When you think of an ultralight boat, how light are you thinking? Seven pounds? Nine pounds? Think lighter. Much lighter—try a two-pound boat that packs down to the size of a Nalgene.
Supai Adventure Gear, maker of a 24-ounce packable boat, started in Shannon Flowers’ and Aaron Locander’s home in Arizona in 2011. Nearly a decade (and hundreds of boats) later, the company is flourishing… and still operates out of their living room.
No strangers to adventure, Shannon and Aaron are avid backpackers, canyoneers, climbers, and boaters. They combine these backcountry passions in and around the Grand Canyon, the ultimate conglomeration of those adventure sports.
It was on a canyoneering trip around 2008 where Aaron saw a gap in the market he thought he could fill. He ordered a boat off the internet for a river crossing, which arrived weighing five pounds. While this might seem lightweight, consider the immense weight of a typical canyoneering pack.
“Even the most weight-conscious packers are hauling 50 pounds,” Shannon explains. “You don’t do day trips to these canyons, so you’re carrying backpacking and camping gear, wetsuits, ropes, food, and water purifiers.”
On top of that gear, canyoneers often need something to cross the rivers, and they don’t want to add a 5 to 8-pound boat onto their backs. So instead of resigning himself to carrying a five-pound boat, Aaron decided to try to build a lighter one.
“I got home from work one day, and found the living room strewn with patterns and fabric,” says Shannon, laughing.
It took Aaron a solid week, but he built a boat that was three pounds lighter than the one he’d ordered. Though he didn’t have experience building boats, Aaron has an engineering background and a knack for understanding how things work. They fully expected the prototype to “fold like a taco” when they paddled around a friend’s backyard pool, but it stayed afloat for that afternoon and for many river crossings to come.
From that day forward, Aaron and Shannon carried that boat with them on their Grand Canyon trips, devising a system to get the boat back across the river for the next person to use.
Their ultralight boat soon caught the eye of friends and adventure partners. Through word of mouth, Aaron and Shannon started building more boats for people in their immediate circle. The boats caught on quickly, and in 2011, they officially started their company, filling a niche in the market no other brand has been able to fill.
Supai Adventure Gear boats are some of the lightest and least expensive models on the market. Their smaller boat, the Canyon Flatwater Boat, clocks in at 24-ounces with a weight limit of 200 pounds. The larger model, the Matkat Flatwater Boat, weighs 28 ounces and has a weight limit of 325 pounds. Both models are single-person boats, but in a pinch, two people can fit in the larger boat.
The boats manage this incredibly low weight thanks to a lot of research and highly selective fabric choices. The boats are built with a 75D polyester fabric coated with thermoplastic polyurethane (TPU). Most other companies use a heavier fabric more commonly used for whitewater rafting, which brings those boats in around four pounds or more.
Shannon is upfront about the intended use for Supai Adventure Gear boats. “These are not whitewater boats,” she says. “Whitewater boats are built with heavier fabrics and can be bashed into rocks without exploding. Our boats are for crossing flat and calm sections of rivers, and high alpine lakes.”
Supai Adventure Gear typically sells about 120 boats per year, and 140 paddles. This year, they’re rapidly approaching those numbers. Alongside other manufacturers of niche outdoor goods, Shannon and Aaron have seen a massive influx of interest and customers in 2020. “Our boats sell the idea of getting out, getting away, and being alone,” says Shannon. “We’ve been making boats and paddles like crazy to keep up with demand.”
Despite the booming business and high demand, Shannon and Aaron have kept the business operating out of their home, with just the two of them making the gear. The process is finicky enough that they’re conservative about bringing on more people to train, and besides, it’s part of their passion.
From using the boats on their own adventures to hearing about the creative uses for them and having their gear recognized on canyoneering trips, Shannon and Aaron have truly integrated their business and hobbies into one full lifestyle they hope to keep running for the foreseeable future.