I’ve paddled my entire life, but didn’t packraft until a couple of years ago. The reason for abstaining was straightforward: packrafts always seemed impractical. Running whitewater in a reinforced inner tube? Probably not for me. I was happy sticking to rigid boats and more accessible rivers.
That is, until 2018, when my paddling partner got me into an Alpacka Gnarwhal—and I’ll never go back.
The trip was too good to pass up. Four days in a remote canyon in Chiapas, Mexico, paddling class 3+ whitewater for 50 miles. Warm water, stunning scenery, and complete solitude.
I bought plane tickets that night and started packing my gear soon after—Astral PFD, Werner paddle, and Teva sandals. Staying optimistic I even brought my Canon DSLR, knowing the photos would be great if I could keep it dry.
Since our trip to the Mexico jungle I’ve integrated packrafts into my boating quiver, recognizing their utility not just for remote canyons, but also for low-flow rivers, car road trips, high alpine backpacking, and spontaneous adventures on any trip.
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Packrafts vary in size—most compress to the size of a tent and weigh under 10 lbs. While hull speed is admittedly terrible and tracking in the wind can be a challenge, the low weight (and low bulk) opens up a realm of possibilities.
Here are six reasons why your next adventure should be in a packraft.
They Are Great for Both Beginner and Advanced Paddlers
Packrafts are forgiving—they bounce of rocks, float over shallow obstacles, and don’t require leaning technique (which has a steep learning curve). This makes packrafts great for new paddlers, keeping you safe and helping you have more fun while learning whitewater.
On the flip-side, packrafts are also great for experts because they open up a world of new possibilities. No other whitewater boats can be lugged on a backpacking trip, or easily stuffed in the back of your car… or checked on a plane.
They are Great for Multi-Sport Outings
Packrafts, despite their small size, can haul a lot of gear. Multiple large dry bags can be stuffed inside the raft itself, leaving your deck space open for a backpack, or climbing gear, or bike, or pair of skis. Dreaming of a high mountain traverse with a river exit? Packrafts make that possible.
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They Are Extremely Portable
Packrafts (as implied a few times already) are amazingly portable. Most whitewater kayaks weigh 40+ pounds, are 6- to 8-feet long, and are difficult to ship anywhere. Some extreme paddling enthusiasts will carry rigid kayaks multiple miles to get to better water, but for most, the are prohibitively big to travel with.
Packrafts unlock a lot of paddling potential that is otherwise out of the question—they can take you places that no other boats can.
They Are Durable
Despite my biggest concerns, packrafts are amazingly tough. The river we paddled in Mexico had more than 100 sets of whitewater, many of which were riddled with sharp rocks and a shallow bottom. This wasn’t a problem at all for our Gnarwhal boats. I was (and still am) in awe of their durability in challenging settings, with powerful water against razor-sharp edges.
They Are Typically Within Budget
Packrafts range in price from $600 for an ultralight boat to $2,500 for an expedition machine. The boats we used are right in the middle at $1,500. For everything that they allow you to do, the price tag is more than worth it.
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They Fit in the Trunk of Your Car… Easily
Packrafts are typically packed by deflating and rolling them, compressing to a small roll, 8 inches in diameter and 2-feet long, give or take. This is smaller than most duffel bags. You can fit a couple packrafts, paddles, and life jackets in the trunk of your car, and still have ample room for everything else. This means that even the weekends you don’t plan to paddle, you’re still prepared to paddle.
All Photos by Andy Cochrane.
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