Rafts Gone Wild


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There’s water in them thar’ hills this year, from California to the New York Island, and there’s no better way to experience it than Huck Finn-style from the high-and-dry seat of a raft. Only with apologies to Huck and Jim, there are far better materials and designs on the market these days than a pallet-shaped hunk of wood. We narrowed our look to versatile 14-footers, a size that can handle the rigors of carrying gear down the Grand while staying nimble enough to paddle boat the Arkansas. So grab your cam straps, ammo can and river sandals and climb aboard. As Huck puts it, there warn’t no home like a raft.

Aire 143D
For Aire, it’s the bladders that matter. The company’s trademark is stuffing a urethane bladder inside a durable 1,670-denier, 35-oz. PVC outer shell. The advantage is repairability. While a Hypalon boat might require a lengthy stitch and glue repair process to get you back on the water, with the Aire you simply throw in a spare or slap on a piece of temporary duct-tape and away you row. Design-wise, its 14-footers are broken down into D, E and R series. The R features larger diameter, rounder tubes for hauling gear and a stable ride; the E stand for elliptical, with a flat spot on the stern for guides; and the D (featured) stands for Dimensional tubes, whose tapering provides rocker that makes the craft more versatile, nimble and quicker turning. New this year is an added chafe strap on the tubes to prevent the dreaded frame rub.

L: 14’3”
W: 6’8”
Tube Diameter: 20”
# of Chambers: 7
MSRP: 3,849$ ($4,249 with sfp floor upgrade*)
*Sealed-floor pocket—basically, a waterproof zipper designed for use of silty rivers so water doesn’t get into the floor compartment
Info: www.aire.com

Avon Adventurer SE
Different fabrics on the floor vs. tubes distinguish the time-tested Avon Adventurer. The craft’s floor is made of chafe-resistant 40-oz. polyurethane, which lets it slide like a greased otter over rocks. Its tubes are made of tough-as-nails 1,680-denier 40-oz. Hypalon, ensuring a raft you can pass along to the grandkids after you’re too old for Old Man River. The Adventurer also has a lower floor offering more room for passengers and gear, less chance of falling out, and a lower center of gravity that spells fewer capsizes (on the flip side, however, it can also mean a wetter ride). You get what you pay for, and its sticker price owes itself to a time-tested design and higher unionized labor costs associated with its manufacturing in Wales.

L: 14’2”
W: 7’1”
Tube Diameter: 20.25”
# of Chambers: 7
Weight: 138 lbs.
MSRP: $5,296
Info: www.clavey.com

Hyside 166 ASBU
Though you still might have to highside if you get off line, you won’t have to worry about punctures as much in the Hyside 166 ASBU, thanks to beefy tubes made of overkill 2,520-denier Hypalon, featuring Hypalon on the inside and out instead of the customary inner layer of neoprene. While this makes the raft Rambo tough, it’s also one of the lightest Hypalon boats on the market, thanks to removing the rub strake, changing the self-bailing floor from laced-in to attached, and employing hinge-and-pin thwarts. Regularly tested on the Kern outside the company’s office in Kernville, Calif., other features include round tubes for a high, stable ride and a urethane-coated bottom for durability and sliding off rocks you do accidentally highside.

W: 6’10”
Tube Diameter: 21”
Weight: 136 lbs.
# of Chambers: 7
MSRP: $4,621
Info: www.hyside.com

NRS Otter 140
The Otter is as venerable a design as there is (nearly as venerable as NRS founder Bill Parks himself). This owes itself to a wide, stable design perfectly suited for oar rigs and big water (for more of a nimble paddle boat, try the slimmer Otter 142 at 6’6” wide). Made from 41-oz., 1,100-denier Hypalon, a key feature of the craft is its proprietary, tracking-friendly I-beam floor that the company calls the “Y” beam, which eliminates sheer failure in the floor beams (the company hasn’t seen a blown I-beam for more than six years). Also look for 40-oz. high density Hypalon gum chafers (those black zebra stripes along the bottom) that provide the slipperiness of urethane with the repair ease of Hypalon.

L: 14’
W: 7’
Tube Diameter: 20”
# of Chambers: 7
Weight: 120 lbs.
MSRP: $3,360
Info: www.nrsweb.com

Vanguard PSB 1402 (PVC-coated polyester)
You’ll be saying en guarde to the river in this Vanguard 14-footer, whose PVC-polyester blend promises a stiff ride with minimal drag. While its tall, 7.25-inch floor (compared to 4.25-inch floors on other rafts) might make it hard to carry dry boxes and coolers as an oar rig, it rides high in the water for sports-car-like responsiveness and horse-to-the-stable tracking as a paddle boat. Its water displacement and maneuverability also make it the perfect fishing platform. Above all, consider it a mortgage-saving raft for the family-man, with its PVC construction—whose attached floor wraps all the way up to the top rub strake–keeping it affordable enough to whisk by the bank without breaking it.

L: 14’2’
W: 6’8”
Tube Diameter: 21”
Weight: 144 lbs.
# of Chambers: 7


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