Paul Forward: On New Forms of Adventuring

Depending on where you live, you may have noticed an increasing number of small colorful inflatable boats on your local waterways. “Packrafting,” as it is commonly called, is a growing sector of the outdoor industry, with new companies popping up and adventurers around the world finding increasingly novel ways to use these little, lightweight boats.

What’s a “Packraft”?

A simple (and accurate) description is that packrafts are ultralight, inflatable kayaks.

The paddler sits in the boat just like in a kayak, then controls and moves the boat using a 2-bladed kayak paddle.

Today, packrafts weigh between 5-13 lbs, and come with a variety of features (that I’ll outline below).

Because they are so lightweight and can be rolled up into a very compact bundle, these boats are ideal for hiking far from the road to access various forms of backcountry water.

For the skiers out there, I think a very apt analogy is that whitewater kayaks are like dedicated alpine ski gear (i.e., inbounds-only skis, boots, and bindings) while packrafts are like rando-race ski gear or lightweight backcountry touring gear.

A Brief History

There is a lot of great reading out there that involves packraft trips, but it’s worth starting with Dick Griffith’s “Canyons and Ice” where he describes using lightweight Army/Air Force surplus survival rafts to hike in and run rivers in Mexico in the 1950’s.

By the 70’s, there was a boat called the Sherpa that Dick Griffith embraced for various forms of wilderness adventure in Alaska. Another, Alaskan adventurer, Roman Dial, noticed Dick’s use of the boats in a wilderness race and started pursuing his own overland/water adventures, mostly in Alaska, which is a place that is quite well suited to long trips using these kinds of boats.

Concurrent with Roman’s interest in the boats, Thor Tingey used a Colorado College grant to traverse Alaska’s Brooks range with a few friends, utilizing cheap little inflatable rafts that he bought at Walmart.

When Thor got home from his trip, he said to his mom, Sheri, that they needed to talk.