Packrafting Essentials | Buyer's Guide For Choosing The Best Lightweight Inflatable Raft - Outdoors Magic

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Packrafting Essentials | Buyer’s Guide For Choosing The Best Lightweight Inflatable Raft

If you like backpacking and a bit of kayaking too, how about combining them both? Here, Mark Waring explains exactly what you need to know (and have) to start packrafting

With the country emerging from lockdown, more and more people are looking for new ways to experience the outdoors. Packrafting is an eye-catching and imagination-grabbing option. Granted there is an absurdity to packrafting, but what you can do with these brightly coloured inflatable boats is deadly serious. Looking like something akin to a souped-up inflatable pool, the sight of a fully-grown adult sitting in one is a little comical. However, it’s incredible where they can take you and what you can make them do. It’s paddling gone lightweight and fast, opening up a world of wild waters untouched by canoes or kayaks. People are now running Class V rivers in them (i.e. serious white water), as well as pioneering first descents and accessing virgin wild river systems previously landlocked. 

Packrafting is a relatively new sport, though the concept of lightweight water travel has been around for a while. Dick Griffith is credited with the birth of the concept, having used a small inflatable craft to travel the wilderness waters of Colorado in the 1950s. The sport incubated amongst Alaskan wilderness diehards for a few decades, shaped by the exploits of adventurer Roman Dial, and nurtured by the innovation of the Tingey family. The Tingeys went on to found the market leader and original commercial packraftAlpacka. Today there’s a huge number of companies making packrafts with a whole variety of different prices. Raft designs range from pure white-water boats to ultra-light boats designed for the occasional crossing of calm lakes or ‘flatwater’. Boats can typically carry one person plus a fully loaded rucksack, yet simultaneously pack down to a compact bundle that slips into a rucksack for hiking or biking. 

Related: Best Walks In The Lake District | 10 Mapped Routes

As a sport, its huge fun and can really change the way you access and travel to wild places. Water is no longer a barrier, but an opportunity – you have a whole new dimension to play with. Packrafting can also be very risky; there’s a lot of learning to embark on to make it both safe and enjoyable.

Choosing Your Packraft

Photo: Mark Waring

It’s easy to start packrafting. In fact, it’s deceptively easy. The boats are incredibly stable, and on flat water, are simple to paddle and play with. Herein lies the risk; an eye on safety is paramount, especially when thinking about getting out onto rivers. You will need more gear than a boat and a paddle, and an understanding of how it all safely works together is a must. Acquiring the skills to use a packraft safely is as important as the boat itself. Arguably, it’s a lifetime’s endeavour and you must be humble on moving water. 

The principal piece of equipment is obviously the packraft. A decent one will range from the expensive to the very expensive. However, there is increasingly more choice on the UK market at the momentYou’ll want to look out for particular key features that bring out the potential of these boats. Ultimately, they should be fun and safe to paddle with both you and your backpacking gear. They also need to be packable and portable without too much fuss, thus enabling you to hike to remote water, and to plan journeys that unlock wild lands and beyond. Finally, they need to be robust, as they will take regular scrapes and scratches; a deflated dead raft mid-trip is no fun. 

packraft should be easy to assemble and quick to strip down/pack away. It’s an obvious point, but in my experience it’s critical in ensuring effective wilderness travel. Often some bits of a river are too dangerous to paddle. A carry or ‘portage’ around the obstacle is sometimes necessary. This can mean picking up the boat, or deflating and carrying it. If the boat is a faff to assemble, again this could affect the decision to get off the water and pack the boat. The consequence could be shooting rapids beyond your ken. 

packraft should be quick to inflate using the kit supplied with the boat. This is usually just an inflation bag that screws into the valve. You then capture and squeeze air into the hull. Typically, a boat should take three minutes to inflate – there’s a knack to filling and closing the inflation bag, but it doesn’t take long to get the hang of it. Equally, you’ll want it to pack away and store in your pack easily and with as minimum bulk as possible. 

Storage solutions on a packraft are something to think about too. The whole concept of the sport is to transition from one mode of transport to the other (whether bikepacking or hiking) and to secure what you do not need when rafting onto your boat (be it a rucksack or a bike). If you are only paddling around mountain lakes, storage is a minor issue. Most raft designs allow your gear to be lashed ‘on deck’ either in front or behind you with attachments and “D-rings”. That’s fine and well if you don’t need to quickly read the water, but on rapids you’ll have a problem if a rucksack is obscuring your vision. To optimise every part of the raft, some models have a cleverly placed water and airtight zipper to store gear in the actual boat itself, and two of the models here are of that type (often referred to as TiZIP). Your gear, packed in the inner tubes, can slide around a bit but it stays dry inside. To be able to both carry plenty of backpacking gear, and see what’s coming on the water, is a big plus. 

Related: Backpacking Backpacks | Buyer’s Guide For Multi-Day Trekking Packs

Another bonus is thigh straps. Thigh straps are usually webbing bands that you slip your knees through allowing you to increase control and even roll your boat (if done skilfully). Seats are a feature on all boats but some are better than others. Splash decks can also be a good idea as they provide a degree of protection from waves, and prevent the boat from filling with water if used with a spray skirt. 

Most important, however, is picking the right size of packraft for you. Think of packrafts like a pair of shoes: an ill-fitting pair are useless regardless of how much they cost. Equally, the best raft for you will depend on the body of water you’re planning to travel on, and how much weight you are willing to add to your pack. 

Essential Gear

Beyond the
packraft, here’s some essential gear you’ll also need to get you started. 

  • Paddles. The second most essential piece of packrafting equipment after the raft itself. Make sure that they break down into sections (preferably four) and are lightweight. Materials range from wallet friendly aluminium up to ultralight carbon fibre.
  • Lifejackets or a ‘personal flotation device’ are a must.
  • Inflation bag. A lightweight bag, sometimes the stuff sack, that’s used to trap air and inflate the raft. This is a key piece of kit and is supplied with the raft,
  • Repair kit. In case of a hole or tear in the backcountry. Most manufacturers include one with purchase.
  • A helmet. You can skip this if you’re just paddling lochs or lakes but when it comes to moving water, you’ll definitely need something to protect your soft head against hard rocks! 
  • A river knife. Critical for a moving water trip in case you need to cut yourself loose from anything holding you under the water.
  • Throw bag. Another essential for rivers. This is a key piece of rescue equipment. Simply a bag with a loosely packed rope in it, to be used as a safety line.
  • Outerwear. Most people start with just their hiking kit but a dry suit is a must for winter paddling. We’ve got a whole host of reviews on both waterproof jackets and waterproof trousers if you want some guidance.
  • Dry Bag/s. A waterproof, usually roll top, bag used to keep your gear dry on deck.


Choosing A Packraft

There’s a multitude of choice on the market but a good packraft is still a considerable investment. Here are three rafts available on the UK market with first timers in mind. 

Nortik Trekraft

The Nortik Trekraft. Photo: Mark Waring

Model: Nortik Trekraft (with deck)
Price: £700
Weight: 3.5kg (including all accessories)

Nortik is a label by Out-Trade GmbH in Germany but is built by Triton in Russia. The Trekraft is supplied with a seat, repair kit, inflation bag and deck for the relatively low price of £700. This is the boat I’ve been using for three years now and it’s faired very well in some very wild places. It can handle wild rivers well with a lot of gear strapped to it, and it’s a robust and solid performer without being too flashy. There are some drawbacks though. The Trekraft’s single size will see smaller rafters lost in it but for me it works well. Some of the features feel a bit basic (such as the valves and inflation bag) but despite those limitations, the Trekraft is a good choice for the money. The boat glides smoothly in the water and its relative size makes it stable and easy to use. The build is solid and of good quality. The features are cool too: there are thigh straps, a big area on the bow to store your kit, and a spray deck that keeps water out of the cockpit (with a supplied ‘spray skirt’ to add for white water). 

A bit of a workhorse but still solid and reliable; this boat has served me well through several big trips in Scandinavia. It lacks some of the high-end features of other rafts but is an excellent entry-level choice. 

Full Specifications

Stuff sack / inflation bag / white water spray skirt / Velcro-attached seat / repair kit / backrest not included.

Get the latest price:

Adélie Voyager

Adélie Voyager

Model: Voyager/Voyager Special
Price: From £390 to £700
Weight: 2.16kg (boat only, no accessories)

Adélie are a new packrafting company that are based in the Highlands of Scotland. They offer a range of raft options based on their Voyager design. With prices starting at £390, the website offers a good range of options that allow you to specify the raft as you want it. You even have the option to add on personalised additions to give you a fully ‘specced’ raft for wilderness adventuring. These include adding a full spraydeck (to protect you and the cockpit from water ingress), and choosing the weight of your fabrics. There are no options yet for TiZIP storage or thigh straps but they should be coming soon. 

During testing, I was pleased by the weight and build of the boat. The Voyager has a lot of very good features to work with. The basic option is an open cockpit design but includes an excellent seat and backrest comparable with those on offer in more expensive brands. The inflation bag and valve system is impressive too and is a notch above the Nortik Trekraft. A skeg or fin is included and is a useful addition (helping the boat to ‘track’ or travel efficiently on flat water). 

The keen price of the Voyager range is no accident. Inspired by the business ethos of well-known outdoor brand Alpkit, the Adélie team have adopted a similar approach to selling reliable kit at affordable prices. The design of the boats are certainly not revolutionary but it’s a proven build that should see most users happily paddling a wide range of water, including moderate white-water. 

Overall, the Adélie range presents an excellent choice at a solid price and their entry onto the UK market is very welcome.

Full Specifications

Stuff sack / inflation bag / Velcro-attached seat / backrest / skeg (mini keel or fin) / repair kit.

Get the latest price:

Kokopelli Rogue

Kokopelli Rogue

Model: Kokopelli Rogue-Lite
Price: From £1200
Weight: 2.4kg (boat only, no accessories)

Kokopelli is certainly in the premium bracket of packrafts and the price reflects this. The Rogue is packed full of innovative features and is a light and responsive craft. 

On the compact side, the raft provides a good ride on the rapids for the smaller rafters. Out on the water, the Rogue handles white water particularly well. A good and adjustable seat makes the boat comfortable and its handling belies its price. The downside is its assembly and inflation is time-consuming and a bit of a fiddle. The inflation bag is small and requires considerable use to inflate the boat. Topping up the boat requires use of a separate inflation tube which is easy to mislay in the field. 

There are other small details that can be bothersome for the big price of the boat. What you get, though, is something that can handle technical water very well. This is a boat packed with features at the pinnacle of packrafting design. 

Full Specifications

Inflatable seat / backrest / inflation bag / compression straps / repair kit / inflation tube / removable spraydeck / spraydeck combing / TiZIP optional.

Get the latest price:


Where To Go

Packrafting will undoubtedly open you up to a world of adventure. You can carry a packraft in your backpack, strap it to your bike or motorbike, throw it in the back of a small car, or easily take it with you on public transport. From days out on local rivers and lakes, to multi-week trips in the wilds of both the UK and abroad; there’s a huge array of choice here. 

The Goal. Photo: Mark Waring
The Journey. Photo: Mark Waring

With this versatility in mind, it’s perhaps best to start local and build from there. Searching through canoeing and kayaking websites is always a great way to spark your inspiration, though Scotland is a big favourite amongst keen packrafters. Kayaking websites offer plenty of very interesting routes combining the lochs, coastlines and big rivers of the Highlands. Assynt is especially beautiful and offers some of the purest packrafting experiences in the UK. Combining the big lochs with undulating hills (with Suilven as the fulcrum) will give you a real sense of the possibility out there. 

Related: Walking the West Highland Way | How To Walk It

Easy – Follow the River Medway canoe trail for a leisurely 29km or more. A fun day out or extend it to an overnight expedition using one of the campsites along the trail. 

Moderate – The big lochs of Assynt are a packrafting classic without having to negotiate any technical and demanding water. Loop together beautiful Loch Sionascaig, Fionn Loch and Loch Veyatie for multi-day adventures with unbelievably striking landscapes. A great place to learn how to hike with a raft strapped to your back as well. 

Hard – Once you start mixing technical white water and tough hiking, you will need a high level of skill and fitness. The payback of this is the unique landscapes these powerful waters open up. There are a number of cross-Scotland routes that can offer this level of challenge, such as the 72.5km Laxford Bridge to Bonar Bridge described in the excellent Scottish Canoe Touring guidebook


The Last Word

The Campsite. Photo: Mark Waring

Ultimately, the aim is to stay safe and have fun. You need to understand both you and the boat; what are the limitations of your skills and equipment? Nothing substitutes learning with a professional teacher. There are a limited number of providers in the UK who will train you in the art of handling a packraft. Equally, all skills learnt in a canoe or kayak are transferable and will definitely help you on your journey. 


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