without any incidents.
Those of us who had been expecting to simply let the river do the work and to sit back and relax, soon found out that this was not the case. There was a time window when you could cross the shallow estuary and sandbanks right near the mouth of the river, where it flows into the Irish Sea. In order to hit that time window, we would have to do some rowing.
So it was only now, on the second day of our trip, that Jason spent some serious time with us, teaching us how to row properly. We learned how and where to sink the paddle into the water, how to move it along the boat and when to take it out again in the most energy-efficient and effective way. Some of the techniques we learned are perhaps counter-intuitive but work very well nonetheless.
We enjoyed lunch in our boats, while gently floating down the river. A very pleasant and relaxing experience. Marianne had joined us again around lunchtime, this time in her own boat.
Courses and Activities on Offer
During and after lunch, James, Sarah and I used the time to find out more about the courses and activities on offer. It turned out, that Mountains to Sea is not the only tour Tirio do, despite the fact that they slimmed down their programme significantly due to Covid for the time being.
Coast and Celtic Rainforest
There is one other overnight activity: Coast and Celtic Rainforest, which can be slimmed down to one day, where preferred. This adventure was featured on BBC Wales’ ‘Off the Beaten Track’ with Kate Humble and is very popular.
Highest Navigable Aqueduct
Moreover, there are two full-day options, including ‘Don’t Look Down’, which was featured in Outdoor Enthusiast and involves paddling 30 metres above the ground on the pre-Victorian Pontcysyllte aqueduct. It is the tallest navigable aqueduct in the world. One offer is half-day.
Advanced Packrafting Skills
Besides these activities, Tirio also offer two- to five-day courses covering areas such as white water packrafting, first aid, safety and rescue, expedition training, and advanced packrafting skills. These courses involve packrafting in Wales and Scotland.
Estuary and Sandbanks
Perhaps 2km from Conwy, Jason gave us some more instructions for the last bit around the estuary and the sandbanks. We were all to follow him very closely and do everything exactly the same way he did.
It all worked out fine. On a couple of occasions we could feel the sandbank slide under the thin plastic bottom of our boats.
Finish Line, Conwy and its Castle
The last metres towards Conwy Castle are very beautiful. We stopped for photos, then we did our last transition. Back onto firm ground.
We dropped off our gear at the van and spent an hour or so exploring Conwy. Jason and I bought fish and chips, while James and Sarah went for some cake and coffee. The town is a pleasant little fishing town with a picturesque harbour, and the castle is surprisingly big.
Back to the Starting Point
Getting back to the starting point by train was quick and easy. Marianne and Jason were waiting for us at the station in Betws-y-Coed. There, we picked up the gear we had left before our departure the previous day, and our backpacks, which we had dropped off upon our arrival in Conwy. Finally, we separated the gear, we had borrowed, from our own gear. We packed all our own gear into our respective cars, before we thanked Marianne and Jason for a fun weekend in the outdoors.
Two and a half hours later I dropped off the car in Birmingham and took a cab to the station. At 11pm I was back in London. Getting up the next morning at 7:30am for a full day’s work was not as easy as usual, but it had all been worth it.
As mentioned above, you can avoid the trip back to Betws-y-Coed by staying in Conwy from Friday to Saturday and leaving your car there, or by using public transport all the way.
Would I do this trip again?
I would go packrafting with Tirio again anytime. Everything was very well-organised, adjusted to the group’s fitness levels, and felt safe at all times. 5 out of 5 in my book.
The Guardian featured this activity of packrafting in Wales in an article about the UK’s best outdoor activities.
Anyone with a reasonable/average level of fitness can do it. In actual fact the customers are not mainly survivalists, preppers, or mad men in their midlife crisis, but couples. Especially their day-trips are popular with families with children.
Looking for more fun outdoor activities? Check out our posts about kayaking in the New Forest, jetskiing in Poole, deep sea fishing off Brighton, skydiving and jetlevving near Cambridge, caving in Wookey Hole, and canyoning and rock-climbing near Porto.