“Packrafts turn the blue lines on maps into trails. A packraft is a gateway tool you can grow with and grow into. It’s a piece of equipment that evolves as your technical skills evolve. Instead of a means to an end, it becomes its own thing.”Luc Mehl, Adventurer
Packrafting Defined: Packrafting refers to the use of small, portable, extremely durable and ultra-light inflatable boats designed to help backcountry adventurers access landscapes they would not otherwise be able to access due to the barrier of water—rivers, lakes, ocean bays and fjords. Packrafts allow explorers to turn the blue lines on maps into trails, thereby linking a landscape’s features in new and novel ways. Technological advances, primarily spearheaded by Alpacka Raft packrafts in Mancos, Colorado, have allowed this activity to become a sport in its own right. You can now bring Alpacka’s rafts on Class V whitewater or self-supported, 12-day Grand Canyon adventures.
“Along with its propulsion system (collapsible paddles) and safety equipment (PFD, clothing, helmet (for whitewater), the entire package is designed to be light and compact enough for an individual to negotiate rough terrain while carrying the rafting equipment together with supplies, shelter, and other survival or backcountry equipment.” (Wikipedia)
To Alaska They Go – Packrafts Make an Appearance at the Wilderness Classic
According to Sheri Tingey, the founder of the leading packraft manufacturer in the world in the world, Alpacka Raft, it took nearly three decades from the time pioneering adventurer Dick Griffith first “packrafted” in Mexico for him to introduce the concept of using inflatable boats for adventuring to Alaska.
“Dick brought those funky little things to the inaugural Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic race in 1982 and blew the minds of the other competitors and the adventure community in general,” Sheri says.
Dick, she adds, competed against legendary Alaskan explorer, then just in his twenties, Roman Dial. Upon reaching the raging Skilak River one evening, Sheri says, Roman and his partner had decided to cross the next morning when less ice melt meant the still-cold (35 degrees) river would at least not be so high. But just then, Dick showed up with a packraft,” Sheri says (July 2017 interview).
“The 1982 Wilderness Classic was meant to be a self-contained, carry-all-your-gear-and-food overland footrace between the Kenai Peninsula towns of Hope and Homer, Alaska, but Dick Griffth and his rubber ducky changed all that. At 55, he caught the front-running racers half his age as they hesitated to swim a swift, wide, and deep glacial river. Here, Dick donned a fuzzy Viking hat, inflated his raft, crossed the river, and passed his youthful competition with the quip, ‘You may be fast, but you young guys eat too much and don’t know nuthin’. Old age and treachery conquer youth and skill any day.’”Roman Dial, “Packrafting: An Intro & How To Guide”
The next leg of the race took the other competitors 15 hours of “thrashing through alders,” wrote Steve Fassbinder in the Adventure Journal (“Hike. Bike. Raft”), “but Griffith covered it in just three, floating happily downstream.” After that inaugural event, Roman explains, the Classic became a packrafting wilderness race, its competitors skilled in backpacking and rafting.
Adopted by the Alaska “Crazies”
Within a couple years, says Sheri, the “Alaska Crazies” (aka hardcore adventurers) had fully adopted the concept of using inflatable rafts to cross rivers, lakes, and other water bodies, either building their own or buying the coveted Sherpa Rafts (a snowshoe company that made lake fishing rafts for one year) or other rafts built by Sevlor or Curtis Designs.
“Sherpa had the idea right,” Sheri explains. “They were way ahead of the others, and almost ten years ahead of themselves. But they didn’t have the tools to manufacture in large quantities.”
About that same time, Thor Tingey, Sheri’s son, began envisioning and embarking on his own Alaska traverses.
Born in Alaska, Made in the USA – The Birth of the Modern-Day Packraft
“One of those early Wildneress Classics came right down by our house in Alaska,” Sheri recalls. “Thor was in grade school at the time. He remembered Roman stashing a bike at our house, and these people coming through. The finish line was just a little ways from the house.”
By the time he was a teenager, Thor would be embarking on his own wild trips across Alaska. He took various rafts, but none survived his adventures. Because Sheri had extensive experience both as an expert kayaker and also as an outdoor industry clothing designer, Thor asked her to design and build him a better boat. So, she did. (Read the Forbes story, “How The Mother-Son Team Behind Alpacka Built Packrafts And Helped Launch A Sport That Didn’t Exist.“)
“In 1996, Roman made an 800-mile, seven-week traverse of the Alaska Range on bikes and rafts, a journey that was covered by National Geographic—and read by Thor, who was inspired to make his own packrafting traverses and eventually founded Alpacka Raft with his mother, Sheri ,” adds Steve.
Thus, Alpacka Raft was born, and the course of packrafting history would be forever changed.