Packboat is my made-up word for easily portable boats that roll into a bag but deploy in minutes, in contrast with hardshell kayaks or canoes in aluminum, plastic, or composite. I’m here to suggest that if lugging a cumbersome hardshell on your overland rig isn’t for you, then a packboat weighing from 2 to 40 pounds and never bigger than a backpack might well be, while adding another great way to explore the outdoors…
Alpacka’s comprehensive and innovative range (left) lead the field for years, but several equally effective alternatives are now on the market. Some are locally manufactured and sold in the US, Russia, France or New Zealand, but most are Chinese-made and re-branded with a logo and sold in the West. Don’t be put off: I’ve yet to see a poorly made TPU Chinese packraft. The ones I’ve seen and have used appear to be as durable and well made as an original Alpacka. Read the group test we did a few years ago, even if things have moved on a whole lot since then.
Some copy Alpackas, some go out of their way to be different and some are ‘crossrafts‘ suited only to calm rivers or flatwater crossings. These prioritise ultra light weight over durability which can be a gamble in a single-chambered boat. Still others are designed to carry heavier loads or for all-out white water. Read about the Anfibio Alpha XC, Nano RTC and Rebel, the ROBfin and Longshore International’s EX280 double as well as my own Alpackas and MRS.
Don’t forget that at any waterside resort you can buy cheap PVC beach toys (left) which are OK while they last. Slackrafts get their own page on IK&P and are agreat way of investigating the packrafting experience before you splash out on the real thing.
Most of the boats described below I’ve only seen and evaluated from pictures, but in 2015 we tested four packrafts from MRS, Aire, Nortik and Supai alongside my 2014 Alpacka Yak. To read more about our actual observations and conclusions (as opposed to this page’s web speculation) click this or the banner on the right. Of course things have moved on since then. Click the ‘packrafts’ category menu somewhere on the right.
A word about denier, an often misunderstood unit of measurement used to describe the weight of a thread, not the overall thickness of the woven and coated fabric. Denier is calculated in relation to silk. A 210D nylon thread is 210 times heavier than silk (which is exceedingly light: a 9km strand of silk weighs just one gram!). It’s a mistake to think the hull of a packraft made from 210D nylon will be three times thicker and three times stronger than 70D. The core thread or yarn used ought to weigh three times more so will be much stronger and more resistant to tearing, but not as a factor of the D-rating. In fact 210D is probably more than three times tear resistant that 70D, but it depends on how you measure this. The thickness of the TPU/PVC/PU coating (and whether on one or both sides) will of course affect the total weight, and this is commonly given as grams per square metre or, in the US: ounces per square yard. DIY Packraft sell 210D single-side coat TPU hull fabric rated at 250-280 gsm, or ‘8 oz’, and 420D is about 550gsm. But there is so much more to it than this. Much depends on the intended use of any fabric, and its quality (thread, weave, pigment, coating, final assembly of seams). What works for parachutes, tents or bulletproof vests won’t apply to paddling. A packraft will suffer abrasion, jabs, stabs and pinpricks, but the stabbing with scissors onto a hard surface, as shown in the video below couldn’t happen to the inflated hull. It can happen to the floor sheet. (I did this once in my Alpacka; floor. Easy repair but a good idea to cushion that area if wearing hard-soled boots. In the end you can be pretty sure that the 210D/420D TPU used by packraft makers is the best in terms of reliable welding, cost, gsm, durability and so on.
Crossrafts seems to have slipped from usage but usefully defines a sub-category of packrafts: very light rafts made from nylon or polyester with the non-porous PU coating inside, like your tent or backpack, as opposed to the more durable shiny exterior coating of TPU on a normal packraft.
Crossrafts are best suited to crossing or navigating calm bodies of water rather than paddling along them, far less tackling white water, though this doesn’t seem to stop people trying. The low prices and light fabric enables weights of a kilo or less, creating a much needed link between slackrafts and packrafts. Because of the thin fabric, you do lose out on durability, as well as the performance and response of stiffer TPU hulls found on packrafts like an Alpha XC (left) which still weighs less than 2kg.
As the name suggests, the 670g Supai Flatwater II is an ultra-light crossraft suited to small lochs, canyoneering or following calm rivers. With its narrowed and tapered bow, it resembles the much admired Sevylor Trail Boat – the Lost Prince of Slackrafts – and at the time appeared to be a more sophisticated. The Supai’s dimensions as measured by me added up to 92cm wide, 157cm long and 106cm inside. We tried one – read about it here. A couple of years later we also tried the fatter Matkat version.
The Anfibio Packrafting in Germany started by importing other brands and now also collaborates with and sells MRS from China (we tried the MRS Microraft). They now have their own brand of Anfibio packrafts which are among the lightest in their class. We tried the Alpha XC(above left). The range packrafts now goes right down to a sub-1 kilo crossraft: the Nano SL and Nano RTC.
Another distinction is the use of a Leafield valve you’d normally find on a IK or whitewater raft which inflate to higher pressures with pumps. And yet Kokopelli packrafts still inflate with regular air bags and then top off with a detachable mouth tube so it all seems like overkill or being different for the sake of it.
See this video where they say you can inflate up to 2psi. A K-Pump will easily do that but it’s probably not possible by lung unless you’re 1970s muscleman Franco Columbo who managed to blow up and burst a hot water bottle.
With a range of models from lightweight to white water, as well as tandems, the distinctively angular shape of US-branded Kokopelli packrafts sets them apart. Certainly for paddling efficiency you want as firm a boat as possible, especially once a packraft gets beyond a certain length. But over-inflate it (or leave it in the hot sun) and it may well rupture a seam. The Kokopelli range includes the Nirvana white water boat which comes as a self-bailer or with a deck. Decked packrafts are two-a-penny now, but self-bailing is a more unusual solution to white water packrafting, more common on big white water rafts where you sit on thwarts high above the wet floor.
In a self-bailing packraft or kayak a thick inflated floor pad is needed (or just big fat seats) to get you above the water that will always be present around the floor. Holes round the edges (small picture right, and like the discontinued Baylee, below) see excess water flow out. What pours in over the sides flows right out the draining holes until the water level reaches equilibrium; the boat cannot get swamped. Depending on how fast it drains, for whitewater I’d prefer a bailing packraft to a deck and skirt, but that’s partly why I also prefer open IKs.
Found on eBay from under £600, Sputniik looks like an Austrian design or brand that’s made in Russia by TimeTrial. There will be a certain kudos in having enigmatic Cyrillic on your boat but, not unlike the German-designed/Russian made Nortiks (maybe even the same factory?), from 3.7kg for the Sputnik 1, these are relatively heavy boats using tough 420-D hulls with heavy 650g/m2 PVC floors when most others use 210D hulls and 420 TPU floors. Remember: heavy does not always equal robust and durable, as with MTBs it can just mean cheaper.
Longshore was the first UK-branded range of Chinese-made packrafts but after a couple of years closed down in 2020. For our spin on their EX280 click this and discover that China need not be a dirty world. It’s as good as anything out there. In 2021 Adelie Packrafts carried on where Longshore left off, offering a plain and inexpensive solo or double boat sourced from the same Chinese factory, but all with rear skegs.