It may look like an inflatable pool toy, but the pack raft, a personal watercraft with roots in aviator survival boats from World War II, is a serious tool for some backcountry explorers. Lightweight and durable, the blow-up boats can weigh as little as three pounds. They roll up and stow small in a backpack. You can trek into the wild and then inflate a pack raft to cross lakes, descend rivers, or paddle the ocean where no other boat could go.
Made by a handful of manufacturers over the years, pack rafts have seen a resurgence among outdoor fanatics. Last summer, on the Arkansas River of Colorado, I joined a pack-rafting group for a two-day trip. We backpacked through trail-less wilderness for about 15 miles before settling down for an overnighter. In the morning, on the shore of the rushing river, we inflated the boats and hopped in. I piloted a Yukon Yak model from Alpacka Raft LLC, a Mancos, Colorado, company that sells top-of-the-line pack rafts.
Alpacka's boats (alpackaraft.com) are quality products, durable and stable in whitewater. I tied my backpack on the front of my Yukon Yak and pushed into the Arkansas's flow. Over the day, I was able to navigate complex whitewater and drop through rapids with ratings up to class IV.
For transport, the Yukon Yak's rubbery bulk packs and rolls to a size not much larger than a football. It weighs four pounds, 11 ounces and is overall a truly amazing and capable little watercraft. Caveat: It's got a huge price tag. The Yukon Yak retails for $790.