Updated Summer 2017
A 3-kilo packraft may resemble a cheap pool toy, but the durable fabric and construction as well as the light weight provides a whole new way of exploring and enjoying the wilderness. There’s more on the origins of packrafting here.
In 2010 I bought an original Alpacka Denali Llama (above left) to go with my IK. I sold that (featured in this video) and got a yellow Yak in the new 2011 shape. I paddled it in Utah, far north Scotland, France and the remote Fitzroy river in northwest Australia. I’ve also tried surfing, disc sailing and bikerafting and in 2014 downscaled to a simpler, lighter and slightly longer multicolour Yak (right) and used that 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 WW boat (right) that’s effortlessly transported, and with a deck will manage gnarlier water than you’d imagine. Like IKs, packrafts bounce off rocks, are more stable than regular kayaks, and can even be rolled with suitable thigh straps.
There’s no need for a pump; you inflate by scrunching a featherlight airbag (right) then top off with a mouth valve.
Video below: from arriving at a beach with your paddle in your pack, to loading up and paddling off, took 8 minutes, (speeded up 15x)
You can walk or bus a few miles upriver, put in and paddle back; you can shuttle back on a pushbike with the boat rolled up under your arm. You can even strap a bicycle on the bow and bikeraft (left). All because a packraft is exceedingly light but very buoyant and, being made of durable fabric, won’t burst on encountering a sharp noise.
On flat water and calm seas 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 this trims the boat level against the paddler’s weight. As for speed, I took a 12-km run along the Medway River in Kent and managed to average 3.4mph or 5.5kph. And best of all, didn’t feel exhausted afterwards.
Alpacka aren’t the only packraft makers (though for years it felt like it). There’s more on some other packrafts here,
For a while I and others experimented with ‘skinning’ the outer chamber off a cheap and wide PVC pool toy to make a lighter, less slow but still marginally durable slackraft (left and right). It’s an ultracheap cheap way of getting into packrafting before taking the plunge on a proper boat. For more on all that see the Slackrafts menu above.
Alpacka originally developed spray decks which you could roll up or even zip right off, but have moved to more permanent decks (left, actually a Nortik) with a large hatch and a combing or rim to take a regular spray skirt, making them suited to white water or surfing. Nortik trekrafts, above, have adopted a similar kayak-like system
A deck might be a nice option but if it’s that cold I’d sooner wear a dry suit and I rarely tackle long stages of white water where a skirt would be essential. When I bought my third Alpacka I didn’t specify a deck.
An Alpacka comes in several sizes (left) and costs from $900 in the US or more from Back Country in the UK. Alternatives are the one-size-only Russian-made Trekraft (above left in green) sold by Nortik in Germany, the Chinese-made MRS (right), Kokopelli and Anfibio; the Packrafting Store’s own brand made by MRS. Click this for their full range.
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.
A while back Alpacka introduced another innovation: a waterproof zip called the Cargo Fly to store gear inside the boat. Better stability and no more backpack lashed over the bow blocking the view, even if an external bag is easier to demount for quick portages. The zip obviously needs to be kept clean so adds a weak spot to the boat. I feel it’s better suited to all-day paddles without portage- or other boat lifting interruptions. I heard of zips having delamination issues if not dried fully and subject to warranty claims. A Cargo Fly is a smart idea, but not if it undermines the airtight integrity of your boat.
If you’re buying a packraft and you’re heavy I’d recommend specifying or adding additional butt and heel patches from new on the underside of the floor. The tiny weight penalty is well worth it for added durability. On a full-size Alpacka you can save a bit of weight by specifying the lighter (but still adequate) Curiyak floor, as I did on my 2014 Yak. Small rafts are back heavy, so in shallow rivers the sagging floor under the seat will wear. Note that the 2014 boats are a couple of inches longer at the back which helps level them out.
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 stikes with submerged obstacles and partly insulates your legs from cold water too.
All these measures will help make your packraft last longer, because although it’s durable it’s still a very light and expensive inflatable boat that’s prone to damage from sharp objects. Repairs in the field are part of ownership, and can be done in a couple of minutes with tape, or over a few hours with Aquaseal sealant.