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Water Sports

Start Packrafting Now With This Best-in-Class Gear

Not satisfied with stopping at the river’s edge? Unlock new wilderness with this lightweight waterfaring setup.

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Featherweight Packraft: Alpacka Raft Scout

  • Price: $695
  • Weight: 3 lbs. 8 oz.
  • Buy Now

Weighing only 3.5 pounds and rolling up to the size of a packed one-person tent, the Scout is the perfect introductory craft for new packrafters. While other packrafts have more whitewater cred with spray skirts and thigh straps or feature extra carrying capacity, they can also weigh two to three times as much. Despite its small stature, the Scout is more than capable of handling Class I and II rapids and most canyoneering trips thanks to added air volume in the bow and stern. With some practice, you can fill the Scout in about five minutes using the included inflation bag. A durable, 420-denier nylon floor protects against rocks. No packraft will track as straight as a slender kayak on flat water, but we found that easy to forgive when we paddled to an island campsite on Washington’s Ross Lake after an 11-mile approach hike. One concern: With a 250-pound carrying capacity, the Scout isn’t a great choice for larger paddlers or gear-heavy trips.

Breathable PFD: Astral EV-Eight Life Vest

  • Price: $135
  • Weight: 1 lb. 5 oz.
  • Sizes: unisex S/M-L/XL
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The EV-Eight stands out for one reason: comfort. This perennial favorite for all-purpose boating positions the flotation foam at shoulder blade-height, which prevents paddlers from knocking into their seat back. It’s also excellent at shedding heat during hot-weather trips thanks to four mesh-covered vents on the chest and stomach. EVA foam construction brings down weight, and the vest comes in at only 21 ounces (most packrafting vests weigh closer to 30). Two large zippered mesh pockets on the front offer easy access to snacks and sunscreen, while a lash tab on the chest provides a secure attachment point for a river knife, light, or radio. Sizes: unisex S/M-L/XL

Sturdy Paddle: Aqua Bound Manta Ray Hybrid 4-Piece Posi-Lok Kayak Paddle

  • Price: $170
  • Weight: 2 lbs.
  • Sizes: 83-98 inches
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Ounce-counters might be tempted to seek out the lightest paddle available, but we think the Manta Ray Hybrid’s combination of durability and space-saving design is worth the weight. Four-piece construction means you can disassemble it and strap it to your pack. Its carbon shaft reduces weight and increases stiffness, which translates to more efficient paddling. Those attributes came in handy while we negotiated strong eddies in Swirly Canyon, a Class II section of Idaho’s South Fork of the Payette River. Bonus: A breakdown paddle can usually support trekking pole-assisted tarps and tents.

Splash-proof Hauler: ULA Epic Backpack

  • Price: $300
  • Weight: 3 lbs. (M)
  • Sizes: S-XL
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Sure, you can strap packrafting gear to nearly any backpack, but a purpose-built pack like the Epic will handle the extra bulk needed for waterfaring equipment with grace. The Epic couples a sturdy frame (with two removable aluminum stays) with a seam-sealed, 65-liter Big River drybag made by Sea to Summit. Extra packraft carry straps hang from the bottom of the pack, freeing up internal space. Plus, the Epic offers the same features that make ULA a favorite brand among thru-hikers: hipbelt pockets, a choice of J- or S-shaped shoulder straps, and a greater carrying capacity than its simple design suggests (we found it comfy hauling up to 40 pounds). Sizes: S-XL

Quick-Draining Shoe: Merrell Choprock

  • Price: $120
  • Weight: 1 lb. 11 oz. (m’s 9)
  • Sizes: m’s 7-16, w’s 5-12
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On a packrafting trip, wet feet are a fact of life. Forgo any waterproof/breathable footwear and opt for shoes that excel at draining, drying, and handling long days on the trail. The Choprock is a trail running shoe at heart, with chunky 5-millimeter-deep lugs, a rubberized toe cap, and a Vibram Megagrip sole that handled both rocky trails and slippery riverbeds in Oregon’s Eagle Cap Wilderness. But the real magic is in the drainage ports that dot the outsole, designed to shed water and speed the drying process. Combined with a synthetic and mesh upper built for sockless comfort, the Choprock is a stellar choice for inevitably soggy adventures.

Inflation Aid: Kokopelli Feather Pump

  • Price: $50
  • Weight: 6 oz. 
  • Buy Now

Inflating a packraft isn’t as easy as blowing up a sleeping pad. To avoid wasting time and energy wrestling an inflation bag, pick up the Feather Pump. This device is USB-rechargeable, smaller than a can of Spam, and can have a packraft ready to go in under a minute. Five adapters allow you to inflate any brand of watercraft, while a vacuum setting means you can deflate your packraft more completely than by hand, saving pack space. One caveat: Because of its small size, the Feather Pump can’t deliver the air pressure to fully inflate a craft. After the pump does the bulk of the work, you’ll need to top it off with good old-fashioned lung power. 

Stashable Toilet: Cleanwaste Go Anywhere Toilet Kit

  • Price: $35 for a 12-pack
  • Weight: 2.4 oz. (single)
  • Buy Now

Since many river corridors require visitors to pack out all their waste, a WAG bag is essential for
waterfaring travelers. This lightweight offering from Cleanwaste is large enough to provide comfort while you go, and, once sealed, is leakproof. (For extra protection, pair it with a hard-sided container—a footlong section of 6-inch PVC tube with screw-on caps is a popular choice.) The bags are extra thick to prevent unfortunate punctures, and a gelling agent inside helps eliminate odors and convert liquids to solids. Each single-use kit also comes with toilet paper and hand sanitizer. 

River-worthy Shell: Kokatat Paddling Jacket

  • Price: $275
  • Weight: 8 oz. (m’s M)
  • Sizes: m’s S-XL, w’s S-L 
  • Buy Now

This is our top choice for a do-it-all outer layer on the water—protective enough to keep the spray out when things get choppy, but light and breathable enough to serve as your only hardshell on multisport trips. (Bummer: You’ll still want a hood for rainy climates.) Constructed of ultralight Gore-Tex Paclite, it weighs half a pound and packs down to the size of a grapefruit. During a long day of early season paddling on the Pend Oreille River in northern Idaho, we found the adjustable lycra cuffs and collar more comfortable than burlier (but more watertight) latex gaskets found on dedicated whitewater gear, and more splashproof than standard raingear. Another winning feature? A self-draining zippered pocket on the sleeve is perfect for snack access while you’re wearing a PFD.

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