These sturdy, lightweight inflatables are all about freedom
What weighs 2.4 kilograms (just over 5 pounds), rolls up into the size of a packed two-person tent, fits easily into a backpack and has been used to explore some of the wildest waterways on earth? The answer: a packraft.
Alpacka packrafts were developed by Sheri Tingey in Chugiak, Alaska in 2001, and have been going strong ever since. Despite their extremely light weight, these small inflatable boats are surprisingly durable. They have been used to explore pristine lakes in British Columbia, jungle tributaries in Central America and never-before-paddled rivers in northern Australia.
I conducted the first-ever serious solo packraft expedition in Australia – a month-long journey down the King Edward River in Australia’s Kimberley region in 2010. Prior to that I had used a Sevylor expedition kayak for explorations – but it weighed over 13 kilos, compared to the packraft’s 2.4 kilos. Eventually I switched to packrafts for all my expeditions. Sevylor doesn’t make the model shown below anymore.
Certainly the most amazing journey ever conducted by packraft was a 4,000-mile expedition from Seattle to Alaska’s Bering Sea, completed by Bretwood Higman and Erin McKittrick in 2007-2008. This epic, year-long adventure involved some travel on foot and on skis but most of it was completed by paddling a pair of packrafts.
In many ways, the packraft has changed the face of modern wilderness exploration. When you’re hiking, the raft lives in your pack. When you’re paddling, the pack lives on top of your raft, tied securely to the bow area with sturdy, adjustable straps. When you add a 4-piece carbon-fiber paddle to the mix, there’s really no swamp, river, lake or estuary on the planet that’s out of your reach.
Packrafts have been used in solo crossings of Iceland, river journeys in Sierra Leone and even to traverse white-water rivers in Mongolia. They are extremely stable, easily repaired in the field if punctured and perfect for swampy regions where you might have to alternate between rafting and walking several times in one day.
When explorer Ed Stafford conducted his epic, 860-day Walking the Amazon journey, he took along two of my favourite bits of gear: a Macpac Cascade expedition pack and an Alpacka packraft. The raft proved ideal for ferrying all his heavy gear (and himself) across swamps, oxbow lakes and other waterlogged stretches along his challenging route. I know other explorers who carry disassembled mountain bikes in their rafts and combine hiking, rafting and biking into a single wilderness journey!
You sit in the packraft with your lower back against the rear edge and your feet lightly touching the front end. Packrafts come with a separate inflatable backrest and a seat that keeps your rear end from bumping against any submerged rocks. The idea is to position your backpack across the bow, above your legs. There’s room to place a smaller day pack or waterproof duffel bag on your lap as well. When I use mine, I typically carry a 90-litre pack, my food bag and sometimes a small camera bag. It’s a little crowded but it works.
Packrafts come in a range of lengths and styles. You can now buy packrafts that hold more than one person (the original models were single-person boats). Your height determines the length of boat you’ll need – it’s important to get a good fit for your leg length.
If you’re planning on using your packraft in white-water, you’ll definitely want to get the optional spray skirt to keep splashes out of your craft. The strap system (for tying down your pack) is also an added accessory – but well worth having.
There is one nifty item that already comes with the raft, however – an inflation bag. This is like a large, thin stuff sack that you fill with air – you then squeeze the trapped air into your boat. You can also inflate the raft by blowing into a valve, but the inflation bag speeds up the process. It does take a few practice tries before you learn to perfect the technique.
My 2013 packraft journey (The River with No Name) was conducted in a region so remote that there was only one way in or out – by helicopter. Fortunately, I didn’t have to share this delicious barramundi with the 11-foot crocodile that was patrolling the blue water behind me (this ledge is about ten feet up).
Packrafts can open up a whole new world of outdoor excitement for budding adventurers. At over $500 each, they aren’t particularly cheap – but there’s no denying they are a whole lot of fun.
Kevin Casey is a professional freelance writer and author of The Jet-setting Copywriter: How to Fund All Your Overseas Adventures through Freelance Writing.