Raft-Buying 101

Lots of rafts are showing up on Montana’s rivers lately, and with good reason. They’re fun, safe, stable, and take you places with friends. With all the choices out there, let’s take a look at what fits for our rivers. Start by asking yourself what you want to do: mostly fish, mostly run whitewater, mostly camp, or just day float for recreation? Your answer will help you hone in on a boat that best suits your specific needs.

Rafts are the mules of the river—not necessarily pretty, they carry a lot of weight and are roomy and stable. They are the safest things on the water and for a family that should bring peace of mind. For maneuvering on shallow, fast rivers, rafts in the 12’ to 14’ range with a rowing frame are hard to beat. A self-bailing floor is ten times more practical than a standard raft floor and makes your raft completely user-friendly. You can walk and pack on a self-bailing floor and you can fish, camp, sightsee, or run whitewater all from your raft—no other platform is as versatile for beginner and intermediate river runners. It takes less experience to handle problems in the river with rafts than with other crafts. A day with a friend who’s got good rowing and river-reading experience is invaluable and will shortcut you to being more ready yourself. With some time and experience, rafts will take you further in the river world with a trunk full of camping gear, which opens up a whole new world of possibilities.

What to Buy?
As usual these days there are too many choices, so I’ll build the pool for 90% of you. First decide on boat style and size, then material choices. Do you want a round boat or a cataraft, and should it be made of Hypalon or PVC materials? Round boats are a better choice for most river runners. They carry more cargo more easily because you have a full floor to pack off of and more surface area to pack on. Round boats are also easier to move around in. On the other hand, catarafts generally leave you stuck in your seat. On the water, catarafts are always wetter rides, so you have to dress accordingly. If two-person whitewater trips are your main reason for hitting the river, then catarafts offer a nice, sporty ride. Still, by far the biggest crowd opts for round boats.

Size is pretty easy to sum up. Three people or less can make 12-13 footers work for fishing or three- to four-day trips. You’ll need 14-15 footers for four or more people and those week-long trips. The 14- and 15-foot boats offer much more interior room for packing and for bodies lounging around on the slower portions of your favorite river. The bigger boats are also wider, so in whitewater the flippiness variable is decreased. Swimming next to a flipped raft and working to get it upright is something you don’t practice until it happens, and having a wider boat means it happens less.

Frame It Out
The right frame on your boat makes or breaks its friendliness toward packing gear and fishing. A fishing frame should be your choice if you’re fishing most of the time, because it makes casting easier and spaces the casting bodies at an optimal distance from each other. An anchor system also helps fishermen slow down or stay put while working the water. Check out the Northwest River Supply Fishing frame with a rear seat mount and anchor mount ($905) or the Downriver Equipment San Jan frame ($1395).

You may choose an expedition cargo frame or a combo frame that acts as a cargo frame but has quick-addition front- and rear-casting platforms for fishing as well. Your frame makes or breaks your days on the river, and all frames can be customized, so shop carefully. As a rule, fishing frames don’t make good cargo frames and vice versa.

As for fabric, Hypalon and PVC have their pluses and minuses but both are good. Hypalon has been around forever and is a proven performer. Outfitters have bashed up Hypalon boats for over 30 years and still seem to favor them, but PVC boats now have outfitter logos as well. Hypalon is more expensive and has to be glued, so most are made out of the country because they are labor-intensive and use many solvents. PVC seems to be as tough and actually is more rigid when inflated, so many argue that PVC has a performance edge. That said, a PVC boat rows more like a rigid hull. PVC boats are not glued; rather, they are thermal welded, so they can be made easily in the U.S. without toxicity issues. Both materials seem to be top performers and will give years of service.

How Much, Already?
Well, you can think about air miles when you buy a raft or raft package. A good 12’ Hypalon or PVC boat starts at about $2,000 for a self-bailing model and in a 13’-14’ range your choices will run $2,500 to $4,500 depending on the options included in boat construction. You’ll spend another $800 to $2,000 in frames and accessories to finish out your floating campsite or whitewater tamer.

Whichever you choose, rafting has a way of changing your life. It opens up a whole new set of highways that you can only float down.

Mike Garcia is the owner of the Northern Lights Trading Co. and an avid river runner who has logged over 20,000 river miles on a couple of continents. You can find him on the river or at The Barn, 406-585-2090.

Boat-Buying Resources

There’s a lot of water in this land-locked state of ours. Here’s our list of places that’ll float your boat this season.

The Barn
83 Rowland Road
Bozeman, MT 59718
(406) 585-2090

Yellowstone Drifter Boat Co.
126 W Rosebud Ave.
Belgrade, MT. 59714-4370
(406) 388-8077

The Bozeman Angler
23 E Main Street
Bozeman, MT 59715
(406) 587-9111

The River’s Edge
2012 N 7th Ave
Bozeman, MT 59715
(406) 586-5373

Montana Boatbuilders, Inc.
29 Pine Meadow Road
Livingston, MT. 59407

Greater Yellowstone Flyfishers
29 Pioneer Way
Four Corners, MT.
(406) 585-5321

Big Sky River Sports
222 S Broadway
Belgrade, MT. 59714-3911
(406) 388-6410

Osprey Drift Boats
3331 Yellowbell Road.
Bozeman, MT. 59715-9361

Townsend Marine
7812 Highway 287 South
Townsend, MT. 59644-9707
(406) 266-5700

Kirkwood Resort & Marina
11505 Hebgen Lake Road
West Yellowstone, MT. 59758-9755
(406) 646-7200

-Ada Montague