If you haven't heard of packrafts, you're not alone. They are small, inflatable boats that can be rapidly deployed, deflated, rolled up, and packed. Longmont, Colorado-based Kokopelli is one of the leading manufacturers in this quickly growing space.
"I like to refer to it as an adventure enhancement tool," says Jeff Popp, Kokopelli's general manager and director of product. "There's a time and a place for a hard boat. And there's a time and place for inflatable. I think for most people -- unless you're constantly out on the water -- I think a packraft is such a good middle-ground solution. It takes no space, it doesn't weigh much. But it's gonna give you a really great boating experience and you just don't have to deal with the hassle."
Popp says that it only takes 60 seconds to blow up a packraft and it's easy to put away, too, making it more versatile than a plastic kayak. "Even with an inflatable SUP [stand-up paddleboard], it still takes you 15 minutes to blow up," he says. "Those are high-pressure floors."
Kokopelli founder Kelley Smith became intrigued by packrafts growing up in southwestern Colorado. Finding other options too expensive, he and his friends decided to try and make their own.
"Originally, it wasn't intended to be a business, they just wanted to make their own packrafts for their own personal needs," says Popp. "Eventually, it grew into finding an actual factory to produce their designs."
The company has seen sustained demand since its 2012 launch, and Popp says the company saw more than 50 percent growth in 2021, with sales roughly split between wholesale and direct-to-consumer (DTC) orders. "Our main key accounts are growing at a rate of over 200 percent," he says, citing retailers like REI, Backcountry.com, and West Marine. "We're looking to expand into more really good specialty outdoor shops and pick up a lot more of those small retailers like that, and then also growing our direct business as well."
When Popp joined Kokopelli in 2021, it only had three employees, he says. In a year and half, the company has grown to 11 employees. "Aside from the pandemic boom that every outdoor brand experienced, something that's really driving our growth beyond that is the fact we're offering something that actually is, to most people, a new product in the outdoor space," he says. "We really think there's a big opportunity for people to understand that this is another piece of gear that they can add to what they take out."
Where Kokopelli manufactures
The company manufactures in multiple countries in Asia, including China, Vietnam, and Taiwan. "We try to have different factories make the same things because we try to mitigate risk by spreading it across different factories so if one shuts down we still have another one that's capable of making that same product," says Popp. "We design everything here, send tech packs out to our factory partners to get counter sampling going. Once those tech packs go to the factory, then we're really moving in more of the development phase, and that's that collaboration back and forth."
Popp says that most of the factories the company uses have been in the inflatables industry for upwards of 40 years. "They may not necessarily have a history making packrafts because it's kind of a different niche within watersports.The construction method is all the same as far as the glue and processes."
"Certain factories are more adept or better at making certain types of things," he adds. "A lot of top brands make bags in Vietnam, whereas factories in China and Taiwan are a lot better at welding and gluing, so they end up being a better option for that kind of construction."
Kokopelli has not been hindered by issues with the supply chain. "Fortunately, our founder, Kelley, had the foresight when this all started happening to really expand and diversify our factories . . . so we really mitigate that risk across several factories," says Popp. "So our supply chain didn't get, you know, dinged too hard."
It also helps that the thermoplastic polyurethane (TPU) fabrics most packrafts are made out of are produced in Taiwan and China. "They are hands-down the leader in manufacturing those types of materials," says Popp.
While he doesn't rule out domestic manufacturing in the future, he notes, "There's just so much more highly skilled labor and technology and machines and stuff offshore that can really deliver the best value of products to our customers."
"This community of packrafting is just growing," Popp says. "People are making that natural association with the recreational activities they're already doing. Most people really haven't heard of it yet, but as soon as they learn about it you see that lightbulb go on over their head and they're like, 'Wow, that's so cool. I could use that on the river or I could just take it on a hike.'"
As Kokopelli develops new products, Popp anticipates more competition in the future. "It's really us and one other company that are the main players, but you're starting to see some brands in Europe expand on it," he says. "We're going to have more competition and that's great. It's going to drive innovation.
As it grows, the company may adopt a different strategy for distribution. "We're pretty packed to the gills with the growth we've had, and our warehouse is pretty full," Popp says. "We're definitely evaluating our next move. Right now, we're fulfilling all of our own shipping and warehousing. In the future, we're potentially looking at bringing more of a 3PL model on and maybe we just migrate to office space."