By Brandon Sanders, MTI Contributor
As I kissed my wife goodbye and pulled my Alpacka Mule into the river, my buddy looked over at me with an eyebrow raised. “How far have you gone in that thing?” he asked, insinuating that my tried and true packraft wasn’t up for floating the lazy 95 miles down to Shreveport. He was a dyed-in-the-wool kayak fisherman who seriously doubted anything you had to inflate. To him, I was an idiot for trusting anything other than roto-molded plastic from a big box retail store.
He was in for an education.
What is a packraft?
Before we get going, you need to understand what a packraft is. A packraft is an inflatable raft made of highly durable material. Don’t confuse this raft with something you would buy at your local retail store and inflate with a tire pump. This isn’t a pool inflatable.
The packraft was initially invented by a British naval officer, Peter Halkett. He needed a small craft that he could use to explore the Canadian Arctic. Though it worked for him, it was a dismal failure commercially.
However, one hundred years later, they would be included in survival kits for pilots in World War Two. Though they rarely saw any use, this produced a relatively large surplus of them after the war ended. People didn’t take long to start using them in the wild.
Dick Griffith, a godfather of the pack raft community, famously used one in 1982 to cross rivers in the Alaskan Wilderness Classic. An adventure race that traverses some of the most challenging terrains of the 49th state. Seeing his success inspired many to explore what could be done with these small boats.
Today, packrafts are routinely used in the Alaskan wilderness to solve access issues. You can inflate or deflate them with ease. They pack up small enough to be tucked into a compression sack or strapped over the handlebars of a bike. Packrafts are often the key to unlocking otherwise inaccessible parts of the wild.
An “inflation bag” is used to blow them up. An inflation bag consists of a nozzle that screws into your inflation valve attached to a cloth windproof bag that is open on one end. On the open end of the bag are two metal rods that provide some structure for you to grab onto. You pull the bag open, twist the handles, so they close the bag, then squeeze the trapped air into the packraft.
It may seem odd, but it is highly effective at inflating a raft comparable in size to a kayak in a few moments. A quick search online will yield videos of people inflating packrafts in under three minutes. Once the packraft is inflated, you can further “temper” it with a small valve attached to the side of the boat.
How I Found It
Years ago, I bought a dirt bike to help me get into public land hunting and fishing locations. As I accessed them, I noticed lakes, rivers, and creeks inviting fishing spots too deep to wade. I immediately began to scheme ways to get a kayak, canoe, or pirogue into the mountains to exploit these spots.
The issue was trying to get them up the side of a mountain. My only option was to use a dirt bike or to hike them in. Neither was conducive to success. However, the pristine mountain lakes and large pools of rivers were calling my name.
One evening, I was watching an Alaskan moose hunt on YouTube. As I sat wondering how they would get the horrendous amount of freshly killed meat back to their boat, they pulled out a little raft. The show star inflated the vessel in under five minutes using an inflation bag. He loaded up his meat and floated down the tributary he was hunting. I knew I had found the answer to my problem.
I had to have one.
How I’ve Used Packrafts
That was in 2011. These days, I use mine all the time. I generally keep one in the back of my truck so it is ready to go at a moment’s notice. The smaller one of the two can be compressed to the size of a football, so it is never in the way. It is perfect for getting to places that seem inaccessible. Here are a few examples of how I have used mine over the past decade.
Fishing Marshes: The Alabama Gulf
One of the unsung advantages of the packraft is the ability to take it anywhere. When I had to go to the Gulf but couldn’t take a boat, I took my packraft. That allowed me to drive a rental car to the marsh, inflate it, and go fishing. Had I not had the packraft, I would have been forced to rent a boat, kayak, or get a charter. Then I would have paid more and been on someone else schedule and forced into a location. With the packraft, I was in charge.