Take me to the river.
Last summer, I rented a packraft for a trip down a remote river in northern Montana. After two days of hiking and three days of rafting, I was hooked. Upon returning to civilization, I immediately pulled out maps of Montana and surrounding states and began planning future trips. I quickly discovered that tying together thin blue lines on the map in conjunction with hiking trails opened up near-endless possibilities. The only thing missing was my own boat.
That finally changed this spring when I picked up a Kokopelli Nirvana packraft ($1,450). This sleek boat comes stock-standard in two configurations: self-bailing, and with a spraydeck. I had used a self-bailer on that first trip, but it was the middle of July; the water was warm; the sun intense. My future trips would involve bigger whitewater and colder-season paddling, so I opted for the spraydeck setup. Combined with an Alpine Ultralight Sprayskirt ($60), this setup proved darn-near watertight... until I took a swim.
As far as I’m concerned, there are three criteria that make a packraft worth its weight: ability to handle whitewater, packability, and storage capacity. This boat nails the sweet spot of all three, making it the setup for both weekend trips into the alpine and longer whitewater expeditions. Here’s a more detailed breakdown of what I liked:
My first foray in the packraft was on a moderate section of the Gallatin—Moose Creek to Lava Lake—just to get a feel for the boat. It handled well, was responsive to single oar-strokes, and pounded through smaller waves. I ran the same section of river the next day, with a couple of more-experienced friends. But when we arrived at Lava Lake, where I’d intended to take out and part ways with the group, I was feeling pretty confident, and with a little coercion just kept on going, straight into the Mad Mile.
After running House Rock, I can say with confidence that this boat can handle serious whitewater—without “operator error,” that is—I swam the lower half of the rapid. No problem, though; I scooped my raft downstream, drained it (which took all of five seconds), and hopped back in, humbled but with new knowledge of my limits. The rest of the run was a blast, and I found the boat to be surprisingly playful and maneuverable.
In addition to big water, this craft can handle some awfully skinny stuff, too—mere inches, in fact. That’s something that'll come in handy on a September trip I have planned down the Middle Fork of the Salmon—a stretch notorious for its mosaic of huge rapids and skinny, gravel tail-outs. Knowing the limits of this boat in both directions, I have no qualms that it’ll tackle the Salmon like a champ. I’ll likely break out the Three-Point Thigh Straps ($60) for that trip, too, which lock my legs to the raft tubes, giving me kayak-like maneuverability. Experienced boaters can even roll the Nirvana with this setup.
The beauty of a packraft is that, as the name implies, it packs down small, so you can slide it in your pack, right alongside a few days' worth of gear and provisions. At just over 12 pounds with key accessories (backrest & inflatable seat), this boat is certainly on the heavier end of packrafts, but not enough to make a difference in how I use it. If I’m backpacking over a mountain pass toting five days of food, a paddle, PFD, and helmet, then a few pounds isn’t going to make a difference. In fact, I’d rather have a burlier boat, that I know will handle whitewater and that I don’t have to coddle like a delicate barbie doll. I’m going to abuse this thing, so I need it to be durable.
Storage & Tie-Downs
When I was looking for a boat, weight capacity was on the top of my list. Here’s why: I weigh 180 lbs., a week’s worth of gear and provisions weighs another 60 lbs., which leaves everything else as “beer weight.” Kokopelli claims the Nirvana’s weight capacity is 300 lbs., which by my calculations leaves room for exactly 80 12-oz. beers. That ought to suffice for a river trip.
But in all seriousness, this boat has ample storage room. With a fully-waterproof zipper, everything can be stowed in the tubes themselves: pack it all in (cushion sharp or pointy items), zip it up, then inflate. It’s worth mentioning that this boat has a D7 valve—identical to the ones found on larger rafts, for quick inflation. Or use a Feather Pump ($50), which really speeds up the process. The mini-pump weighs just a few ounces and inflates the boat in less than a minute.
For gear that either won’t fit inside the tubes, or you want easily accessible on the river, there are six external tie-down points built into the boat. To me, that means I can lash on a shotgun, fly rod, or elk antler—even if it’s just for a few minutes to cross a major creek or river.
To sum it up, my decision to get a packraft was well thought-out. They’re expensive, and I wanted something that would suit my needs. The Nirvana fits the bill—but it might not for someone else. Fortunately, Kokopelli has a full lineup of boats, both smaller and larger, to fill a variety of packrafting niches. Check them out at kokopelli.com.