Ultralight packrafts make way for new genre of outdoor adventuring

As Scott Bosse launched his packraft in Youngs Creek, it felt as if gravity disappeared.

“I find it tremendously liberating,” Bosse said of packrafting.

For the previous day and a half, Bosse and a group of five other packrafters had been lugging 50-pound backpacks up and over Youngs Creek Pass to access the Bob Marshall Wilderness and eventually reach the tributary of the South Fork Flathead River.

Along with tents, sleeping bags, food and other backpacking gear, each person in the group also carried a packraft, a small, packable, inflatable single-person raft.

When they reached a spot on Youngs Creek with enough water to float, they set down their packs, inflated their rafts and began their 45-mile float that would take them down the South Fork to Meadow Creek Gorge.

Packrafting isn’t new, but it is booming in popularity.

“I would say it’s exploding,” said Brad Meiklejohn, president of the American Packrafting Association, which has doubled its membership to 1,000 in the past year.

Packrafting offers a different way to look at backcountry travel.

“Who thought you could ever have a boat in your pack that weighed less than 5 pounds,” Meiklejohn said.

For most backpackers, lakes and creeks are barriers, said Bosse, who works as Northern Rockies director for American Rivers in Bozeman. The opposite is true for rafters and kayakers, for whom land is a barrier.

“In the wilderness, you either travel by land or you travel by water,” Bosse said. “With a packraft, you can do both.”

An $800 packraft also allows adventurers to float wilderness rivers without needing a pack string to carry a full-sized raft, said Jared White, the Wilderness Society’s regional communications manager in Bozeman.

“It just seems like it’s been the best new invention/technology for wilderness travel that I’ve seen in my lifetime,” White said.

While the idea of carrying a small boat to be able to cross rivers and lakes dates back to native cultures around the globe, the more modern resurgence of packrafting got its start in Alaska.

“The roots of packrafting are a little hazy but go back quite a ways,” Meiklejohn said. “Here in Alaska, they’re ideal for our country.”

With few roads in the state and a lot of rivers, backpackers inevitably will run into a big body of water.

“If you don’t have a boat, that’s the end of the trip,” said Meiklejohn, who lives in Eagle River, Alaska.

Meiklejohn started packrafting nearly 20 years ago.

“I came to this from a backpacking background,” he said. “I just needed some way to get across rivers.”

“That’s what’s particularly appealing about these boats is they really open up entire landscapes,” he added.

Initially, Meiklejohn’s solution was kiddie pool toys. Usually he could get those to last about a week, patching them each time he hit a stick or a rock in the river and ripped a hole in the thin plastic.

“If I treated it really carefully I might milk it through a whole trip,” he said.

In the ’80s, a couple of companies released packrafts, but they were designed for lakes and weren’t durable enough for rivers, said Sheri Tingey, owner of Alpacka Rafts, a Colorado-based company that makes packrafts.

“It was not if you’re going to sink; it was when you’re going to sink,” Tingey said.

Tingey was inspired to start her own packrafting company after her son took one of those lake-designed packrafts on a river trip in Alaska.

“They didn’t really float as much as they swam for two and a half weeks,” she said.

When he got back from a second trip with another raft that failed, he asked his mom if she could build him a boat that works. “Like a fool,” Tingey recalls, “I said, ‘Yeah, I can do that.’ ”

Tingey, who worked making ski clothes and other outdoor gear, spent that winter designing a durable packable boat.

In 2001, she launched Alpacka Rafts, with models designed to be lightweight and easy to carry, but also capable of tackling major rapids.

“People are using these boats in Class 4 and 5 whitewater,” Meiklejohn said.

Packrafters have done first descents of rivers that otherwise would be pretty hard to get to, he said. Some packrafters can even do an Eskimo roll in a packraft.

Alpacka’s rafts weigh 3.5 to 6 pounds. With the addition of a paddle, helmet and flotation device, the set up adds about 10 pounds to a person’s pack.

Other manufacturers have entered the market with smaller, ultralight and less expensive boats. One company makes a packraft so small that it rolls up to the size of a Nalgene bottle.

“You can roll up a packraft, put it in the overhead bin and fly anywhere in the world,” Meiklejohn said.

White likes to take his packraft on nearby front-country rivers for quick, easy floats.

“A roadside river can be a great thing to do in a packraft after work,” he said.

The first couple of years, 90 percent of the boats Tingey made were sold in Alaska. Now she sells Alpacka packrafts all over the world.

“It’s just been a slow, steady movement,” she said. “It’s never going to be a giant niche. Everybody in the world does not need a packraft. What it is is a wonderful addition to a quiver of boats.”

Over 13 years, Tingey has seen a shift in her customers. Originally, people bought packrafts as a way to get across rivers. They were backpackers, adventure travelers, climbers or mountain bikers who needed a way to access the areas where they wanted to practice their sport.

“They were not water people,” she said. “They were people looking for a way to get across the water.”

That has changed in recent years.

“Now people say, ‘I’m a packrafter.’ They actually plan packrafting trips,” Tingey said. “That’s their sport.”

When White started packrafting three years ago, the sport was fairly unknown in Montana.

“Once upon a time, I couldn’t find anyone to packraft with,” he said.

That’s not a problem anymore.

The rise in the number of packrafters accessing wilderness is something the American Packrafting Association is keeping an eye on.

“We are apprehensive about the flood of packrafters that are headed out into the wild in these boats,” Meiklejohn said.

“Because this is a new use, a lot of land managers are struggling to get their heads around it,” he added.

That’s because outfitted use has dropped as packrafting use has increased.

“Depending on what day people put on, it may look more or less crowded,” said Deb Mucklow, Spotted Bear District ranger on the Flathead National Forest, which manages the South Fork of the Flathead River. “But when we look at the picture as a whole, we’re not seeing an increase.”

River outfitting has been capped on that waterway, and that’s all that was needed previously to keep the popular fishing stream from being overused during the peak July 15-Aug. 5 season.

“But any increase in campsite density or social encounters could trigger consideration of a permit system,” said Mucklow. “It’s really important for us that we maintain that naturalness and wildness for all.”

APA is working to promote safety and conservation ethics.

“We are conservationists,” Meiklejohn said. “We want people to be respectful users when they’re in wild places.”

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