An Online Introduction
Anatomy of a Packraft
Gear can either be lashed on top of a packraft’s bow or stored inside the tubes. Internal storage lowers the boat’s center of gravity, improves sightlines over the bow, and keeps gear dry. However the airtight zippers currently used to access the internal storage chambers add weight and require careful maintenance, and storing hard or heavy gear in the tubes can increase the chance of a tube puncture.
Before the introduction of internal storage, packrafters almost always secured gear on top of the raft’s bow. This solution helps equalize weight distribution along a boat’s length, provides relatively easy access to gear, and allows for the transportation of large or strangely-sized gear such as bicycles or skis. Generally, gear is lashed to the bow with paracord run through the boat’s bow tiedowns, or with a simple proprietary system such as Alpacka’s “Packtach.” Gear that should not get wet must be protected with a rain cover, dry bag, or both.
While bow storage remains the only way to transport some large items, putting a significant amount of weight on a packraft’s bow does impact performance. The high center of gravity can cause bow twisting and instability on technical water, and gear piled on the bow diminishes a boater’s field of view.
Around late 2012 Alpacka introduced an internal gear storage option for its packraft line. The basic concept that Alpacka pioneered has remained substantially the same since then, and has become widely adopted in the packraft industry.
To access the inside of the tubes, packrafts employ a single waterproof, airtight zipper, almost always located on the stern (the Kokopelli Renegade‘s bow zipper being a notable exception). Opening the zipper will cause the raft to rapidly deflate, and require that it be re-inflated once the boat is zipped up again.As of this writing, all major packraft manufacturers use a TiZip zipper (a SuperSeal or some variant) from German manufacturer Titex. The TiZip zipper employs rugged plastic teeth with sealing lips above and below the teeth. High pressure pushes the sealing lips together more tightly, and each zipper is factory-tested to maintain its seal at pressures far higher than those of an inflated packraft.
Alpacka’s boats include ultralight dry bags, which are clipped to the inside of the tubes to keep them in place. Other manufacturers simply add the zipper. While you could throw gear loose into any company’s packrafts, it is probably wise to always keep your gear inside an additional dry bag. Otherwise, a tube puncture could result in critical gear (sleeping bag, down jackets, etc.) becoming soaked.
Internal Storage Advantages
Internal storage provides substantial advantages over bow storage:
- Internal storage significantly lowers a boat’s center of gravity, improving performance on rough water.
- Gear is fully protected from the elements, both by the raft’s tubes and (ideally) by an additional dry bag.
- The large opening in the zipper makes it easy to clean and repair a packraft from the inside.
- Extra inflatable chambers can be inserted into the packraft’s tubes, increasing safety and all but eliminating the possibility of the boat sinking. Extra inflatable chambers may allow single-chamber packrafts to run rivers that legally require boats to have multiple chambers.
Internal Storage Disadvantages
The first downside to internal storage is cost: Alpacka charges an additional $150 for adding TiZip storage ($250 including ultralight dry bags and internal attachment points) on a new boat, and $325 for a retrofit. Kokopelli charges an additional $125. Competent and brave DIY’ers can purchase a TiZip zipper online for about $70 and attempt a retrofit themselves.
The TiZip zipper adds a small amount of weight and bulk to the boat, and requires that it be folded up and stored more carefully in order to avoid excessively twisting the zipper.
TiZip zippers are durable and well-made, but nevertheless require fastidious care to seal properly. Silt, sand, and mud that makes its way between the teeth can keep them from connecting. Unfortunately the stiff zipper can act as a comb that brushes off and collects particles from dirty objects passed through it. Always pour some fresh water over the zipper before opening it, and try not to reach inside the tubes with dirty hands or arms. Make sure that any objects, especially bulky drybags, are brushed off (or even rinsed) before being put in the boat. TiZip recommends cleaning the zipper with soap and water if it becomes dirty. A soft toothbrush may be helpful to clear items stuck in the teeth. It may be helpful to soak the zipper and then forcefully blow the water out from the teeth. The zipper will need to be lubricated periodically in order to maintain the best seal.
Last, the truly dirty secret of internal gear storage: storing some types of gear in the tubes can significantly increase your chance of a puncture. When a packraft tube is empty, it can deform and “flow” around obstacles like submerged rocks and sticks. When hard or heavy objects are stored inside the tubes, the thin walls of a packraft can be pinched between objects on the inside and outside and tear. Prevent pinch punctures by putting soft and bulky objects (such as a sleeping bag, tent, and/or extra fleece) inside the tubes and hard, heavy objects (that bottle of 12-year Laphroaig, say) on your bow.
If you do put heavy items inside the tubes, wrap them inside soft, flexible items. Be especially careful when pulling an internally-loaded boat out of the water onto rocks or gravel. An internal storage system that holds stored items against the top and insides of the tubes, rather than the bottom, would probably prevent internal pinch punctures entirely, but to my knowledge no such system yet exists.
Best of Both Worlds
Most packrafters with an internal storage option will opt for a combination of bow and internal storage. Bulky but flexible items that probably won’t be used during the day, such as camping and sleeping gear, are perfect candidates for storing inside the tubes. Some inflexible items, such as overnight backpacks and bicycle parts, may be too large to fit through the zipper and will need to be lashed to the bow. Because opening the zipper releases the air in the tubes and requires the boat to be reinflated, it is often more convenient to store some day-use items like additional layers or snacks on the bow inside a dry bag. If you only need to store a few items on the bow, consider buying or making a bow bag.
Small items (such as camera or snack bags) can be carried loose on your lap, attached to webbing behind your seat (depending on boat fit), kept inside a bow bag, or lashed to a bow bag or bow straps. In general, avoid lashing small items in your packraft cockpit because they can inhibit your movement or cause an entanglement hazard if you capsize.
Last updated January 2018
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