What is Packrafting?


Apr 29, 2024

If you've ever struggled to decide between embarking on an extensive hike or whitewater kayaking, if you've ever come across a river or lake during a hike and wished for a way to explore your surroundings from on the water, or if you've begrudgingly planned your backpacking trip to avoid the land's natural waterways, packrafting might be for you.

Tim_Kelley_ak_023Photo by Tim Kelley

An exhilarating adventure sport that deftly combines elements of whitewater rafting and backcountry hiking and backpacking trips, packrafting offers a seamless transition between paddling rivers and trekking along rugged mountain trails.

Each packrafting journey offers adventurers the unique opportunity to paddle on both flat water and whitewater rivers, easily transitioning out of the water and onto land, and then from hiking back to paddling again when the next river emerges.

This versatile and adaptable mode of transport gives outdoor enthusiasts and wilderness adventurers access to some of the most remote and challenging terrains in the world, traversing areas that would otherwise be inaccessible by other modes.

What is a Packraft?

Crafted for the adventurer’s soul, packrafts are compact, individual-sized, inflatable boats engineered to be lightweight, flexible, durable, and portable.

Most packrafts weigh as little as four pounds and are typically made of materials such as 420-denier Nylon and polyurethane film. These portable boats are flexible and light enough to roll up and fit in backpacks or on mountain bikes, yet durable enough to tackle everything from tranquil waters to Class III rapids, epitomizing the spirit of versatility and resilience.

The History of Packrafting: From Essential Survival Equipment to Adventure Staple

While those who are newer to the world of packrafting may consider this multidisciplinary sport quite "new school, the roots of packrafting actually stretch back to the early explorers who sought to chart untouched landscapes using rudimentary inflatable boats.

Packrafting has transformed from a critical survival instrument into a fundamental element of contemporary adventure sports, a journey that began in the mid-19th century and paralleled major advances in technology and outdoor activities.

The Early Days of Packrafting

The documented origins of packrafting date back to the Franklin expedition of 1845, which deployed small, inflatable rubber boats in an ill-fated attempt to traverse the Arctic.

Initially used as essential survival gear, these early packrafts marked the inception of their utilization in challenging environments.

Transition from Military to Recreational Use

The post-World War II era marked a significant shift in the use of packrafts as military surplus rafts gradually made their way into the hands of civilians and, subsequently, into the realm of outdoor recreation.

One of the earliest recreational uses recorded was in 1952, when adventurers took on Mexico's Copper Canyon using these rafts, setting a benchmark for future explorers.

Commercialization and Innovation in the 1970s

In the 1970s, firms like American Safety Products began crafting packrafts specifically for use on calm waters, which kickstarted the era of targeted commercial production.

This period also witnessed crucial innovations in materials and design, which made packrafts lighter and more resilient, expanding their potential uses.

Technological Progression of the Packraft

The 1980s saw the introduction of packrafts designed for navigating more demanding waters, meeting the increasing needs of the adventure sports community.

This evolution of technology extended into the 2000s with significant contributions from companies like Alpacka Raft. They pioneered designs that could withstand the rigors of class III to class IV rapids, pushing the boundaries of where packrafts could go.

The 2010s & Beyond: Bridging Traditional Boundaries

In the 2010s, the release of the "Alpackalypse" model by Alpacka Raft marked a significant milestone, blending the traditional aspects of packrafting with the technical prowess of hardshell kayaking.

This innovation demonstrated the versatility and advanced functionality of the modern packraft.

Modern Packrafts as Engineering Marvels

Modern packrafts are engineering marvels, combining ultralight design with robust capabilities.

Typically weighing as little as four pounds and packing down to the size of a sleeping bag, these rafts are crafted from high-tech materials like urethane-coated nylon. They incorporate multiple air chambers for increased safety, removable spray decks, and sophisticated inflation systems.

Today’s designs also include features such as thigh straps and self-bailing systems, enhancing their utility across a variety of conditions, from serene lakes to challenging whitewater rapids.

The evolution of packrafting from a survival necessity to an adventure sport essential reflects both a history of human ingenuity and a deepening appreciation for the wild spaces that these versatile boats help us explore.

What Makes Packrafting So Awesome?

Today, packrafting elevates the adventure sports experience by combining exceptional mobility with thrilling exploration opportunities.

This sport goes far beyond simple paddling excursions, offering adventurers the chance to experience the wilderness from unique vantage points both on land and water.

Stéphane_Terrier_ak__049Photo by Stéphane Terrier

Route Accessibility

Packrafting is not just about paddling personal-sized inflatable boats across a local pond or down a whitewater river. Instead, these portable boats transform the way adventurers interact with the natural world on all levels.

These compact and lightweight inflatable rafts make possible multi day trips that weave together hiking, camping, and sometimes mountaineering while granting adventurers access remote mountain lakes and rivers. This integration allows enthusiasts to traverse remote waterways and landscapes that were once inaccessible, presenting unique challenges and unforgettable experiences.

Packrafts are especially useful for creating circular routes from linear trails. They allow explorers to hike deep into wilderness areas and then return to their starting points via waterways. This method of travel not only speeds up the journey but can also provide access to areas that might be unreachable by foot alone.

When planning such trips, consider the advantages of river travel to maximize your exploration potential.

Whether navigating through narrow creek passages or floating across vast alpine lakes, packrafters encounter diverse environments in ways that traditional hiking or boating can't offer.

Tim_Kelley_ak_021Photo by Tim Kelley

Lightweight & Portable Gear

In addition to making the most complex and intricate routes more accessible, packrafting is also loved for the simplicity and portability of its gear.

The total weight of packrafting essentials, including the packraft itself and gear like a paddle, pump, and personal flotation device (PFD), typically ranges from 10-15 pounds and breaks down to a manageable size ready to fit in your backpack. This gear can be easily carried, even over long distances or challenging terrains.

When in "water mode," the weight capacity of most packrafts can sustain all of your camping gear packed away in waterproof dry bags.

The ability to carry one's boat in a backpack means rivers, streams, and lakes become accessible in ways they never were before, enabling deeper penetration into wild spaces.

Low-Impact, High-Quality Wilderness Immersion

Packrafting also stands out as a low-impact way to explore the outdoors, aligning perfectly with Leave No Trace principles. This aspect of the sport appeals greatly to conservation-minded adventurers who seek to minimize their environmental footprint while maximizing their engagement with nature.

As a method of travel that avoids the use of motors or large boats, packrafting helps minimize the disruption to the environments to which it provides access.

Participants often describe packrafting as a form of moving meditation—a physical yet introspective endeavor that offers profound connections with the natural world. Whether silently gliding through mist-covered waters at dawn or skillfully maneuvering through challenging rapids, packrafting invites a deep, reflective engagement with nature, offering both a peaceful retreat and a gratifying challenge.

Who is Packrafting For?

Packrafting is a versatile sport that appeals to a wide range of outdoor enthusiasts, making it suitable for people with various interests and skill levels.

Tim_Kelley_ak_024Photo by Tim Kelley

Here’s a breakdown of who might find packrafting particularly appealing:

  1. Adventure Seekers: Individuals who crave new and unique experiences in the outdoors will find packrafting offers a thrilling way to explore both waterways and trails.
  2. Backpackers & Hikers: Those already passionate about trekking through nature can extend their adventures across water bodies, accessing remote locations that are otherwise unreachable.
  3. Water Sports Enthusiasts: Kayakers, canoeists, and those familiar with water sports might enjoy the added challenge and mobility that packrafting provides.
  4. Environmentalists & Nature Lovers: Packrafting is low-impact and allows for exploration without disturbing sensitive ecosystems, making it ideal for those who prioritize environmental conservation.
  5. Photographers & Wildlife Watchers: Packrafting can access secluded spots perfect for capturing wildlife and scenic landscapes, providing opportunities for photography and wildlife watching.
  6. Families: With the right safety measures, packrafting can be a family-friendly activity that offers fun for both adults and children looking to share an adventure.
  7. Fitness Enthusiasts: If you're looking for a new way to stay active, packrafting provides a full-body workout that combines paddling with the physical exertion of hiking.
  8. Adventure Racers: Competitors in adventure races find packrafting invaluable for navigating varied terrain during multi day expeditions, as it seamlessly integrates water crossings and river traverses into their multi-disciplinary events, enhancing their competitive edge.

Overall, packrafting is for anyone interested in exploring the great outdoors in a novel and exciting way, offering both the serenity of paddling on quiet waters and the adrenaline rush of navigating rapids. \

Whether you're a seasoned outdoor adventurer or a family looking for a new way to experience nature together, packrafting has something to offer.

How Easy is Packrafting?

Packrafts are generally more stable than kayaks, making the sport of packrafting relatively easy for beginners to pick up. However, this perceived stability can sometimes lead to packrafters overestimating their capabilities, fostering a false sense of security that can be particularly risky in moving waters and whitewater environments.

To develop your packrafting proficiency safely, it's crucial to acquire both paddling and self-rescue skills. Think of these skill sets as the two legs you stand on; it’s essential to establish a strong foundation in both through proper training and practice.

We strongly recommend participating in a packrafting course or whitewater rescue course that focuses on recognizing and mitigating risks associated with moving water, alongside learning self-rescue and assisting in other rescue scenarios. As with any adventure sport, enrolling in a comprehensive skills course under the guidance of an experienced and trained instructor can significantly improve your ability and confidence.

NOLS offers packrafting courses that are preferct for those new to the sport, teaching essential paddling techniques and self-rescue skills, beginning on flat water and later advancing to more intense whitewater rivers.

For the more experienced packrafter, NOLS can help hone and expand on packrafting essentials with more advanced skills. Through hands-on learning with experienced instructors, our packrafting participants gain confidence and competence on the water.

Quick Packrafting Tips:

Always Travel With A Buddy

Always venture out with a companion. Not only does this make the experience more enjoyable, but it also ensures that there is someone to assist if you encounter any difficulties.

Get Familiar With Your Gear

Before your first packrafting outing, it's beneficial to familiarize yourself with your equipment at home. Practice inflating your packraft and packing your gear both inside and on top of it. Repeating this process a few times in a comfortable environment will make the task less intimidating when you're beside a river.

Start On Flat Water

Begin your packrafting journey on calm waters, such as a local pond or lake, to get accustomed to handling and maneuvering the packraft. Here, you can practice essential skills like launching, landing, and even safely falling out and re-entering the boat.

Plan a Packrafting Trip with NOLS

Interested in starting your own packrafting journey? NOLS will be offering two exciting packrafting trips and courses in 2025 that cover all aspects of packrafting, from basic paddling techniques to advanced expedition skills. If you're ready to test out multiple adventure activities in one expedition, stay tuned for to explore the most remote and unreachable routes where whitewater rivers meet the rugged mountain trails of the backcountry in Alaska and New Zealand.

Written By


NOLS is a nonprofit global wilderness school that seeks to help you step forward boldly as a leader.

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I found packrafting in the summer of 2015 on a three-week trip in Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness. While I was already an avid whitewater paddler and backcountry hiker, packrafting clarified my love for the backcountry into something more simple. It was not just about the feeling of traveling with a river’s current or across eddy lines. It was not just the feeling of lactic acid in my legs after a steep climb. Packrafting was a synthesis of all I loved about exploration—a celebration of traveling through the backcountry by any means. It begged me to look further and it opened doors to adventures that were otherwise impossible.

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