Testing Packrafts For Best Packraft Review

Ultimate Guide: Best Packrafts of 2020

Packrafting is hot right now, and rightfully so. For 15 years, we’ve been testing nearly every packraft on the market. Whether crushing whitewater or enjoying a lazy float, this guide will get you on the water asap.

A packraft, simply put, is an inflatable boat that you can roll up and put in your backpack to carry for significant distances. Historically, these packable boats were used for more extreme bike/raft adventures, but in recent years have gained a broader fan base.

Whether heading out on a mega-adventure race or simply looking for an apartment-friendly boat, a packraft will suit you well. They handle all types of water, pack up small, and are fun.

While testing, we considered the following characteristics: ease of use, weight/packed size, durability, paddle-ability, and cost/value. We also favored boats that are readily available in North America.

If you need more help choosing a packraft, be sure to check out our extensive buyer’s guide at the end of this article.

The Best Packrafts of 2020

Best Overall Packraft: Alpacka Expedition

Alpacka Expedition

The Alpacka Expedition ($1,500-2,100) is the modern incarnation of the original packraft Alpacka launched way back in 2000. Now, it features 20 years of improvements and a clear focus on the big wilderness that’s the heart of the sport.

It comes standard with a whitewater spray deck and internal storage via a waterproof TiZip. And the new performance “rally” hull gives the boat amazing performance in both flatwater and serious whitewater.

The boat strikes a nearly perfect balance between weight and functionality. It’s light and packable enough to carry on a long trip, yet perfect for nearly all types of serious paddling. It lacks some of the bells and whistles of specific whitewater boats, but many of those options (thigh straps and foot brace) can be added.

We loved the removable WW deck, which kept us nearly as dry as the standard spray deck in big water. It allowed for an open boat configuration with ample room for a kid (or dog) on lazy days at the lake. It’s available in three sizes.

  • Weight: 8 lbs. 3 oz. (with removable whitewater deck)
  • Load Capacity: 350 lbs.
  • Pros: Can handle any water type, internal storage, spray deck, three sizes
  • Cons: Heavier than some, not available as a self-bailer

See the Alpacka Expedition

Best Budget Packraft: Kokopelli XPD ($749)

kokopelli xpd

The XPD is Kokopelli’s newest packraft. For a few weeks this summer, we tested a loaner raft for class III whitewater laps on a small Wyoming creek and on a Snake River fishing trip. It worked very well for both, and we were thankful for the extra air pressure and durability as we rode over rocks and logs.

Kokopelli designed the XPD using 1000d reinforced PVC material. Compared to lightweight rafts, the material feels more like a commercial whitewater rafting boat. It’s meant to be versatile and stand up to heavy use. And you should get more mileage from the XPD than some of the lighter rafts on this list.

It’s considerably burlier (and heavier) than the Rogue Lite and Twain rafts we’ve used. The material also allows you to inflate the raft to a higher PSI (3 versus 1.5). We found the additional air had us sitting higher in the water than Kokopelli’s Rogue Lite, which was preferred.

At 13 pounds, this raft can be stashed in a pack or duffel and carried to the water easily, and it’s ideal for shorter approaches. You can carry it several miles, but if that’s your main use you should opt for a lighter raft.

Kokopelli includes the Nano Barrel pump (additional 2 lbs.) with the XPD, which you need to inflate the packraft. It’s a well-designed pump that folds, to a degree, for easy packing. However, it’s not as light or packable as other options.

Kokopelli claims you can inflate the raft with the Feather Pump or inflation bag as well. However, the PSI won’t be as high and they aren’t included with the raft. Inflation and setup are easy if you’ve used a packraft; if not, it’s still pretty straightforward.

One of our favorite features is the awesome new GRI Push Push valve system. The push button is a lot easier than the push-and-twist valve on some boats, as there’s no lost air when you detach the pump.

When fully inflated to 3 PSI, the area where you sit is pretty snug. Our three testers were average-sized or smaller men and women with an athletic build. If you’re a larger person or have wider hips, it could be a tight squeeze. Releasing a little air pressure would help make it roomier.

Overall, if you don’t need an ultralight boat and want to try packrafting, the XPD is a good choice. To make an analogy, this is a “car camping” packraft, not a “backpacking” packraft.

It’s less expensive than other rafts on the list, but we acknowledge that $750+ is still a huge investment for gear. It’s made for several water types, is built for adventure, and should last a long time.

  • Weight: 13 lbs.
  • Load Capacity: 300 lbs.
  • Pros: Great for rivers and lakes, very durable and stable, relatively low cost
  • Cons: Heavier weight limits packability, need a heavier pump to inflate

See the Kokopelli XPD

Best Whitewater Packraft: Alpacka Gnarwhal

Gnarwhal

Paddling the Grand Canyon in a packraft? This is your boat. The Gnarwhal ($1,500-2,175) is both the highest performing and most forgiving whitewater packraft we’ve ever paddled. Heck, it might even be the best solo boat of any type we’ve paddled for whitewater.

The high-volume Gnarwhal can be configured as either a self-bailer or decked boat. And both options come standard with Alpacka’s exceptional four-point thigh strap, whitewater backband, and footbrace. To top it off, the oversize butt is fitted with a TiZip for internal storage. And it includes two custom dry bags that clip inside to hold your gear.

In whitewater, the boat’s extra high volume makes it great for beginners in just about any water. Experienced boaters will find it capable in technical steep creeks and high-volume runs of class IV/V water. It can surf waves, battle roll (with an experienced paddler), and bash through monster holes.

  • Weight: 7.9 lbs. (size medium, self-bailer)
  • Load Capacity: 450 lbs.
  • Pros: Stable and forgiving, huge cargo capacity, all-inclusive WW build
  • Cons: Heavier, tends to give beginners a false sense of their abilities

See the Alpacka Gnarwhal

Most Durable Packraft: Kokopelli Recon ($899)

Kokopelli Recon

Are you looking to run whitewater laps on your favorite rocky river? Then you need the Recon ($899). This boat isn’t light. At 19 pounds, this is not the boat to backpack with. But what it lacks in lightness, it makes up for in rugged durability.

Constructed of 1,000d reinforced PVC, this bad boy can easily bash into rocks and bounce down low-flow rivers. And since PVC can be inflated to a higher PSI, the Recon excels at charging through holes. If you’ve ever wished for a mini whitewater raft, this is it.

New for 2020, the Recon has an improved EVA backband (complete with a snack-friendly pocket) and reinforced drain holes to prevent tearing on sticks and rocks. It also comes complete with thigh straps and reinforced D-rings. All in all, this is a bomber whitewater boat that’s built to withstand it all. Available with or without TiZip storage.

  • Weight: 18 lbs.
  • Load Capacity: 300 lbs.
  • Pros: Great maneuverability, super durable
  • Cons: Heavy

See the Kokopelli Recon

Best Lightweight Packraft: Alpacka Scout

Alpacka Scout

At 3.25 pounds, the Alpacka Scout ($595-745) is the flagship of lightweight packrafts. Stripped down to just the basics, the boat rolls so small that you can almost always find room in your pack for it. Best of all, it allows for unhindered access to remote mountain lakes, streams, and canyons that you’d otherwise never really explore. It has a simple “open boat” design, with no spray deck or self-bailing options.

While the Scout is designed for adventure that leans more toward flat or gently moving water, it’s burly enough to handle much, much more. We’ve routinely used the Scouts far “beyond spec” on remote expeditions that include miles of class 3 and 4 whitewater — sometimes with two people per boat. (I’m pretty sure Alpacka would not officially endorse this use!)

The Scout can also be fitted with a TiZip and inflatable seat for a little extra cash. We highly recommend both options if you are planning to use it for any whitewater.

One downside is that the Scout only comes in one size. It will likely be uncomfortable for people on the bigger side of the spectrum. It also only comes equipped with two lash points, although more can be added.

There are a lot of other great boats in this category besides the Scout. Most notably, the 5.2-lb. Kokopelli Rogue Lite ($899) boasts an inflatable seat and extremely robust construction for both flat and mild whitewater — and more room than the scout.

  • Weight: 3 lb. 4 oz.
  • Load Capacity: 250 lbs.
  • Pros: Great maneuverability, quick inflation, lightweight, TiZip available
  • Cons: Few lash points, small size, slower paddling than some designs

See the Alpacka Scout

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Best Double Packraft: Alpacka Forager

Forager

The Forager ($1,750-2,450) is the culmination of the desire to create a sub-15-pound two-person boat capable of thriving in the world’s biggest whitewater and expeditions. With 16 lash points, built-in self-bailing, a TiZip for internal storage, and a “wavebreaker” bow (my name for it), the Forager is ready for any adventure you can imagine.

Despite the massive inflated size, it packs down to a modest 20”x10” roll that will fit in a decent expedition pack. The boat is a bit sluggish compared to many of the other two-person boats that we tested (Alpacka Gnu and Kokopelli Twain). But it is easy to paddle with either kayak paddles (for long flatwater sections) or canoe paddles (for more intense whitewater control).

  • Weight: 13 lb. 7 oz.
  • Load Capacity: 1,000 lbs.
  • Pros: Massive load capacity, lots of space, can handle epic whitewater
  • Cons: Heavier than most, sluggish on flat water

See the Alpacka Forager

What Is Packrafting?


Simply put, a packraft is an inflatable boat that you can roll up and put in your backpack. These boats usually weigh about 5-10 pounds, only take up a portion of the space in your pack, and are usually inflated with a minimalist “inflation bag” instead of a pump.

Most notably, packrafts are durable enough to survive some level of rugged and remote usage where equipment failure is less of an option. They are much more durable than the similarly shaped vinyl boats or pool toys that are widely and cheaply available at big-box stores.

15 Years of Testing Packrafts

It all started in 2005. With an expedition to the remote Cirque of the Unclimbables looming, I’d been sleeping fitfully at best. Much of our funding had fallen through, and the $7,000-per-person helicopter ride needed to reach the towers was now impossible on our dirtbag budget.

The phone rang at 2:00 a.m., and the excitement in my twin brother’s voice pulled me out of my marginal slumber. “I found the answer!” he exclaimed. “It’s a new thing called a packraft.”

The ensuing expedition became one of the early descents of the now-classic Little Nahanni River, the first-ever packraft descent, and the first ascent of Lotus Flower Tower without using air to access the Cirque.

Testing Packrafts - Chelsey and Jason Magness
Author Jason Magness testing packrafts with his wife, Chelsey.

Since that first introduction, packrafting has changed my relationship to the outdoors more profoundly than any other piece of gear. Not since the ’80s and the advent of mountain biking has a piece of outdoor equipment made such a big impact on the way we explore our wilderness. Rivers and lakes no longer need road access to be enjoyed.

Over the past 20 years, the packraft (just like the early days of mountain biking) has gone from a single utilitarian design to countless specialized ones. They run the gamut from sub-2-pound ultralights, to class V-capable whitewater boats, to two-person builds that can carry more than 1,000 pounds.

Since that first trip in 2005, my wife and I have used nearly every one of them. And we’ve made it a point to push the limits of each design so that we have a pretty clear idea of what these boats can handle (and what they can’t).

Anatomy of a Packraft

Material

The early boats that inspired the packraft were made from PVC and vinyl. And you can still get boats for under 50 bucks that are lightweight and float and look kinda like a packraft. But they also puncture easily, leading to unplanned deflations.

Most modern packrafts are made of a polyurethane-coated fabric. However, there are tremendous differences in the quality of different fabrics that are called the same thing.

Not every 210 denier yarn is the same, nor is it woven to the same specs at every production facility. Alpacka Raft manufactures and coats all of its fabric in the U.S. This results in the highest consistency, durability, and UV resistance of any of the rafts we have tried.

Inflation Setup

Most modern packrafts eschew the use of a pump and instead use an ultralight inflation bag that looks like a sil-nylon trash can liner. The bag screws onto the boat on one end. Then, you scoop air to fill the bag, twist the top, and push all that air volume into the boat.

Most boats also have a one-way inflation valve for topping off the boat. We would not recommend any boat for serious use that does not have this one-way feature.

Seats

Seat configuration varies widely. But for any paddle longer than 30 minutes, it is really important to have a decent seat that positions your hips higher than your feet. A backrest or backband is also essential to help create a sustainable and healthy paddling position.

Thigh Straps

Thigh straps are a must for any serious whitewater class IV and above. They allow the development of boat control skills that are needed for technical maneuvering. They also make it possible for expert users to reliably execute the “eskimo roll.”

Gear Storage

Our first expedition saw us strapping 40-pound packs to the bow of the boat, and another 20-pound dry bag full of climbing gear at our feet. Visibility was limited, and the cramped foot position was less than desirable. When the boat flipped, it was difficult to right. And nearly everything got some level of wet, regardless of how many dry bags it was packed in.

The availability of internal storage via the TiZip was a major step forward in packrafting when Alpacka introduced it in 2012. It keeps gear dry, actually improves boat handling, and makes longer expeditions much more reasonable.

The TiZips are well proven at this point. Although they demand a little more care and add a bit more packing complexity, they are well worth it for most users and have been adopted as a standard option for nearly every major brand.

Spray Decks and Skirts

Spray decks and skirts have come a long way since the original style back in the early 2000s. The early style basically slipped over the boat as a whole, and their propensity to slide off at inopportune times led them to being dubbed “packraft condoms” by early paddlers. Luckily, modern spray skirts are much more secure than their predecessors.

Skirts are primarily designed for whitewater to keep water out. Most of the whitewater boats are available either as self-bailers or decked (skirted boats). The designs are similar, with a piece of P-Tex piping being used to create a lip (coaming) around the cockpit, which the skirt secures around.

It is basically a packraft version of what you see in every river running hardshell kayak. In the event of a capsize, you can release the skirt with a pull loop at the front of the boat.

Some more generalist packrafts have a cruiser-style deck that attaches only with Velcro and can be completely removed if desired to create an open boat. These decks are simple, but only keep about 70% of the water out. In whitewater, a cruiser-decked boat will eventually fill and need to be emptied in order to maintain control and paddle-ability.

How to Choose a Packraft

Whitewater vs. Flatwater

Buy the packraft that is going to fit your most common usage scenario. If you plan on almost exclusively paddling lakes, bays, and calmer rivers, then any open boat model is best. They are simple, lighter, and cheaper. And they’ll handle just fine if you get ambitious with some class II once in a while.

Packrafting Granite Creek Kokopelli XPD Packraft
Packrafting Granite Creek in the Kokopelli XPD Packraft.

Looking for more time on rivers and less on lakes? A basic self-bailer or decked boat (Alpacka classic series, Kokopelli Rogue) handle some class II/III water while still being light and small enough to take on just about any trip.

If you are planning on spending most of your time playing among eddies, holes, and waves, get a boat that is made for it. The Alpacka Classic, Alpacka Expedition, or Kokopelli Nirvana will serve you well.

For a pure whitewater beast, we recommend the Gnarwhal or Wolverine, which come ready to party with all your class IV hardshell friends — but are packable to take places they’d never carry their kayaks to. The Kokopelli Recon can fit this niche too for a budget option, but what you save in dollars you pay for in weight.

Handling

I’m not gonna lie and say that packrafts handle great. They take some getting used to and, initially, they waggle a lot for most novice paddlers. But with some practice, the boats can paddle quite straight with decent speeds.

In general, the smaller ultralight boats will be the slowest. Self-bailers will be a little more sluggish both in speed and responsiveness than boats without holes in the floor. But a full boat (if you get swamped in waves) is much worse.

Boats that have a one-way valve for inflation allow for more pressure in the tubes. And this means better handling. The ability to get a tight boat is perhaps more important than any hull design feature.

Finally, the boat handling is better if you fit well and are comfortable in the boat. Make sure you are getting a boat sized for you. Too small a boat, and you’ll sit lower in the water and be more cramped for longer paddles. In whitewater, a too-small boat capsizes more easily. Too big and it will be hard to effectively maneuver the boat, and you’ll spend a lot of extra energy to do so.

Rolled Size and Weight

The weight weenie in me likes to count ounces, but in reality, choosing a packraft based on weight is a bad idea. Pick a boat that meets your paddling skills and use scenarios, and you’ll adapt to the size and weight.

Still, for more remote and lengthy use cases, pack size and weight are worth taking into consideration. With good technique, the roll size can be reduced significantly. And nearly all the single rafts we’ve used can be compressed enough to fit into a 40-liter pack (or lashed to bike handlebars) with plenty of room to spare.

If you are really concerned about weight, take the extra 10 minutes to dry it out. The weight difference between rolling a wet boat and dry one can be up to several pounds!

Jason and Chelsey Magness tackling whitewater in a double packraft.
Jason and Chelsey Magness tackling whitewater in a double packraft.

Load Capacity

Pay attention to load capacity. If you get close to (or over) it, you will significantly affect performance. Most boats’ “maximum load” is the total weight limit of paddler plus gear that will allow the boat to have good, consistent handling characteristics in ideal conditions.

Exceeding this does not mean the boat will sink. I’ve padded the Alpacka Scout (250-lb. limit) with two adults plus gear (300+ lbs.) in nonideal conditions so many times, I’ve lost count.

But, then again, I’ve also used my carbon fiber paddle to dig a snow cave on the upper slopes of Mt Rainier and it was pretty hard on my paddle. In short, the load capacity is a recommendation, and most boats are capable of at least floating more.

Durability

In general, packrafts are burly, but lighter boats are generally less durable. So, use a bit more caution with a packraft. If your boat is equipped with a TiZip, that is one of the easiest places to introduce leaks. So, make sure you learn how to care for it and keep it grit-free.

Less expensive boats (as noted in the “materials” sections) may be crafted from a PU fabric that is easier to tear, abrade, and delaminate than some of the more premium boats. We recommend sticking with the more established brands that have good customer service and pride themselves on craftsmanship.

Packraft Pro Tips

  1. Temper your boat. It should be nice and firm and will require at least one top-off after you get into the water. A more rigid boat paddles much better than a soft boat. And it is less likely to get leaks due to abrasion from rocks or contact with sharp sticks. Use care not to leave your boat in the sun once fully pressurized. This can cause damage and leaks due to overpressurization. Most manufacturers recommend a max inflation of 1.5-2.5 PSI.
  2. Learn to field repair your boat. Most boats come with a small repair kit that can solve most leaks or minor damage within a few minutes. Small leaks are common with aggressive usage and not a concern if you understand how to fix them. In addition to the repair kit, we carry a small bit of Tyvek tape (wound around a paddle shaft), which will take care of nearly every problem long enough to finish your trip and make a more permanent repair. For boats with a TiZip, one pro analogizes it to lip care: “I never use lip balm, and I come back from every trip with sore and chapped lips that take a week to heal. My wife is super diligent and never has that issue.” The cargo fly is the same. The zipper doesn’t heal when you don’t keep it lubricated. Light, frequent lubrication is the key!
  3. Slow down on the paddle strokes. Watch an expert paddle — they make it look effortless. Fewer strokes with deeper paddle penetration and smooth power is better than frantically slashing at the surface. Take the time to practice your strokes in more ideal settings so that they become automatic and easy. It will make a world of difference to your enjoyment as your missions increase in duration.

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