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 1990’s 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, and when.
In 2000, Thor Tingey set off across the Brooks Range with a Sevylor packraft. When he returned from the trip he and his mother Sheri, an accomplished seamstress and outdoor gear maker, 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 eagerly 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 an increasingly 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 variety 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. The growing interest in packrafting and Alapcka’s increasing 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 light 70-denier fabric was best suited to lakes and slow-moving rivers, and its design (especially the low flotation in the stern) was widely considered dated. 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 strongly toward whitewater. Unlike Alpacka’s models 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.