When looking to purchase your first aquatic vessel, the common question of: “Should I look for a raft or a drift boat” is often the first that crosses a freshwater angler’s mind. Considering either is a sizeable investment, picking the floating craft that is going to best suit your needs is imperative to dodging the encumbering woe that can be experienced when buying a new outdoor toy.
Whether you’re a guide or just someone who’s looking to increase their river navigability – a boat is a valuable weapon to add to one’s angling arsenal. This is why we teamed up with B&W Trailer Hitches to investigate just exactly what value drift boats and rafts offer when choosing between the two. While our team has spent a considerable time on either of the two, to solidify our findings, we loaded up our trailers, met up with local Roaring Fork guide, Brandon Soucie, and hit the water to talk shop and bump boats.
When it comes to the actual towing of your boat, a drift boat and a raft will perform relatively similarly. The real differentiation will come from your trailer, and your hitch. However, it’s worth noting that when taking sharp turns, and in regard to gas milage, towing a drift boat may require slightly more attention as opposed to a raft – simply due to its weight.
When it comes to loading and unloading your drift boat or raft, you’ll notice that certain vessels come with their own set of advantages and disadvantages.
With trailer rollers and winches, the actual act of loading and unloading a boat, regardless of what kind it is, comes with relative ease. Both require a bit of assistance when it comes to the initial steps taken, but for the most part, simple machines do most of the work for us. The real differentiation of the two isn’t the act of loading and unloading, but more WHERE you can load and unload it.
With rafts, you’re given a lot more flexibility when it comes to what conditions you can load and unload your boat into/ out from. Almost all rafts are made of a very flexible, but durable polyurethane or Hypalon material that protect the raft against abrasion. Because of this as well as a raft’s noticeably lightweight, you can generally squeeze rafts in and out of tighter loading zones, with far less risk of damaging it or hurting yourself. Rafts can also be dragged from lot to spots that are too tight to back a trailer into, making them the perfect boat for someone who’s looking to do some of the grid float fishing.
Drift boats on the other hand are far heavier, and far less equipped to be dragged through anything. This isn’t necessarily because they are fragile or prone to break, however. Many modern-day drift boats possess many layers of reinforcement on the floors, allowing them to compensate for hidden rocks and submerged trees on the water. It’s simply due to their shape and weight that drift boats demand more manicured loading and unloading zones. However, when it comes to the stations where an angler really has to push their boat onto a trailer, drift boats boast a much sturdier frame than rafts, as rafts’ soft body and tied down frame will often budge under immense pressure. These are all factors to take into consideration when deciding which environments you’ll be putting your boat in.
Rowing & Maneuverability:
Rowing a drift boat vs. a raft is largely dependant on the rower’s ability, and less so on the vessel, they’re rowing. However, one factor to take into consideration is how factors such as wind and weight will affect one’s maneuverability.
When it comes to wind and how it will affect your drift, many will argue drift boats are more vulnerable on a gusty afternoon. Oftentimes, a drift boat’s high sides and hull can become sails when the wind really picks up, greatly affecting how much effort a rower will need to put into each oar stroke to combat unwanted changes in course. However, with consideration to this issue, many drift boat manufacturers have begun producing low-sided boats, or even freshwater skiff models to allow for easier maneuvering.
When it comes to wind, rafts oftentimes fair better simply because their frames are constructed of metal piping as opposed to solid siding and gunwales. On the flip side, however, rafts are considerably lighter than drift boats, and, especially on stiller water, can be blown around just as much if not more than drift boats.
Speaking of weight, for the most part, drift boats are always going to weigh more than rafts, considering one is constructed with wood, hard plastics, and metal, and the other is largely comprised of… air.
The weight of your drift boat will of course be mainly affected by what materials the boat is comprised of. Some drift boats are largely plastic, while others possess wooden frames and detailing. When it comes to how weight affects how your boat operates in the water, the two main things that will differ between differently weighted boats will be reaction time, and how easily you can keep your line.
The level of durability you’re looking for is going to depend on two factors: Where you plan on taking your vessel, and, in terms of drift boats, what kind of boat you’re looking for.
To start this off, let’s look at where you’re going to be floating. If you plan on sending your boat down the roaring rapids of the Colorado or the Arkansas (in rowable sections of course), you’re going to worry less on low flows and scraping bottom. Considering many anglers and guides float a multitude of different waters, all with varying flows, something to consider is how much you’ll be scraping.
While most drift boats are designed with extremely abrasion-resistant/ tough floors they will almost always ride lower in the water than rafts. No matter how tough your boat is, constant scraping is never good for longevity. So, if you’re planning on fishing smaller rivers most of the time, you may want to consider looking into a raft. However, and it’s important I include this… an advantage drift boats lend is the ability to reinforce your boat’s hull every couple of years or so. Especially if you’re using a polymer boat, adding new layers to your boat can greatly increase longevity and counteract the impact of scraping. Most responsible drift boat owners will do this on a bi-yearly, if not yearly basis.
This brings me to the next point. Depending on what kind of boat you’re looking for is going to play a large role in its durability. Polymer technology has come a long way over the last decade. So, overall, the newer your boat – the stronger it’ll be. This is simply a product of R&D. Another factor, however, and obviously more important is the material that makes up your boat’s hull. In short, metal boats are going to be the strongest. However, not every angler has the capacity or desire to haul around an extremely heavy metal boat. The takeaway from this is to examine your options and know what’s out there. The last thing you want is to invest in a drift boat and poke a hole in it with a wrong maneuver around a rock.
Okay, let’s talk rafts. In terms of durability, rafts perform surprisingly well. Any raft made before 2010 is most likely going to be of a polyurethane construction with a Hypalon coating. Since 2010, Hypalon has gone out of production and has been replaced with a new chlorosulfonated polyethylene (CP) coating that is extremely similar in performance. Because of their scientifically engineered construction, rafts are highly durable when put up against rocks, trees, or other rafts (we’ve all been there at least once). HOWEVER, rafts can still pop (obviously). Like a drift boat, these vessels aren’t invincible, and going up too fast or too hard against a hard enough and sharp enough object, can lead to a very unfavorable change of events on the river. While most times, where drift boats might scrape or get hung up, rafts have a tendency to “bounce off” objects upon collision, it’s super important to always exercise extreme caution when looking down that run.
This category is one where the skew will be a little more noticeable. On the water, comfort is pretty synonymous with space and ease of movement. For most anglers, guides, in particular, both of these factors will be much easier found between the gunwales of a drift boat.
Due to a drift boat’s solid, and oftentimes larger build, a drift boat offers more space to move around, more space for additional amenities, and a smoother ride overall. Almost any guide worth their salt either possesses or is saving their tips to invest in a drift boat simply because it’s a more enjoyable ride for their clients. That’s not to say there aren’t comfortable rafts out there, and of course, plenty of well-qualified guides may choose to run a raft over a drift boat depending on the water they navigate. It’s just hard to beat solid flooring, dry feet, and lots of additional storage space.
Let’s note this right off the bat: your fishing experience is going to be most affected by your fishing ability. Fishing out of a drift boat/ raft is going to be much different from wade fishing. It might take a couple go’s to really get it down.
This being said, your experience is going to be greatly influenced by all the factors above. Depending on how much gear you want to bring, where you want to fish, how you want to fish, how many anglers you have on board, the competency of your rower, etc… your fishing is going to come down to what you make of it. If having lots of space to dance around is your cup of tea, you may favor a drift boat. If you like to stay low and intimate with the water – maybe look at a raft. This being said, the best advice I can give here is to consider all other variables above and find your balance. The rest will follow.
When it comes to price, you can probably guess which out of the two are going to be more expensive. Needless to say, with luxuries, such as those mentioned above, you’re going to be spending more money.
For a new, freshly built drift boat, you can expect to spend anywhere between $9-10k for a standard Clacka or Hyde, or between $15k-$20k for a new, built-to-order Steathcraft, all the way to $30-40k and above for some of the premium boats incorporating wood finish and custom installments. However, for a used boat, and depending on who you’re haggling with, a water-ready boat will usually sit around $5-10k, sometimes even dipping below $4-3k, depending on age, features, and condition.
When looking for a Raft, it depends whether or not you’re looking for a raft and frame together (a package), or just a raft/ just a frame. For a Raft alone, you can find one from NRS, STAR, or AIRE from around $1-5k. From there, you’ll want to look at a frame, which can usually range an additional $1-2k. Total packages, such as the Aire Puma, can run anywhere from around $7-10k.
If you’re looking to save some time and hassle in looking for matching raft + frames, packages can be worth the little bit of extra spend. Otherwise, rafts are a great way to make a vessel of your own without breaking the bank. Keep in mind, if you’re looking at fishing frames, make sure you check for an anchor system, oarlocks, and other important accessories that will take you down the river. These sometimes do not come included and can often rack up an unexpected and hefty bill.
Storage is one of the largest differentiating factors between a drift boat and a raft. As it goes without saying, a drift boat is going to demand a sizeable larger amount of storage than a raft – largely because it can’t be broken down and deflated. One of the bigger advantages of a raft, especially smaller ones such as an NRS 12′ Otter can be easily deflated and folded up for storage. Raft frames can also be disassembled, and stored alongside the raft itself, allowing for storage in areas as small as one’s truck or van.
If you plan on keeping your raft inflated, make sure to take note of temperature changes and weather. As you may notice, rafts, like many earthly things, adhere to the laws of thermodynamics. Rafts will expand when the temperature heats up, and contract when the temp cools. So, to avoid a plethora of undesirable events, the most extreme of which is popping your raft, make sure to let some air out of your boat during the warmer months of the year. If this isn’t something you want to worry about, maybe consider a drift boat.
With drift boats, it’s important to have a larger driveway, a large garage, or an alternate location to store it as 1. Drift boats should be kept on their trailers at almost all times to avoid potential damage, and 2. you can’t take them apart (duh). However, an easy solution here is finding a leasable safe lot or a buddy’s land where you can store your boat. Just be sure you invest in a boat cover if it’s going to be braving the elements outside of a dependable structure.
In conclusion, there is no clearly defined winner – because it’s really not a competition. Your boat is going to deliver the most value to you based on your needs. For guides who are hosting clients on a consistent basis, drift boats may offer more bang for your buck. For the constant adventurer who likes to explore any and all bodies of water under the sun, maybe consider a raft. In the end, it’s what you want out of a vessel, and only you can determine exactly what that is. Hopefully, the notes above are some help in doing so. Now, stop reading this, grab your rod, and go fishing.
Both boats pictured above were towed with B&W Trailer hitches. When dropping thousands of dollars on a boat, don’t skimp on the mechanism that’s going to be responsible for getting it from point A to point B safely. Thank you to B&W for making this piece possible. To learn more, CLICK HERE.