An Online Introduction
2002-2018: The Great Blow-Up
In the 1980s-90s the sport of packrafting went through 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. 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 learn that a new Alpacka could cost far in excess of $1000. Used Alpackas held their value remarkably well too–a testament to their quality but a frustration for those hoping to enter the sport. International paddlers were especially hard hit by 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 considered dated from the outset, and its light 70-denier fabric limited the boat to lakes and slow-moving rivers.
Well-regarded Canadian folding kayak maker Feathercraft began selling packrafts in 2010. Their BayLee packraft incorporated multiple chambers and a self-bailing floor.
While Feathercraft earned a reputation for solid workmanship, boats tended to be heavier and more expensive than those from other makers. Feathercraft closed its doors in December 2016.
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.
Kokopelli’s initial offerings had distinctively angular designs with long flat sterns and upturned bows. The Nirvana and Renegade featured two air chambers, and the Nirvana was soon available with either a whitewater deck or self-bailing floor. Some boats incorporated a TiZip zipper for internal gear storage and used the British-made Leafield D7 valve.
Kokopelli hit attractive price points by outsourcing production to China and by limiting customization. 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.
2015: Rise of the Alpacka Clones
Starting around 2015 a slew of Alpacka clones flooded the market. These included boats from Russia-based Nortik and New Zealand-based Koaro. China-based MRS even seemed to have lifted their name from American raft maker NRS. Many knockoffs were superficially extremely similar to Alpackas, though they often differed from Alpackas in subtle but important ways (such as their use of poor-quality “pool toy” valves). Despite early reports of uneven quality and failures, some reviewers claimed some models were “almost as good as the real thing.”
Koaro packrafts were comparable in price to Alpackas and were aimed at paddlers in New Zealand and Australia, who faced punishing import taxes on foreign-made boats. MRS and Nortik packrafts were somewhat cheaper and were positioned to undercut American brands in European markets.
The late 2010s also saw the emergence of unbranded Chinese packrafts sold via Alibaba (the “Chinese Amazon”) and other importers. Some of these boats appeared to have the familiar lines of an Alpacka, while others were a bit of a freakshow: Alpacka-like boats with two sterns, or inexplicably missing their floors.
The Canada-based one-man-show DIY Packraft began shipping in 2016, with UK-based Ironraft hot on its tail in 2017. Both companies offered DIY packraft kits with pre-cut panels of heat-sealable PU-coated nylon and designs similar to those of Alpacka. DIYers “welded” the sections together with a heat iron (and a dab or two of Aquaseal) over the course of 20-30 hours. Users could choose to install extras like tie-downs, thigh straps, a spray skirt, or a TiZip zipper for internal storage.
DIY Packraft sold solo packraft kits for $175 to $280. These were unbeatable values for light whitewater-capable boats built out of high-denier fabrics, besting even the cheapest Chinese imports.
As of 2019 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 more accessible. The emerging DIY market promises to shake up the industry with enticingly 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 attractive prices.
The future of the packraft industry is uncertain but exciting. At the top of the market boats will likely become 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 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.
Last updated July 2019
If you've enjoyed this introductory article series and would like to learn more, check out The Packraft Handbook, by Luc Mehl. At over 400 pages and featuring illustrations by the amazing Sarah Glaser, the Packraft Handbook is a much more comprehensive source of info about gear, technique, safety, and more.
Coming May 2021