Early History of Small Inflatable Rafts (with references)

Inflatable rafts have been around for thousands of years. The first inflatable rafts used cow or goat skins as the air-tight bladder. (e.g. http://www.kepu.net.cn/english/nationalitynw/sal/200311100063.html).

Captain John C. Fremont used a rubber raft during his exploration of the American Rockies in 1842 (Jackson, Donald, and Mary Lee Spence, The Expeditions of John Charles Frémont: Vol. I, Travels from 1838 to 1844, University of Illinois Press, 1970). He purchased the inflatable raft from an inventor for $150 (probably USP# 4356, “Portable India-rubber boat,” Horace H. Day, issued 1846 [the Day raft was comprised of inflatable cylinders with beveled ends lashed together to form a square with the floor being a rubberized sheet wrapped around and over the cylinders]).

A well publicized inflatable raft was designed and built by Lt. Peter Halkett, RN (England) in the early 1840s using Macintosh cloth, which was a rubberized fabric*. The design was continuous cylinder that was oval in shape that surrounded the occupants and had 4 separate air compartments. There was an integral waterproof floor, sail and splash deck. Halkett “sailed” his “rubber boat” on the Thames River numerous times. (The Boat Cloak and also the Cloth-boat for Two, Peter Halkett, 1848 Pamphlet [Am. Phil. Soc. {AMPIL} 609, Pam. No. 9 {7 pages, 6 plates}; http://opac.amphilsoc.org/cgi-bin/koha/opac-detail.pl?biblionumber=64375&shelfbrowse_itemnumber=64497; also Wikipedia].

Sir John Franklin’s 1845 expedition to find the Northwest Passage was equipped with a Halkett boat and many other explorers of the 1840s and 1850s used his boats (The International Exhibition of 1862 (London): The Illustrated Catalogue of the Industrial Department, Volume 2: British Division 2, Section XII: Naval Architecture – Ships’ tackle, Section b, Halkett, Peter Alexander, p. 19). Halkett also made a “life-boat” of a canvas cover with inflatable rubber cloth bladders that was 30-35 feet long (ibid). This was probably the first large capacity inflatable life raft.

The 1846 John Rae arctic expedition carried a Halkett boat, which he found quite useful and durable (“During the whole of our spring fishing Halkett’s air-boat was used for setting and examining the nets, and was preferred by the fishermen to the large canvas canoe, as it was much lighter, and passed over and round the nets with more facility. Notwithstanding its continued use on a rocky shore, it never required the slightest repair. It is altogether a most useful little vessel, and, as I have said before, ought to form part of the equipment of all surveying parties, whether by land or sea.” [p.175 in Narrative of an Expedition to the Shores of the Arctic Sea in 1846 and 1847, by John Rae, T. & W. Boone, London, 1850]). An original Halkett boat from a Rae expedition is on display at the Stromness Museum, Orkney Islands, Scotland, UK. (http://www.packrafting.de/2010_06_01_archive.html with pictures). Rae was from the Orkneys. Another Halkett boat is in the Hudson’s Bay Company Collection of the Manitoba Museum, Winnipeg, Canada (Canadian Canoe Museum Blog “Canoes to Go: The Search for a Truly Portable Boat” with pictures).

The interest in inflatable compact rafts as emergency equipment increased during WWI when flights over water in dirigibles and aircraft became common.
In the interesting 1943 book The Story of the Life Raft, by Edgar G. Wandless (published by the New York Rubber Corporation) (hereafter referenced as the Book) the history of the modern life raft in the US is portrayed. The first life rafts that were noted in the Book were from England (the Austin raft) and Italy in 1919 and were made of “balloon cloth” (rubber coated cotton canvas). Neither version had a waterproof floor.

The first US patent for a life raft (also to be used for “water sports”) was issued in 1923 (USP # 1,456,168, “Pneumatic life raft”, Havens Beckwith and Charles C. Witmer, filed 1921, issued 1923, assigned to Airships, Inc.) and used a laced-in floor. In 1928 a patent was granted for an inflatable boat with an integral floor to keep the occupant dry (USP# 1,686,366, “Inflatable boat”, James F. Boyle, filed 1926, issued 1928, assigned to Airships, Inc.) This design was very similar to that of the Halkett boat.

The Book gives an account of Commander Richard E. Byrd’s 1925 failed trans-Atlantic flight where they ran out gas off the French coast, ditched the aircraft, pumped up their rubber boat and paddled about 1 mile to land. The first extended float in a life raft reported in the Book was in 1931 when pilot, Verne Harshman, floated several days in the Caribbean before being rescued.

The Book gives several examples of the use of the inflatable rafts for exploratory purposes. These include the use by William La Farre for ferrying equipment during his explorations in Dutch Guiana in the late 1920s and early 1930s (a picture in the Book shows La Farre ferrying duffle bags in an “Airubber” raft).

The Book gives credit to the Goodyear Rubber Company for the early development of rubberized fabric (rubber coating supported by a fabric cloth). Rubberized cotton canvas was the most common fabric but the cotton would rot if stored wet. Rubberized silk fabric was used for some applications as early as 1928 (“Method of coating or impregnating fabric with rubber,” Geoffrey William Trobridge, USP# 1,955,840, filed 1928, issued 1934) but whether it was used in rafts is unknown. The Book credited the Walter Kidde & Company for developing a reliable CO2 valve for inflating a life raft. (Rubberized silk was used in the first hydrogen-filled balloon manned ascent in 1783).

Nylon fabric was introduced during the 1939 World Fair and ripstop nylon was developed during WWII to replace silk. Polyester fibers were produced in the early 1940s but polyester fabric didn’t become popular until the early 1950s. Nylon and polyester fabrics coated with neoprene rubber or polyvinyl chloride (vinyl) are the most common light raft materials.

One of the most celebrated early life raft stories is that of Captain Eddie Rickenbacker et al who spent 3 weeks in 3 life rafts in 1942 after their B-17 crashed in the Pacific (http://www.history.com.eddie-rickenbacker-and-six-other-people—). Another survival story of 1942 is told in the book The Raft by Robert Turnbull where 3 sailors were adrift for 35 days in a Mark IV (4-man) life raft (http://www.shorpy.com/node/16744?size=_original#caption).

A seat-pack one-man life raft for aviators, which could be attached to a parachute was patented in 1938 (“Parachute Life Raft Pack,” Daniel W. Harrigan, USP# 2,114,301, filed 1936, issued 1938) and was further developed during WWII (One-man Pneumatic Life Raft Survival Kits of World War II, Robert S. McCarter and Douglas Taggart, Schiffer Publishing, 2006). The paddles in one version of the WWII raft pack were two solid boards that were attached to the hands by straps (picture shown in the Book). Another type of small raft that was used in WWII had a nylon shell and 13 individual inflatable bladders that fit in the shell (http://www.usmilitariaforum.com/forums/index.php?/topic/194661-1944-canvas-assault-raft).
In the 1960s low-cost heavy gauge heat-weldable thermoplastic material such as polyvinyl chloride began to be used for inflatable items such as rafts. Lighter gauge vinyl is used in the “air mattresses” that the Australians “bushwalkers” use for “liloing” (floating) on rivers.

A “packraft” is a life raft type of boat and to quote Wikipedia “Packraft and trail boat are colloquial terms for a small, portable inflatable boat designed for use in all bodies of water, including technical whitewater and ocean bays and fjords. A packraft is designed to be light enough to be carried for extended distances. Along with its propulsion system (collapsible paddles or lightweight oars) and safety equipment (PFD, clothing) the entire package is designed to be light and compact enough for an individual to negotiate rough terrain while carrying the rafting equipment together with supplies, shelter, and other survival or backcountry equipment.”

Dick Griffith has been credited with introducing the concept of a “packrafting trip” (at least to Alaska) in the 1982 “Alaska Wilderness Classic” race from Hope to Homer where instead of using the usual hiking route he used a packraft (life raft) on a portion of the trip (p. 140 in Canyons and Ice; The Wilderness Travels of Dick Griffith, Kaylene Johnson, Ember Press, 2012; also packraft.org/American_Packrafting_Association/Packrafting_is_tradition).

Other continuous hiking trips using individual packrafts to cover difficult portions of a hike (rather than just ferrying people and equipment) had been performed previously. These included Don Mattox’s 8-day 5-person party through the Barranca del Cobre of Mexico (“Grand Canyon of Mexico”) from Puente Umirá bridge to Urique (approx. 80 miles, 2/3 on water) in the spring of 1975 using inexpensive vinyl 1-man rafts (p. 202 in Mexican Whitewater: Norte, Rocky Contos, Sierra Rios Publications, 2010). In the Fall of 1979 Pat (Patrick Allan) Morrow and two other Canadians also packrafted from the Umirá bridge to Urique using two vinyl packrafts and an inflatable vinyl kayak (private communication). Morrow was the first person to climb the highest peaks of all seven continents (1977 to 1986).

In the early 1970s small rubber rafts were used on the Franklin River in Australia to run some rapids and portage around others (packraft.org/American_Packrafting_Association/Packrafting_is_tradition).

Today packrafting trips are advertised thoughtout the world.

*Note: In the early 1830s there was a “rubber fever” because of the interest that developed in natural rubber. This interest faded as the thermal stability problems of natural rubber were revealed and by the end of the 1830s disillusionment had set it. This stability problem was solved by Charles Goodyear (US) with his discovery of the vulcanization process (1839). Both Goodyear (US) and Thomas Hancock (England) patented the vulcanization process in 1844. Hancock probably surmised the vulcanization process when he examined some of Goodyear’s samples in 1843. Hancock had a close association with the Macintosh company that made rubberized cloth (http://www.goodyear.com/corporate/history/ the Charles Goodyear story).

Don Mattox

Thanks. Interesting how inflatables fell out of and came back into use by travelers/explorers.

I surmise that the cost and time requirements of travel, combined with the weight of the gear. meant few users initially. Almost none in the western US, where they would have had the best market had they been known and lighter. So when the auto-touring boom began between the world wars there was no knowledge.

The measure of the uphill marketing slog after WW2 was the lack of use by exploratory travelers in Alaska and Canada as the cost of travel dropped and backpacking/whitewater boating became popular in the 1950s and 1960s. Rubber rafts were perceived as best suited for flatwater, and then mainly for drifting.

So, the substantive change in perception as embodied in these forums is that packrafts are boats best suited to moving water and scraping over obstacles. The boats are getting heavier as a result; sort of reversing the weight-loss trend that made them useful adjuncts to exploration. And the lighter boats, not made by Alpacka, are still perceived best suited to flatwater and drifting. Different markets, so the learning curve probably isn’t flattening much yet, with some interesting innovations to come from the lightweight sector.


It is interesting. It was not because the Halkett boat had problems. Antidotal evidence shows that they were very rugged and users were very happy with them.

After WWII there were a lot of surplus rubber rafts around. One of the pioneers in the use of surplus rubber rafts was Georgie White on the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. In 1955 she strapped 3 large WWII surplus bridge-type rafts together to make a rig 37 feet long and 27 feet wide. She used one outboard motor to power the rig and took passengers through the GC for many years (Woman of the River: Georgie White, White-water Rafting Pioneer, Richard E. Westwood, Utah State University Press, 1997). Other GC river runners preferred using “snout” pontoons made from surplus military pontoons with a raft or frame (Allen “Crazy” Wilson - 1971) between two snouts. (http://www.jpwinc.com/pages/cathistory.html) for running the river.

In 1974 six of us used 2 surplus WW II life rafts (probably Mark III [3 person] or Mark IV [4 person]) to run the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon from Lee’s Ferry to Tanner Rapids (on a river trip permit in the name of Bob Kyrlach). We then packed all the gear out the Tanner Trail (about 4500 feet elevation gain, 9 miles) in one load in one day (we had no GC backcountry hiking/camping permit). Somewhere I have a picture of our life rafts next to a big “snout rig” at Lee’s Ferry. The GC River Ranger was doubtful about letting us go - I doubt that they would now. Don Mattox

Thanks for taking the time to post this, it contains some really interesting info. I especially love the idea of the goatskin raft!

Pvdman, thanks for the history. This thread has greatly improved my knowledge of the flexible beasties.

I was thinking about the smaller boats, portability and exploration with down river travel being a short piece of the whole. And particularly, the lack of knowledge until very recently that rafts are feasible tools that should be considered.

Some friends did a first descent of a river in the Northwest Territories in the early 1960’s by canoe on an exploration license. The older friend who cooked up the trip was a scholar who as a sideline studied exploration in detail. He was also a gear freak who built gear of his own, sometimes older designs to see how they would function against modern equipment or when using old methods. For the NWT trip he worried every possibility for disaster, worried about back up gear and the like. Losing a boat was a real concern, because there were only 2 and 4 people in the party. Maps weren’t that good; compass declination a concern for position finding; no communication while en route; etc. Times have changed.

A raft was never mentioned in that context (as emergency gear) or any other over the years I knew him, although backpackable rafts would have fit his travel preferences well. He must have known of the Halkett boat, but probably as a historical curiosity and too heavy to consider. The idea of rafts as travel boats just never gained enough traction to reach store shelves when weights dropped. Even now, would Alpacka have made it – have had enough units sold to survive – without the Internet? I doubt it.

As an old desert hiker I will say that a small raft weighs less than a gallon or two of water, which is quite acceptable under some circumstances.

Air mattresses were used in the 50s and 60s as “packrafts” for crossing the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon. See huntington.org/cdm/singleitem/collection/p16003coll5/id/23934/rec/13 (Otis Marston River Collection: Huntington Digital Library V093/0209) for a 1961 picture of Jorgen Visbak in the Grand Canyon. Note the swim fins and life vest!! This may be more akin to what is now called “riverboarding” or “boogie boarding.” Jorgen Visbak was an early hiking companion of Harvey Butchart. The Grand Canyon also bred the small individual catarafts that might be classed as a packraft. They evolved from the J-rigs that were developed in the early 1970s from tubular pontoons (http://www.jpwinc.com/pages/cathistory.html). Don Mattox

In August 1956 Neal Newby and Frank Moltzen used what looks to be 1-man yellow WWII life rafts to run the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon from Lee’s Ferry to Phantom Ranch (Big Water Little Boats, Tom Martin. pp. 136-138 [2012]; Huntington Digital Library V182/0087 [Don Davis photographer]). This was before the Glenn Canyon dam was built. Don Mattox

Interesting article: The History of Rubber Boats and how they Saved Rivers by Herm Hoops 2009. http://www.westwatercanyon.com/herm%20hoops/History-Rubber-Boats.pdf

Amos Burg - mentioned in the article as rafting the Porcupine River, Canada in 1929 in a small (12#) rubber raft (p.99). Burg, along with a companion, “Buzz” Holmstrom rafted the the length of the Green and Colorado Rivers (1100 miles) in 1938 in a rubber raft (83#), named “Charlie” made by Air Cruisers, Inc. of Bayonne, NJ (a supplier of floatation devices for the Navy) to Burg’s specifications - this was probably the first raft designed for whitewater (p. 186). “Buzz” Holmstrom rowed a wooden boat (450#). (The Last Voyageur: Amos Burg and the Rivers of the West, Vince Welch [2012]) Don Mattox

It might not be classed as a raft but in 1872 Clark S. Merriman patented an inflatable suit for life saving purposes (C.S. Merriman, “Improvement in Life-Preserving Dresses,” USP #128971; Published July 16, 1972). The suit was essentially a pair of rubber pants and a shirt cinched tight at the waist. Within the suit were air pockets the wearer could inflate at will using tubes. The suit weighed 35 pounds. When inflated the wearer could have free use of their arms to swim or paddle. I guess you might call it a “wearable raft.” Paul Boyton decided to use the suit to paddle in the open ocean and became famous in 1875 after he crossed the English Channel in the suit by lying on his back and using a double bladed paddle to propel himself feet forward. He subsequently used the suit on many European rivers, in the Mediterranean, and even attached a mine (dummy) to a British warship in New York harbor. I guess that would make him a prototype “frogman” (A Speck on the Sea: Epic voyages in the most improbable vessels, p. 61, William H. Longyard, McGraw Hill [2003]). Don Mattox

Copper Canyon (Barranca del Cobre) - the Grand Canyon of Mexico: In 1963 John Cross (Cross River Tours) attempted to run the Rio Urique in the Barranca del Cobre from the Puente Umirá Bridge to the town of Urique in large river rafts. They didn’t get very far and had to be rescued with a lot of fanfare. (“Lady on a River of Rocks,” Mary Ellen O’Reilly, Sports Illustrated, Oct. 21,1963; “The Cross Expedition and El Tapón de Piedra Grandes,” in Mexican Whitewater: Norte, Rocky Contos, 2010). Later some of the Cross party returned with inflatable kayaks, carried them into the canyon (entry point unknown) and continued their trip to Divisidero where they came out (Michael Jenkinson, Wild Rivers of North America, pp. 64-91 (1972).

In 1971 John Cross and a party returned to Divisidero with inflatable kayaks and they, with a party of Tarahumara porters, continued to Urique (ibid). The porters hiked along the river (with many crossings) or maybe on the trail far above the river, while the kayaks ran the river. This section of the river (Tejában crossing [at the nearly abandoned town of Barranca del Cobre in the bottom of the canyon] to Urique) is much more amenable to hiking than is the “Upper Barranca del Cobre” (from Puente Bridge to Tejában crossing). Don Mattox

It is interesting to note that though inflatable rafts using rubberized fabric were not built until the mid-1800s, fabric capable of holding hydrogen had been in use since 1783 (balloon cloth). The first hot air balloons used paper for the envelope but in 1783 the Roberts brothers (Anne-Jean and Nicolas-Louis) developed rubberized silk for Jacques Charles’ hydrogen-filled balloon (France) (ref. Wikipedia – Jacques Charles). The Roberts brothers dissolved natural rubber in turpentine and then coated the silk.

“Balloon cloth” - In August 1783 Jacques Charles and the Roberts brothers flew an un-manned hydrogen-filled balloon made of rubberized (un-vulcanized) silk. In December 1783 they flew a manned hydrogen-filled balloon (the first manned hot air balloon was flown in November 1783). Later “balloon cloth” was the term applied to rubberized, tightly woven cotton cloth (“Hot-Air Balloon Cloths: Characterization of Coated Fabrics from Historic Collections of 19th Century Hot-Air Balloon Fragment” - Project, Library of Congress). Don Mattox