Packrafting is a great way of getting on the water in a light, portable, stable and easy-to-paddle mini-raft. A 3-kilo packraft like the Alpacka above may resemble a cheap PVC beach toy (left) or even a glorified inner tube, but it’s the durable fabric and solid construction that sets it apart. This enables higher pressures and better rigidity which means a much better paddling experience and a whole new way of exploring and enjoying the watery wilderness. There’s more here on the origins of packrafting; it’s older than you think.
The clue is in the name: you can pack up your raft in minutes, hike with it for hours or days, redeploying at the water’s edge and paddling off. You don’t need any special skills to paddle one but as with all paddle craft, wear buoyancy aids and consider currents, rapids, weirs, tides, irate swordfish and especially winds to which light, high-sided packrafts are especially prone. Note also that unlike an IK, a packraft has only one big air chamber and when it goes (very rare) it’s gone. In the UK the lochs and rivers of the Scottish Highlands are especially well suited to extended overnight treks with packrafts.
From the mid-2000s, US-handmade Alpacka became the innovative pioneers in consumer packrafts. Now there are loads and loads of very similar looking packrafts, mostly made in China then rebranded for western markets. The quality as as good and prices have dropped. More below.
Me and my packrafts
In 2010 I discovered and bought a first-generation Alpacka Denali Llama (below) with a zip-off ‘cruiser’ splash deck. I’d never seen anything like it and back then, expensive American-made Alpackas were the only game in town.
I sold that to Alastair Humphreys (it’s featured here and probably in his MicroAdventures book) and in 2011 got an all-yellow Yak 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 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. The Nomad has gone. There’s another packraft on line for 2021.
With a big 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) and paddle off along rivers or across lakes. At the other end deflate, roll it up and carry on trekking. A packraft also makes an agile white water boat (below) which, with a deck, will manage rapids 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 below. 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.
Things have moved on: most packrafts now have one-way Boston valves which makes topping up much easier. More below. And for those who don’t have lungs like Luciano Pavarotti, you can use a light and compact mini handpump (left) to top up and get the boat good and firm.
Firm boats paddle better but like IKs, a packraft that’s been firmly inflated by hot ambient air will go soft once cooled in the water and will need more topping up. The pump above has a hose which means with a Boston valve-equipped packraft you can top-up on the water, if needed. A good packraft should hold air for days at a time, but don’t leave it fully inflated and out of the water in the hot sun. The air inside heats up and expands, pressures rise and the seams will get strained
With a packraft under your arm you can also walk or bus a few miles upriver and paddle back. You can even strap a bicycle over the bow and bikeraft (below). 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 inside the hull, see below). In fact it yaws (pivots left to right at the bow) less as the added bow load balances 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. But on flatwater or slow rivers, a packraft is slow and not an especially responsive or enjoyable thing to paddle, like a kayak can be. It’s more about what you can do and where it can get you – places IKs, far less hardshell boats cannot reach.
Slackrafts: an ultracheap way of trying ‘packrafting’
The few 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 need to be carefully sewn, heat-welded and sometimes glued by hand which takes time and skill.
For a while I and others experimented with ‘Slackrafts‘, a word I coined to describe cheap, over-wide and soggy PVC beach toys which can be made lighter and a little faster by cutting off the outer chamber to make a still marginally durable boat. It’s an ultracheap way of trying ‘packrafting’. Yes they float but no, they are not enjoyable to paddle. I persuaded some slackmates to join me on trips to Australia, (below) France and Scotland. On most they ended up constantly repairing the boats before ditching their slackrafts once the trip was over. It would be true to say Jeff (below) detested his 20-dollar slackraft long before we finished the first day on the Fitzroy, while I admired the ability of my Alpacka more than ever.
Years ago Alpacka developed a spray deck which you could roll up or even zip and velcro right off. I always thought them a bit flimsy and rarely used mine. 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 white water or surfing. Other have also 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 hull tube. 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.
In the early years these TiZips had 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 under less pressure and are not critical to your buoyancy. A Cargo Fly or similar is an ingenious idea – those cats in Colorado have been micro-dosing on mescaline – but not if it undermines the air-tight integrity of your boat.
Another way of achieving in-hull storage is these side-pods or a simple closure like a roll-top dry bag. In 2020 Anfibio Packrafting’s Nano RTC did just that. Read the review.
Most packrafts only have one air chamber. For my usually solo overnight paddles I feel reassured with a big Watershed UDB (left) over the bow or in the boat to give some back-up buoyancy. 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, twin-cap Boston valves (left) for inflation, topping-off to full pressure, and deflation. These are often found on Slackrafts but others now feature such valves and they’re well suited to low-pressure boats like proper packrafts as they eliminate the need for the separate elbow top-off valve. With no top-up tube, these valves tidy up the exterior of the boat and make one less thing to break, leak or assemble.
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 blue 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-soled boots when striking a shape edge like a submerged concrete bridge abutment. 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 Stormsure or Aquaseal sealant.