A muddy bank below Porters chute and it was my chance to mount the BAKraft – that’s ‘BAK’ as in Backcountry Airlight Kayak. The concept was developed in Idaho by a guy called Cory Walker until nearby Aire in Meridian, ID stepped in to help finish the job.
The result is a ‘packraft’ that resembles Aire’s shorter whitewater IKs like the 14.5kg, 2.9 x 1.1m Force (right), right down to the rockered ‘banana’ profile, bladdered ‘AIRECell’ construction and high, self-bailing floor.
I’ve long admired Aire’s IKs from afar and came close to buying one a couple of times, but besides being unknown in Europe, the weight, price and the bladdered design always put me off, even though some are guaranteed for up to a decade.
As a packraft-like-kayak I wasn’t so sure about the BAKraft either. Intrepid wilderness adventurer Forrest McCarthy took an earlier prototype down the Grand Canyon last autumn, but a promised full review has yet to appear. In fact, the long post had surprisingly little to say about the new BAKraft: “very responsive yet amazingly stable” was the limit of it.
The BAKraft pitches itself as a hybrid IK/packraft or maybe even an ‘SoT’ packraft that seems more suited to whitewater than packraft trekking. It’s important to note that the boat we had was a prototype and at the time of writing Aire were midway through a ‘production/material’ cock up that had set them back a few weeks. It’s unclear exactly what that was but it’s possible that some of the reservations you will read below may be addressed.
Whatever turns out, we’re assured the final version will be much lighter because both the Aire and BAKraft websites claim BAKrafts will be ‘7lbs 2oz’ (114oz or 3.23kg). On the water our prototype weighed in at 4.25kg with seat and thigh straps – that’s over a kilo or nearly a third more than their target weight. The final production BAKraft will have to go on quite a diet, even if this claimed weight follows the supposed ‘industry standard’ of a stripped out boat with anything removable removed (that’s how Alpacka do it).
There’s more on each of the test boat’s construction in the intro page but the most obvious place to save weight will be in the heavyweight material used for backrest. It’s a PU-coated nylon which feels about 500 denier and weighs 458g.
In our prototype it looks like the same fabric was used in the I-beam floor where you’d imagine it might be needed. So Cory the designer explained in an email when I was trying to square the weight anomaly. You may agree with him when you undo the side zips and see how thin a urethane AIRECell actually feels. I’ve never actually seen one before and I wonder if this is the same weight as used on their IKs and rafts.
Other than that our prototype was a bit over-generous with attachment points: a line of eight along each side of the floor (similar to Aire IKs), four more on the deck and two under the bow and stern with metal rings. There are even what look like carry handles midway under the boat (right). For portaging, perhaps? Who knows but there’s some scope for a little weight saving before the floor takes a urethene AIREcell.
The first thing they might consider is ditching the whole ‘ISC’ (‘inflation, seat, cargo’) bag idea. As an inflation device you’ll have read it’s cumbersome and unless I’m missing some trick it doesn’t work for long as a backrest either, because a roll-top seal is not an airtight seal.
I anticipated this and sure enough, the backrest slowly collapsed as you tip further and further back until you look like someone in a deckchair on Brighton beach. This is partly because the semi-rigid seal strips in the bag opening are folded and sewn into the uncoated side of the fabric which is textured, rough and therefore not airtight. Rolling the fabric the other way – PU coating out – to make sleeves for the strips would have made a more effective seal. It’s hard to think someone like Aire of all people didn’t anticipate this. There is a twist-lock valve at the back of the bag (part of the convoluted inflation system described on the intro page) but you can’t reach it on the water without getting on your knees and turning around (a long Supai-like top-up tube might help if they persevere with this idea).
Fact is, the best use for this ‘ISC’ bag is simply a trunk. Right from the start we piled all our stuff into it in the vain hope of making it a more supportive backrest, but it’s not in an ideal place for weight distribution and trim. Everyone who paddled the BAK looked back heavy. With the raft’s bow sticking up, a sudden gust on steep wave might flip you over backwards, surely not a good thing in a creek boat. As it is the BAKraft’s high bow and buoyancy would make it hard work touring all day into a headwind, wherever you stash your gear.
I say ditch the ISC which ruins the elegant lines of the boat anyway. Let the user sort out their own baggage requirements if needed. Then supply something like a Feathercraft BayLee-air bag or their handpump (just $35) and concoct a simple stiff-backed, non-inflating backrest. Aire knows all about that; I used one of their IK seats years ago on my Gumotex Sunny. It was the best thing around at the time. Otherwise, fit a TiZip in the ISC bag or revert to the sealed inflatable pillow or thwart backrest shown above left.
On the water you sit high on the inflated floor – a necessity to keep you out of the water that sloshes around the self-bailing ports. On getting in I instinctively pulled on the thigh straps; they helped a bit from sinking backwards against the backrest but interestingly I didn’t feel the lack of a seat pad made my paddling stance uncomfortable which makes me think shoulder-to-water height may have more to do with it than bum-higher-than-feet. That height helps you reach past the metre-wide sides and, with the pump-assisted 2psi pressure in the tubes, the BAKraft skims along quite efficiently, even if I was leaning back at 15°, 16°, 17°… Sagging backrest apart, a much longer paddle would be needed to genuinely assess comfort.
I can’t say I perceived any drag from the bailing ports, the comparatively high pressure saw to that and the pronounced rocker saw the raft easy to turn (though no packraft is exactly short on turnability). Obviously, the chutes didn’t give the Aire any grief; this raft was gagging for some meaty white water which in southeast England is as commonplace as a herd of stampeding wildebeast.
Not being a white water thrill-seeker I wasn’t inspired by the half-finished BAKraft. It’s too heavy and bulky for packraft travels and the backrest and inflation system needs rethinking. The thigh straps are a start, but a footrest is also needed for steep impacts or just general paddling efficiency (easily done with all the attachment loops).
But even if they do get the weight down to the claimed 3.23kg, I feel the BAKraft is much better used as a creek boat than a traditional packraft for wilderness travel. And even then, Sven from the Store admitted in the rapids it was quite a steep learning curve compared to regular spray-skirted whitewater packrafts with a much lower centre of gravity and so better stability. The buoyancy is massive but it’s a tippy boat, both side to side and front to back. Doubtless, I wouldn’t last five minutes in it. He also found the Dyneema floor a bit slippery when wearing nylon clothing and the thigh braces not so comfy (I find fitting braces floor-to-floor works best, as shown in the video below).
Towards the end of the test we got a chance to test the BAKraft’s payload claims when we abandoned the Matkat. Lois and Hannah paddled it two-up with a total weight of 150kg with all the gear. Lois at the back found herself sitting in water until Hannah hung her legs out over the bow to counterbalance things. But for her it wasn’t a viable paddling stance and it’s not designed to do this of course. If you’re looking for a small double packraft, the Trekraft worked better.
The BAKraft will suit experienced whitewater rafters who prefer not being hemmed in by spray skirts and can handle the boat’s lively characteristics. I can see skirt-scorning BAKrafters scrambling way up to some inaccessible mountain river to pull off a first descent which would have been a chore to get to with any other type of boat.
When it was all over I was reminded of the other factor that’s always put me off bladder (‘inner tube’) boats. They take ages to dry while leaves and other riverine detritus collected in the nooks and crannies which all need a good hosing. With a TPU packraft it’s just a quick wipe, shake and vac. (The black Supai dried even faster.) A production BAKraft won’t get around that, but hopefully some of the flaws we found in this prototype will get sorted in the final version.