Self-Bailer vs. Spraydeck Comparison

As we’ve gotten more into whitewater packrafting using our open deck rafts that aren’t necessarily meant for swift water, my boyfriend Tristan and I have been looking to upgrade to whitewater-specific packrafts.

Whitewater packrafts are offered in two basic variations; a self-bailing raft with an inflatable floor and a spray deck raft that you can attach a skirt to.  I tried the spray deck once before for a rescue class, but only had a couple of days in it. Neither of us had ever tried the self-bailer. Both seem really appealing for different reasons, but having never paddled them for any length of time we’ve been a little hesitant about making the investment and committing to one or the other.  We could just buy both in every color if we didn’t have three spoiled dogs that eat the financial equivalent of a chopped up gold brick every month, but we all make our life choices...

Packrafting is still pretty new in the lower 48 and as it gains popularity, the resources online (forums, articles, videos, etc) are starting to increase but we’ve been searching specifically for a really solid comparison of a self-bailing packraft vs. one with a spray deck and haven’t found what we’re looking for.

With that in mind, we decided to try out a loaner model of the spraydeck and self-bailer (Kokopelli’s two “Nirvana” packrafts) and take to the open road on a 2,000 mile Tour de Fun with our van, the dogs, and as much gear as we could cram into two roof boxes for the purpose of doing a side by side comparison of the two packrafts on as many bodies of water as we could.

Castle Lake, California

With that in mind, we decided to try out a loaner model of the spraydeck and self-bailer (Kokopelli’s two “Nirvana” packrafts) and take to the open road on a 2,000 mile Tour de Fun with our van, the dogs, and as much gear as we could cram into two roof boxes for the purpose of doing a side by side comparison of the two packrafts on as many bodies of water as we could.

Our first stop was Castle Lake in Northern California.  Being more of a Type 2 fun person, Tristan would have bombed right into class IV with the self-bailer, but I wanted to get a feel for it on flat water first just to see how it felt paddling a boat with a bunch of holes in the bottom.

My first impression: even though you have a thick inflatable floor, you are going to get WET.

Not a problem at all on a warm day but if you’re not wearing waterproof bottoms and you’re expecting dry underpants when you get off the water, you’re in for a surprise.  It tracked really well on the lake; I noticed a little sluggishness when I was trying to paddle hard across the water, but it wasn’t nearly as bad as I was anticipating. The other nice thing about the self-bailer is that it’s dog-friendly.  With an open deck, the puppy could come along for the ride too.

McCloud River, California

After we did some hiking and spent the night on Mt. Shasta, we headed into the Shasta-Trinity National Forest and found the McCloud River.  It’s a clear, cold and beautiful rocky river surrounded by mini-gorges and forests; we didn’t have a whole lot of beta on it so we just did some scouting as best we could from the road and the trail.  It looked bony but runnable, so we decided to read and run it on the fly and send a couple of short sections. For the first section, Tristan was in the spraydeck packraft and I was in the self-bailer.

This was my first time paddling the self-bailer in moving water and it felt pretty different than the packrafts I’ve been using up to this point.  The first thing I noticed was that I was sitting up quite a bit higher than I was used to, which made me feel a little more tippy. The river didn’t give me much of a chance to get used to this because we were off and maneuvering through rock gardens as soon as we got into the boats.  The second thing I noticed…

...was that when you get booted off the side of a rock into the river, it’s  easier to get back in.  Just hop in and go; it’s so nice.  If you were on a river that required a bunch of scoping or portages, this would be a great boat to have for that. I accidentally tested out the ease of wet reentry twice more during our first stretch of river, just to make sure it was as easy as the first one (it was). 

Tristan had an easier time on that same stretch in the spray deck model.  He said that at first, it was a bit of a hassle to get the plastic coping attached to the deck and then the spray skirt attached to the coping and that he was worried about feeling a little trapped in it.  But once he paddled for a bit, he felt pretty at one with it paddling around the rocks and over all the little drops and didn’t have any issues navigating anything.

After we ran the first section, we switched boats.  His previous kayaking experience was with sit-on-top kayaks so the self-bailer feeling was a little more familiar to him than it was to me;  even though he felt the same tippy-ness that I experienced, he knew how to work with that a little better than I did.

I definitely felt more in control in the spray deck packraft as compared to first run in the self-bailer.  I was more confident leaning, hitting features and doing small drops. After the ease of getting in and out of the self-bailer, though, I was spoiled and didn’t want to have to bother with the spray skirt.

Rush Creek, California

The next river we visited was Rush Creek in the Eastern Sierras by Mono Lake.  This brushy desert beauty kicked both of our asses with a couple of unexpected mandatory portages through tall brush that gave us the neck-down exfoliation of a lifetime and a strainer that I didn’t navigate correctly and ended up going for a scary swim under.

To its credit, the spray skirt came off easily when I got stuck and yanked the pull tab, and the packraft made it through a spiky downed tree unscathed (unlike my legs). I was busy fishing my belongings out of the river and trying to find my GoPro (which I realized was missing - it’s still in the creek somewhere, RIP) when I got a call from Tristan who had tripped over a downed and partially buried barbed wire fence and gotten stuck in it.

After a few more exfoliation sessions running through the brush looking for him, I got him untangled and we put back into the river, now two hours into our “thirty-minute paddle.” I think I would have much preferred the self-bailer on this run because we had to get in and out so many times. Watching Tristan pop back into his raft and go while I got my spray skirt straightened out and reattached made me pretty envious.  It was a hot day, too, and it was getting a little toasty under the hood in my rig. The cool water would have been a plus in that weather.

We were rewarded at the end, however, with a super fun concrete gauge just past a culvert that we sent a bunch of times.  It was a little terrifying for me at first shooting through a culvert and then taking a drop, but after a couple of hits, it was a blast to go charging through a culvert then soaring a few feet into a pile of pillowy water.

Yuba River, California 

After Rush Creek, we headed out to Yosemite for a little climbing and hiking then took our first bath in more days than I care to admit in the hot springs en route the California/Nevada border. Once we got to the Tahoe area, we scoped a bunch of spots on the Yuba River. It is a beautiful river but wow is it rowdy… much to Tristan’s dismay I spent most of our scoping mission saying “ooohh, nooope… no, not that one… or that one, either… eeehh, we need like 12 safety boats to hit that… maybe let’s just go send the pool at the rec center?” But we found a fun little section to run and did some hot laps in both the spray deck and the self-bailer packrafts to get a good side-by-side.

The thing we both seemed to agree on the most was that the self-bailer feels more like a personal whitewater raft, which can be really fun and a little wilder.  Because it gets some water weight in it, it punches through waves and plows across rapids a little more. The spray deck packraft feels more like a kayak; poppy and very responsive, and easier to be more technical with.  We didn’t get to try the self-bailer with thigh straps, but I think that would make it a lot easier to maneuver and use more technique with.

With the Yuba River in the rearview, we cruised up to Nevada and the Truckee Whitewater Park in Reno.  This was something I was really looking forward to because as a less experienced paddler, I was super stoked about having some structured play features to learn in with controlled consequences.  The park there is beautiful and it’s really cool to go whitewater packrafting in the middle of a city.

We each ran a few laps through the park in both packrafts, and that was a great way to really get a feel for how they handle.  Tristan, who’s a more experienced paddler than me with better technique, liked the responsiveness of the spray deck packraft better when going through the gates.  With the self-bailer, any water that’s in your boat is coming with you when you try to change direction or so it’s not quite as responsive. I found that this actually worked great for me because as a less technically sound paddler I tend to oversteer, and the slower response time worked well for me to keep my direction true. 

Though I felt more comfortable going through rapids and drops in the spray deck, I stayed on track better and hit way more gates through the course in the self-bailer than I did in the spray deck.

We really expected one of the packrafts to way outperform the other and that it would be an easy decision to choose between the two, but it truly does come down to what’s best for your individual needs.  Exactly what I don’t want to hear when I’m reading an article and trying to choose between two things, so… sorry!  But the fact of the matter is, there is no real “quiver killer” like we were hoping.

Nirvana Self-Bailer vs. Spraydeck Breakdown

In the name of decision-making, though, we did make ourselves choose in two different “if you could only have one” scenarios:

Question: If you could have one whitewater packraft in addition to your current open deck packraft, which model would it be? 

Answer: Spray Deck.  We both currently own lightweight open deck packrafts (a Hornet Lite and a Castaway) that are good for hiking with, paddling with the dogs, lakes and chill rivers, so if we got to adda packraft to that kit, we’d want the spray deck one for whitewater.  It would be better for all-season use and we both felt more confident paddling rapids in it.

Question: Pretending you don’t already own any packrafts, if you could only have ONE packraft at all, which would model would it be?

Answer: Self-Bailer. This would be the most “jack of all trades” boats for our needs.  Still light enough to hike with, the dogs can sit in it, fine for flat water and very whitewater capable as well (but we’d definitely get the thigh straps for whitewater paddling).  Not as great for all seasons, but for our needs this would be the best compromise for everything we’d want to use one packraft for.

If you’re anything like me, you like things in a nice concise list when you’re trying to compare and contrast two things.  So for those like-minded people (I blame being a Virgo, but really I think I’m just anal-retentive) here is an abbreviated version of everything above, in a tidy pro/con list:

NIRVANA SELF-BAILER

Pros:

  • Though it’s not substantially lighter, it feels lighter and it packs down a little smaller (the spray deck adds a bit of bulk on the other one)
  • It dries off quicker.  The spray deck requires toweling on the inside to get it dry
  • Easier to get in and out of the boat (portages, scouting, re-entry, etc)
  • Dog-friendly
  • Refreshing to paddle when it’s hot out and getting wet is a plus
  • You can smash through rapids more like you’re in a whitewater raft

Cons:

  • You sit up higher and it feels a little bit tippier
  • A little more sluggish to turn and maneuver
  • Not so good for cold water paddling if you don’t have a drysuit
  • Spits you out on bigger drops and waves (thigh straps would likely help with this)
  • Not the best if you’re trying to get across a lot of flatwater

Nirvana Self-Bailer Review:

I’m a huge fan of the Nirvana Self Bailer. I love the self bailer because you can easily hop in and out, and if you flip, it’s possible to get back in mid-rapid - as was the case for me when paddling some of the larger waves on the Grand Canyon.” - @JoeySchusler

NIRVANA SPRAYDECK 

Pros:

  • You feel a little more “at one” with your packraft
  • Way drier ride, better for cold temps
  • Easier to lean/use your body to control the raft
  • We didn’t try rolling it, but that would probably be a lot easier in this packraft
  • Easier to strap things to the bow (pack, bike, etc)
  • Better if you’ll be in flat water a lot

Cons:

  • Spraydeck coping and spray skirt can be a hassle until you get used to it
  • A little heavier/more things to carry
  • More of a challenge to clean and dry
  • Harder to get back into after you get tossed
  • Not good for bringing the dog

Nirvana Spraydeck Review:

"The Nirvana spraydeck is my go-to packraft for whitewater. It feels like an inflatable version of a hard-sided whitewater kayak, yet 1/4 the weight. With the spraydeck, spray skirt, and thigh straps, it’s like the packraft is an extension of you. It’s responsive, stable, and forgiving, great for whitewater beginners to experts. It’s great in low flow creeks to big water wave trains to surfing waves and holes. The spray deck/skirt combo keeps you dry making it a great choice for getting after it year-round." -Tristan Burnham @SickerThanYou

If you have any questions that weren’t answered in this post or if you just want to tell us how awesome we are, feel free to holler at either of us (@beccatarbox and @sickerthanyou on Instagram).  If you want to tell us we’re idiots, we already know that, so just call your mom instead and tell her she’s a lovely woman.

Happy Paddling!