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…
For sporty rivers, inshore use and touring, Alpacka’s comprehensive and innovative range lead the field for many years, but now several alternatives are now on the market, mostly made in China then domestically re-branded. As you’ll soon see, there’s nothing wrong with that. Some copy Alpackas, a couple go out of their way to be different and some are ‘crossrafts‘ suited only to calm rivers, short crossings and flatwater. These prioritise ultra light weight over durability which can be a gamble outside of shallow, tropical lagoons. As in Alpacka’s range, still others are designed to carry heavier loads, be as light as possible or for all-out white water.
Don’t forget that at any waterside holiday resort you can always buy cheap PVC ‘slackraft’ pool toys (left) that 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. See also the MRS Nomad S1 kayakraft (below).
A word about denier – a unit of measurement used to describe the weight (not the thickness) of a material. It is calculated on the mass in grams of a single 9000m strand using one 9000-m long strand of silk as a reference for one denier). It’s a mistake to think a fabric made from 210D nylon will be three times thicker and three times stronger than 70D. The thread or yarn used ought to weigh three times more so will be stronger and more resistant to tearing, but not as a factor of the D-rating.
Crossrafts What have been dubbed crossrafts are sub-category of packrafts – very light rafts made from nylon or polyester with a coating onside (like your tent or backpack) as opposed to much more durable exterior coating found on TPU; the shiny stuff of a normal packraft. They are best suited to crossing 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 well under a kilo, making the link between slackrafts and packrafts. But because of the fabric you do lose out on durability, performance and response from the stiffer TPU hulls found on packrafts like an Alpha XC (left) which still weighs much less than 2kg and gives you more peace of mind when travelling along in remote locales.
Supai Flatwater Canyon II 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.
NRS Packraft NRS’ tough MaverIK introduced me to inflatable kayaking in Idaho all those years ago – I nearly bought one right on the spot. A while back they added a packraft to their line up. At 203cm long and 91cm wide (33cm x 142cm inside), the NRS Packraft is a roomy boat weighing 3.35kg with the removable floor, or 5.6lbs / 2.54kg without, so it’s too heavy to be a true crossraft. Like a Supai it’s made from PU-coated nylon: 70D in the tubes and a floor in 210D. There’s a seat pad too to get your bum higher than your feet, necessary for a comfortable and efficient paddling posture. Like the discontinued Feathercraft BayLee (bottom of the page), the NRS has two chambers with simple one-way Boston valves as found on £20 slackrafts and many packrafts now. An inflation bag is an extra $30. But check out the NRS website reviews – not such glowing reports with regards to durability. It does seem a rather half-backed effort which is a shame as NRS IKs and rafts are famously tough. This guy took his down a rapid-strewn river in Oregon. You may want to skim down to the last few paragraphs. And this guy in the UK bought one in 2015 for more recreational paddling to which the NRS Packraft may be better suited.
Advanced Elements Packlite Packraft attempts to meet kayak with a splash of slackraft graphics: behold the Advanced Elements Packlite ‘splackraft’. Fabric is a similar ripstop PU-coated polyester as used on the Supai (denier unknown). What they call ‘military valves’ (i.e.: IK valves as opposed to Boston valves) are used on the two-chamber hull so the thing ought to pump up firm. That might be the problem as they sem to burst. The I-beam floor is inflated with a regular twist lock valves to avoid over-pressurisation. The deck net becomes a carry bag and there are a few D-rings, plus the AE signature moulded rubber handle. You won’t get far without that. Price is $330 and it has to be said this looks like a great combination of interior space, shape and weight, and claims a modest but realistic 250lbs/113kg payload. Problem is you can’t help equating those naff ‘world map’ graphics with a crap pool toy. Tubes look a bit slim and low and it needs a bulky pump, but overdo it and you risk leaks or outright bursts. The video below features an eminently svelte paddler; you wonder if it would sprint so briskly with a bloater like me in it. As is often the case – the genuinereviews on amazon tell the full story. Caveat emptor on this one.
Anfibio The Anfibio Packraft Store in Germany started by importing other brands and now also collaborates with and sells MRS from China (we tried the MRS Microraft).
With MRS they now have their own brand of Anfibio packrafts which are among the lightest in their class. We tried the Alpha XC(above left). From just €470 + seat, a great deal for a light paddler. The range packrafts now goes right down to a sub-1 kilo crossraft.
Kokopelli With a range of models from lightweight to white water,as well as tandems (some sold in Europe by Packrafting Store), the distinctively angular shape of US-branded Kokopelli packrafts sets them apart.
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. A simple Boston valve would do. 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.
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. (I did that with an IK once.). So lung pressure is safest. The Kokopelli range includes the Nirvana white water boat (left) 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.
I know from IKs that self-bailing can mean a higher centre of gravity due to the thick floor or seat which can lead to instability, but just as with full-size rafts, with wider, flat-bottomed packrafts that’s probably much less of an issue. Depending on how fast it drains, for whitewater I think I’d prefer a bailing packraft to a deck and skirt, but that’s partly why I also prefer open IKs.
Kokopelli’s other main boat is the more sedate and roomy tandem Twain, over 3 metres long weighing nearly 7kg with all the bits including a front seat with a proper backrest, but with 225cm or well over 7 feet of length inside. Two tall adults and gear will not be cramped. Unusually again, the Twain features the Leafield valve, an inflatable floor but also a removable skeg at the back like an IK. You’d think a long boat like this would not have tracking issues any worse than regular sized packrafts.
A packraft like this, as long as a kayak but running on lung-pressure psi, will need all the help it can get to be rigid and not paddle like a soggy Sevylor. Blow it up as hard as you can but I’m not sure a regular low-psi floor will add that much. It’s known that the best packrafts can take much more pressure than we can fill them with – up to 6-8 psi I’ve been told before something goes. Are we already knocking on the door of longer packrafts with high-pressure drop-stitch floors? A detailed Twain review here.
Over in Australia or New Zealand? Then look up PacKraft who make their own boats to order and also sell other brands.
Sputnik packrafts found on eBay from under £600. 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.
Sputnik 1 numbers are: 250cm x 100cm, 30cm tubes, a very generous if not baggy 40cm width and ballpark 125 inner length with a load capacity 150kg. The range goes right up to a Sputnik 3 (left) which is a true double at no less than 3.5m long (2.25m inside) with a quarter-ton payload weighing in from 5 kilos.
It says they come with a basic inflation bag valve (like old Alpackas) or the Boston-like one-way valve which you can pump up to a little beyond lung power (a better choice IMO, especially for the longer tandem), as well optional fitted decks for white watering.
Longshore International was the only UK branded range of Chinese-made packrafts but after a couple of years closed 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.