Two weeks ago I shipped my skis home and picked up my packraft, which I will carry until the very end of this expedition in October. Most people have never heard of packraft, which Wikipedia defines as “small, portable inflatable boat designed for use in all bodies of water, including technical whitewater and ocean bays and fjords.” Here I’ll take a few minutes to introduce readers to this critical piece of gear.
There are several major benefits for me in carrying a packraft. First, I can safely cross big rivers (e.g. the Susitna), glacier-carved fjords (like those in Glacier Bay National Park), and saltwater bays (e.g. Icy and Yakutat Bays). Second, I can utilize gravity to quickly and efficiently travel through wilderness, as opposed to hiking those same stretches—the packraft is easier on the feet, requires fewer calories, and is faster than bushwhacking along the river banks. And, third, the packraft opens up new route opportunities, because without a raft I’m very limited in how far and where I can go—I’d be boxed in by uncrossable bodies of water.
My setup consists of three main parts. My packraft is made by Alpacka, with a few custom modifications to lighten it up (lighter materials, narrower bow). It weighs about 4.5 lbs with a spray deck and costs about $1,000. My paddle is the Sawyer Packraft Paddle, but with a fixed-length shaft instead of the adjustable feather/length feature. It weighs about 25 oz and costs about $250. Finally, I use The Thing from Mountain Laurel Designs as a PFD. This 4-oz $50 vest accommodates three 2L Platypus bottles for floatation (equivalent to 15 lbs), making it far lighter and packable than foam PFDs. It’s not as whitewater worthy as Coast Guard-approved PFD’s but I believe it is adequate for what I am doing during this trip.
The most reliable and capable packrafts are manufactured by Alpacka Raft LLC. If you don’t need such a robust boat, a Sevylor Trail Boat may do the trick. There are no other commercial manufacturers of packrafts that I know of, though with increasing interest in the sport that may change soon.
If you are interested in learning more about packrafting, I would highly encourage you to read Packrafting by Roman Dial. Also check out Roman’s blog. There are also some very informational forums at www.packrafting.org.
In your planning, how easy was it to determine whether you’d be facing more dangerous white water than your packraft could handle?
You mention you use an Alpacka Raft LLC raft with some custom modifications, but you don’t mention which model raft you make you modifications to. I’m very interested in getting an Alpacka raft, and would love to here here suggestion on their stock rafts? Without having ever seen one in person, I don’t know where to stand on durability vs. lightweight.
Alpacka’s line has expanded significantly since I did my Alaska trip. I used one of their “All Purpose Boats,” specifically a Yukon Yak. We tweaked a few things to get it lighter than the stock boat at the time, but given their current stock design (which is longer and has a bigger stern) there is no way that you could get a Yak as light now unless you used a different fabric or reverted back to some of the old design. Not sure how willing they would be to work with you on such changes.