In the 1980s the sport of packrafting entered a long, quiet incubation period. A few grizzled outdoorspeople bought, repaired, and traded Curtis and Sherpa packrafts, pushing the simple boats to their limits (and far past their warranties) on obscure Alaska rivers. Creative boaters bought cheap vinyl boats at big-box stores and carried them into remote lakes and streams.
In the early 1990s Curtis Deisgns discontinued its packraft line. The boats in circulation among outdoorspeople grew patchy, and it became increasingly clear that the aging designs needed improvement. Yet more and more people were returning from the wilderness grinning: this is fun. Conditions were prime for a new company to revive the packraft market–the only questions were who, where, and when.
In 2000, Thor Tingey set off across Alaska’s Brooks Range with a Sevylor packraft. When he returned from the trip he and his mother Sheri, an accomplished outdoor gear designer, set about improving the boat. Their post-trip tinkering did result in a better boat for Thor–and launched the modern packraft industry.
From 2002 to around 2014, the Alpacka brand was nearly synonymous with the word “packraft.” Alpacka’s stitched polyurethane-coated nylon single-chamber construction made boats that were light, packable and shockingly durable. Their packraft innovations included the first lightweight spray deck, first whitewater spray deck, first internal storage zipper, first whitewater cockpit, first extended-stern design, and more. Earlier companies’ packrafts were essentially miniaturized versions of conventional river rafts–Alpacka transformed these quirky little watercraft into sleek, tough, brightly-colored and purpose-built machines.
Many Alaska aventurers, including Roman Dial, Luc Mehl, and Dick Griffith adopted and popularized Alpacka packrafts. In 2007 Hig Higman and Erin McKittrick completed an epic 4,000-mile packraft trip from Washington to Alaska’s Aleutian Islands, even using Alpacka’s boats as sleds during the winter. The videos, photos, stories and books from adventurers’ trips popularized the sport of packrafting and cemented Alpacka’s central position in it.
Today Alpacka sells a diverse line of boats, including packrafts for whitewater, heavy gear hauling, ultralight applications, and for multiple people. Alapckas are hand-built in the USA out of US-made materials, and most models can be ordered in custom colors (or a Mondriaan-esque combination of colors).
While Alpacka earned a sterling reputation for quality and innovation, their boats always had one downside: price. Many interested boaters were dismayed to hear that a new Alpacka could cost far in excess of $1000. Used Alpackas held their value well too–a testament to their quality but a frustration for those hoping to enter the sport. European and other international packrafters were especially hard hit by the challenges of international shipping and hefty import taxes. The growing interest in packrafting and Alapcka’s challenging prices left a large amount of the potential market underserved. By the early 2010s it seemed inevitable that other companies would start dipping their toes into the sport.
Below is a timeline showing the packraft lines from several companies. I have only included established companies whose boats seem to be reasonably durable, packable, and appropriate for moving water.
The outdoor gear company NRS turned heads when it announced its entry into the packraft market in 2008, but the PackRaft–their only model–proved to be a tepid effort. Its design (especially the low flotation in the stern) was widely considered dated, and its light 70-denier fabric limited the boat to lakes and slow-moving rivers. NRS continues to sell the PackRaft, but its contributions to the packraft industry remain minimal.
The well-regarded Canadian folding kayak maker Feathercraft began selling packrafts in 2010, with a boat oriented toward whitewater. Unlike Alpacka’s models at the time the BayLee packraft incorporated multiple chambers and a self-bailing floor. While they earned a reputation for solid workmanship, the BayLee was significantly heavier and more expensive than Alpacka’s boats, and did not include the option for a deck–an essential feature to keep boaters warm and dry on long trips.
The Feathercraft line remains oriented toward whitewater and now includes two boats: the Bolder and rowing-capable Beast. Feathercraft’s boats are highly regarded but remain a niche product mostly aimed at “frontpackers” who don’t have to carry their boats very far.
2014: Kokopelli Packraft
Kokopelli Packraft’s 2014 entry into the market represented the first serious challenge to Alpacka. After an unsuccessful Kickstarter campaign in 2013, Colorado-based Kokopelli regrouped and started shipping their first commercial product the next year.
Compared with Alpackas, Kokopellis have more angular designs with long flat sterns and upturned bows. All Kokopellis except the lightweight flatwater Hornet feature two air chambers, and their signature all-rounder whitewater boat, the Nirvana, is available with either a whitewater deck or self-bailing floor. Most boats are available with a TiZip zipper for internal gear storage and incorporate the British-made Leafield D7 valve.
Kokopelli reduced costs significantly below those of Alpacka by outsourcing production to China and by limiting customization (to borrow a line from Henry Ford, you can have a Nirvana in any color as long as it’s yellow). The company took to social media enthusiastically and partnered with many boaters (including this writer) for sponsorships and media projects. In 2017 Kokopelli achieved that holy grail of ourdoor company gearsmanship: being carried by retail giant REI.
Just a few years after their first shipments, Kokopelli packrafts have become a common sight on Alaska rivers and online, and their web store regularly sells out of new production runs. I have a rule against reviewing sponsored products on Winterbear, so I won’t comment on the performance of Kokopelli’s boats here. Several reviews can be found online.
2015: Rise of the Alpacka Clones
In 2015, a slew of Alpacka clones flooded the market. These included the Russia-based Nortik and New Zealand-based Koaro. China-based MRS even seems to have lifted their name from American raft company NRS. Boats from these companies are still made out of PU-coasted nylon and are visually almost indistinguishable from Alpackas, especially in their use of Alpacka’s distinctive “fat butt” design. However there are significant differences in shape, construction and tube diameter, and some cheaper Alpacka clones use poor-quality valves. As of this writing few experienced boaters have reviewed (or even seen) these boats yet. Early reports indicate that, like many knockoff products, at least some are “almost as good as the real thing.”
Koaro packrafts are comparable in price to Alpackas and seem to be aimed toward paddlers in New Zealand and Australia, who face huge import taxes on foreign-made boats. MRS and Nortik packrafts are somewhat cheaper and are positioned to undercut American brands in European markets.
The late 2010’s have also seen the emergence of unbranded Chinese packrafts sold via Alibaba (the “Chinese Amazon”) and other importers. Some of these boats appear to be have the familiar lines of an Alpacka, while others are a bit of freakshow: Alpacka-like boats with two sterns, or inexplicably missing their floors. These boats cost as little as $200. These no-name knockoff imports are still virtually unknown in the packraft community, but if quality improves over time they may begin to affect the middle-range market.
The Canada-based one-man-show DIY Packraft began shipping in 2016, with UK-based Ironraft hot on its tail in 2017. Both companies offer DIY packraft kits with pre-cut panels of heat-sealable PU-coated nylon and designs very similar to those of Alpacka. DIYers “glue” the sections together with a heat gun (and a dab or two of Aquaseal) over the course of about 20 hours. Users can choose to install extras like tie-downs, thigh straps, a spray skirt, or a TiZip zipper for internal storage.
DIY Packraft currently sells all of its packraft kits for under $200. This is a potentially unbeatable value for a light whitewater-capable boat built out of high-denier fabrics, besting even the cheapest Chinese imports. DIY packrafts are still very new in the packrafting word, but represent an exciting direction in the market.
As of 2017 Alpacka’s persistent innovation, deep ties with the packraft community and commitment to US-based manufacturing have helped it maintain its position as the torchbearer for the packraft industry. Kokopelli and Aire have livened up the industry with new ideas, and Kokopelli’s lower price points have made the sport significantly more accessible. The emerging DIY market promises to shake up the industry with fantastically low costs and may encourage a new wave of creativity by garage tinkerers. Most other companies are currently playing catch-up, but may eventually provide high-quality boats at very attractive prices.
The future of the packraft industry is uncertain but exciting. At the top of the market boats will likely become more and more specialized and expensive, especially as they incorporate cutting-edge materials and new features. On the middle and bottom of the market packrafts will likely become much more affordable, allowing new boaters to enter the sport. In just over a decade and a half packrafting has gone from an expensive niche activity known only to a few wild backcountry crazies to an accessible sport that nearly anyone can enjoy. In the coming years, hopefully there will be a boat for everyone.
Written July 2017, updated September 2017