See also: Packrafting Gear Essentials
Packrafting is a great way of getting on the water in a light, portable and stable, easy-to-paddle boat. A 3-kilo packraft like the 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 packrafting (right) and a good, if review of manufacturers here.
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 and paddling 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 (Assynt; below) are especially well suited to extended overnight treks with packrafts.
Me and my packrafts
In 2010 I bought a first-generation green Alpacka Denali Llama (left) with a zip-off ‘cruiser’ splash deck. I’d never seen anything like it. Back then, expensive American-made Alpackas LLC were the only game in town, sold only from their factory in Colorado. I sold that to Alastair Humphreys (it’s featured here and probably in 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 did loads with that boat: 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 still further to a simpler, lighter blue and yellow Yak which I’ve used on the Lycean Way in Turkey (below), as well as a couple of visits to southern France.
In 2019 i sold that and bought a bigger, MRS Nomad S1 ‘pakayak’ which I’ve paddled in New Zealand as well as my usual places and the Regents Canal in London.
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 (below) which, with a deck, will manage white water as gnarly as you’d dare.
Like 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, not would expect one with careful use.
Unlike a full-sized raft, there’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.
On 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. More recently in France I averaged over 7kph, but the current was good that day.
Who makes good packrafts?
The novelty and exclusivity of Alpacka boats (left) has peaked as others have caught on to the idea, producing near-identical boats. This makes things more competitive for you, the buyer. There’s nothing to stop you even making one yourself by buying a kit including fabric, glues and other bits plus a template. Look up DIY Packtaft in BC or Iron Raft in the UK. All you need are some scissors, an inexpensive heat-sealing iron and some fabricating skill plus room to use it. They say it takes around 15 to 25 hours to complete a basic packraft, saving up to 80% on an off-the-shelf boat. I’d love to save that kind of money but I know if I tried it I’d end up with a Picassoraft.
Otherwise, there are now several brands to look out for below which is already out of date. Some are locally manufactured and sold in the US, Russia or Australia, some are Chinese-made products simply re-branded with a logo and sold in the West. But don’t be put off. Unlike some motorbikes, I have yet to see a poorly made Chinese packraft, but you can be sure you get what you pay for. The ones I’ve seen and used appear to be as durable and well made as an original Alpacka. See the group test we did a few years ago, even if things have moved on a whole lot since then. Russian branded Biluta is the first PVC packrafts I’ve heard of and cost just a couple of hundred dollars. Pictured below, an Anfibio Alpha XC. See also our test on the Longshore International EX280 double (left). This list of brands below is far from comprehensive. I’ve given up keeping up.
The several hundred quid it costs to buy a packraft 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.
So for 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, (below) France and Scotland. On most of them they ended up constantly repairing them before ditching their slackrafts once the trip was over and it would be true to say Jeff (below) hated his 20-dollar slackraft before we finished the first day on the Fitzroy.
Years ago Alpacka developed a spray deck which you could roll up or even zip and velcro right off. Now called ‘Cruiser Decks’, I 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 decks 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.
For a portable boat you’ll want a compact four-part paddle. I can recommend an Aqua Bound Manta Ray 220, but there are a loads out there and they can cost hundreds.
A while back Alpacka introduced another much-copied innovation: a waterproof zip in the stern called the Cargo Fly which enables you to store gear inside the boat. For 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 needs 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 nor critical to your buoyancy. I’ve also read that storing hard items in the tubes makes them less able to deform on sharp items and resist a puncture – so pack or wrap soft. A Cargo Fly or similar is an ingenious idea – those 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.
In 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 eliminate the need for the separate elbow top-off valve.
Others like Longshore and MRS now feature such valves and in their words, Alpacka now use a ‘simple flap valve (left) with a locking system that lets you keep tension on 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.’
With not top-up tube these valves tidy 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.
If you’re buying any packraft and you’re ‘of a certain weight’, I’d consider 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 will wear first. With my current Nomad (above) i sit in the middle more like a kayak, so the floor is not so vulnerable.
I’ve found 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 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
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. Though it’s never happened to me, repairs in the field are part of ownership – more so than quality IKs – and can be done in a couple of minutes with tape, or over a few hours with Aquaseal sealant.