As Scott Bosse launched his packraft in Youngs Creek, it felt as if gravity disappeared.
“I find it tremendously liberating,” Bosse said of packrafting.
For the previous day and a half, Bosse and a group of five other packrafters had been lugging 50-pound backpacks up and over Youngs Creek Pass to access the Bob Marshall Wilderness and eventually reach Youngs Creek, a tributary of the South Fork Flathead River.
Along with tents, sleeping bags, food and other typical backpacking gear, each person in the group also carried a packraft, a small, packable, inflatable single-person raft.
When they reached a spot on Youngs Creek where the water began to look high enough to float, they all set down their packs, rolled out their rafts, inflated them and began their 45-mile float that would take them down the South Fork to Meadow Creek Gorge.
Packrafting isn’t new; in fact it’s been around for centuries, but it is seeing a boom in popularity.
“I would say it’s exploding,” said Brad Meiklejohn, president of the American Packrafting Association.
The APA has more than 1,000 members. About a year ago, its membership was half that.
Packrafting offers a different way to look at backcountry travel.
“Who thought you could ever have a boat in your pack that weighed less than five pounds,” Meiklejohn said.
For most backpackers, lakes and creeks are barriers, said Bosse, who works as Northern Rockies director for American Rivers in Bozeman. The opposite is true for rafters and kayakers, for whom land is a barrier.
“In the wilderness, you either travel by land or you travel by water,” Bosse said. “With a packraft, you can do both.”
Packrafts also allow adventurers to float wilderness rivers without needing a pack string to carry a full-sized raft, said Jared White, the Wilderness Society’s regional communications manager in Bozeman.
“It just seems like it’s been the best new invention/technology for wilderness travel that I’ve seen in my lifetime,” White said.
While the idea of carrying a small boat to be able to cross rivers and lakes dates back to native cultures around the globe, the more modern resurgence of packrafting got its start in Alaska.
“The roots of packrafting are a little hazy but go back quite a ways,” Meiklejohn said. “Here in Alaska, they’re ideal for our country.”
With few roads in the state and a lot of rivers, backpackers inevitably will run into a big body of water.
“If you don’t have a boat, that’s the end of the trip,” said Meiklejohn, who lives in Eagle River, Alaska.Meiklejohn started packrafting almost 20 years ago.
“I came to this from a backpacking background,” he said. “I just needed some way to get across rivers.”
“That’s what’s particularly appealing about these boats is they really open up entire landscapes,” he added.
Initially, Meiklejohn’s solution was kiddie pool toys. Usually he could get those to last about a week, patching them each time he hit a stick or rock in the river and ripped a hole in the plastic.
“If I treated it really carefully I might milk it through a whole trip,” he said.
In the ’80s, a couple of companies released packrafts, but they were designed for lakes and weren’t durable enough for rivers, said Sheri Tingey, owner of Alpacka Rafts, a Colorado-based company that makes packrafts.
“The thing with (those) was it was not if you’re going to sink, it was when you’re going to sink,” Tingey said.
Tingey was inspired to start her own packrafting company after her son took a lake-designed packrafts on a river trip in Alaska.
“They didn’t really float as much as they swam for two and a half weeks,” she said.
The following summer, a different raft didn’t hold up any better.
“When he got back from that trip, he said, ‘Can you build me a boat that works,’ and like a fool, I said, ‘Yeah, I can do that.’ ”
Tingey, who worked making ski clothes and other outdoor gear, spent that winter designing a lightweight packable boat made to float a whitewater river.
In 2001, she decided to launch Alpacka Rafts.
The rafts are designed to be lightweight and easy to carry, but also capable of tackling major rapids.
“People are using these boats in Class IV and V whitewater,” Meiklejohn said.
Packrafts are also great for families doing front-country floats because they’re so light and easy to carry.
White likes to take his packraft on nearby rivers for quick, easy floats.
“A roadside river can be a great thing to do in a packraft after work,” he said.