GEAR REVIEW: AIRE Inflatable Boats
Inflatable rafts, catarafts, and packrafts are the preferred means of travel throughout much of Alaska. With over 365,000 miles of rivers in the state, our rivers are our roads. So whether you're fishing, hunting, or just moving through the country, it's just a matter of time until you find yourself in an inflatable boat.
AIRE is the largest manufacturer of inflatable boats in the United States. From their humble beginnings in Meridian, Idaho, they have enjoyed meteoric growth in the last two decades. There are some very good reasons for their popularity; innovative design, huge product variety, and a warranty that just rips the competition. Let's break it down.
AIRE is currently the only company on the market to use a true shell-and-liner system successfully. Essentially the air is retained by a thin (yet very strong) urethane bladder, which is supported and protected on the outside by a tough PVC shell. A zipper runs the length of the tubes, and is the single means of access to the inner bladder. This makes repair in field conditions so simple that anyone can do it. Simply unzip the shell, locate the puncture, tape the hole with the supplied urethane tape, zip it all back together and you're back in business. You can't do that with any other inflatable boat. For larger tears, supplement your field repair by stitching the outer shell to keep the bladder from rupturing out through the laceration, and back the stitching with urethane tape or duct tape on the inside of the tube, to keep sand and debris out. If you elect to patch the outer shell, you can do it in the convenience of your garage. Patch the inside of the shell so you cannot see the patch from the outside, and you eliminate patch edges that can catch and peel in the field.
AIRE offers three styles of catarafts in their main line; the Performance Series is their standard, all-purpose cataraft design, the Expedition Seriesincludes their larger-capacity tubes, and the Wave Destroyer Series have sharply-upturned bows and sterns designed for the steep drops, holes and reversals found on aggressive whitewater runs. The average expedition or weekend rafter in Alaska is not generally looking for a whitewater playboat, so our discussion here will focus on the Performance and the Expedition boats. Here are the stats on the various sizes:
|Model||Length||Tube Dia.||Weight||Kick||Rating||2014 Pricing|
|Jaguarundi||16'||24"||84 lbs.||28"||1,099 lbs.||$2,565|
|Leopard||18'||26.5"||105 lbs.||29"||1,427 lbs.||$2,898|
|Lion 14'||14'||25.5"||89 lbs.||27"||1,280 lbs.||$2,565|
|Lion 16'||16'||27.5"||96 lbs.||32"||1,679 lbs.||$2,787|
|Lion 18'||18'||27.5"||110 lbs.||32"||2,078 lbs.||$3,009|
The Wave Destroyer 12 and the Wave Destroyer 14, the smallest in AIRE's cataraft lineup, are great two-person boats for day trips, but could also be used as single-person catarafts on longer expeditions; Their light weight and compact size make them ideal for loading in an aircraft and for floating shallow, rocky streams. The addition of a set of light-weight composite oars such as the Cataract Mini Magnum series would be ideal where weight is an issue.
Next in line, and bridging the gap between the light-weight weekend boats and the expedition catarafts is the Jaguarundi. This sixteen-footer has enough lift for two people and a very light gear load, or for one person and the heavy loads typical of an expedition float or for float hunting. Properly loaded, the Jag is nimble and very responsive, an aspect made possible by it's relatively short, nine-foot waterline. For longer expedition floats this boat can be custom-fitted to handle a small outboard for situations where take-out locations are far apart and faster downstream travel is necessary.
The Leopard is an excellent choice for larger groups on weekend floats, or for two or three people on long expedition floats. This boat is ideally suited for outboard use and can be rigged with a small light-weight adjustable transom for smaller motors, or with a larger plate for outboards between 20 and 35 horsepower. With the larger outboards, special rigging is required in order to control the wake and spray that results from pushing the tubes through the water at higher speeds (see our Catarafts Page for details on rigging a cataraft for an outboard).
The Lion 14 and the Lion 16 represent a departure from AIRE's conventional hull design into the larger-diameter load haulers in their Expedition Series. The blunt bow and stern, together with the oversized tubes, make these boats ideal for hauling big loads on relatively flat water. But for floaters needing to run larger outboards the Lions are not a good choice, as the bow tends to plow like a barge, particularly when heavily-loaded. The Lion is not well suited for whitewater either, as the blunt bow can cause the boat to stall in holes. This boat is best suited for dead-drifting on slow Class I or Class II rivers.
The Big Load-Haulers
AIRE makes two boats by special order only (these boats are not listed in their catalogs), and each can be found on occasion on the used market. Each of them is 18' long, and both use double tubes on each side. They are ideal for expeditions where large capacity is required.
|Cougar||18'||18" x 18"||106 lbs.||20"||1,836 lbs.||$2,500|
|Super Leopard||18'||26" x 16"||140 lbs.||30"||1,850 lbs.||$4,564|
|Lion 18'||18'||27.5"||110 lbs.||32"||2,078 lbs.||$3,009|
The Cougar's twin 18" tubes give the boat a relatively low, flat profile that's perfect for heavy loads on rivers where upstream headwinds are an issue (cats with larger tubes are more easily blown around by the wind in open country found in many parts of Alaska). The low profile provides the opportunity for a flat floor, offering simplicity in the loading process. Finally, the flat frames that go with the Cougar are much simpler to set up and require fewer pieces, a consideration on fly-out trips where weight is an issue. Cougars can be rigged to run an outboard, however if you intend to get the boat up on step, measures must be taken to prevent water from shooting up between each set of tubes (the tubes are laced together with 1/4" nylon rope), as well as between both sets of tubes, just forward of the transom.
The last of the special-order boats, the Super Leopard is designed specifically for expedition use by people who prefer a drop floor system, as opposed to the Cougar's flat floor. The tubes consist of a larger outer tube, with a smaller inner sponson. A conventional Leopard frame will work on this boat, eliminating the need for a custom frame. The Super Leopard performs well with an outboard, however as is the case with all catarafts, a flooring system is needed to control spray and upwelling between the tubes. Because the Super Leopard's outer tubes are so large, it is pushed around by the wind a bit more than the Cougar, however both boats are still far superior in that regard to round boats that have a bow rise that can act as a sail.
The newest of AIRE's inflatable mega yachts, the Lion 18' is a single-tube boat with a large tube diameter, which creates quite a bit of lift. AIRE rates this boat's capacity at about 200# more than the Super Leopard, with a reduction in boat weight of 30#. This could very well be the ultimate load hauler. Remember that this boat has a higher bow rise and will give you a little trouble in strong upstream headwinds.
NOTE: For more information on catarafts and their limitations, refer to our Catarafts Page.
AIRE Round Boats
Most boat manufacturers stick to the traditional "round boat" design; the side tubes, bow and stern are a uniform diameter, and the bow and stern are the shape of a half-circle. AIRE does that too, but they have produced some innovative changes that are ideal for certain niche markets. Some of them are ideal for certain trips in Alaska.
The R-series boats ("R" stands for "rounded bow and stern") are the traditional design, with uniform tube size and curved, half-circle bow and stern sections. These boats are the bread-and-butter style that will work for just about any type of trip in Alaska.
The D-series boats are named for the "diminished" tubes found in the bow and stern section. These boats have smaller tubes in the front and back than they have along the sides. The purpose of this is to create additional space inside the boat. Normally a diminished tube size in the bow or stern would result in a wetter ride because of splash-overs in rough water. But AIRE gave these boats a higher bow and stern rise to help prevent this, and it works. These boats are ideal for expedition-length trips in Alaska, where larger gear loads are common.
The E-series boat gets its name from the bullet-shaped or "elliptical" bow. This bow configuration, combined with the relatively flat stern, gives this boat greater performance characteristics for floaters who need to run a small outboard. This is a common situation in places like the upper Kenai River, where an outboard can save hours of rowing in the 15-mile stretch across Skilak Lake to the boat ramp, or for other rivers with slow sections and upstream headwinds. The flat transom lends itself well to over-the-tube transom systems, however you will have to add a D-ring to the inside of the boat to help secure the transom. Alternatively you could simply run a strap from the inside of the transom mount and down through the floor lacing.
The Tributary boats are offered as a cheaper, entry-level boat, and are produced overseas. They carry a five-year warranty (as opposed to AIRE's standard 10-year, no fault warranty). The material is thinner, the boats are lighter, and they will not last as long as AIRE's main line. But for some boaters, the price tag makes all the difference. The "Trib" boats come in standard floor or self-bailing models, and all of them are the traditional round boat shape. Tributaries are available as either self-bailers (SB series) or as standard floor (SF series). All of the Tributary boats have conventional rounded bow and stern sections.
Here's a comparative overview of AIRE's round boats:
|Model||Length||Tube Dia.||Width||Weight||Kick||Rating||2014 Pricing|
|9.5SB (Trib. bailer)||9'7"||18"||5'4"||69 lbs.||9"||800 lbs.||$1,799|
|12.0SB (Trib. bailer)||12'||18"||6'1"||105 lbs.||9.75"||1220 lbs.||$2,549|
|13.0SB (Trib. bailer)||13'3"||19"||6'8"||115 lbs.||13.5"||1320 lbs.||$2,799|
|130R(round bailer)||13'2"||19.5"||6'6"||122 lbs.||10.5"||1123 lbs.||$3,992|
|130D (diminished bailer)||13'||19"||6'4"||120 lbs.||12"||1150 lbs.||$3,992|
|130E (elliptical bailer)||13'2"||19.5"||6'2"||115 lbs.||13"||1126 lbs.||$3,992|
|14.0SB (Trib. bailer)||14'3"||20"||6'10"||123 lbs.||9.5"||1600 lbs.||$2,999|
|143R (round bailer)||14'3"||20"||6'8"||146 lbs.||10"||1496 lbs.||$4,237|
|143D (diminished bailer)||14'3"||20"||6'8"||146 lbs.||10"||1575 lbs.||$4,237|
|143E (elliptical bailer)||14'5"||20"||6'7"||136 lbs.||12"||1480 lbs.||$4,237|
|156R (round bailer)||15'9"||22"||7'2"||169 lbs.||12"||2240 lbs.||$4,484|
|156D (diminished bailer)||15'7"||22"||7'||169 lbs.||12"||1876 lbs.||$4,484|
|156E (elliptical bailer)||15'10"||21.5"||7'1"||159 lbs.||14"||1872 lbs.||$4,484|
|160 Double-D||16'||21"||7'3"||175 lbs.||12"||1670 lbs.||$4,893|
|16.0SB (Trib. bailer)||16'||22"||7'2.5"||170 lbs.||15"||1800 lbs.||$3,399|
|176R (round bailer)||17'7"||22"||7'8"||190 lbs.||12"||2384 lbs.||$6,378|
|183R (round bailer)||18'4"||22"||8'3"||220 lbs.||11"||2668 lbs.||$6,545|
AIRE Canoes & Kayaks
AIRE originated as a whitewater company, and for several years catered to the whitewater market. It wasn't long before they broke into the inflatable kayak (IK) market in a big way. They make several types of IKs, including whitewater boats and sea kayaks. They also make an inflatable canoe, the Traveler, which has been noticed by an increasing number of expedition boaters in Alaska. Almost all of AIRE's IKs have removable seats with backrests for those long days on the water.
For floaters looking for a way to access smaller streams, oxbow ponds (old river channels just off the main river), lakes, and small streams that may require backpack access, The Traveler, Outfitter, or Lynx series should be given a serious look. For those with similar needs, but on a tighter budget, look at the Tomcat or Sawtooth boats. All of these will accommodate one or two paddlers and a light gear load. Hunters can use these boats to shuttle game meat out to the main river on float hunts.
The Force is AIRE's answer to a small, one-person hardshell kayak. At a scant 9.5 feet in length, this is the one you want if you are looking for a nimble IK that rivals a hardshell boat.
The Outfitter I and II have the largest tube diameter and widest footprint of any of the AIRE IKs. They're excellent Alaska expedition boats where loads are larger and greater capacity is required.
The Lynx series, consisting of the Lynx I and II, and the Super Lynx, are AIRE's most popular IKs. Their smaller tubes translate to reduced load capacity, however they are more than adequate for day or weekend trips, or for longer expeditions where weight is kept to a minimum.
AIRE's inflatable canoe, the Traveler, is an excellent choice for floaters who need a very light-weight, narrow boat for small streams or for narrow rivers with lots of overhanging vegetation or sweepers. Hunters like this boat on rivers with oxbow sloughs and ponds just off the main river, because the boat can be easily dragged or portaged through the woods to these hotspots that are rarely hunted.
Because the boat is made of slick PVC material, it slides over wet grass or tundra with ease. Therefore it can be lightly-loaded with gear and used as a sled in portage situations.
The Sea Tiger is AIRE's only sea kayak. It's rudder system and 18-foot length make it ideal for Southeast Alaska, Prince William Sound, Katchemak Bay and other places the hard-shell boats go. The Sea Tiger comes with back-rest seats that greatly add to a paddler's comfort on those long days on the water.
AIRE makes a cheaper line of IKs in their Tributary series. Consisting of their Tomcat, Strike, and Sawtooth line, these boats are great for casual use. The fabric is thinner than the regular AIRE line, and the warranty is limited to five years. As is the case with the Tributary round boats, the IKs are made overseas.
|Model||Length||Tube Dia.||Width||Weight||Kick||Rating||2014 Pricing|
|Tomcat LV ( Trib. kayak)||8'4"||11.5"||28"||26.5||11.5"||260 lbs.||$449|
|Force (kayak)||9'6"||10.5"||36"||32 lbs.||11"||275 lbs.||$1,599|
|Outfitter I (kayak)||9'11"||12.5"||40"||36 lbs.||19.5"||400 lbs||$1,399|
|Lynx I (kayak)||10'1"||11"||37"||32 lbs.||15"||350 lbs.||$1,399|
|Tomcat Solo (Trib. kayak)||10'3"||11.5"||36"||40 lbs.||15"||325 lbs.||$599|
|Strike (Trib. kayak)||10'3"||10.5"||37.5"||36 lbs.||10.5"||300 lbs.||$799|
|Outfitter II (kayak)||12'5"||12.5"||41"||46 lbs.||18.5"||525 lbs.||$1,499|
|Lynx II (kayak)||12'6"||11.5"||39"||43 lbs.||15"||475 lbs.||$1,499|
|Strike 2 (Trib. kayak)||12'6"||10.75"||37.5"||47 lbs.||9.25"||450 lbs.||$999|
|Tomcat Tandem (Trib. kayak)||12'9"||12"||38.5"||54 lbs.||15"||450 lbs.||$749|
|Sawtooth (Trib. touring kayak)||13'3"||9"||32"||42 lbs.||9"||400 lbs.||$749|
|Super Lynx (kayak)||14'||11"||37"||46 lbs.||9"||600 lbs.||$1,619|
|Traveler (canoe)||15'1"||14"||47"||70 lbs.||9"||750 lbs.||$2,159|
|Power Traveler (power canoe)||15'1"||14"||47"||70 lbs.||9"||784 lbs.||$2,329|
|Sea Tiger (sea kayak)||18'||10.5"||36"||62 lbs.||9"||750 lbs.||$2,489|
AIRE Hybrid Inflatables
AIRE pioneered the inflatable drift boat. Copied by several other companies (see our Hybrid Boats page), the Puma series is essentially a narrow round boat with a bullet-shaped bow and stern. The boats are primarily designed as a one or two-person fishing rig for rivers where back-rowing or anchoring is necessary because of the fishing tactics used. It's become a very popular design for salmon / steelhead anglers in the Pacific Northwest, and has garnered a lot of attention in Alaska not only for it's intended purpose, but also for a supplemental / overflow boat on expeditions. It's narrow profile makes it an excellent choice for narrow streams with overhanging brush or sweepers. Note that the Puma is only available as a self-bailer. It is also available constructed with urethane for greater durability and performance, at an extra cost.
|Model||Length||Tube Dia.||Width||Weight||Kick||Rating||2014 Pricing|
|Puma||11'6"||18"||5'6"||89 lbs.||12"||872 lbs.||$2,760|
|Super Puma||13'1"||18.5"||5'8"||100 lbs.||14"||986 lbs.||$3,013|
|Super Duper Puma||14'||19"||5'11"||115 lbs.||15"||1158 lbs.||$3,626|
A Word About Raft Capacities
There are no industry standards for identifying the true carrying capacity of an inflatable boat in field conditions. From one perspective, a boat's capacity is equal to the amount of weight it can carry before it sinks. But clearly this number is useless in field conditions, where maneuverability and the ability to float over obstacles in shallow water is king. The real numbers are subjective to the goals of the floater and the conditions they'll encounter on a particular river. Be that as it may, buyers should know that there's a big difference between rated capacities and working capacities.
The Amazing AIRE Warranty
AIRE carries the industry's only ten-year, no-fault warranty. What this means to you is that no matter what the cause, your boat is covered for the first ten years of its life. Where some companies reserve the right to "evaluate" the cause of damage and exempt certain repairs, AIRE covers it all. Your boat flies off the trailer and is smacked by a semi? No problem. Your boat is mauled by a bear? You're covered. Fabric is weather-checked and brittle? They'll take care of it. And, unlike other warranties, this one covers the boat, not the owner. That means that no matter how many times the boat has changed hands, it's covered for the first ten years. The boat in this photo, a Super Leopard, had severely weather-checked fabric, and two years left on the warranty. AIRE replaced both tubes at no cost to the owner.
Is Your Boat Covered?
The last two digits of the serial number of your boat are the year it was manufactured. Simply locate the serial number (it's sewn to the hull, or, in the case of catarafts, a serial number is applied to each tube), and check the last two digits. If they are within the last ten years, you're covered.
How Does it Work?
In most cases warranty work is taken care of at a local AIRE dealer. However in cases of major damage or if the tubes need to be replaced, the boat is sent to AIRE. You have to pay the shipping to them, and they cover the return shipping.
The outer shells of most AIRE boats is PVC, a softer material that shows scuffs, abrasions and gouges more easily than any of the rubber fabrics or urethane. Whereas these materials wear evenly, PVC will gouge at times.
A second issue pertaining to PVC is its stiffness when it's cold. This is a limitation when it comes to loading the boat into a small aircraft, as the rolled up tubes will certainly take up more space in the aircraft than a comparable rubber boat. Additionally there are concerns about the material cracking if the boat is handled while stored in an unheated area in Alaska, where the winter temperatures can dip below -50 F. If you store your boat in these conditions, don't move it or try to roll or unroll it or you could be at risk of damaging it. Instead, store it in a heated area or wait until the temperature rises to at least -30 before moving it.
AIRE's construction method, with the PVC shell containing a urethane inner bladder, makes their boats heavier than most rubber boats and all other plastic boats of comparable size. See the accompanying chart for details:
|AIRE 143R||14'3"||146 lbs.|
|Maravia Williwaw I||14'||137 lbs.|
|NRS Otter 140||14'||126 lbs.|
|SOTAR ST14E||14'||125 lbs.|
AIRE's innovative designs, coupled with their ten-year no fault warranty makes them one of the best choices for floaters in Alaska. The fact that they have dealers in Alaska who can handle all warranty issues is a huge plus for locals who need quick turn-arounds on repair work.
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