Boat advice for a noob in the desert?

Looking to start packrafting and would really appreciate some advice on what kind of boat I should begin with.

I live in the American Southwest, so will be mostly running water in Utah, Arizona, and the Sierra Nevada.

My current plan is to start with easier trips to get familiar with the boat and get my gear dialed. But being a bit of an adrenaline junky, I’m sure that I’ll eventually want to start doing more whitewater, with a goal of eventually doing stuff on the level of the Grand Canyon.

I’m thinking that when I feel ready to do that kind of thing, I’ll try to get some WW kayaking instruction first.

I have a friend who’s also looking to start packrafting and he’s recommended I get a Gnarwhal. Is this a good idea? Didn’t know if it would be better for me to get a less-technical (and lighter) boat to start with, then pick up a whitewater capable model. Or if I should be going straight to the Gnarwhal.

I’m also trying to decide between self-bailing and spray deck models. The self-bailer seems like it might be a better choice for desert water or the mild weather conditions I’m likely to be paddling in, but it also seems like once I do get to Colorado River-level stuff, I’ll be wanting a spray deck instead.

Any thoughts? Would really appreciate any advice.

There is not much downside (other than a bit more weight on long hikes) to getting a whitewater capable boat right off the bat. I wish I had. And having packrafted the big rapids in the Grand Canyon in both decked and self-bailing boats, I definitely prefer a self bailer. Because if you do capsize (and you probable will at some point), with the self-bailer it’s just as simple as getting back in and keeping going. With a decked boat it is basically impossible to get your spray skirt back on mid-rapid so it will be a matter of time before you boat is filled with water and you are swimming again. If cost is holding you back on a Gnarwal, I’d recommend a Kokopelli Nirvana self-bailer. It’s half the price and I like it better.

Great, thanks for the advice. I can see how the spray skirt might be more desirable in really cold water, but probably the coldest water I see myself getting into for the foreseeable future would be in the Sierras – not exactly warm, but also not Alaska. Is it significantly easier to get tossed from a self-bailer due to the higher center of gravity, or is that much of a concern?

I can see, down the road, getting a lighter raft for easier water and longer backpacks, but right now what’s getting me stoked is seeing videos of people in Utah and the Sierras, running fun-looking-rivers.

I’ll look into the Nirvana – would be nice to save a little dough, especially as I still have to buy all the rest of the gear that goes with it. Sounds like the biggest difference is that it has a higher learning curve – more like a hard boat?

It really depends on you and what you will actually be using it for. I have two boats and got my standard Alpacka (Mule XL, size) back in 2016. I went bare bones with the regular/standard non-self bailing bottom, no thigh straps and the plain old inflatable back-rest/seat. These boats are incredibly capable, even in the simplified models. In 2017 I took the Alpacka, as described above, on a few Class III rivers including a decent section of the Trinity River (Pigeon point to be exact) and the thing handled admirably. I’ve since upgraded to a Gnarwhal with a spray-skirt, but haven’t actually used it yet, so I can’t speak on the advantages. I took a hard look at the self-bailing option but ended up with the spray-deck, as I have a self-bailing NRS rig and I don’t love sitting in cold water for long periods of time.

Either way, you won’t be disappointed as there is a lot of fun to be had between just starting and finding the limitations of a certain style of boat. Maybe rent one of each and see what you seem to like best?