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by Paul Butler - Port Angeles, Washington - USA

The BackPacker is a simplified cut down version of a much larger dory hull midsection, and its light enough to strap to a backpack and walk for miles over mountain trails. Considering both the advantages and limitations of size the BackPacker works for drifting small streams, as a hard shell fishing platform and a general recreation boat. Think for a moment of those pristine lakes hidden at the ends of mountain trails, with deep blue holes out in the middle where you know the big ones are hiding. Or walk up to the headwaters of little streams wandering through woods, pastures and hills, launch and float back down.


The 5 foot long 25 pound hull can be packed or even trailered, and if ultra-lightweight is a priority with careful building the hull can go under 25 pounds. Dual skegs can be epoxied on to provide an axle location to mount wheels for pulling or trailering behind a bicycle, dirt bike or quad. Small wheels can be left in place to facilitate launch and retrieval, or larger bicycle size wheels usually work best on rough terrain and can quickly be removed. The twin skegs on the bottom are optional and probably should be left off if the boat is used primarily for drifting, but thin timber battens can also be glued to the bottom for support and protection. On really small waterways where a longer boat might get sideways this little tub can be pulled easily out of the water and with the slick graphite bottom can be dragged on a tether around beaver dams, deadfall strainers and shallows.

It rows about as efficiently as a coracle, maybe a little better when fitted with optional skegs, and a demountable double bladed kayak paddle can be used one-piece or in two separate oar sections. Multiple oarlocks can be fitted anywhere along the sheer if you're really into rowing or small oar loops also work. If you're into real horsepower the smallest of trolling motors will push these boats way above hull speed. The most stable position is sitting on the bottom of the boat in an adjustable canoe chair, but an elevated ply seat might also be appropriate in millpond conditions. Seating needs to be adjustable to suit any loading situation and oarlock location.

The single chine is an easy hull form for amateur builders and there are no scarfs, butt-blocks or doublers required, and no critical woodwork unless fancy trim wood is added. The watertight compartments provide secure dry storage and comes in handy as flotation should the hull accidentally fill with water. Additional compartments can be added as required and access to all compartments is via plastic Beckson screw-outs which install in minutes. A single gunwale strip may be sufficient or both an in-wale and out-wale strip can be laminated onto the topsides along the sheer line and multiple oarlock sockets can be positioned to allow rowing from any position in the boat and facing either direction.

BackPacker Plus

As soon as we put the 5 foot BackPacker on the website we started getting emails from builders wanting to expand the basic design. Always one to encourage innovative builders, the resulting Plus version is 6 foot 8 inches overall and construction techniques are exactly the same. The Plus as shown weighs 43 pounds. This is almost a serious boat! Starting at this size the addition of just over a foot and a half length and corresponding beam provides almost three times the capacity of the 5 footer and considerable additional stability. The Plus works best as a solo boat but on flat water. There is room for 2 adults to sit one behind the other or even side by side. Watertight dividers are located midships inside the port and starboard compartments to isolate spaces and provide support when using the compartment deck as a seat.

Its hard to get much more capacity and ability in a package this small. This larger version makes a decent "pocket" drifter for moderate whitewater and overall length is still less than 7 feet which allows the boat to fit inside small truck beds or on compact car racks. As a drifter it will spin easily to hold the boat in current and has the same amount of rocker in the bottom as the smaller version but its spread over a longer bottom which make the Plus somewhat more efficient for rowing and motoring. The angled sides and wedge shaped hull increases beam and waterline length so the boat gains stability as it is loaded and sinks deeper in the water. As a drifter it becomes more of a solo boat with room for gear, but this is after all just a 6 foot 8 inch boat!

Compartment size options depend on how you plan to use the boat, but they can't be eliminated completely. The most popular layout will probably be a port and starboard compartment as shown which also serves as a seat support. Seating can be a simple removable plank or two laid side to side at the appropriate location to balance the boat according to load, and in case you feel the need to nap there is also room for a six foot person to stretch out full length on the bottom.

This version with its wider beam works well with 4 foot or maybe 5 foot oars in open water. As with both these boats the skeg structure - either a dual skeg or a single longer keel for directional control when rowing or motoring entirely optional, and if used for drifting anything under the boat is usually just a hindrance. Dual skegs are intended mostly as a simple axle support but if you need wheels its about the simplest method. Buy the axle and wheels before you cut out your skeg profile to make sure you have clearance. Attach the sacrificial skegs or keels of scrap ply to the bottom with epoxy fillets.

Construction is a variation of traditional stitch and glue techniques or the boat can be built using traditional wood boatbuilding methods or a combination. The bottom is sheathed with fiberglass cloth and graphite and seams are covered with glass tape. Aside from hardware attachments no metal fastenings are required in the boat and no critical wood working skills are required. The idea is to build a customized version that suits individual needs, and a backyard pond boat for the grandkids might be completely different from an ultralight fly-fishing platform. If you're really interested in lightweight but quality plywood and get a selection of low and high density epoxy fillers and make some attempt to engineer fillets to match the strength of the wood. Don't use sanding dust. The degree of final finish is entirely optional ranging from basic workboat utilitarian to a labor intensive high-gloss yacht finish. This bigger Plus version is no longer a "backpacker" but still a lightweight that makes an easy car-topper.

Building plans for both the BackPacker and BackPacker Plus are $42 and include 22 pages of photos, sketches, discussion of options, material sources and step-by-step, all written for amateur and first-time builders.

To order plans by mail write: Butler Projects, Box 1917, Port Angeles, WA 98362

See photos of both boats at:

Or contact for additional information.

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