For desert packrafting enthusiasts, catching ephemeral flows – those fleeting moments when water levels and weather align perfectly for an epic adventure – can be the ultimate goal, and the key to executing trips that few get to experience.
With their lightweight and portable design, packrafts provide an unparalleled level of access to some of the most remote and untouched areas of the backcountry in every landscape, allowing adventurers to explore places and waterways that would otherwise be impossible to reach.
There are a ton of resources out there when it comes to planning trips, including American Whitewater, guidebooks, blog posts, youtube videos, and maps curated by government agencies. CalTopo is the perfect tool to put all the data you can gather in one place as you plan your next packraft adventure.
Snap-to on every travel path
Packrafting is one of the ultimate multi-sport mediums. CalTopo’s snap-to feature, available for free to all users on the web, is critical for planning all of the segments of a multi-sport trip. For example, when planning a trip to the Middle Fork of the Flathead River in the Bob Marshall Wilderness, or the Bob as we locals affectionately call it, I have to map a hiking section, a paddling section, and a car shuttle.
The Bob isn’t well-mapped in OpenStreet Map (OSM), so the default snap-to line behavior isn’t very helpful in this particular area as you can see below.
Conveniently, I can switch my snap-to lines target to the USFS-published roads and trails in the upper left, letting me map the 12-mile hike along Lodgepole Creek and see the elevation profile of the hike to the put-in.
But why stop at just snapping your route to trails and roads? I also want to get a sense of the distance along the river, as well as to have a line that will “pop” when I look at the map. This part is not crucial for this particular trip, but I still like to have it as a reference! I switch the snap-to target to Hydro, and can capture the full 25 miles of river from Schaffer Meadows on down.
The last step in making my overview travel map for the trip is getting the shuttle line on the map. Many people will use Google Maps for this, but I find it really satisfying to see the full loop of a trip on one map, and maybe if I have enough time I’ll get to bike this section instead of driving it! I can use a third snap-to target of Motor Vehicle Use Maps, or MVUM, to draw the shuttle line. Check out my completed map with all the different snap-to sources I used to create it.
Pro tip: Use the snap to menu to change data sources as you draw your line. For example, you can start by snapping a line to a USFS trail and then switch to snapping it to a creek. You don’t have to stick with the same snap-to data source while you draw your route!
Get more local beta with Map Sheets
Knowing where you are along a river & what big features are coming up is crucial as a whitewater paddler, especially in an unfamiliar reach. Most rivers don’t have rapids marked on standard trail or hiking maps. However, in many areas, the land management agency publishes a PDF. Desktop and team subscribers can import theses PDFs into CalTopo, even if the PDF doesn’t come with geospatial referencing by default!
For example, I found some great rapids map from the US Forest Service that would be really useful for planning my Middle Fork trip. I can import these PDFs into CalTopo as map sheets and manually align them to the river. I can change the transparency of the map sheets so I can make them visible when I need them and hide them when I don’t. Map sheets can even be downloaded to your phone so that you can reference them and the descriptions of different rapids when you’re out on the river or trail.
Want to check out these map sheets for yourself? Take a look at my sample CalTopo map with the added USFS river maps.
Track flows with water gauges & recent satellite imagery
When getting on waterways that have tighter windows & less reliable flows like those in the American Southwest, it’s important to be plugged into changing conditions day-over-day, or even hour-over-hour! Pro, desktop, and team subscribers can easily keep tabs on flows across an entire watershed using the Weather Stations overlay – no more hitting refresh on five USGS gauge pages. I often keep an overview map of the gauges in my area pulled up during weather events in the spring and early summer to see how flows change throughout the watershed.
With CalTopo you aren’t restricted to one layer at a time- you can combine data from all kinds of sources as you plan your trip! Here’s a neat example: for a recent trip on the Bruneau-Jarbidge rivers in Idaho, we were able to combine recent Sentinel satellite imagery (available to pro, desktop, and team subscribers) with the Weather Shading and Weather Stations overlays to make an educated guess about how a period of warming would affect the snowpack above the river we were interested in rafting. Check it out below- you can see the flows on the upper Jarbidge gauge at the bottom, combined with Sentinel imagery of the snow lying in wait to the south, and the 24hr temperature high.
Starting out with CalTopo can be intimidating. Even as an experienced adventurer & digital mapper, I’m always learning new ways to use CalTopo’s tools to plan trips.
What are your favorite CalTopo features for planning packrafting trips? Are there any that I missed? Questions? Let us know in the comments below!