My girlfriend and I just did a day trip in which we took two Intex Club 200 boats down the Delaware river and then hiked back to our car. I’m happy to say that it worked out perfectly. This was my first “packrafting” experience. The only other boat I own is a 27-pound Sea Eagle 330 inflatable kayak.
These are not packrafts. They are pool toys. That said, they can be used on flat water and are light enough to pack. The Club 200 weighs about 5 pounds and is made of 14-gauge PVC. Intex also makes a similar boat called the Explorer 200 which is made out of 13-gauge PVC and is slightly lighter. Both boats can hold 210 pounds. Intex also makes a Club 300 and 400 which can hold more weight, but are really too heavy for packing. I haven’t weighed the boats myself because I don’t have an appropriate scale. I am going by specs found on the web, and by the fact that the boat was noticeably lighter than a 6-pound weight. I got the two boat sets on Amazon for $20.70 each. They come with two oars, a pump, and a repair patch. Just the boat alone costs about $15, so they are really ridiculously cheap. The interior of the boat is just long enough for me to sit with my legs fully extended, and I am 5’10". The oars are not terribly light, but they are not terribly heavy. You can use them separately with the oarlocks or screw both together for a miniature kayak-style paddle. I used the two oars separately with the oarlocks.
When they arrived, the material seemed more durable than I had expected, but I still had no idea whether it would hold up against rocks and submerged logs. I tried reinforcing the bottom with Gorilla Tape, but I had to use way more tape than I expected to cover the bottom, and it added too much weight. You would need more than a whole large roll of Gorilla Tape to cover the bottom of one boat, and that stuff is not light. In the end, I just left the boats as is. They survived the trip unscathed, including scraping over smooth rocks in the “rapids” and when putting in to shore. The boats have inflatable floors which are separate from the main tube so it’s not a big deal if the floor gets punctured.
I was able to pack everything I would need for a solo multi-day camping trip in my 35-liter pack along with the raft, with the PFD and oars strapped to the outside. For the actual day hike, of course, I left the camping stuff at home.
Inflation and deflation are both a pain with these boats. They have regular pool-toy-type valves which you have to pinch in order to inflate and deflate. Inflation was not so bad, although the pumps included with the set did not move very much air. I happen to have a foot pump for my Sea Eagle kayak which I was able to use, and that inflated them tolerably quickly. Deflation is the real problem – it takes about 15 minutes of squeezing the valve and pressing on the tube. It’s annoying, but not unbearably so. You do have to make certain compromises for a $20 boat.
This whole idea may seem like foolhardy suicide to some of you if you’re not familiar with the Delaware near the Water Gap. The river here is extremely calm and shallow. On any given day in the summer, there will be hundreds of people floating down the river on inner tubes, while drunk, without life vests. The depth ranges from about 6 inches to 5 feet, and the current moves at an average of 1.5 mph. There are some Class I “rapids,” which means 6 inches of water over small, smooth rocks. So I knew we would really be in no danger even if the boats popped and sank. Even so, we both wore our PFDs. I used contractor bags (3 mil thick) as dry bags. I held my pack on my lap rather than tying it to the grab rope or grab loops, for fear that the loops would rip and sink the boat.
We inflated the boats and launched from the river bank with no problems. It took a while to get the hang of rowing, as the boats have no tracking stability at all. They will spin 180 degrees easily with one stroke. After you get the hang of it, though, it’s pretty easy to go straight and steer. We were sitting backwards with one oar in each hand (I believe “sculling” is the correct term). That said, we spent about half of the time just floating lazily down the river without paddling at all. Sitting in the boat was very comfortable, although holding my pack on my legs was not.
I tried to avoid rocks as much as possible, but sometimes the river got so shallow that it was impossible. The bottoms of the boats have some visible scuff marks, but no actual scratches.
We went downriver 7 miles before we landed on the shore and hiked back up to the car along the Appalachian Trail. The whole trip took about 10 hours from car door to car door.
This was a great way to try out packrafting without spending a lot of money. The boats held up surprisingly well considering their very low price. However, I would definitely not do anything more serious than a “lazy river” type trip with these boats. Even then I would not actually trust them to stay afloat, because they are simply not designed for serious boating. (I did find some videos on YouTube of some reckless young men taking their Intex Explorer on rocky rapids, and the boat seemed perfectly fine.) I will keep them to go rafting on the Delaware or similarly calm rivers, or maybe to mess around in some secluded mountain lakes. Hopefully I will enjoy them enough that I will upgrade to real packrafts.
Pros: ridiculously cheap, light enough to pack (about 5 lbs), set comes with oars, durable enough to withstand smooth river rocks, comfortable.
Cons: deflation takes forever, inflation takes several minutes, can’t really trust them.