The Best Packrafts of 2023


HomeHome / Blog / The Best Packrafts of 2023

Jun 20, 2023

The Best Packrafts of 2023

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

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, paddleability, 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. We’ve also assembled a comparison chart to weigh your options, as well as a FAQ section to get right to the point.

The Alpacka Expedition ($1,725-1,825) 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. If you only owned one packraft for the rest of your life, the Expedition wouldn’t be a bad choice — as it was the best overall in our testing.

The Expedition comes standard with a whitewater spray deck and internal storage via a waterproof TiZip — a long zipper that provides access to the interior of the packraft tubes. And at 10.6 inches, the tubes of the performance Rally Hull give 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. And while it previously came without, every new build is kitted out to the nines with white-water specific features such as four-point thigh straps, foot brace, and spray skirt.

We loved the removable whitewater 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. And, uncommon in many rafts: It’s available in three sizes to fine-tune your fit.

With a bloodline that goes back to the very beginning of packrafting, the Alpacka Expedition has been refined and followed the trajectory of the sport to produce a boat that’ll be enjoyable for just about anyone to saddle up in.

The XPD ($799) is Kokopelli’s rough and tumble river runner, and at sub-$800, it’s a comparative steal when looking at other full-featured packrafts. Based on Kokopelli’s Rogue-Lite design and done up in a burly material, the XPD is a budget raft that’ll take a beating.

During our testing, we paddled 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 1,000-denier 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.

Newly revised for 2021, the XPD gained a removable 9-inch fin that attaches at the stern with an American Standard Fin Plate. This greatly enhances the raft’s tracking ability, which is something that many packrafts suffer with.

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 pounds) 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.

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.

The Kokopelli XPD is less expensive than other rafts on the list, but we acknowledge that $799+ is still a huge investment for gear. It’s made for several water types, is built for adventure, and should last a long time for the price.

Paddling the Grand Canyon in a packraft? This is your boat. The Alpacka Gnarwhal ($1,525-1,900) 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 foot brace. To top it off, the oversize butt is fitted with a TiZip for internal storage. And you can purchase 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.

At 9 pounds the Gnarwhal won’t be ideal for long cross-country traverses that require anything other than water time, but the large tubes more than make up for it in paddleability. This is one stable and forgiving boat.

If you’re looking for a white-water machine like the Gnarwhal but want a boat that’s a bit more playful, the lower-volume 10.6-inch tubes of the Alpacka Wolverine make it a predictable edging and all-river-fun kind of boat. Either will maximize your enjoyment of the froth.

About the size of a loaf of bread when packed and inflating in under 60 seconds, the Rapid Raft from Uncharted Supply Co ($479) sets itself apart from the majority of other packrafts. While we were first skeptical, once you get the hang of it, it’s downright easy to get this boat filled up in under a minute.

That impressive fill time is thanks to the raft’s unique closure collar, which operates in the same way as your waterproof compression sacks. Simply get a running start, loft the raft, and roll down the collar to seal in the air. Then top off with the integrated one-way tube and the Rapid Raft is ready.

Ideal for an alpine lake or quick river crossing, the Rapid Raft is quite stable when paddled, and we found it to punch above its weight class when it came to ability in the water. We wouldn’t hesitate to bring this raft along on any alpine fishing trip, or long traverse that only requires a brief river shuttle to cross.

Since there’s no seat on the Rapid Raft, we did find our backsides catching a chill while paddling alpine lakes this autumn. Tossing a bit of padding down there can help, and we found that adding an inflatable like the Klymit V Seat made paddling more enjoyable.

Despite our best efforts, we did find that the seal of the closure collar was never quite perfect, and a stream of tiny bubbles followed us wherever we paddled. Thankfully this is a very slow release, and a quick top-off from the inflation tube kept us on the water for hours.

Compared to other ultralight flatwater boats like the Klymit LWD or Alpacka Ghost, we found the Rapid Raft to be the best balance of features and weight, and you simply can’t beat the ease of inflation and deflation.

Primordial packrafting asked a lot from those early boats, but there was always desire for a reliable raft that could be carried across the expanses of Alaska and similar landscapes. While Alpacka Raft has come far since then, the brand figured that a back-to-basics boat with all-new tech would round out the line nicely.

The Alpacka Whitewater Refuge ($1,500) is just that: a packraft that gives up little in any metric but only weighs your pack down a bit more than 7 pounds. Spec’ed out with a standard whitewater deck, internal storage, and all of the rigging to get you through wilderness Class III, this boat is ready to go places.

Compared to a boat like the Kokopelli Rogue R-Deck, the WW Refuge easily takes the lead in a number of facets. While the floor material of the Rogue is a reinforced 210D, Alpacka Raft uses a stronger 840D nylon in the WW Refuge. The weight difference is still in favor of the WW Refuge (7 pounds vs. the Rogue’s 9.1 pounds).

Then there’s the full whitewater rigging, including thigh straps, foot brace, deck, and skirt system which provides plenty of control over the boat when maneuvering through rough water. During our testing in Washington State, we found the boat to be highly nimble when taken to the edge of its abilities.

A TiZip comes standard with the WW Refuge. However, we will note that the WW Refuge is a smaller boat than the Rogue, with a smaller cockpit and total overall length/width. Designed with the same shape and materials as the Scout, the Refuge trades weight and packability for durability.

In our opinion, the Whitewater Refuge makes an ideal second boat for those who already own something like the Alpacka Classic or Kokopelli Nirvana. It fills a niche for long-haul expeditions where weight matters. It won’t wilt under heavier water, but is still light enough to be carried for many miles.

Let’s start with the impressive number: 2.25 pounds. To say that the Alpacka Ghost ($750) has trimmed the fat would be misleading; we’re unconvinced this ultralight boat ever had any fat on it to begin with.

Made with a 70-denier ripstop nylon hull and a 200-denier nylon floor — what Alpacka calls the “practical minimum” — this gossamer vessel straddles the line between light and silly light and was created for the ultrarunners, canyoneers, or anyone who might find themselves with a calm expanse of water to cross.

The Ghost is cut from the same design as the Scout, only 2 inches shorter, and still uses the same 10-inch tubes. It’s decidedly spartan without a seat, but tossing a pack underneath you should provide some insulation.

You really won’t want to run this boat into anything that isn’t liquid — which makes it ideal for flatwater alpine lakes, slot canyon water crossings, or a quick river shuttle.

Packed up, the Ghost compresses into an 11-inch x 5-inch roll, making it disappear into packs. For those who are leading the bleeding edge and pushing limits, this packraft will open up new routes and new possibilities.

Are you looking to run whitewater laps on your favorite rocky river? Then you need the Kokopelli Recon ($999). This boat isn’t light. At 18 pounds, this is not the boat to backpack with. But what it lacks in lightness, it makes up for in rugged durability.

Constructed of 1,000-denier 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.

And, just like a whitewater boat, all Kokopelli boats come with commercial-raft grade Leafield D7 valves, a great step up in terms of durability and functionality.

While the Recon doesn’t come equipped with a set of thigh-straps, we highly recommend them to increase overall maneuverability. Thankfully the boat does come pre-rigged with all the necessary rigging attachment points.

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 Kokopelli’s Nano Barrel pump 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.

The Alpacka Forager ($2,200-2,300) 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 “wave breaker” bow (our 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-inch x 10-inch roll that will fit in a decent expedition pack. The boat is a bit sluggish compared to many of the other two-person boats on the market, like the Kokopelli Twain. But it is easy to paddle with either kayak paddles (for long flatwater sections) or canoe paddles (for more intense whitewater control).

Many will use this packraft for paddling large western rivers, or fly-in backcountry hunts where packing out a moose is no small feat. Thankfully the large squared-off bow of the Forager is prime for lashing dang-near anything, including bikes.

Dig the profile and capacity, but only need space for one paddler? Check out the Ranger ($2,000), the single-captain version of the Forager.

The new Kokopelli Twain Lite ($1,099) takes the large and in-charge energy of the classic double-seated Twain boat and lops off a few inches to create a 1.5-person raft that not only has the extra room to support additional gear, bikes, or a pup, but also the stability to make loaded-down paddling manageable.

At 110” long, the Twain Lite sports more of a kayak profile than traditional squat packrafts. In turn, it gains a great deal of flatwater trackability. The boat was designed as a ‘Class I and Lake’ craft, and after a few months on the water, we can say it excels in this realm.

During our testing, we set out on a voyage across Diablo Lake in Washington State and found the paddling manners of the Twain Lite to be downright reasonable. The extra space in the bow easily stashed half of our overnight kit, with the rest saddled and strapped down to the top of the deck. The raft’s longer tubes improve its tracking ability and function more like a kayak than a traditional packraft.

In a new development for Kokopelli, the brand opted to borrow from their inflatable kayak line and equip the Twain Lite with a removable 4.5” tracking fin. At first, we were a bit skeptical of the efficacy this might add, but after a long day of paddling into a crosswind, we could definitely tell that we hadn’t needed to course-correct as much. Don’t need the fin? Just pop it out of the low-profile mount and stash it.

The Twain Lite has become one of our favorite boats to fish from. The long profile makes it stable when casting and landing fish. Plus, the extended bow makes an excellent place to stash landing nets or drybags.

The bow of the Twain Lite is studded with the classic set of 4 webbing loops to facilitate lashing down kit. The extended bow creates room for shuttling your steel pony while bikerafting. While the attachment is secure, we did find that the more narrow bow doesn’t provide as much real estate as something like the squared-off nose and larger tubes of the Alpacka Caribou, another uber-popular bikerafting boat.

If you’re looking for a load-hauling water shuttle (that’s still dang fun to paddle on its own), the Twain Lite is ready to saddle up.

This souped-up version of Kokopelli’s best-selling Rogue packraft twists the knob a bit further with the addition of a removable spray deck. Designed as the do-it-all packraft, the Rogue R-Deck ($1,199) lives up to the claim in our opinion.

Built on the Rogue chassis, this boat is still made from the same 210-denier TPU hull and tough Kevlar Aramid-nylon blend floor. When we paddled it for the first time on Washington State’s Skagit River, we were thankful for the burl floor as we skittered past woody strainers.

In terms of industry counterparts, this boat lands about into the same niche as the Alpacka Refuge: a lightweight and packable boat that lends itself to moving across broad swaths of landscape. The Rogue R-Deck doesn’t come standard with a TiZip like the Refuge does, but it is available as an add-on.

For full-fledged rowdy water paddling, you’ll want a spray skirt to keep water from topping your boat. The lightweight Alpine Ultralight Sprayskirt from Kokopelli makes an excellent companion for occasional splashes.

We don’t know where Kokopelli is getting their mondo-sized paper towel rolls, but we found their packed-size claim to be a smidge exaggerated. Maybe they’re just better at rolling than us. That said, the packed size and weight are still impressive for a boat of this caliber.

Being able to strip the skirt from this raft is truly a joy, and we’ve used it to paddle alpine lakes one day and suit up for Class II runs the next. The flexibility of the Rogue R-Deck makes it a packraft for those who want to run most everything without swapping boats.

It may not be the sleekest boat on the water, but we’ll say this: you’re 100% more likely to catch fish if you’re aboard the Klymit Lite Water Dinghy ($200). At least that’s how it felt last August as we plied the dropoffs of Upper Eagle Lake — a zone we otherwise wouldn’t have been able to access.

This ultra-light, -packable, and -cheap packraft settles in somewhere between a high-end pool toy and packraft wanna-be, but despite looks, we found it to be an admirable paddler on flat water. And there’s no denying the access it provides the eager angler.

Made of a 210-denier polyester, this raft eschews the common TPU-coated nylon for its build, as well as any conventional packraft shape. The arrow-shaped design enhances tracking, though only so much. This is still a wiley boat to paddle.

Because the boat is reversible, the seat sits in the middle of the tubes, and while this improves paddler positioning, it doesn’t leave much tube height to avoid getting swamped. It’s best to be content getting a little wet when using the LWD.

Speaking of the seat, we were impressed to find an inflatable seat integrated into the LWD — something that other lightweight boats like the Uncharted Supply Co Rapid Raft or Alpacka Ghost go without. Paddled side-by-side we found a much colder backside in these boats versus the LWD.

What’s the best packraft? The one you’ve got with you. And at a featherlight 2 pounds, 12 ounces, the Klymit Lite Water Dinghy goes dang-near anywhere.

At 3 pounds, 12.8 ounces, the Alpacka Scout ($750) is among the flagships 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.

The Scout can also be fitted with a TiZip for a little extra cash. We highly recommend this option if you are planning to use it on the river for shuttling your kit around.

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 6-pound Kokopelli Rogue-Lite ($899) boasts an inflatable seat and extremely robust construction for both flat and mild whitewater — and more room than the Scout.

Light on both the back and the wallet, the Kokopelli Hornet-Lite ($550) makes an excellent packraft for those who are looking to break into the sport, or want another raft for plunking around on backpacking trips.

At 5 pounds, 3 ounces, the Hornet-Lite won’t weigh you down too much at all, which it accomplishes by using a 70-denier TPU in the tubes and a 210-denier in the floor. We will note that while the Hornet does have a seat, it isn’t compatible with any of the backbands that Kokopelli offers on their other packrafts.

Compared to the Rogue-Lite, this boat offers many of the same features, but at a significantly lower price ($899 vs. the $550 of the Hornet-Lite). The flip side is going to be durability, as the 70-denier material of the Hornet will decidedly keep you out of anything in a river for fear of a puncture.

But for paddling around a lake after rucking in? The Hornet-Lite is keen on it.

GearJunkie is lucky to play host to a number of packrafters — from the packraft-curious to paddling fiends. Two such experts are Chelsey and Jason Magness, who completed an early descent of the now-classic Little Nahanni River to access the Cirque of the Unclimbables in 2005.

The ensuing expedition also became the first ascent of Lotus Flower Tower without using air to access the Cirque, and the possibilities of using packrafts to access deep locales opened up. Since that first introduction, packrafting has changed our relationship with the outdoors more profoundly than many other pieces of gear.

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.

In order to test a boat’s meddle, we paddled them in all kinds of conditions and water types — from rucking them into high alpine lakes to running swollen Class II-III Cascadian rivers. We paid special mind to ease of packing, paddling ability, storage options, and durability.

With packrafting still growing as a sport, we’ll continue to inflate the best-of-the-best and add them here if we think they’ve made the cut. If you’re looking to paddle something with a bit more structure, check out our best kayak or paddleboard reviews.

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.

Like other watercraft, packrafts are also designed to be either generalists or specialists in their respective uses — from big whitewater boats to plunk-around and paddle crafts — and a number of different levers can be pulled in fine-tuning a boat, from tube size to material thickness to bow and stern shape. Choosing which packraft is right for you will require some consideration of exactly how you want to use it.

The Casual Paddler: For the packrafter looking for a little of everything, finding an even-keeled boat is all about balancing ability and packability. Typical tube material denier lands around 210-420, with floors often being a thicker 840D. Most material will be TPU, which packs down smaller than the PVC used on cheaper boats. Finally, look for a boat that offers the adaptability you’ll want for different types of paddling. Whitewater decks can be ordered as removable, which is a huge plus for easy lazy-river drifting.

The Kokopelli Rogue R-Deck is an inflatable Swiss Army knife, amenable to everything from flat water cruising to dipping your toes into Class I and II white water when you’re ready to crank the dial a bit. And if the Rogue is a multitool, then the Alpacka Expedition is a hammer — capable of throwing down in turbulent water and being saddled up with a load of kit.

The Whitewater Hound: Time to get rowdy. Paddling a packraft through heavy water can be an absolute hoot, but you’ll need a rig that can stand up to the abuse. For those looking to get pitted, consider the spray-decked and self-bailing options available. The former will provide a drier and warmer ride when paired with a whitewater skirt, while the latter is much easier to jump in and out of. You’ll also want to ensure your ride has a solid set of thigh straps installed, which gives you much more leverage over your boat in unsteady water. Finally, aim for a more rockered bow with larger (11″+) tubes that help your packraft punch through holes.

When the time comes to ride some whitewater, we almost always reach for the high-volume Alpacka Gnarwhal — a raft that seems to levitate over deep holes and sucking backwaters. For adventures that are further afield, the Alpacka Expedition tightens the belt a bit to save a pound without sacrificing much ability.

The Backcountry Hunter and Fisher: When a fully dressed moose can weigh north of 500 pounds, you’re going to need the big rig of the packrafting world to ruck it out. Packrafts have been used successfully in deep backcountry hunts for years, and anyone aiming to bring one along should look for a boat that has max loaded capacity above whatever you’re looking to pack out (plus yourself). A 400-pound limit will typically carry smaller game like deer and sheep, while a 500 to 750-pound limit will carry larger game like caribou and elk. The Alpacka Forager is the ultimate in big-game packrafting, while the Alpacka Mule and Caribou offer a mid-size and ultralight option to fill out your quiver.

Anglers, on the other hand, don’t need as much space to pack out their quarry, and should instead aim for a raft that’s both burly and lightweight and provides extra space for storing tackle and rods. For stalking fish around low-land lakes and rivers, the 1,000D PVC of the Kokopelli XPD shrugs off errant hooksets, and the Kokopelli Twain Lite offers up an extended bow for extra storage. For high-alpine endeavors, opt for a lightweight boat such as the ~4-pound Uncharted Supply Co Rapid Raft or even more packable Alpacka Scout.

The Long-Distance Traverser: We get it — you’re an old hand at this packrafting thing, and you probably already know the drill: Go light, go capable, go far.In the past, you had to choose which side of the weight issue your boat was going to lean toward. Utilizing lightweight materials such as 210D TPU will aid in keeping your overall packed size and weight down. A smaller boat will also accomplish the same goal.

New-generation boats like the Alpacka Whitewater Refuge are changing the game when it comes to paddling bigger and more remote whitewater — bringing the full-complement of whitewater rigging to a 7-pound-out-the-door boat that has no problem paddling Class III water. If you’re up against simple water crossings, the Alpacka Scout or the even lighter (and fragile) Alpacka Ghost are excellent options.

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.

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.

Many 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. While early packrafts utilized cheaper Boston valves, many new packrafts incorporate modern whitewater rafting valves, such as the Leafield D7.

Besides pump sacks, there are other mechanical methods for inflation that can greatly speed up your deployment time. The Pack-A-Pump ($65) from Alpacka Raft is a plunger-style inflator that works specifically with Alpacka’s proprietary valves, or you could go electric with the Feather Pump ($50) from Kokopelli.

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.

There is a balance between being too low in a boat, where the paddling position suffers, and too high, where gravity begins to take over and pull at you. Experiment by trying different seats and modifying the stack height with pieces of foam, or even adding another seat entirely.

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 “packraft roll.”

Basic thigh straps connect at two points within the packraft — at the ankles and beside the hips — and provide a moderate amount of stability. Advanced, or high-performance, thigh straps add two additional attachment points at the knees to increase the force distribution.

Many rafts are set up to run thigh straps, while others might be retrofitted to accept them. Note that adding additional straps can increase the entrapment hazard, and learning how to properly escape from your boat is necessary. Straps like the Alpacka DIY Thigh Strap Kit or Kokopelli 3-Point Thigh Strap Set are great options.

One of our tester’s first expeditions saw strapping 40-pound packs to the bow of the boats, and another 20-pound dry bag full of climbing gear at their 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.

Self-bailing packrafts borrow from the whitewater rafting world, and feature a bottom with holes in it that allows water to pass through the boat. There will also typically be an inflatable seat that might span the length of the cockpit, in order to keep the paddler drier.

A closed deck design is preferable for colder-water paddling, when keeping as much water out of the boat as possible is ideal. These designs also provide a bit more structure to a boat, and add durability when strapping equipment like bikes down to the deck.

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, with a piece of PEX 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.

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.

Looking for more time on rivers and less on lakes? A basic self-bailer or decked boat (Alpacka Classic Series, or the Kokopelli Rogue) handles 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 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. The Kokopelli Recon can fit this niche too for a budget option, but what you save in dollars you pay for in weight.

We’re not going to 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 at 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, 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.

Some packrafts, like the Alpacka Expedition or the Gnarwhal, are available in a number of different sizes, while the majority of rafts on the market are of the one-size-fits-most variety. These boats will often instead utilize an adjustable backband and seat set-up to allow for some adjustability.

Still needing to take up some space at the end of your raft? Using a commercial brace like the Whitewater Foot Brace from Alpacka Raft can be an excellent way to take up some slack, though we’ve also seen paddlers using everything from yoga blocks to beach balls.

The weight weenies among us like 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 40L 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 a dry one can be up to several pounds!

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 the 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. We’ve paddled the Alpacka Scout (250-pound limit) with two adults plus gear (300+ pounds.) in nonideal conditions so many times, we’ve lost count.

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

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.

Choosing a packraft boils down to where you land on the raft weight vs. ability scales. Because all packrafts should have some level of inherent packability, consider the types of places you’d like to go first when seeking out a packraft.

In general, there are three types of packrafts: Lightweight and packable, whitewater boats, and tandem packrafts. If alpine lakes and the occasional river crossing is your thing, check out a boat like the Uncharted Supply Co Rapid Raft or Alpacka Ghost, or Alpacka Scout.

If you’d like to up the ante and push into more turbulent waters, a capable whitewater boat like the Alpacka Expedition or Kokopelli Recon will get you there. And if you’re looking to haul an extra person along, a boat like the Kokopelli Twain or Alpacka Forager fits the bill.

Most commercial packrafts will be made from TPU-coated nylon, which is a thermoplastic polyurethane-covered fabric that is tough, airtight, heat-sealable, and UV-resistant. Because this material can adhere to itself through heat, this allows manufacturers to create strong bonds without gluing or sewing.

There are some boats on the market, like the Kokopelli XPD, that use PVC, or polyvinyl chloride, as their main material. These fabrics are tough and can resist a hard day on the river, though they will pay for the durability in bulk and weight.

Watercraft paddles can be separated into two categories: those for use in low-angle, or high-angle paddling. Typical sea kayak paddles are built for low-angle paddling, where fatigue reduction is prioritized. These are often 200-220 cm long.

Whitewater paddles, on the other hand, are built for strong strokes, and often sport wide blades to better move water. These paddles are shorter, often in the 195-205 cm range. Most packrafters would be well suited with a whitewater paddle, though your packraft use will dictate your paddle choice.

You should sit with an athletic stance in a packraft, with your legs touching the end of the boat and your knees bent. Snug your backband up so that it supports you in place. Your seat should elevate you enough that you are in the proper paddling position.

A proper paddling position will allow you to better control your packraft, moving the boat around you and putting it on edge in the water.

Self-bailing packrafts incorporate holes in the floor of the raft that allows for water to pass through the boat once it enters the cockpit. These boats won’t have a whitewater deck, and will use a seat to keep paddlers up and out of the water as much as possible.

A self-bailer will be better for warmer water paddling, however, you’ll likely still want a drysuit, since the chance of getting wet is high.

Looking to invest in a standup paddleboard but don’t know where to start? Check out our list for the best paddleboards of 2023.

We tested and reviewed the best dry bags of 2022, including the YETI Panga 75 Dry Duffel and top picks from SealLine, NRS, and more.

buyer’s guidecomparison chartFAQAlpacka Whitewater RefugeWeightLoad capacityPacked sizeWater ratingMaterialAlpacka Expedition TiZipAlpacka ExpeditionWeightLoad capacityPacked sizeWater ratingMaterialThe XPDKokopelli’s Rogue-LiteTwain raftsFeather Pumpinflation bagKokopelli XPDWeightLoad capacityPacked sizeWater ratingMaterialAlpacka GnarwhalGnarwhalAlpacka WolverineWeightLoad capacityPacked sizeWater ratingMaterial Klymit V SeatKlymit LWDAlpacka GhostRapid RaftWeightLoad capacityPacked sizeWater ratingMaterialAlpacka Whitewater Refuge Kokopelli Rogue R-DeckScoutWhitewater RefugeAlpacka ClassicKokopelli NirvanaWeightLoad capacityPacked sizeWater ratingMaterialAlpacka GhostScout GhostWeightLoad capacityPacked sizeWater ratingMaterialKokopelli ReconReconWeightLoad capacityPacked sizeWater ratingMaterialAlpacka ForagerKokopelli Twain Forager RangerWeightLoad capacityPacked sizeWater ratingMaterialKokopelli Twain LiteAlpacka CaribouTwain Lite WeightLoad capacityPacked sizeWater ratingMaterialRogue R-DeckAlpacka RefugeAlpine Ultralight Sprayskirt Rogue R-DeckWeightLoad capacityPacked sizeWater ratingMaterialKlymit Lite Water Dinghy Klymit Lite Water DinghyWeightLoad capacityPacked sizeWater ratingMaterialAlpacka ScoutWeightLoad capacityPacked sizeWater ratingMaterialKokopelli Hornet-Litebest kayakThe Casual Paddler:The Whitewater Hound:The Backcountry Hunter and Fisher:Alpacka MuleCaribouKokopelli Twain LiteThe Long-Distance Traverser:Kokopelli XPDRapid RaftLeafield D7Pack-A-PumpFeather PumpFeather Pump Alpacka DIY Thigh Strap Kit Kokopelli 3-Point Thigh Strap SetRapid Raft Kokopelli Alpine Spray SkirtKokopelli XPD PackraftAlpacka ExpeditionKokopelli NirvanaGnarwhalWolverine Kokopelli ReconKokopelli Rogue Lite PackraftKlymit LWDAlpacka ExpeditionGnarwhalWhitewater Foot BraceKokopelli ReconAlpacka ScoutKokopelli Twain LiteTemper your boat:Learn to field repair your boatSlow down on the paddle strokes:Uncharted Supply Co Rapid RaftAlpacka GhostAlpacka ScoutAlpacka ExpeditionKokopelli Recon Kokopelli Twain Alpacka ForagerKokopelli XPD