Packraft Into The Wild

The idea of ultralight packrafts started for me when thinking about how to hike into remote fishing lakes and eventually evolved into their use in a survival backpack.  Something that is becoming more common for long distance hikers is to carry a packraft into the wild and to paddle for part(s) of the trip.  It’s fun and breaks up the monotony of walking and it’s a pretty cool idea.  Some people also pack bikes on their packrafts.

But what kinds survival of situations would warrant the extra weight of a packraft? I suppose in areas where there is a risk of flood or high water where it is possible that lower areas that you need to cross might end up underwater.  If you find that hard to imagine then you probably aren’t in a place where that could happen or never has happened.  But on the coastline or in low-lying areas where there might be a lot of river crossings and lakes, the possibility is real.

Consider the true story of Chris McCandless whose biography was recounted in the movie Into the Wild, if you haven’t seen it I feel bad about having to issue a spoiler alert as I haven’t got much choice in this article, but….he dies in the end.  How it happened if I recall correctly is that he is in the Alaskan wilderness living off the land alone and then makes a mistake eating the wrong berries and gets sick.  He is forced to eat the berries because he is starving because the river went into spring runoff and was now in a flooded condition flood.  The only way back was to cross an uncrossable raging torrent.  WelI I won’t give away all of the story in case you still want to watch it but you get the idea.  Sometimes you just have to cross water and it is possible that the times you need to could come as a surprise.

It was a good movie though and I’m going to put it on my “top survival movies” list.  Directed by Sean Penn….

On the other hand, sometimes travel on water is just the most efficient way to go through the otherwise very dense bush.  Think Louis and Clark portaging across the continent in the days before highways or even trails.  It id often the case that a waterway is a fastest and most convenient mode of travel.

Not All Alaskan trips into the wild End in Tragedy, however,

Andrew Skurka the legendary and “Extreme” hiker took on a 4,700-mile trek through Alaska and the Yukon in six months and came out of it pretty nicely I would say.  About 1,200 of those miles were done in a pack raft.  If you are interested, here is a very long talk he gave about the adventure.

I know that he used an Alpacka raft.  But I’m not sure of the exact model since they have changed over the years and Skurka’s raft had some customizations made to it.  I have read on a blog post of his that his raft weighed 4.5 lbs and that was the smallest and lightest that he could fit into.

If you have a chance to explore some of his videos and articles, they are a study in endurance and skill, especially in orienteering and equipment choices.  He does correctly say that the Alpacka packraft is the toughest and lightest on the market.  That is true.  It is, in fact, the company that pretty much defined the sport.  They are the grand-daddy of packrafts and they know it so you will pay top dollar for one.  But there are some upstarts that have been coming out trying to compete with Alpaka and they are starting to provide some more economical choices.

What is a Packraft?

A packraft is essentially an inflatable dingy that is very light.  You could see that in the video.  It can often look like not much more than a glorified pool toy, and depending on the manufacturer it sometimes is.

There are broadly speaking 3 categories of packraft.  The first is the ultralight.  These run at about 2 to 4 pounds and typically do not have the strength to handle anything more than flat calm water.  The second is a midrange type boat at around 5 to 9 pounds and these can handle whitewater but are still very small.  They are very often a tight fit for those over 6 ft tall.  And the third type is truly a packraft in the sense you can carry much larger loads such as a second person and some people will hunt and carry game on them.  These are much larger and heavier at around 10 to 14 pounds.  So while you may be able to pack a lot of stuff in it in water, you may not be able to pack it on your back.

What Do I Use?

Presently I have a Supai Canyon Flatwater.  It is the lightest packraft in the world weighing in at 1.5 pounds.  They claim it is the size of a Nalgene bottle when packed but I have found that it is a bit bigger than that, or my Nalgene bottle is small.  It does not, however, handle anything other than calm flat water and I use it for fly fishing high alpine lakes.  There is one lake that my son and I go to that has an island in the middle that we like to hike to and then camp on.  Being on an island in the middle of a remote lake really does give the feeling getting away from it all.  An ultralight pack raft makes it possible to hike a fair distance and then paddle to even more inaccessible areas.

The raft is so light that I even carry it in my daypack when wading and fly fishing streams.  Because streams that are not in spring runoff follow a very predictable pattern of riffles, runs, and pools, there are times when I’ve used the raft to cross areas like big pools that are too deep to wade but are calm enough for the raft.

My first choice for a bug out bag, however, would be an Alpacka raft.   It is a little heavier, but it will take on whitewater.  And that is what McCandless could have used to get medical help.  At least that’s what I think when I watch the movie.  On the other hand, a river worthy raft is going to weigh a fair amount and I would have to really think about if it was worth taking in an emergency situation.

For the price and the weight, I decided that the Supai would be for me since my only experiences with absolutely needing to cross bodies of water unexpectedly, would have been possible in the Flatwater.  I like to think that if I really had to push it I could get it across a short stretch of rough water at least once, but who knows.  For something with very little chance of happening, I think 1.5 pounds is about all the insurance I’m willing to invest for a bug out bag.  If you are thinking of carrying one in your pack and there are two of you, I would consider getting two rafts because with one raft only one will cross, but with two rafts you can theoretically ferry an infinite number of people across a span of water.

There is a model for 2017 called the Scout that Alpacka has made much lighter than their older models of Scout at 2.5 pounds and it may be tough enough to handle some rapids though I can’t determine that for sure from their web page.  At close to $600 US it seems like a deal compared to their bigger models, but it is still expensive compared to what I paid for my Canyon Flatwater – under $300.

The balance is fine when dealing with packrafts and the parts to consider are:

  • Weight
  • Price
  • Toughness

The heavier or pricier you get the tougher and more versatile they will be.

The Competition

As I mentioned earlier, There are some competitors out there that are making a mark in the Alpacka and Supai dominated market.  They are more economical but of course, they do tend to weigh a bit more and some are just not up to snuff.

For me, at least at this moment, once you get a raft that starts to weigh 10 to 15 pounds or more it might as well be 100 and you would do just as well to get an aluminum Jon boat with an outboard motor and you will be happier all day on the water.  The same goes for those incredibly popular “fishing Kayaks” that you see these days.  Because if you are going to pay $3,500 and you need to buy extra wheels to transport, you might as well just get a boat.  But that’s just me.  The variables between weight and cost and toughness are something you will need to consider for yourself.

There is one new packraft company I hadn’t noticed until recently that is called Kokopelli that has caught my attention though.  Unlike the Alpacka and Supai Canyon Flatwater which are specially handcrafted and ‘cottage’, the Kokopellis seem to be mass produced and available at a wider range of outlets.  And it is cheaper too.  Yet the weight at over 9 pounds is heavy but not that heavy when you consider it is also very capable of taking on class 3 rapids.

The competitor of the Canyon Flatwater is the Klymit Litewater Dinghy but it really does strike me as a pool toy yet for the price and weight it could make a serviceable everyday carry for a bugout bag.

If you don’t mind the extra dollars and pounds a capable alpacka pack raft could be a whole lot of fun as well as a dependable emergancy raft.

Final Word

Unless you are going to be really taking on whitewater packrafting as a passion then I would hold off on getting an Alpacka or other high-end raft for way over $1000 or $2000.  Even a mid-priced raft like the Kokopelli may not be worth the prices at just under the $1000 but that is something you will have to weight for your own situation and situations you think could come up.

Here are some of the Kokopelli and midrange ‘competitor’ rafts that weigh a bit more but cost a bit less, and depending on who you talk to are as good or not as good.  Having said that though, if the price is not too much, and you really want to get into packrafting on the weekends as well as for your survival kit, get an Alpacka.  They are the toughest for their weight:

Kopelli Nirvana with NDZ

Price: $998.95

Weight: 9.7 lbs can handle class 3 water

Available at: Amazon.com

Kokopelli Castaway

Price $840.95

Weight: 7.5 lbs can handle class 1 and 2 water

Available at: Amazon.com

Kokopelli Hornet Lite

Price $524.95 at 4.9 lbs for flatwater

Weight: 4.9 lbs for flatwater

Available at: Amazon.com

NRS Packraft

Price: $575.00

Weight: 7.4 lbs. At half the price of an Alpacka people do drift rivers with it but claim it does not live up to the same standard as an Alpacka

Available at: Amazon.com

Klymit Litewater Dinghy

Price: $152.00

Weight: 35 ounces or about 2.2 lbs

Available at: Amazon.com

For my uses, which are just the quiet mountain lake or soft crossings if I really feel the need to get there, the Supai ultralight packraft doesn’t cost much in weight and dollars.  I do have to treat it like a helium balloon when I use it, but for those occasional moments, and possible emergency crossings, it covers my needs.

What would your choice be?  Pay more and get a tougher raft?  Pay less and get a lighter but less sturdy raft?  If you ever see a really nice pack raft come on the market that is tough, cheap and really light let me know and I would love to update this post with a ‘perfect’ packraft pick without any compromises at all.

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