A guide to packrafting and what to look for in the best packrafts.
The packrafting sport has been getting a lot of hype lately. Rightfully so. No longer do your backpacking trips have to be limited to land.
Packing a lightweight raft (eh hmm, a "packraft") allows you to explore places you otherwise could not - cruise down a river or paddle around a still glacial lake, for example. Beyond exploring, rafting down waterways can also be an extremely efficient method of transportation, enabling you to cover long distances with minimal output.
So what's wrong with hardshell kayaks and canoes? Well, they are super heavy and bulky, making them completely impractical for any sort of backcountry land travel. Packrafts, on the other hand, are compact and inflatable, designed to be carried on a person's back for long-distances.
These ain't pool toys either. These are serious watercraft, made to withstand abuse from branches, sharp rocks, and whatever else nature throws at you. There’s a wide spectrum of different packraft designs - made for everything from glassy lakes to Class V rapids. The best raft for you will depend on the body of water you’re planning to travel and how much weight you’re willing to add to your pack.
Let's dig into some things to look for as well as our picks for the best packrafts.
CRUISERS: Cruisers are made for still and calmer waters. Some can withstand up to Class III rapids, but they’re generally designed for a more laid back experience on the water.
Cruisers look like more like dinghies or rowboats and less like kayaks. They often have rounded edges, and lack the stability of their whitewater counterparts. They have an open-boat design compared to the closed build of a kayak.
What they lack in performance, cruisers more than make up for in portability. They’re significantly lighter than whitewater packrafts and compress down to a smaller size - making them the preferred choice for most ultralight backpackers. Cruisers are also typically much cheaper than whitewater models, making them ideal for beginners just getting into the sport.
WHITEWATER PACKRAFTS: Whitewater packrafts are made to ride rapids. Since they will be subject to more abuse, naturally they need to be a lot more durable than cruisers. The design of whitewater models is usually more complex, with more bells and whistles than cruising packrafts. Whitewater rafts often have spray decks modeled after hardshell kayaks as well. Because of the more closed boat design, you’ll need somewhere designated to store your gear.
The durable build and additional features make whitewater packrafts heavier, although many are still portable enough to carry in your bag. They can range anywhere from 5 to15 pounds, making them less ideal for long backpacking trips. If you’re heading out in search of remote rapids, however, whitewater packrafts are still much more portable than inflatable or hardshell kayaks.
LIGHTWEIGHT: This comes down to packability. You are going to be hiking and carrying this thing on your back, potentially for long distances. Also keep in mind, packrafting requires more gear than just the raft itself (paddle, etc).
Ultralight backpackers with flatwater in mind should aim for rafts around 2 to 3 pounds. Whitewater rafters will start at the 5 lbs, minimum. You can expect for a complete packrafting gear kit to add somewhere between 6 to 12 pounds to your pack.
DURABILITY: No vinyl pool toys please. Even on calm lakes, rafts will contact debris, branches, rocks, etc. Sacrificing durability means risking rush repair jobs in the wilderness, or worse, an early end to your trip.
"Denier" is a unit used to measure the thickness of fabric. Quality tubing and flooring fabric will be coated and made of, at minimum, 70 D and can go on up to 840 D.
HANDLING: How well does it maneuver in the water? You want it to be wide enough for stability, but narrow enough for smooth hydrodynamics and minimal water resistance. Dinghies are notorious for drag and being dad in the water.
SELF-BAILING: Some rafts come with holes or vents to let water flow in and out of the raft floor freely. This prevents water from getting trapped inside the raft and forcing you to manually bail it out yourself. Don't worry, those holes won't cause you to sink. Remember, unlike a closed-floor boat, your inflated pontoons are keeping you afloat. Prepare to constantly have a wet floor though.
LOAD CAPACITY: Yes, your pontoons are inflatable and buoyant... only up to a certain point though. You need to consider how heavy you are and how heavy your gear is. Most rafts can carry 200 lbs and some up to several hundred pounds. This is called "load capacity" or "maximum weight" or "carrying capacity". Pack light and stay above water my friend.
SPRAY DECKS and SKIRTS: Spray decks are the top part of the boat that covers your lower half. Spray decks and skirts are specifically designed to prevent water from actually getting inside your raft. They are usually "worn" and are made of neoprene material that attaches to the deck with a zipper or velcro.
You're on the water already... so why would you want to keep water out so much? Some rafters want to protect their gear, or, especially in colder weather, stay dry. Water can also accumulate and puddle up inside your raft as dead weight. To keep weight down, most ultralight models forgo a spray deck though.
GEAR STORAGE: If you're only paddling around mountain lakes, storage is a minor issue. Most open boat designs allow your gear to ride right in front of or behind you. Otherwise, there will be attachments and "D-rings" to lash down gear securely.
To optimize every part of the raft, some models have a cleverly placed zipper to store gear in the actual pontoon. Your gear will slide around more and be inaccessible during the day. But, this can save a significant amount of deck space... and keep your gear dry. The zipper also doubles up for ultra fast deflation. Note most packrafts are 1 continuous pontoon chamber, while some models have 2 or 4 chambers.
INFLATION SETUP: There are two ways packrafts are inflated - inflation bags and tube valves. The amount of air needed to inflate the raft is way more than your lungs can handle. Enter the inflation bag. They make it easy to take a large amount of air and physically push it into the air chamber. To adjust it to the optimal inflation level, or "top-up", you can blow into smaller tube valves.
THIGH STRAPS: Thigh straps are a common feature in whitewater packrafts. These help keep boaters secure in the boat, significantly increase control, and can even allow skilled paddlers to roll their boat. If you’re buying a packraft with thigh straps, make sure they’re easy-release. Easy-release straps are a safety feature that allows rafters quick escape in an emergency situation.
SEATS: Packraft seats are usually inflatable, although thin foam pads are popular as well. Some seats are built into the craft, while others are a separate, optional piece.
Why seats? First off, sitting directly on the bottom of your boat can get uncomfortable. Depending on the level of cushioning of the floor, your butt might literally bump and skid across every little thing. Also, adequate seat height provides a deeper paddle and more leverage, which improves the overall quality of your stroke.
From ultralight dinghies to bombproof rafts.
Weight: 1 lbs 12 oz, Load Capacity: 325 lbs
$350.00 on supai.com
Supai makes some seriously ultralight packrafts. Nothing else on this list gets below 2 lbs... which is more comparable to a sleeping pad than a raft. They pack down to not much bigger than a Nalgene water bottle either. For the ultralight backpacker looking to get out on some calm water, these are a great option. With virtually zero additional features, thin materials and only a single internal attachment point, these are as basic as it gets though. They don't leave much room for your person, much less your gear.
Weight: 2 lbs 3 oz, Load Capacity: 350 lbs
The next step up. Another ultralight cruiser that resembles more of a dinghy more than a raft. Extremely compact and lightweight to easily stuff in your pack. With a lifetime warranty, these are very durable and great for beginners looking to get started. More spacious than Supai, less expensive, a padded floor, and complete with 6 tie-off points. Keep in mind this is only good for calmer waters - the walls are very low, it does not maneuver well nor does it hold a firm shape for any kind of handling or stability.
Weight: 2 lbs 15 oz, Load Capacity: 310 lbs
$315.00 on flyweightdesigns.com
With a length of 70", this is much more spacious to extend your legs, and subsequently, a much more practical packraft for comfortable travel. The high walls help with stability on more moderate waters. Still very minimalist - with no tie-downs, flooring or seating. Note Supai has been out of stock for some time with no response on their next availability.
Weight: 2 lbs 8 oz, Load Capacity: 220 lbs
$595.00 on alpacka.com
Alpacka is the dominant brand in the packrafting world. They have been around for decades and have a reputation for quality and innovation. The Scout is their most basic, stripped down and lightest model. For more durable whitewater rafts, spraydecks and endless customization, see their full Series.
Weight: 4 lbs 15 oz, Load Capacity: 275 lbs
My personal favorite. Kokopelli has only been around a few years and already has a loyal following in the packrafting community. The Hornet is as light as it gets for a complete packraft, which includes a single chamber raft, an inflatable (and removable) seat, 2 strategically placed D-rings for gear storage, and plenty of space. Quality craftsmanship with 1" seam taped seams, 1 year warranty, and a complementary repair kit. Overall, this raft is strong enough for long excursions, yet light and small enough to carry. Awesome. For spraydecks and self-bailer options, see their complete Series.
Weight: 7 lbs 2 oz, Load Capacity: 350 lbs
$1,230.00 on amazon.com
The BAKraft is more of a hybrid of an inflatable kayak and a packraft. The 2 vertical chambers give it a banana shape, yet it is wide like a raft. This thing can handle some serious water. The Dyneema covered hull protects it against tough abrasions without adding a lot of weight. The built in inflatable seat and back rest double up as a roll top dry bag. Self-bailing helps keep the raft extremely maneuverable and light. Complete with thigh straps, 14 tie downs, D-rings, inflation bag and repair kit. In short, this is a seriously high performing raft with everything you need for about 7 lbs.
Weight: 7 lbs 5 oz, Load Capacity: 350 lbs
From stand-up paddle boards to kayaks, NRS has been making reputable water sports gear for many years. Their packraft is no different. At nearly 7 feet in length, and with a 350 lb capacity, it can fit 2 people. The thick floor and cushioned seat keep it comfortable as well. Includes 4 front and 2 rear webbing loops and a repair kit. The downside is that the material has been known to tear and puncture relatively easily making it unreliable for even the modest amount of whitewater.
Paddles. The second most essential piece of packrafting equipment after the raft itself. Keep 'em collapsible and packable. Materials range from affordable aluminum up to ultralight carbon fiber.
PFDs. Personal Flotation Devices might be tempting to skip to save money or pack space. But modern PFDs can save your life without adding much weight. Double up as a pillow, back rest or seat.
Inflation Bag. A lightweight bag, sometimes the stuff sack, that is used to trap air and inflate the raft.
Repair Kit. In case of a hole or tear in the back country. Most manufacturers include one with purchase. If not, make your own DIY kit.
Helmet. Crucial if you intend to ride whitewater for obvious reasons.
Knife. Again, crucial for whitewater in case you capsize and need to detach from anything with potential to keep you under.
Throwbag. A bag with a loosely packed rope in it used as a safety line. Keep it around 30 ft.
Wetsuit or Drysuit. Especially needed for insulation in cooler climates.
Dry Bag. A waterproof, usually roll top, bag used to keep your gear dry on deck.
By Chris Cage
Chris launched Greenbelly Meals in 2014 after thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail for 6 months. Since then, Greenbelly has been written up by everyone from Backpacker Magazine and Bicycling Magazine to Fast Company and Science Alert. He recently wrote How to Hike the Appalachian Trail and currently works from his laptop all over the globe.
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