Choosing The Best Packraft
Imagine this: You’re hiking through a beautiful forest with a backpack that holds not just your camping gear but also a lightweight, inflatable raft. Suddenly, you arrive at a river. Instead of looking for a way around it, you take the best packraft from your pack, inflate it within minutes, and set off to explore the waterway. That’s the magic of packrafting—a blend of hiking and rafting that opens up a whole new range of adventure.
We’re about to dive into everything you need to know to get started on your own packrafting adventure. Helping us with this endeavor is Tristan Burnham from Kokopelli. Since 2012 Kokopelli Outdoor Inc. has designed and manufactured some of the best packrafts, inflatable kayaks, and stand-up paddle boards that are both ruggedly designed and built for ultimate portability and packability. Tristan’s girlfriend introduced him to packrafting several years ago and, in his own words, he “went off the deep end” and immersed himself into the new adventure. Fast-forward to today, and he is excited to wear several hats at the company.
Why Go Packrafting?
According to Tristan, what drew him to packrafting was the thrill of a DIY adventure.
“I had some prior experience with sit-on-top ocean kayaks back in high school and college on some little lakes and really easy rivers. So once I got into packrafts, I was like, “This is the coolest thing ever!” I got into doing alpine lakes and whitewater and stuff like that. But I think the real “aha” moment was doing this really rowdy river that is usually commercially guided. Me and a few buddies researched it and just dove in with our pack rafts, totally on our own. And to be able to do that ourselves and not rely on a guide service was really an eye-opening experience. We were like, “We did this. We figured it out. Where else can we go?”
While canoes and kayaks are affordable, storable, and portable alternatives to motorized watercraft, they can’t compare to packrafts. A kayak takes up as much space as a couch, and requires about the same amount of effort to load and unload. A packraft can be stashed in the bottom of a closet, and tossed in the trunk of a compact car for a weekend trip. They can be carried into remote areas in backpacks, allowing adventurers access to waters that have never seen the hull of a conventional watercraft. This makes them perfect for hunters, anglers, backpackers, and other explorers of remote wilderness areas
Top Packraft Recommendations For Specific Uses
Packrafts can be used in a variety of applications. Whether you’re looking to traverse a fast, rocky river or spend the day casting on a flatwater lake, there’s a packraft tailored to that purpose. There are also well-rounded, general use rafts that can do a little bit of everything. With that in mind, let’s look at some of Tristan’s recommendations on the best raft for different uses.
According to Tristan, packrafters should look for one of two main features when selecting a raft for whitewater applications: either a self-bailing design or one with a spray deck.
“We have two types of whitewater boat, self-bailing and spray deck,” Tristan says. “Most boats are what I call “bucket boats.” If water gets in, it stays in until you manually empty it. And as your boat fills with water, it gets much harder to maneuver and control. You have to eventually bail it out, and that can be really tricky on whitewater. With a self-bailing boat, there are drain holes in the floor of the boat. So when water comes in, it’ll just drain out the bottom. The boat has a full length inflatable floor to kind of keep you up above the water as well. So when you’re on flat water, you stay dry. Obviously, when you’re paddling through rapids, you’re going to get wet, but on a lake, you’re sitting above the water.”
“We also have spray deck boats, “ says Tristan. “Think like on an ocean or whitewater kayak, where you have a tight cockpit sealed with a skirt that you wear that keeps water off of you and out of your boat. Those are great for colder weather where you don’t want to get splashed, or just for people who live feeling more “connected” to their boat. Versus with a self-bailing boat, it’s more like your own mini whitewater raft instead of feeling like a kayak.”
While packrafts are commonly used in fast-moving, remote rivers, they’re also perfect to keep around for impromptu trips to flatwater.
“I lived out of my van for a few years, and I used to have a big, sit-on-top kayak, says Tristan. “And it was so big that I didn’t want it on the roof all of the time, so I’d end up keeping it at my parents’ house and grabbing it during the summer. But when I got a packraft I just kept it in my roof box the whole year. And it was so cool, because it just opened up so much more time on the water. I’d get a couple of warm days in the middle of January, and be like, “Why not go paddle around the lake for a little bit?” A packraft is so small and portable that it’s always available for a quick trip.”
As an example, Kokopelli’s Hornet-Lite boat weighs a mere 5lbs, and packs up not much larger than a water bottle.
Hunting And Fishing
For outdoorsmen looking at using a packraft to access remote fishing holes or to access remote hunting areas, Tristan recommends emphasizing durability and weight capacity.
“We have two really popular models with outdoorsmen,” he says. “Our XPD is a really good seller, because it’s built out of a heavier-duty PVC and is resistant to errant fish hooks and sticks. We also offer it in an OD green color, so while it’s not camouflage it blends in well for hunters. I have a stick-on Scotty mount on my personal boat, so I can add a rod holder to it and have a place to set my rod or use it to troll while I paddle, which is nice. The XPD also has a fairly high weight capacity, so if you’ve got guns, rods, heavy clothes and other gear, you have enough capacity for that.”
“What the XPD doesn’t let you do though, is haul a deer out or a buddy in,” he continues. “That’s where our Twain model comes in. It has a 600lb weight capacity, but only weighs 14lbs. It also has a skeg to help with tracking if you’re covering a lot of water. And it’s super tough. I was filming a video once where I was demonstrating how to patch a boat, and to do that I first had to make a whole. I think I stabbed that boat 20 times, and ultimately took out my knife to carve a point on the stick I was using. It’s got a kevlar floor, so it’s definitely puncture resistant!”
Whereas a hunting or fishing boat needs to be durable, if you’re a backpacker looking to explore hidden lakes, it makes more sense to emphasize portability and lightweight.
“I just did a trip up in Lake Tahoe that was super cool, Tristan shares. “We had like a 10 to 12 mile hike back to this lake. Once we got there, where we originally planned on camping was pretty crowded. So we just threw our backpacks in our boats and paddled a half mile across the lake to a spot where we could camp away from the crowd. Especially since the pandemic, it’s gotten harder to find remote areas like that. The rafts really helped with that.”
“If you’re looking for a really light boat for packing into really remote areas, our two lightest boats would be the Hornet-Lite and the Rogue Lite. They both pack down to just a little bit bigger than a roll of paper towels. The Hornet-Lite is intended for alpine lakes, and the Rogue-Lite has a thicker floor on it and thicker sidewalls. So that one’s kind of a little bit more versatile, where it’s recommended for lakes and some easy rivers. So if you don’t mind having a half pound extra on your back, that’s kind of the way to go. You get a little bit more capability and not that much more added weight.”
Final Thoughts On Packrafts
In wrapping up our journey through the diverse world of packrafts, it’s clear that selecting the perfect floatable companion isn’t a one-size-fits-all affair. No matter what you’re doing, there’s a packraft out there that’s tailored just for your needs. Remember to consider the type of water you’ll encounter, the weight you’re willing to carry, and the durability you’ll require. Don’t forget to factor in the space for your gear, too! By aligning your choice with your specific scenario, you’ll be paddling with confidence, ready to embrace the watery wonders that await.
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