The first rafts used in commercial operations were surplus WWII pontoons used by the Army make temporary bridges. We've come a long way since then, but the basic concept is the same--keep the cargo afloat in a durable,
collapsible package. These days, one ultralight inflatable allows you to hike across two Arctic mountain ranges and then float home; another will carry you, three friends, and 4,000 pounds of gear down the Grand Canyon. There's something in this broad-ranging genre for everyone.
IN THE NEWS
Led by Sotar and now AIRE, the new generation of catarafts have more rocker, or "kick," for improved big-water performance. The ample kick in Sotar's SL series and AIRE's Leopard and Wildcat makes these
catarafts easier to spin; their upturned bow and stern also allow them to ride over waves rather than through them.
Alpacka's ultra-light rafts are entering the mainstream. These 6-foot inflatables pack down to the size and weight of a backpacking tent--just four pounds--yet are capable of carrying a paddler and a full load of backcountry gear through Class IV whitewater. Once a handmade novelty coveted by Alaskan adventure racers, design and production improvements have made the Alpacka widely available, and launched a new trend--backcountry adventures that meld sports like climbing, trekking, and biking with river and lake travel.
Raft design has changed little since the self-bailing revolution of the 1980s, but manufacturers have continued to make improvements in materials (PVC, urethane), construction methods (welded seams, tapered tubes) and variety. This year, proven rafts are available in more sizes than ever, including Star's Waterbug rafts in 11- and 13-foot versions, and a new 16-foot Vanguard, the PSB-1600.
BEFORE YOU BUY
Think about where you will be paddling, how many passengers, and how much gear you need to carry. Rafts are best for a brood with lots of baggage–the bigger the river and the longer your trip, the larger the raft (think of
18-foot Grand Canyon rigs and 12-footers for day trips). Catarafts are high-performance rides, a little more maneuverable than rafts, at the cost of less carrying capacity. Inflatable kayaks, or IKs, are the most varied
inflatable subspecies. Choose between high-performance river craft like the Incept K30X Explore "Sally," which looks and handles like a hard-shell creekboat, expedition-worthy decked sea kayaks like Innova's Seaker, or
lightweight recreational boats like Advanced Elements DragonFly .
Pedal Power to the People
It seems Hobie Kayaks has been quietly fomenting a paddlesports revolution–with its pedal-powered MirageDrive system kayaks, you hardlyeven need a paddle. While that may make paddling's Ancient Regimet a little uncomfortable, it also is pretty useful when fishing, or handling your kayak's sail (yeah, Hobie makes sail attachments for kayaks, too). Hobie now brings the insurgency to the inflatable front with the Mirage i12S
(pictured) and its tandem sibling, the Mirage i14T. Both boats include high-backed seats, rudder, and MirageDrive, and break down to fit into a wheeled duffel about the size of a golf bag. They also come with four-piece paddles--for close maneuvering, and because it is still a kayak.
Fly with the Dragons
Advanced Elements XC and XC2
Advanced Elements inflatable DragonFly XC solo kayak and DragonFly XC2 tandem fold into handy duffels, and weigh in at 17 and 29 pounds, respectively--well under the airline maximum. That's an attractive feature, whether you're a high-roller who wants to see Venice in an all-new way or a regular Joe with a third-floor walkup. The DragonFlys are also the first inflatable rec kayaks with rigid bow and stern panels, which helps them
track straight and slice through the water. Other features include molded handles, deck bungees, and a skeg--all for a price that won't drain your vacation fund.
AireWildcat and Leopard
With a factory staffed with veteran river rats and a headquarters just a short shuttle from Idaho's Payette, AIRE has some of the best brainpower and laboratory facilities in the whitewater world. Both played a role in the redesign of the popular Wildcat and Leopard catarafts. AIRE gave both big cats more kick for better maneuverability and wave punching power, plus enhanced durability with chafe guards–beefed-up material where the frame meets the pontoon. The 13-foot Wildcat is a capable boat for two-person day trips or extended solo missions. The Leopard is AIRE's expedition machine; with 26-inch diameter tubes and fuller ends, this 18-footer can haul more than a ton of people and gear.
Twice the Fun
Sevylor Pointer K2
Sevylor now makes its Pointer K1 inflatable kayak in a tandem version that still features narrow ends and directional strakes for efficient paddling and excellent tracking; a girthy 33-inch beam provides reassuring stability. Covered decks and the included spray skirts make these boats among the driest IKs on the market, and the covered rear cargo hatch and deck rigging give the 14-foot, 4-inch Pointer K2 plenty of carrying capacity for day trips, and even modest overnight adventures. At 41 pounds, you can have that adventure anywhere the friendly skies take you.