What if the trail didn’t stop at the water’s edge? What if all those blue lines on a map were a passage? This is the story of how one small company is redfining adventure by redefining the modern packraft
When Thor Tingey was a student at Colorado Mountain College in 1996 he began applying for adventure grants to fund precarious treks across Alaskan backcountry.
His adventures, like a three month traverse of the Brooks Mountain Range, were inspired by world renowned modern explorer and family friend Roman Dial. They were ambitious, physical, they demanded water crossings, climbing mountains, and a certainly, a sense of humor.
“I met with Roman and he was like, ‘You gotta’ try packrafting, it’s great,’” Thor said from the Alpacka headquarters in Mancos, Colorado.
Dial was talking about a travel method on the fringe of even the wildest adventures, a practice developed by a group in Alaska known as the Alaska Crazies involving a portable, inflatable boat that came out only when needed to let nothing interfere with exploration.
“You can cross mountain ranges, go up and over things and float down the other side,” Dial told Thor.
In all his enthusiasm, Dial included a splash of cold water. “You’ll need a good packraft, but those don’t really exist.”
Thor went on his adventures, learning the hard way what Dial meant. The $80 flimsy boats he got from box stores were no match for the terrain. Even the custom boats he found disintegrated.
Enter Sheri Tingey, an Alaskan hardened Jackson Hole transplant that ran her own ski clothing company for years in Wyoming – and Thor’s mom. She had been sidetracked with health issues, and just about the time she was regaining her health, Thor returned home with a shredded boat. When he left for the mountains (two days after returning from summiting Denali, the highest peak in the United States) his boat was three pounds. He brought to her an unrecognizable pile of patches and duct tape tipping 15 pounds.
“He dumps this thing on my table and says, ‘Mom, can you build me a boat?’”
Across time, young boys are asking their moms to fix their toys, but this wasn’t such a stretch. In fact, it was perfect.
A former ski bum who founded an outdoor clothing company, she knew how to sew. She knew how to glue. She knew fabrics and materials, how to design and she knew something else: Water. Next to winter skiing, kayaking was her summer love.
“It was everything I ever cared about,” she said. “It was water, it was land, it was hiking, it was climbing.”
And she also knew how to run a business.
“Nobody was making packrafts,” she said. “It wasn’t really an idea. It was a concept.”
What happened with thee boats is, you’d get about a mile before your boat blows, so you’d take 12 yards of duct tape and put it back together, “she said. “It wasn’t a matter if you were going to sink, it was how far could you get before you would sink. That was packrafting. We didn’t invent packrafting, we invented the modern packraft.”
Thor said she is good at thinking out of the box.
“She’ll just wake up in the middle of the night sand say, ‘why don t we try this,’” Thor said.
“It walks an absolute divide between land and water,” she said. “A packraft has to be built like your lightest, ultra mountaineering gear, but be as durable as what you put on the water. Those early boats, those were made of tissue paper.”
Seventeen years later and Alpacka Raft is making waves – tides- in the outdoor industry, blending two worlds together. With a virtually indestructible sub 5-pound inflatable boat that handles like a kayak and stuffs in your pack, they’ve redefined adventure.
Even the inflation system is beautifully simple, a two ounce bag that captures air like a child catching butterflies with a pillow case. From a nozzle, the bag inflates the boat, and the boat gets finished off with lung power.
“It just completely changes the way you look at wilderness travel,” Sheri said. “People do everything under the sun with them. It takes all those little blue lines you see on a topo map and turns them into trails.”
Adventures have taken on new meaning
One couple left Seattle treking and pack rafting to the Aleutian Islands, using their boats as sledges to pull their gear behind their skis during winter. Others navigated the inhospitable Lost Coast of Alaska. People have followed the Amazon in South America, explored forgotten creeks in Utah canyon country and found their way into places in New Zealand where as few as two people have ever even been.
Packrafting isn’t a boating thing, it’s an adventure thing, for a new kind of adventure. Backpack 10 miles to the put in and float back to your car.
“And you don’t need much water for these things to float,” Thor said. “People realize, ‘Oh, I can do such a cool trip.’”
For Sheri, nourishing an outdoor culture all its own is a windfall. Establishing Alpacka Raft, creating a niche, and sharing that with her son was all entirely unexpected. She knew her story wasn’t finished, and when her son asked her for help, that became a new chapter.
“Thor walks through the door with this boat,” she said. “And it was a door that opened my life again.”