What is Packrafting


Updated summer 2018
Packrafting Gear Essentials


tuabotPackrafting is a great way of getting on the water in a light, portable and stable, easy-to-paddle boat. A 3-kilo packraft like my Alpacka (left) may resemble a cheap PVC pool toy, but it’s the durable fabric and construction combined with the light weight which provides a whole new way of exploring and enjoying your recreation or the wilderness. There’s more here on the origins of wwrpakpackrafting.
The clue is in the name: you can pack or unpack your raft in minutes, hiking with it for minutes, hours or days between bodies of water, redeploying the boat as you go. You don’t need any special skills to paddle one but as with all paddle craft, wear flotation aids and have an understanding of currents, rapids, weirs, tides, swordfish feeding frenzies and especially winds to which light and buoyant packrafts are prone.
In the UK the lochs and rivers of the Scottish Highlands are especially well suited to extended overnight treks with packrafts. 

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paksailerMe and my packrafts

In 2010 I bought a first-generation green Alpacka Denali Llama with a zip-off ‘cruiser’ splash deck. I’d never seen anything like it. Back then, expensive American-made Alpackas were the only game in town, sold only from their factory in Colorado. I sold that to fellow adventurer Alastair Humphreys (it’s featured here and probably his  MicroAdventures book) and in 2011 got an all-yellow Yak in the 2nd-generation shape with the innovative and now much copied extended pointy stern.
I paddled that boat in Utah, northwest ScotlandFrance and the remote Fitzroy river in northwest Australia. I’ve also tried surfingdisc sailing, bikerafting, and even urban packrafting. In 2014 I downscaled still further to a simpler, lighter blue and yellow  Yak which I’ve used on the Lycean Way in Turkey (below), as well as the usual places.

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Packrafting adventures
With an 80-litre backpack you can carry the boat, camping gear and several days of food on your back. At the water’s edge you inflate, secure your pack over the bow (or inside the hull via a sealed zip) and paddle off along rivers or across lakes. At the other end deflate, roll it up, ‘shrink wrap’ by sucking out the excess air to make it nice and compact then carry on trekking.
A packraft also makes an agile white water boat (right) which, with a deck, will manage white water as gnarly as you’d dare try.

 


yak-airboLike IKs, packrafts bounce off rocks and are more stable than regular hardshell kayaks. They 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 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 screwed into a valve on the boat, as shown left. Then you top off by mouth, the firmer the boat the better it rides.
In the video below (speeded up x 15) from walking up to a beach with my paddle in my pack, to loading up and paddling away took 8 minutes.


With a packraft under your arm you can also walk or bus a few miles upriver, put in and paddle back. 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.
mppOn flat water a packraft can happily carry up to 20 kilos strapped over the bow (or zipped inside the hull, see below). In fact it yaws (pivots left to right at the bow) less like that as the added bow load trims the boat level against the paddler’s rearward 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.

BoatStackWho makes packrafts?
Alpacka LLC are no longer the only packraft makers. The novelty and exclusivity of their boats has peaked as others have caught on to the idea, producing seemingly near-identical boats. This makes things more competitive for you, the buyer and tDIY-Packraft-Adam-D-1here’s nothing to stop you making one yourself by buying a kit including fabric, glues and other bits plus a template from Matt in BC. All you need are some scissors, a heat-sealing iron and some fabricating skill. He reckons it takes around 15 to 25 hours to complete a basic DIY Packraft and saves up to 80% on an off-the-shelf packraft.
long - 9Otherwise, there are a few brands to look out for below. Some are locally manufactured and sold in the US, Russia or Australia, some are Chinese-made products simply branded with a logo. But don’t be put off – unlike some motorbikes, I have yet to see a poorly made Chinese packraft. They appear to be as durable and well made as an original Alpacka. See the group test we did a couple of years ago. Pictured below, an Anfibio Alpha XC. See also our test on the Longshore International EX280 double (left).

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‘Slackrafts’
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The staggering cost of several hundred quid for packrafts can be a bit of a shock for what looks like a flimsy raft. This is because once the fabric is cut they essentially need to be carefully sewn, heat-welded and sometimes glued by hand which takes time and skill.
slackieSo or a while I and others experimented with ‘Slackrafts‘ a word I coined to describe cheap, over-wide and soggy PVC pool toys which can be made lighter and a little faster by cutting off the outer chamber to make a still marginally durable boat (right). It’s an ultracheap way of trying ‘packrafting’ without the expense. I persuaded some slackmates to join me on trips to Australia, France and Scotland. On most of them ended up constantly repairing and then ditching their slackrafts once the trip was over.



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604_12Years ago Alpacka developed a spray deck which you could roll up or even zip and velcro right off. Now called ‘Cruiser Decks’, lamadeckI always thought them a bit flimsy and rarely used mine (right). 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. This makes them suited to rougher water or surfing. Other have adopted similar kayak-like decvks to add a whitewater boat to their ranges.
A deck might be a nice option if it’s cold, but for non-white water paddling I’d sooner just wear a dry suit. 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.


mantaray1For a portable boat you’ll want a compact four-part paddle. I can recommend an Aqua Bound Manta Ray 220, but there are a few more out there.

 
A while back Alpacka introduced another much copied innovation: a waterproof zip in the stern of the hull called the Cargo Fly which enables you to store gear inside the boat. zipperFor white water it offers much better stability than a backpack lashed over the bow, even if an external bag is easier to demount for quick portages. The zip obviously alpakzipneeds to be kept very clean and well lubed.
I feel it’s better suited to all-day paddles without portage- or other boat-lifting interruptions. I’ve heard of these TiZips having delamination and leakage issues if not dried properly and have been subject to warranty claims. It can’t be any worse than TiZips in dry suits, but they’re not under as much pressure. A Cargo Fly or similar is an ingenious idea – fx2-udbthose cats in Mancos have been micro-dosing on mescaline – but not if it undermines the air-tight integrity of your boat.
On a packraft you’ve only really got one air chamber – when it’s gone it’s gone. For my usually solo overnight paddles I feel more reassured with a big Watershed UDB (right) over the bow or in the boat. When all is lost, that has a top-up valve to give the full 90 litres of buoyancy to help you paddle to the shore.

anfi - 13In the US NRS were among the first to fit one-way Boston valves (left) for inflation, topping off to full pressure, and deflation. These are often found on cheapo Slackrafts but are actually well suited to low-pressure boats like packrafts as they eliminates the need for the separate elbow top-off valve.
Others also feature such valves and in their words, Alpacka now use a ‘simple flap valve [below right] with a locking system that lets you keep tension MG_1349on the flap in one direction and allows you to purge air from the raft when it is turned the other direction. It’s not a true one-way valve in the fact that it does need the cap screwed on to make an air-tight seal.’

These valves clean up the exterior of the boat and make one less thing to break, leak or assemble. Some found Alpacka’s bayonet-style airbag adapter nozzle was a poor fit on the new valve. It’s since been changed back to a screw fit on the valve body’s outside thread.
 
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Pre-emptive improvements
If you’re buying any 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 lightweight floor, as I did on my 2014 Yak. The tiny weight penalty is well worth the added durability. Even with the ingenious extended stern/tail (which also acts as a skeg) solo packrafts are back heavy, so in shallow rivers the sagging floor under the seat can wear excessively.
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 yak-karithis. A way of limiting the damage of such impacts is to use a bit of closed-cell foam mat inside (right). It softens heel strikes and also partly insulates your legs from cold water.
 
yakwrapAll 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.
Though it’s never happened to me, repairs in the field are part of ownership – much more so than IKs – and can be done in a couple of minutes with tape, or over a few hours with Aquaseal sealant.

pakkender