Updated May 2018
Packrafting is a great way of getting on the water in a light, portable and stable boat. A 3-kilo packraft like my Alpacka (left) may resemble a cheap PVC pool toy, but it is the durable fabric and construction as well as the light weight which provides a whole new way of exploring and enjoying the wilderness. More on the origins of packrafting.
They clue is in the name: you can pack or unpack your raft in minutes and easily hike it between bodies of water, deploying the boat as you go. You don’t need any special skills to make a packraft go forward, but as with all water craft you should be familiar with river currents, rapids and weirs, and on lakes and lochs be aware of winds to which light and buoyant boats like packrafts are especially prone.
In the UK the lochs and rivers of northwest Scotland are especially well suited to extended overnight treks with packrafts.
Me and my packrafts
In 2010 I bought an original ‘old shape’ Alpacka Denali Llama to go with my IK. Back then expensive American-made Alpackas were the only game in town and only sold from their factory in Colorado. I sold that to fellow adventurer Alastair Humphreys (it’s featured in this video) and in 2011 got a yellow Yak in the new, pointy stern shape.
I paddled that boat in Utah, northwest Scotland, France and the remote Fitzroy river in northwest Australia. I’ve also tried surfing, disc sailing, bikerafting.and even urban packrafting.
In 2014 I downscaled to a simpler, lighter and slightly longer multicolour Yak which I used on the Lycean Way in Turkey.
With an 80-litre backpack (left) you can carry the boat and several days of food on your back. At the water’s edge you inflate the boat in 10 minutes, secure your backpack over the bow and ride rivers or cross lakes, then deflate to carry on trekking.
A packraft also makes a fun whitewater boat (right) which, with a deck, will manage as gnarly water as you’d dare try.
Like IKs, packrafts bounce off rocks, are more stable than regular hardshell kayaks and can even be eskimo rolled with suitable thigh straps. In all the time I’ve used them I’ve never had a puncture in the hull, not would really expect one with careful use.
Unlike a full-sized raft here’s no need for a bulky pump; you inflate by scrunching a featherlight airbag once it’s screwed into a valve on the boat as shown left. Then you top off with a mouth valve unless the boat has a one-way, low-pressure Boston valve.
In the video below (speeded up 15x)., from walking up to a beach with my paddle in my pack, to loading up and paddling off took 8 minutes,
With a packraft under your arm you can walk or bus a few miles upriver, put in and paddle back. Or you can shuttle back on a pushbike with the boat rolled up under your arm. You can even strap a bicycle over the bow and bikeraft (left). All because a packraft is exceedingly light but very buoyant and stable and, being made of durable fabric, won’t burst on encountering a sharp noise.
On flat water it can happily carry up to 20 kilos strapped over the bow (or zipped inside the chambers, see below). In fact it yaws less like that as the added bow load trims the boat level against the paddler’s weight. As for speed, I took a 12-km run along the Medway River in Kent one time and managed to average 3.4mph or 5.5kph. And best of all, didn’t feel exhausted afterwards.
Who makes proper packrafts?
Alpacka are no longer the only packraft makers, though for years it felt like it. Now their concept and many innovations have been widely copied. There’s more on some other packraft makers or sellers (or similar lightweight boats) here, with a few brands to look out for below. Note: some of these are manufactured in the US or Russia, some are rebranded Chinese-made products. Sadly there appear to be no notable price benefits with the latter (though give Alibaba a go) but don’t be put off either. The best Chinese-made packrafts look as durable and as well made as an Alpacka. See the group test we did a couple of years ago.
The staggering cost of proper packrafts can be a bit of a shock for what looks like a flimsy raft. This is because they essentially need to be made by hand, and if that’s to be done well using proper materials, it takes time and care.
Apart from skill and workspace, there’s nothing to stop you making one yourself by buying a kit including fabric, glues and bits plus a template from Matt in BC. The scissors and heat-sealing iron you need to supply yourself. He reckons you can save up to 80% on an off the shelf packraft.
For a while I and others experimented with ‘Slackrafts‘ a word I invented to describe the cheap, over-wide and soggy PVC pool toys (above left) which can be made lighter and a little faster by cutting away the outer chamber to make a still marginally durable boat (right). It’s an ultracheap way of trying ‘packrafting’ without the expense a proper boat. I persuaded some slackmates to join me on trips to Australia, France and Scotland. On most of them didn’t bring the boat back.
Years ago Alpacka originally developed a spray deck which you could roll up or even zip and velcro right off. Called ‘Cruiser Decks’ (right), I always found them a bit flimsy and rarely used them. They’ve since added permanent decks (left, actually a Nortik) with a large hatch and ‘combing’ or rim to take a regular kayak spray skirt, making them suited to rougher water or surfing. Most other packraft makers have adopted a similar kayak-like system to add a whitewater boat to their range.
A deck might be a nice option if it’s cold, but for non-white water I’d sooner just wear a dry suit. I rarely tackle long stages of white water where a skirt would be essential and when I bought my third Alpacka I didn’t even specify a deck.
For a truly portable boat you’ll want a compact four-part paddle. I can recommend my Aqua Bound Manta Ray 220, but there are a few more out there.
If you’re buying a packraft and you’re ‘of a certain weight’, I’d recommend specifying or adding additional butt and heel patches from new on the underside of the floor as I did on my 2014 Yak. The tiny weight penalty is well worth the added durability. Even with the ingenious extended stern idea (which also acts as a skeg) solo packrafts are back heavy, so in shallow rivers the sagging floor under the seat can wear.
The heel area at the front is actually more vulnerable, especially if wearing hard boots when striking a shape edge like a submerged concrete bridge abutment. I once holed my floor like this. A way of limiting impacts is to use a bit of closed-cell foam mat inside (right). It softens heel strikes with submerged obstacles and partly insulates your legs from cold water too.