New on Sidetracked:


An Urban Packrafting Adventure
Produced in Partnership with Alpacka Raft & Aquabound
Words & Photography: Neil Irwin

The canals and rivers that flow around the city provide a new perspective, making Amsterdam a perfect location for a water-based sightseeing trip.

Imagine taking a canoe onto a train, or trying to pack a kayak into the overhead luggage compartment of an aircraft. These pieces of equipment are fine-tuned for adventure, yet they lack portability – and can be cumbersome, making storage problematic unless you have a shed for your gear. This is where a small inflatable vessel known as a packraft comes in. Annie Evans and Jacob Haagensen dared to take on an adventure that some may not have considered, using their trusty packrafts to go and explore an urban wilderness. The destination: Amsterdam.

It may not be the number-one choice for an urban exploration adventure, but the canals and rivers that flow around the city provide a new perspective, making Amsterdam a perfect location for a water-based sightseeing trip. It may be known as a tourist hotspot, but there are other ways to enjoy the city. Yes you can rent a Dutch-style bicycle or even jump onto a tour boat, but there is something revealing about being able to paddle around under your own steam and at your own pace, to get out and explore.

Annie is like a fish out of water. Her playground is Scotland, the vast rugged wilderness where you’ll normally find her getting muddy, bikepacking, and camping on the weekends or after work. It might seem strange that she has such an expanse to play in yet calls a small van home, but this doesn’t bother her – the tranquility of Scotland provides a counterpoint to the confined space of her van.

Jacob, on the other hand, relishes urban environments. Copenhagen is his territory. Known as the ‘Urban Packrafter’, it is not uncommon to see Jacob paddling around in such concrete jungles, cruising through harbours and inlets. He’s previously explored Venice and Stockholm from the water, to name but two, and was keen to add Amsterdam to the list.

Cyclists easily outnumber all other traffic on the streets of Amsterdam – the city even has its own cycle highways next to the main roads. You wouldn’t want to be caught stepping in one, though, as commuters and residents fly past. Yet Annie and Jacob wanted to experience this for themselves – to explore the city as the Dutch do. They found it easy to get around yet needed eyes in the backs of their heads with other cyclists overtaking and swerving to get where they needed to be. It was a shock to the system seeing so many Dutch upright-style bikes compared to the UK or US where there are so many different styles on display. These, though, it seemed, were perfect for cruising around the flat streets with minimal effort.

It was easy to see why bicycles are preferred over other means of transport. With the excellent infrastructure, it was simple to get from one place to another without having to play dodgems with other traffic – as you would in many other cities around the world. The upright posture and wide handlebars made cycling a doddle, and the far corners of the city can easily be reached within 20 minutes or so from the city centre. One day was more than enough on a bike for Annie and Jacob, however. After all, these adventurers are more familiar with being on the water than the roads.

Alpacka packrafts are handmade in the USA and crafted with dedication. Originally designed as simple tools to get you from A to B if there may be a body of water in the way, packrafts have proven themselves to be valued pieces of equipment in their own right, capable in whitewater and on expeditions. Their simplicity and packability make them ideal for wilderness and urban adventures alike. Within a few minutes of unpacking, both Jacob and Annie were inflated and underway, taking in the sights and sounds Amsterdam had to offer, all in the comfort of their own rafts away from the hustle and bustle of the tourist-packed streets.

Packrafts have proven themselves to be valued pieces of equipment in their own right, capable in whitewater and on expeditions. Their simplicity and packability make them ideal for wilderness and urban adventures alike.

Being on their own and surrounded by water felt much more natural than the hectic streets. Immediately the pace relaxed. Bright sunshine blazed down for a mid-October paddle. Birds swam past at their own meandering pace, fallen auburn leaves drifted on by in the gentle flowing water, and it didn’t take long for both Annie and Jacob to feel at ease. This is where the city became their playground – the freedom of being able to get out and explore all the nooks and crannies around the waterways. It’s one thing to walk and cycle around, but knowing that Amsterdam residents and tourists alike couldn’t follow suit gave a sense of comfort that other forms of transport couldn’t match. They felt as if they were paddling through a secret world that only they could access.

This was all more familiar for Jacob despite Amsterdam being a new city to explore. Annie, on the other hand, despite her first love of the wilderness, was discovering a newfound interest in urban exploration. It didn’t take long before the first juggernaut tour boat chugged around the corner towards them – but Annie and Jacob needed no more than a few paddle strokes to slip out of the way. The encounter didn’t affect their simple enjoyment of exploring the city from a new perspective. They couldn’t help but think how envious the paying visitors must be of their small rafts, with the freedom to roam wherever they pleased in comparison to their single-direction tour. Still, the revellers inside waved and took photos of Jacob and Annie in bemusement.

The intrepid pair weren’t the only ones to discover this urban playground. By mid-afternoon, a kayak and canoe had passed by, and – to Jacob and Annie’s surprise – another packrafter, drifting at his own leisurely pace.

Heading further out of the city meant a chance to explore larger areas with wider bodies of water, which in turn meant larger vessels to navigate around: an opportunity for a closer inspection of these wooden and steel beasts, certainly a different class of vessels to inspect compared to those of the canals, with their wide wooden frames and tall masts reaching into the sky.

Jacob and Annie turned a few heads as they climbed up the canal-side ladders and walked along the narrow streets to find a suitable location to pack away after their urban adventure. Some onlookers were visibly puzzled, and others queried what the pair were up to with these inflatable contraptions. Many had never seen a packraft before. A few told the urban explorers they thought it was a brilliant idea.

Packing away was a breeze – something they had both done many times before. Muscle memory kicked in – the packrafts took mere minutes to wrap and stash into their bags, and moments later you would never have known they had just come off the water. For Jacob, this was another city examined from a different perspective. For Annie, it had been an experience like no other.

Neil Irwin is a UK-based outdoor and adventure photographer/film maker and an avid packrafter.
Twitter: @nirwin_images
Facebook: /NirwinImages
Instagram: @neil_irwin

Produced in partnership with Alpacka Raft
Twitter: @AlpackaRaft
Facebook: /alpackaraftllc
Instagram: @alpacka_raft

And Aquabound
Twitter: @AquaBound
Facebook: /AquaBound
Instagram: @AquaBound