Way back in 2018, Spencer picked up an Alpacka Caribou Packraft when he went to visit Alpacka Raft HQ and then proceeded to paddle the East River in NYC. During the time since, he’s spent a lot of time in his Caribou and other boats in Alpacka’s lineup, so he figured it was time for a thorough long term review and clear up some other details about this packraft’s position straddling the cycling and water worlds…
Before we get into the nitty gritty of this bike world adjacent review, I’m very lucky that Lizzy of Four Corners Guides did an amazing job in summing up the history of both packrafting and the more niche bikerafting, just a few months ago with her bikerafting survey article. Interestingly, one of the illustrations in the survey referenced an old obscure photo of me from the first DFL the Divide trip, but of course with a packraft behind me.
I Like Big Bows and Cannot Lie
Simply put, the Alpacka Caribou is Alpacka’s famed Classic packraft with a wider and more voluminous bow. They call this a “late rise” bow as the rocker of the front of the boat rises nearer toward the bow and thus forward of the load. This, combined with the larger volume of the bow, allows the boat to deftly carry a large load such as a bike. Why carry your bike on a raft? Well, first of all, rivers go one way which means you will always need some kind of shuttle vehicle, which can be a bike. Maybe you want to link up a ride that requires river or lake crossings? Maybe you dream of silly multimodal trips just because they are foolish. Maybe you can commute one way via river and bike home? A lot of possibilities open up with something as packable as the name packraft implies.
As mentioned above, the defining characteristic of the Caribou is its innovative bow design. Secondly, it’s made of a proprietary Ultralight 210 denier high-count nylon fabric, also used in their uber-ultralight Scout packraft while maintaining the more durable 840 denier ballistic nylon floor fabric. This keeps the boat light while maintaining durability. The four strap plates on the bow of the boat are oriented to properly hold a respective part of a bicycle on the bow, which is different than the Classic model which has grab loops on the bow. The Classic comes in three sizes based on the paddler’s sit length and the Caribou is the same internal length as the large Classic. With the wider bow shape, the Caribou has a roomier fit.
Now for some options, let’s talk about self-bailing first. The self-bailing option allows the raft to be open and drain any water that splashes over the tubes into the cockpit. This is standard on a large portion of modern inflatable rivercraft, but not all packrafts. This does come with a weight penalty of about half a pound for the extra inflatable floor piece. My boat is a non-self-bailer, but for what it’s worth I’ve coveted the idea of a self-bailing boat on many occasions.
One of the coolest aspects of packrafts is the Cargo Fly option which allows packing of the inside of the raft. The Cargo Fly is an air/waterproof zipper on the back of the boat that allows you access to the inside of the raft tubes for storage. These zippers are amazing but do require respect and care to function properly; they can be quite the lynchpin if not taken care of. The ability to pack most if not all of your gear dry inside the raft, where the weight is low, and then put a bike on the front is pretty darn snazzy. Now, I think this goes without mention but, here we are again, you need to be careful about how and what you pack inside your raft. Any sharp edges could rub as you paddle, scarp on whatever surface you hit, and then create a puncture. Alpacka does make internal dry bags for gear that clip onto the inside of some rafts, though the Caribou does not have the clips as it is designed to just have the bikepacking bags you already have stowed inside.
I have spent a good amount of time in inflatable crafts – from packrafts to duckies and even an 18-foot oar raft – but I’m no expert on watercraft. Comparing a packraft to a kayak is like comparing a regular bike to a folding bike; it’s not a good comparison. Packrafts are their own beast and come with their own set of strengths and weaknesses.
Out of the gate, the most annoying thing about the Caribou (and packrafts in general) is they do not track well. This means your paddle input steers the boat dramatically and when you stop paddling the rafts tend to spin out 180 degrees facing you backwards. This is due to having no fins or other apparatus for keeping the boat moving straight. Much like front loading a bicycle with the proper trail for such things, weighting the front of this raft as it is designed does make it control much better than when it’s unladen. This lack of tracking can be seen as a detriment on flat water for sure, but the fact that the rafts can float in inches of water due to having a low profile is also one of the things that makes them so unique and capable.
Due to that poor tracking, packrafts paddle best with a high-angle stroke and paddle. If that sounded like gibberish check this out. I had some experience in lake kayaking but didn’t understand the difference in paddle styles and nearly wore a hole in my raft paddling incorrectly. Depending on your raft, you will want a large volume blade with an overall length of around 210cm. This will give you a high-angle paddle stroke and allow you to pull as much water as possible with each stroke.
On flat water, the non-self-bailing floor helps reduce drag on the bottom of the boat, but water dripping off your paddle will quickly get you a bit wet. Long stretches on flat water are really not the forté of packrafts as I found in the Boundary Waters. You can ask my elbow about it. While shorter crossings of flat water are very possible, paddling longer than 10 miles can be rough.
Rivers are where packrafts shine as the current maintains some momentum, which aids tracking. However, if you plan to do any low-class whitewater you may consider the self-bailing option as it will make your life easier not having to dump your boat out constantly, but the Caribou is NOT a whitewater raft. I have taken mine through some class I-II rapids unloaded, but I don’t recommend that. This boat should be thought of as a calm and or flat water boat. It does not have the design or durability you would want for paddling whitewater. I’m sure someone more skilled than me could take this down proper whitewater, but do you really wanna fuck around and find out with the only thing keeping you and your gear above water?
The Caribou is not a jack-of-all-trades raft, it is a niche raft meant for mellow water and carrying loads. Think of those old Long Haul Trucker Deluxes, but as a boat. It will carry hundreds of pounds, it will ride poorly unloaded, and you shouldn’t take it on single track. We’ll let the Matching Ortlieb Mafia have it out in the comments over that statement; I said what I said. You can take a Caribou on rivers, sure, but it is not meant to be pushed past its apparent limitations. If you want something a bit more well-rounded consider a Classic or, if you wanna do whitewater, a Gnarwhal.
The Caribou only comes in one size and like my aforementioned Surly reference, the raft is long. The Caribou arguably needs to be that length to allow for paddling and leg room with cargo on the front, think of it like toe overlap. The interior length is 49 inches which even my 6’1” frame finds to be spacious. For that reason, I added an extra toggle paired with a foot brace (removed in photos). I have found the foot brace affords more control and security in the raft. I think if you are a shorter-than-me person I would highly recommend this upgrade.
While it does only come in one size there are a few different options and prices that reflect those options:
- Open (non-self-bailing) $900
- Open w/ cargo fly $1050
- Self Bailing $1025
- Self Bailing w/ cargo fly $1175
My review is of an open boat with a cargo fly. The cargo fly or self-bailing options both add weight with the options ranging from 5 lbs (open no cargo fly) to just over 6 lbs (self-bailer w/ cargo fly). I think if I had the options now I would get a self-bailing boat, but I have a few decked boats with skirts already so that would allow me a more casual boat. When I got this boat I was still very concerned with weight and size so I got almost as lightweight a boat as I could.
When packing your bike on the raft I have found it super beneficial to take both wheels off the bike if you can. It can be annoying but don’t believe the influencers with a whole-ass bike on the front of their boat; that looks silly and paddles worse. Do it properly. Here is a great how-to from the master himself. Every bike is going to fit differently, but if you place your bike on the front and look at the orientation of the tie-downs, it will all come together. A safety note: having a bike on the front of your boat is a massive entrapment hazard for you and many things in the river should you flip or lose control of the boat. Entrapment is very scary, please be cautious.
WEAR A PFD (lifejacket)! I was an idiot my first time packrafting and didn’t have any idea what I was doing and had a scary swim where I got sucked under an undercut wall. If you are doing water shit, wear a PFD. They can be a hard item to pack on a bike because they are bulky and it can be tempting to forego one, don’t do that. Here is Thor from Alpacka Raft walking through some PFD basics.
You are of course going to need a paddle as well. I mentioned earlier that relatively short (~210cm) paddles with large blades work well for packrafts. Then there is the question of how small I want the paddle to break down. 1-piece, 2-piece, or 4-piece? For packrafting, it mostly comes down to a 2 or 4-piece paddle since you are probably here for an easily packable experience. 4-piece paddles introduce 3 joints that can become loose and sloppy with lots of use. For this reason, I have been leaning toward 2-piece paddles with only 1 joint to possibly develop slop in the center and not the blades. If you want ultimate packability get a 4-piece paddle.
Bikerafting can be daunting, especially if you are new to river or lake trips. The risks can be quite different than just a bike trip, water is scary and should be respected. If you want to learn from the best, I’d recommend checking out Four Corners Guides. Doom has been in the packraft game since the beginning and he has an amazing group of guides who help him. They offer a melody of courses from beginner to expert from bikerafting to whitewater. I’ve done a few trips with Doom and Lizzy and can’t recommend them enough. I also just finished up a two-day intermediate whitewater course and learned a ton. If you want to properly learn about packrafting with or without a bike, go check out their schedule.
The Caribou was a revolutionary design for carrying a bike on a packraft which opened up all kinds of pathways to mix bikes and river trips. Its lightweight fabrics and minimal design allow it to roll to the size of a sleeping bag and easily fit in most handlebar cradles. Although it is not a quiver killer it does a great job at filling a niche in the sport. If you are only looking to float flat or calm water while carrying a bike, the Caribou is an amazing option made by the people who invented the packraft and are still making them here in the USA.
-front loading specific design with strap plates for a bike
-lightweight at 5 to 6 lbs depending on options
-amazing craftsmanship and made in the USA
-opens up lots of possibilities for adventures
-surprisingly durable despite the lightweight fabric
-Cargo fly zipper needs gentle care and attention
-Limited capability outside of bikerafting
-Not great to paddle unloaded
-One size fits all could be tough for shorter paddlers