Pack it, packable boats

Packable Crafts for any Paddling Mission

That innate desire to get up and move won't stop nagging. And that need to venture across the water, to chase the next horizon, often extends far past the reach of your primary car-topped craft.

Rack and roll only gets you so far, and when your paddling plans take flight, you need a boat that can do the same. That means a packable boat that has the necessary performance and carrying capacity when you put it back together and strike out to explore exotic waters.

Fortunately, manufacturers have utilized new materials, honed time-tested designs and developed some crafty new options for you prodigal paddlers, whether the purpose of your dream trip is to log ocean miles, stalk rare fish or paddle wilderness rivers.

Packable boats can be divided into two very broad categories: inflatable or skin-and-frame. Which is best for you depends on your trip needs. Determine your handling and hauling requirements, your budget and your tolerance for weight and assembly time, then choose a boat and fly away. Whether your next long-range trip involves a couple hours of trade-show hooky or a seaplane pickup in Punta Arenas, there's a packable craft for any mission. – Dave Shively

Pack it, packable boats

TRAK Kayaks T-1600
$3,399 in anodized aluminum and welded polyurethane
L: 16'; W: 22.5"; 48 lbs.

The first time you punch a wave sprinting out of the surf zone in TRAK's one and only T-1600, you're not exactly sure what to expect. It's hard to believe that this sleek sea kayak–with an aluminum endoskeleton that pops together like tent poles–tracks and responds in these conditions like a composite boat of the same dimensions. Especially considering that 20 minutes ago, it was packed inside a rolling package that looks to airport gatekeepers like a 63-pound golf bag. Trak claims a seasoned user can assemble the boat in 10 minutes. The crux of this assembly is three hydraulic jacks (adjustable on the fly, from the cockpit) that tension the bow and stern frame sections, drawing the urethane-coated nylon skin extremely taught. One of the jacks along the keel allows the paddler to adjust the rocker from inside the cockpit, while gunwale jacks on either side provide lateral curvature which can be fine-tuned in lieu of a skeg. The company says the jacks have a 99 percent tolerance, and for the hefty price tag, they probably should. The Calgary, Alberta-based manufacturer, founded by Gord Espeseth, a Saskatchewan bush pilot looking for the right foldable to fit on his Twin Otter, is now entering its second year of production and offers a five-year warranty on the boats. The space-saving and assembly ease also means fairly Spartan outfitting, but discriminating sea paddlers will be hard pressed to find a packable kayak that comes close in handling performance.

Pack it, packable boats

Alpacka Raft Yukon Yak
$790, $990 with spray deck, in polyurethane-coated nylon
L: 5'10"; W: 38" with 12" diameter tubes: 4 lbs., 11 oz.,
with optional spray deck (8 oz., $200, pictured) and optional
inflation bag (3 oz., $15)

Ever gazed longingly at that 9-by-14-inch rectangular space? You know, the carry-on measurement at the airport security line, where your paddling daydreams can be interrupted by TSA personnel disrobing and wanding you at will. Snap out of it already and carry on an Alpacka Yak. In the age of Ziploc-baggied toiletries, the minimalist has no better option for packing a worthy multi-purpose ride. Since 2002, the Mancos, Colo.-based company has improved its Yukon Yak, and gear-hauling folks from the backcountry fringe to canyoneering expeditions have picked up on Yak durability (stitched, taped and welded seams) and gear-hauling versatility that packs smaller than most two-person tents (stuffs in 9-by-24-inch sacks) let alone seat back floatation devices. With a larger stern and improved deck for '09, the Yak can run big water (check out YouTube if you need convincing). Alpacka's Andrew Mattox reports a clean run though Hermit on the Grand Canyon, but remember: there's no immersion-proof skirt, no self-bailing and no way to roll. It paddles like neither raft nor kayak. Once you get in and stop giggling, you quickly pick up the short strokes to power this snug, super-responsive, seemingly weightless craft back to civilization.

Pack it, packable boats

Feathercraft K1 Expedition
$4,560 in anodized aluminum/magnesium alloy and welded
Dura-Tech polyurethane hull/Poly-Tech urethane-coated deck,
L: 16'6"; W: 25"; 51 lbs.

With Feathercraft's classic K1 Expedition, you never forget your first time. In assembly, that is. The 20 pages of necessary instructions, 30 separate pieces, and the concept of using the stern deck bars to lever the frame into the burly urethane skin can easily chew up a couple of hours. But stick with it—the color-coded pieces fit together as easily as your average IKEA dresser (hint to our male readers: read instructions first), and the reward is a comfortable and capable ride. The Expedition provides excellent stability (due in part to integrated inflatable sponsons) in a time-tested design. Doug Simpson developed the design 30 years ago after remote prospecting trips into the Yukon. The boat has seen some updates since then, (most recently a built-in coaming) as well as some of the harshest expedition miles on record, from Cape Horn to the Aleutians. The flip-up "surf rudder," cockpit-enclosing sea sock, handy dual hatches and plenty of storage throughout six sections of the boat (385-pound max load) make it an ideal extended ocean tour option that packs neatly into a rugged 55-pound backpack. Plus, Feathercraft has the endorsement of folding kayak guru Dubside. Rumor has it that the bearderd one can put his Wisper together in 12 minutes.

Pack it, packable boats

ALLY Canoes/Bergans of Norway 16.5
$1,850 in tubular aluminum and nylon-reinforced PVC,
L: 16'5"; W: 36"; 44 lbs.

For nearly 40 years, canoeists have relied on the dependable folding canoes and lifetime part warranties from ALLY Canoes/Bergans of Norway. If you're going to get one canoe from ALLY—one to take on weeklong overnighters, or, if you have the chops, even Class III-IV whitewater—make it the 16.5. The corrosive-resistant, tubular-aluminum alloy frame was designed with oil exploration in the North Sea in mind, and the sized pieces intuitively form to keep this all-arounder together. First-timers will need about an hour to assemble it, but the steep learning curve soon cuts that to 20 minutes. The closed-cell foam floor keeps knees from getting rubbed raw while providing extra insulation against frigid waters. Our favorite feature? The weight. Forty-four pounds never felt so light, making for prime maneuverability, easy portages and even easier transport when folded down. The PVC skin took the abuse meted out by our local testing ground (the Kern River at unmentionably low levels). Our only concern in the rapids was rigidity. But the boat's flexibility allowed it to ride over waves and made for more resistance against rocks–which we encountered on more than one occasion. Plus, the "Packsacks," available at the company Web site double as boat storage during transport or dry bags when you're on the water.

Pack it, packable boats

Advanced Elements AdvancedFrame
$449, $519 with Backbone, in PVC-coated polyesther,
L: 10'5"; W: 32" with 12" tubes; 36 lbs.

From the salty seas of the Greek coast to the rivers and lakes of Switzerland, if you're looking to pack a do-it-all kayak, the AdvancedFrame from Advanced Elements could be your ride. Somewhere between an inflatable and a folding kayak, the AdvancedFrame features an aluminum-ribbed bow and stern to improve tracking and an adjustable, padded seat. Add the optional "Backbone"–an innovative, collapsible keel bar to improve rigidity—and you create an even more hybridized inflatable-frame mix. Combine a durable, multi-layer PVC hull and a PVC-coated fabric deck with an inflatable combing for a tight sprayskirt seal and you get one of the driest rides in the industry. Need more storage? The AdvancedFrame also boasts a large sealed storage compartment and bungee deck lacing for keeping day-tripping goods within reach. Thanks to an abrasion rail on the bow and a built-in skeg, the AdvancedFrame is faster than you'd expect for an inflatable. Covering distances is no problem, and in capable hands, moderate whitewater is within this boat's performance range. Plus it folds down into a compact, briefcase-style carrying duffel weighing in at 36 pounds (without included pump, but still well under the required weight for flying).

Pack it, packable boats

Airis Angler
$1,699 in PVC layers,
L: 12'; W: 33"; 38 lbs.

New inflatable contender Airis Kayaks entered the paddlesports ring just last year as parent company Walker Bay—known for its injection-molded dinghies—released a pair of inflatable kayak models. This year the Yakima, Wash.-based company adds four more models, including the versatile Angler, a stable, wider-bodied ride for kayak fishermen. Butter-fingered anglers rest easy—the hull and floor are made of seven layers of bomber polymer-coated fabric, which will stand up to all but the most blatant fishook fumbles and gaff gaffes. The patent-pending, award-winning AirWeb construction is reinforced with thousands of polyesther drop-stitch threads, which allows the hull to be inflated to more than 6 psi. That provides plenty of rigidity to get you to the double-secret skinny water of your choice. Not to mention plenty of gear-packing potential with cockpit D-rings galore and integrated bow and stern storage compartments. Standard extras include an aluminum gear mounting platform (with a pair of 360-degree rodholders) that slides into position on convenient accessory mounting rails that run atop the tubes. The whole backpacked version—gear platform, pump, seat and all—weighs in at a mere 38 pounds, and is capable of floating a combined 300 pounds of man, tackle and fish.

Pack it, packable boats

Sevylor Samoa
L: 10'10"; W: 30"; 22.5 lbs.

Remove the spare tire in the trunk of your car and throw in the packed-down Sevylor Samoa backpack. With a few quick lunch-break, calorie-bruning paddles a week on Sevylor's inflatable standup paddleboard, you may end up removing a spare tire of your own. If you're near a body of water, this board provides the perfect packable solution to going from trunk to water in five minutes. Unroll, insert the three fins, pump up the drop-stitch fabric floor, and paddle away. The board can be inflated to more than 10 psi, providing a stable and easy-handling ride on a large EVA foot pad. And with slight bow rocker, the Samoa is very buoyant and capable of catching waves on the fly, though experienced standup surfers used to solid fiberglass or epoxy boards will note rigidity difference when switching stances—especially if they're close to the 250-pound upper weight limit. The advantage is the accessibility to a booming sport for a wide range of skill levels—one C&K staffer even used it to get his two-year-old son on his first wave. Convenient D-rings also allow you to rig cargo to the bow for a day tour.