What fits into the bottom of a backpack, weighs less than three kilograms and can be used to explore the remotest rivers on earth? The answer: a packraft. These tough, hand-built inflatable boats have changed the face of wilderness exploration since they first arrived on the scene over a decade ago.
Packrafts are versatile, super-lightweight and rugged, and can fit into a stuff sack about the size of a two-person tent. For white-water use they can even be fitted with a spray deck. When paired with a four-piece carbon-fibre paddle they make any swamp, lake, river or tributary accessible to a keen explorer. The concept is simple but brilliant - when you hike, your raft and paddle fit inside your pack. When you paddle, your body, gear and pack fit inside your raft.
Alpacka packrafts were first created in Chugiak, Alaska in 2001 by Sheri Tingey. The company has gone from strength to strength, and is now based in Colorado and hand-crafts purpose-built boats in an expanding range of sizes and types. The rafts are designed with one main air chamber and a separate inflatable backrest and seat, which helps cushion the blow when you glide over submerged rocks. Packrafts have excellent load capacity for their weight and have been used by solo explorers on lengthy expeditions in places like northern Australia, Alaska and the Amazon jungle.
Packrafts are highly manoeuvrable, low-maintenance and field-repairable. Patch kits are available, but some users just carry duct tape to make emergency repairs. If you have never owned a packraft but want to learn more, there is an excellent book on the subject by Roman Dial, one of the most experienced packrafters on the planet. Another great book isA Long Trek Home by Erin McKittrick, an inspiring account of her and her husband's year-long, 6400-kilometre expedition from Seattle to Alaska's Bering Sea using a combination of trekking, packrafting and cross-country skiing.
Your backpack fits across the bow of the craft, and is attached with a quick-release cord system. Your body in the stern balances out the weight, and the low centre of gravity makes it all very stable. Rafts come in different sizes depending on your height. Your feet should just touch the front end when you are properly seated against the backrest, so the taller you are, the longer your boat will need to be.
Skilled white-water enthusiasts have paddled Class 4 rapids, dropped off the edges of waterfalls and done all sorts of other extreme things in packrafts, but these are specialist activities that involve safety helmets, spray decks, extensive experience and a minimum of weight in the boat (no big pack strapped on the front). The more traditional use for these boats is wilderness exploration. They are an ideal craft for remote, pristine rivers which have a mild current and meander through hard-to-access areas. Portaging a heavy canoe or kayak past rocks, around headlands and through thick jungle is hard work, but a highly portable, lightweight packraft makes these tasks much easier.
Packrafts are serious, high-quality craft and are priced accordingly. Expect to pay between $550 and $950USD for most designs.