Choosing a Style of Packraft
Very broadly there are two types of packrafts – those that self-bail and those that do not (standard floor).
A standard floor raft has a floor that is sealed to the outer tubes. Any water that comes in the raft stays in the raft until you stop to bail the excess water out of the craft.
Self-bailing rafts have floors that are wide, flat, inflated chambers approximately 4-5” thick. Or the new versions have the waffle combing floor which makes it quite rigid and tough. The floor usually has drain holes, and these are usually placed where the floor attaches to the outer tubes. This means that the top surface of the floor is above the water, so when water splashes into the raft it flows across the floor, down over the edge of the floor, and out through the holes.
At this point you would be forgiven for thinking that the self-bailing version is better, particularly for whitewater, but contrary to what you may have heard, neither raft is ‘better’ than the other. Instead, they are each uniquely suited to different water conditions, and each have their pros and cons.
Standard packrafts have a higher clearance and a little bit of give in the floor, which can be helpful at low water levels because you can slide over rocks you might otherwise get stuck on with a rigid self-bailing floor. And this type is usually lighter than a self-bailer, making it easier to carry. In flatwater and smaller whitewater ( Class I-II whitewater) o you will actually stay dryer because water does not flow freely at your feet.
Self-bailing pack rafts are easier in some ways as you do not need to empty the water from the boat or bail it out. This is quite useful at higher water levels because any water that splashes in flows out automatically and quickly, keeping you more maneuverable in big rapids, and potentially tracks better than a standard raft.
I have now used both the standard and self-baling versions in smaller and larger whitewater as well as flatwater. As long as the inflatable floor is inserted the self-bailing version works well, but you do get wet. It is really more suited to those trips where the weather and water are warmer, or if you are happy to continually wear a dry suit.
The standard raft is very comfortable and useable in smaller whitewater, lower water and flatwater and moves quite well, responding to commands with ease. If you pair this with a sprayskirt, the boat keeps out a fair bit of water and lets you paddle for longer before you have to bail any water out.
Alpacka introduced the first commercial packraft spray decks in 2004. Today, most quality packrafts intended for whitewater (Class II and above) or for longer days and trips incorporate decks. Decks shed water and prevent it from entering–or even filling–the cockpit. Decks also trap warm air and insulate a paddler’s feet, legs and lower torso.
Fabric decks use waterproof fabric, often secured or fastened around a paddler with velco, cinches, or small inflatable chambers. Flatwater touring decks usually fasten with Velcro to the chambers, and keep most of the water out.
But fabric decks always had downsides, especially in bigger whitewater. There are whitewater style sprayskirts for the standard raft, and these keep a fair bit of water out, but are not completely water tight as yet. They generally fit through a more waterproof style zip, but still have a few entry an d exit points where the water can get in. You may find that on a solid grade 3, that you have added a fair bit of water weight to the boat by the time you get to the bottom of the rapid. The extra weight will compromise the handling of the boat to some extent and you should make sure that you are able to control the beast before deciding to run larger rivers in this style of raft – with our without spray skirt.
There is obviously no point in putting a sprayskirt on the self-bailing packraft, as the water will enter from the bottom anyway. The only benefit, I have found, is to help contain any gear you have stowed in the raft.
So when choosing a packraft, it is wise to consider what you will do most and whether or not you need to have a self bailing version. In most instances the standard version will do everything you want and provide an enjoyable time on the water.
We now have both standard and self bailing style available. The self bailing versions come with a plug so you can close the holes for flatwater paddling. We also have ultra-light versions available. Check out our really competitive prices here