Raft Care and Maintenance
Packrafts are very low-maintenance watercraft, but following a few simple guidelines will help maximize your packraft’s lifespan and make your boat more enjoyable to use.
Cleaning packrafts removes contaminants that can cause mold or chemical degradation of the boat, helps flush out abrasive sand and gravel, and prevents invasive species from hitching a ride on your boat.
Most of the time, packrafts just need a quick rinse and wipe-down. Always start by blowing up the boat–it will be much easier and faster to clean than a deflated boat. Seats should be inflated, though decks can be left unzipped. If there is a lot of loose, dry grit in the boat, shake it out or use a low-pressure vacuum.
Stand the boat up outside and rinse it off inside and out with a hose, wiping away dirt or gunk as needed with a soft (ex. microfiber) cloth. It can be difficult to wash silt and sand from the inside of the boat, so you may want to let it fill up partially and then “dump” the boat by turning it over so the water rushes out at once. You may want to flip the boat several times as you clean it to encourage dirt and grit to dislodge and slosh out. Run your fingers along the inside seam between the floor and tubes to make sure the boat is clean.
If needed, use mild dish soap and a soft cloth to wipe off oil or other gunk. Do not use abrasive sponges or other scrubbing tools on packraft fabric because they can damage polyurethane coatings. A bit of alcohol can be used on most fabrics to loosen tar or other stubborn gunk, but be cautious about using strong solvents or custom cleaning products on packrafts. If in doubt consult a chemical compatibility chart or (better yet) contact the packraft maker.
The easiest way to dry a packraft is to leave it fully inflated against a wall indoors, soak up the water that runs into the bottom inside corner of the boat with a sponge or paper towels, and then rotate the boat several times as it dries so that any remaining water will run across the inside of the floor and then evaporate. Avoid leaving boats to dry outside on hot, sunny days: direct sunlight degrades PU-coated nylon fabrics, and the air inside a packraft will expand as it heats up, which can overpressurize the boat and damage seams and valves.
Packrafts should be totally dry before storage in order to minimize the chance of mold, mildew, and resulting bad smells.
None of the fabrics used for packrafts today require any active “maintenance” per se. Alpacka warns users not to use UV coatings because they flake off and inhibit field repairs.
The only parts of a packraft that may require attention are the airtight openings: the main valve and any internal storage zippers. Always follow the manufacturers’ instructions to the letter. In general, valves only need a quick brush with a dry, light toothbrush to remove grit from valve threads, and any rubber gaskets should be inspected to make sure they are still pliable and seated properly. Zippers need to be cleaned periodically with soap and water, possibly with a light toothbrush, and usually require some sealant paste.
Packrafts require a tiny amount of storage space compared with conventional watercraft. They can happily live for months or more tucked in the back of a closet, on the top shelf in a laundry room, or inside a gear bin in the garage.
There are several different ways to roll up packrafts, but for long-term storage the method you choose isn’t especially important. Just roll the boat into a neat bundle and keep it lightly compressed by tying it up (nylon straps with D-rings work great, but webbing or old shoelaces work fine too) or slipping it into its storage sack.
Packrafts should be stored out of direct sunlight to prevent UV damage, and preferably in dry, cool places with a bit of airflow to prevent mold or mildew. Make sure boats are stored in a place where they won’t be damaged by day-to-day traffic or nicked by sharp objects (bike pedals in a garage, say). Boats kept in storage for a long period of time or in humid conditions should be unpacked and inflated before a trip to make sure the boat is in good shape.
Remember to disassemble your paddle and store the pieces separately in order to prevent rust or swelling between the segments. PFDs should be cleaned according to directions (usually this just means a quick rinsing) and should not be stored until completely dry.
Written January 2018