If you have enviously eyed the packable but expensive Alpacka packrafts made in Alaska but just couldn’t commit to the $600-$2,500 price tag, there’s good news.
A 37-year-old British Columbia engineer has designed similar boats out of lightweight materials that he will cut for you. For a much more modest price — ranging from about $129 to $280 depending on the kit — and an investment in sweat equity, you can now build your own packraft for a fraction of what an Alpacka would set you back.
Matt Pope, of Smithers, B.C., came up with the idea for DIY Packraft after enduring similar envy. A geoscientist who also has mechanical engineering training, he doggedly set out in 2015 to create his own boat.
“My best friend and I designed and built sea kayaks when we were 15 and 16, but aside from that, this is my first outdoor gear,” he wrote in an email.
Pope grew up on the West Coast where his family always kept a canoe at the lake next to their house.
“Later, I got into sea kayaking and sailing, and as soon as I was heavy enough I started windsurfing, so I guess I’ve always been drawn to the water,” he wrote. “My family was into hiking, too, and in college I joined an alpine club and started mountaineering. Packrafting ties all these threads together.”
On his website, Pope noted that he spent “hundreds of hours researching, testing materials, and designing and building prototypes” until finally finding a design that he liked. Using 3-D modeling software he devised a boat that uses heat sealing to join the pieces, saving weight yet still maintaining strength.
Deciding that others may be in the same financial fix, he started his website and began selling packraft kits.
“It’s a pretty niche market, so nearly all of my customers find out about the DIY packraft option through the website, or by word of mouth,” he wrote. “A lot of them are like me — they want a packraft but they can’t justify spending a thousand dollars on something they might only use a few times a year, so they’re looking online for a cheaper alternative that won’t sacrifice safety or functionality, and that’s when they stumble across diypackraft.com.”
He won’t disclose the number of sales, but pinpoints on a website map shows that DIY has shipped a lot of boats to Europe, with scattered sales on several other continents including South America and Australia.
To ensure his product stands up to the rigors of the real world, Pope has packed his boat into the trunk of his car for paddling if he’s ever near a lake or river. He takes it on day hikes because it only adds a few pounds to his load.
“It’s fun to paddle in alpine lakes where there’s a good chance no one has ever paddled before,” he wrote.
He’s packed his boat along on multi-day backpacking trips, as well.
“It opens up new route possibilities by changing water from an obstacle into a highway,” he wrote. “There’s a 300-mile trip I’ve been planning for years, and that’s what prompted me to start making packrafts. If I ever get to the point where I can take two months off of work, that’s what I’ll be doing.”
He also uses his boat for what he calls bike rafting.
“A packraft eliminates the need for a shuttle, because you can pack it into a bicycle bag for riding on roads and trails, and then strap your bike over the bow when you’re on the water. I’m lucky enough to live in a scenic valley where I can ride for half an hour to the next town and then spend four hours floating home in class 1 to 3 whitewater.”
Although he admits he’s not much of a whitewater paddler yet, he also likes to take his packraft into the ocean surf to play. And he has a friend who is waiting for him to make a moose boat, one large enough for a hunter to float a big animal out of the backcountry. He said that design is in the works.
It will take time, though, because right now DIY Packraft is a one-man operation based in Pope’s basement. He’d like to see the business grow to where it’s a full-time gig that allowed him to quit his day job, which can take him away from home for weeks.
“If I ever hire an employee, that will be a landmark occasion,” he wrote.
After reading this far, you may be wondering if you have the skills to pull off a boat build. Here’s what Pope had to say about that:
“There’s nothing particularly difficult about it and no special skills are needed, but it does take about 20 hours to complete a kit, so a bit of patience and a willingness to follow instructions are required. There’s no sewing involved — the heat sealable fabrics are welded together with a mini iron, and there’s a bit of gluing here and there. Anyone who enjoys a hobby like woodworking or fly tying or sewing or making model airplanes is more than qualified. It doesn’t have to be a solitary pastime though — I’ve had interest from Scout troops, paddling clubs, and groups of friends who want a fun winter project to work on together over beers. To promote that kind of thing, I offer a discount on group orders over $500.”
Several videos help buyers build their boat and Pope even shows how to build your own iron for sealing the seams.
Just in time for Christmas, you may want to put one of these on your list. Heck, at this price maybe you can afford two.