When you see lots of packrafters and hear horse packers and other hikers quietly grumble about how they used to have it all to themselves, you tend to think, "Geez, everybody thinks there's too many people on this river, it will probably become permitted." But decisions on permitting rivers are made by looking at impact and data (at least that is my understanding). The data on packrafters is that we aren't high impact. When we float rivers, we aren't using trails and when we camp, we don't have horses, we can't afford to pack in much and we act like backpackers (leave-no-trace). Really the only added impact of packrafters is possibly disrupting the stream-bed when we skootch our way across gravel bars. Oh, and fishing, we do that too.
However, the impact people complain about is really more visual than anything. If you see two large rafts floating down a river with 4 people in each, you'll look up but think little of it. But if you observe 8 packrafters, either in a group or strung out, you will feel like there are a lot more people on the river. Even though the former group is hauling in a lot more stuff that can potentially leave more of an impact. And the method they used to haul it in (horses) definitely leaves more of an impact.
Packrafting is indeed making remote rivers more accessible and more traveled (duh! that is the point of them). But that is not necessarily a bad thing if you follow a few guidelines.
- Act like a "leave-no-trace" backpacker- Make your fires below the high water mark, let them burn out completely and then dismantle your fire ring. Don't leave anything human at your camp. Cover your crap and do it far from camp and away from trails. Gather fire wood from trees that are already dead and on the ground.
- Avoid attracting animals- This is especially important if you are in bear country. Hang a bear bag, far from camp and hang it high. If you are catching and eating fish, make sure their remains are far from camp. If you spill food make sure it gets taken care of. Rangers don't want issues between humans and animals, especially if you cause them.
- Blend in- If you wear bright clothes, paddle a bright boat and are loud as you pass other rafters, you will be more noticed. The more you can blend in the less you will be contributing to other rafters' perception that packrafters are everywhere (our fleet will be gradually moving toward cedar green in color over the next couple years for this reason).
- Be courteous and friendly to other rafters- If people want to talk, be friendly. Share food, drink and tips. Most of us are in the wilderness to get away from it all. So people may not want to talk. Don't force things if this is the case.
- Be respectful of authorities- If packrafters are seen by rangers as the friendliest and most respectful of all wilderness travelers, it is going to be hard for them to shut us down. Rangers spend a lot of time alone so usually they are up for a chat, so let them talk. Be respectful of anything they tell you to do. Ask them honest questions. I know these last 3 points change nothing environmentally, but perception does matter when it comes to this sort of thing.
- Don't over fish- This might not apply to everyone, but many back country lakes and rivers are a fisherman's paradise and it can be tempting to stop and fish a hole until you have caught and released all 13 fish that live there. It may be easy to catch 50+ fish in a day. Don't do this. Try to limit yourself on fishing to the cooler times of the day (so the fish you release have a good chance of survival). Don't drag them up on the rocks and get them off your line quickly. Bend the barbs down on your hooks. Enjoy the time you fish, but limit yourself.