If you have ever witnessed boaters fighting against whitewater currents or battling with class IV rapids on the McKenzie and Rogue rivers in Oregon then you will likely have seen two of the most iconic river runners in existence – the drift boat and the raft. With both boats running the same rivers, and apparently doing the same things, what is the difference between them? Let’s find out in this battle of the boats – drift boat vs raft.
A drift boat is a rowboat that is propelled by oars and used for river running and fishing. A raft is used mostly for river running and camping. Both boats have a flat bottom and a shallow draft. Both boats are used in turbulent rivers with whitewater and rapids up to class IV. A drift boat is made from aluminum or fiberglass or wood. A raft is made of hypalon or PVC or urethane. Whitewater rafts cost $500 – $5,000, while drift boats cost $3,000 – $24,000.
Drift boat or raft?
Although you will often see a drift boat and a raft running the same rivers these two vessels are very different in design and hull structure and are handled very differently.
If you are unsure which boat is better suited to you and your needs then hopefully you will find all the information you need in this article to help you make a decision. I have tried to cover everything that is relevant about both boats to help you to make an informed decision today as to which one is the best fit for you.
Let’s take a look at the similarities and differences between the drift boat and the raft.
Drift boats and their uses
The drift boat evolved from the dory boat that was used in bays and coastal regions as a fishing vessel. A large schooner would carry drift boats out into ocean waters and launch them for a day of fishing before hauling them back aboard for the journey home.
These dory boats had flat bottoms to make them easier to store on the schooner and although this design came with its own challenges on ocean water it actually helped make it popular for inland water use. The flat bottom gives a drift boat a shallow draft and allows it to be used in shallow rivers.
Both dory boats and drift boats are rowboats propelled by oars.
Modern drift boats are used in turbulent rivers that have both whitewater and rapids. A drift boat is an excellent river running boat because its flat bottom and shallow draft allows it to run in shallow water, while its incredible responsiveness and maneuverability means it can turn on a dime.
The shallow draft, combined with superior maneuverability, means an experienced oarsman can easily maneuver a drift boat on even class IV rapids. These boats can be used on narrow canyons and boulder filled rivers.
If a raft can run the river then a drift boat can run it too.
However, drift boats are more than just river runners.
A drift boat is an excellent freshwater fishing vessel as well. Its shallow draft means fishing in the shallows is easy. Anglers from around the country regularly hire drifts boats, complete with guide, for a unique angling experience simply called drift boat fishing. This is unlike most boat fishing experiences and is unique to the drift boat.
Modern drifts boats are made from one of the following materials:
Below are some of the advantages a drift boat offers:
- Fantastic river running boat.
- Easily handles whitewater.
- Can be used on up to class IV rapids.
- Incredible maneuverability.
- Excellent fishing vessel.
- Can be used solo or with a group.
- Can be fitted with small trolling motor to help move the boat upstream. (See this for more information)
With pros come cons, its just a part of life.
Below are some of the disadvantages of using a drift boat:
- Very expensive.
- More easily damaged in rapids (than a raft).
- Requires more storage space.
- Requires trailering and towing upstream.
- Requires greater storage considerations and regular maintenance.
If you want to know more about the many different uses of a drift boat read our article why use a drift boat.
Drifts boats are not cheap vessels. Manufacturing costs, low production output and expensive materials all go to make a very expensive boat.
Although a drift boat has more uses than a raft you will have to pay extra for those experiences.
The starting price for an entry-level drift boat is about $3,000 while a top-of-the-range wooden boat will cost around $24,000. Drift boats hold their value exceptionally well, which is a positive thing if you are selling but a disadvantage if you are looking for a cheap used boat.
We covered the reasons why drift boats are so expensive in this article.
Many people think drift boats are overpriced but when you consider a top-of-the-range Jon boat can cost about $20,000 the price tag for a beautifully crafted large fishing vessel doesn’t seem that steep (though the Jon boat will usually be fully kitted-out with motor and extras for hunting, fishing and it may even have a shooting platform for bow fishing).
Having said that, although buying a drift boat is expensive you can build your own drift boat for a fairly low cost.
Rafts are also fantastic river runners though they do it in a completely different way.
Rafts are propelled by paddle-power. A single bladed paddle, similar to those used on a canoe, is all you need to propel a raft.
Where a drift boat oarsman will rely on skill and the superior maneuverability of his/her boat in order to keep the boat from hitting anything, paddlers on a raft need to be less concerned about their boat connecting with obstacles.
Although guides and paddlers will fight to stay away from obstacles for safety reasons, a modern raft will simply bounce off any obstacle that it does make contact with. Where a drift boat would crack or sustain serious damage when it collides with something, a raft will be merely pushed of course.
Of course this does not mean that modern rafts are indestructible. They can sink like any other boat, but they are a lot more durable and damage-resistant than a drift boat and they can take some heavy abuse in rapids. There’s a reason why the US military uses them!
If you want to know more about both the modern raft and the traditional raft read this article.
Modern rafts will be made from:
These materials are all cheap to use as construction materials for modern rafts, thus keeping the purchase price of these boats fairly low.
- Excellent river runner.
- Can take some serious abuse (unlike a drift boat).
- Easier to transport than a drift boat.
- Great for boat camping and day excursions.
- Considerably cheaper than a drift boat.
- Almost maintenance-free.
- Not as versatile as a drift boat.
- Usually requires more than one paddler unless you use a very small raft.
- Not suitable for mounting an outboard motor.
Whitewater rafts are much more affordable than drift boats.
Due to mass production and cheaper manufacturing materials and easier production processes a modern whitewater raft will usually cost between $500 and $5,000 depending on the size of the watercraft and the quality of its build.
For more about whitewater rafting read this article.
Drift boats offer more versatility than a raft. They can be used in exactly the same ways as a raft but have the advantage of being an excellent freshwater fishing vessel as well.
If you are worried about damaging your vessel in whitewater rapids then a raft is the better choice as these vessels are made to take some serious abuse. A cheap modern rubber raft will simply bounce off boulders and obstacles while an expensive wooden drift boat would be broken to bits.
A drift boat requires a skilled oarsman to avoid obstacles and the oarsman relies on the superior maneuverability of the drift boat. This boat can turn on a dime.
A raft is propelled by a paddle while a drift boat is propelled by oars. However a drift boat can be fitted with a motor but only following strict guidelines and it must be mounted with care as the stern and bow of a drift boat are pointed and the hull is curved.
If budget is a concern then a raft is by far the best option as even top-of-range whitewater rafts are several thousand dollars, to tens of thousands of dollars, cheaper than a drift boat.