Alpacka Raft Lineup

In 2019 Alpacka Raft released a new boat lineup. This review is intended to help clarify the new boat options, and help users select the best model for their needs. I’m only reviewing the models I’ve spent significant time in.

I am an ambassador for Alpacka Raft and am heavily biased in favor of Alpacka boats compared to the other manufacturers. This is due to the quality of build, design, and customer service, as well as my respect for the company culture and ethics.

Alpacka Series

Classic

Best for: Hikers that are not seeking whitewater, or, like me, weren’t seeking whitewater initially, but grew to appreciate technical water.

Sarah Histand, Pelorus River, New Zealand

The original Alpacka boats (Small Alpacka, Medium Yak, Large Llama) have been stripped down and streamlined to sell as the most affordable option. I suspect this is largely to compete with the China-made packrafts now on the market.

These boats are light, durable, and capable. The boat design is appropriate for Class III and IV water, with thigh straps. Thigh strap options are:

  • Alpacka factory retrofit: Backband and straps on used boats for $350. Note that Alpacka does not offer factory-installed straps on new Classics! This is part of their effort to streamline and offer a more affordable (but capable) boat.
  • Install them yourself ($165 + glue for the Alpacka 4-pt, or about the same for AIRE/NRS 2-pt).

I am very attached to having thigh straps, whitewater deck, and a cargo zipper. If I lived in a warmer climate, or sitting in the boat for an hour instead of a day, I would be interested in the self-bailer build.

The Classic boats are more stable than the Wolverine and less stable than the Gnarwhal (below). The Classic is a great option for new boaters.

Expedition

Best for: Remote trips with significant hiking and the possibility of Class III rapids.

The Expedition is listed in the Alpacka Series, because purchasers are likely deciding between the Expedition and Classic. The Expedition is simply a stripped-down Wolverine, with a shorter seat (boat floor becomes less rigid) and optional thigh straps. Without thigh straps, the Expedition is 0.7 (S) – 0.9 (L) lb lighter than the Wolverine.

Expedition vs. Classic

  • Weight: The Classic is ~0.5 lb lighter than the Expedition.
  • Stability: The Classic is more stable than the Expedition.
  • Thigh straps: Easy factory upgrade on Expedition vs. DIY/retrofit on Classic.

For me, the Classic vs. Expedition vs. Wolverine decision comes down to thigh straps. I’m addicted to thigh straps, and I want them for everything, even Class II water. I want the option of at least running ‘backcountry’ straps on remote trips, 3/4″ accessory straps between user-installed foot and thigh tie-downs. Assuming you want straps (you do!) then it becomes a question of minor weight differences.

My solution is to go with the Wolverine, replace the full-length seat and thigh straps with a short seat and accessory straps for remote trips. This is ~equivalent to ordering the Expedition, with thigh-straps, and purchasing the long Wolverine seat as an accessory.

Whitewater Series

Alpackalypse (Discontinued)

Casey Orion, Lava, Grand Canyon

The Alpackalypse had small (9.9″) diameter tubes that gave it a very edgy feel, most similar to a river kayak. The boat was best-suited for experienced kayakers, who appreciated the familiar edginess and roll-ability. With the introduction of the Wolverine, the Alpackalypse has been discontinued.

Gnarwhal

Sarah Tingey, Grand Canyon

Best for: Big-water boaters or less-experienced paddlers seeking a boat that feels safe and stable.

The Gnarwhal is the largest and most stable boat in the Alpacka lineup. The Gnarwhal is ideal for big-water, like the Grand Canyon. The volume is double the Alpackalypse, and the boat can survive pretty much anything you throw at it. The trade-off with large tubes and high-volume is that the Gnarwhal is snow to initiate, and the paddler often feels along for the ride. Fortunately, it is a very forgiving ride.

The Gnarwhal will also appeal to new boaters who have no intention of using it on white water. The boat’s size and stability makes it the most forgiving and safest-feeling craft in the lineup.

Wolverine

Shasta Hood, Buller River, New Zealand

Best for: Creek boaters, playful boaters, and people that want a one-packraft-does-all solution.

The Wolverine combines the best features of the Alpackalypse and Gnarwhal. The intermediate diameter tubes (10.6″ compared to the Gnarwhal’s 11.7″) result in a ~0.4 lb weight saving over the Gnarwhal, and more stability than the Alpackalypse. The Wolverine is less stable than the Classic.

Compared the the Gnarwhal, the Wolverine feels like a bullet. Initiation is easy, and the boat picks up speed quickly, allowing for a very playful nature, including snapping into eddies and boofing ledge drops. I was shocked by how well the boat surfs. The Wolverine will appeal to kayakers and packrafters that want to paddle technical water. The boat is less stable than the Gnarwhal, which, for me, will result in a few more swims, or “roll practice.”

22 Comments

  1. “The boat is less stable than the Gnarwhal, which, for me, will result in a few more swims.”

    I think that should finish with “which makes rolling back up easier”. 🙂

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  2. What are your thoughts on the whitewater deck vs removable whitewater deck. I prefer the idea of the removable but wonder if the zip provides as good a seal and if it is potentially just another thing to go wrong in the back country where simplicity is best.

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    1. I don’t have any personal experience with the removable ww deck. I like the idea of the removable deck, but don’t ever really wish I could remove mine (I like the warmth of the ww deck). The fine-tooth zipper makes me nervous, but I haven’t heard anyone talk about issues with it.

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      1. I had a removable deck on a boat: I never removed it. In 2 years of weekly glacial silt, the zipper always worked. The fine teeth occasionally rub on your hand (not as bad as how the velcro would on the cruiser deck), not significantly annoying. It probably added a little bulk. I found it handy to crack the zipper to flush silt that got tracked in (without dumping water on my head). My girlfriend likes her removable deck for bringing the dog on flat water days. I went with a normal ww deck on my new boat, in case any of that experience is helpful.

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  3. Thanks for the handy comparison guide! What do you think: Does the size of the paddler have an effect on choosing between Gnarwhal and Wolverine? I like the idea of resposive playfull boat but I’m also 186cm and 95kg (Err, 6+ft and 210lb?) and I wonder if Wolverine can handle me with heavier gear (longer remote trips)? And having too white water packrafts might be one too many… 😀

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    1. It does make sense to me that a bigger boater would want to go with the Gnarwhal, and I also suspect that the Gnarwhal feels more nimble to a bigger boater compared to a smaller boater. In other words… you might be getting a more playful experience in the Gnar because you’ve got the mass to boss it around. I paddled with a woman this weekend, she was in a small Gnar, and made it look like a playboat, tons of surfing, nice edging, etc.

      Alpacka lists the max capacity as 350 and 450 lb for Wolv, Gnar, respectively.

      For reference, I’m ~90 kg and the Wolverine doesn’t feel small by any means. However, the lower buoyancy compared to the Gnar is very evident.

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  4. One thing I noticed about the Gnarwhal is that the larger stern drops a bit, and as a result, I find it drags more in REALLY shallow water than the old lineup. Totally worth it, as it paddles so much nicer, but for trips where Id expect lots of shallow creek type paddling, Id probably take my old Llama.

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  5. I am 185 pounds 6’1 and I am deciding between the Gnarwhal and the Wolverine. My roll pretty much sucks right now so I’m not sure I’ll be rolling either. I want to run some whitewater up to class III. Which would you recommend and what size? (I’m mostly legs).

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    1. We are pretty similar in weight/height. Both boats are great. I’d recommend the Gnar if you expect to be on bigger water (high volume), otherwise the Wolverine for the weight savings and more playful hull. I fit Large in both. It is a tight Large, which I like for ww paddling. The Wolv is easier to roll (and easier to tip over). FWIW, I’m really enjoying the Wolv this season, sold my Gnar. But I don’t really do any big water paddling.

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      1. I posted this on one of the other discussion pages before seeing this discussion of the 2019 lineup. It seems more appropriate here:

        I’m 6’0″, 170 lbs but with a very long leg to torso ratio. When I do the “Sit Length” sizing that Alpacka describes on their website, I get a length of 48″. That would put me in the XL size, which would rule out many of Classic and Expedition models. But from the descriptions provided here it sounds like many users in the 6’0-6’1 range fit better in the medium or large boats. Your last commen made it sound like large might indeed be a tight fit for me if I want to be able to stretch out my legs for less technical water.

        I’m eyeing the Gnar or the Expedition/Wolverine (these seem very similar in spec). Intended use is a mix of backcountry river and lake adventures, up to class III whitewater, some bikepacking etc. In essence I’m looking for an all-rounder that will be fun for white water but can also comfortably haul gear when I need it to.

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        1. Hi Paul-
          I think you will be happy with a large, and I’d recommend the Wolv over the Gnar given your weight. The Classic would also be a good option, and the large Classic will feel roomier than the large Wolv.

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  6. Hi Luc,
    I’m an class 4 hard shell lady boater looking to get into packrafting. Choosing between wolverine and gnarwhal. Do folks with boating experience tend to find the wolverine has enough stability for doing big flow AK rivers (eg upper alsek before turnback)? Sounds like wolverine would be more fun on small creeks but I’d love to use it on bigger flows as well.

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    1. Hi Kate- I think you would find the Wolverine to be quite stable given your kayaking experience. It only feels unstable compared to the Gnarwhal but all the packrafts are way more stable than your kayak. If I was exclusively on big water, maybe Gnar, but if not, Wolv. The Wolv is awesome.

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  7. Hi Luc, Thanks for the reviews. I’ve been using a open classic (no straps, no cargo fly which I will give to my wife). I’ve been mostly doing open coastal stuff in the Juneau area where I live and a couple of short rivers with more experience friends. But I want to do more rivers and maybe eventually venture in to whitewater as well as overnight multi-day stuff in Alaska (I live in Juneau). But white water above class II would be less common and class 4 seems way beyond my comfort level. I want get one all around boat. The classic is very stable which has really increased my comfort level pretty quickly. I’m pondering the expedition vs wolverine, gnarwhal, or just getting a classic with a cruiser deck. I have colleagues who just use 6 year old classics with cruiser decks (no straps) even for white water. But you’re starting to sell me on thigh straps as it sounds like they make the day more comfortable regardless. I’m 5′ 9″ and seem to fit okay in my classic Yak ( a bit snug with large boots, plenty of room with water shoes). If I end up doing more rivers but only ~20% includes white water or things like wood to avoid, etc. would it still be worth the thigh straps and whitewater deck vs. cruiser deck and classic (no straps)? Do you think I’d feel stable enough in the smaller tube boats (i.e. expedition, wolverine)? I tend to over pack gear but will have to learn to pare it all down to because of trade offs with the additional weight of the raft, etc. I was leaning toward just going for a gnarwhal since it’s sounds like they can hold up to almost anything and might make me feel more secure as a newbie (with white water). But they are a little heavier and sounds like tighter fitting (vs. classic). But maybe that’s good? Having trouble deciding which model would be best for me. If I switch to thigh straps I”ll practice wet exits and either way I’ll probably take a river class before I get too adventurous. Thanks for the time you spend as an ambassador and for all your efforts to promote conservation (trip to D.C. , etc.). What would you recommend?

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    1. Hi Carl-

      In my opinion… I’d place more priority on thigh straps and cargo zipper than Classic vs. Exp. vs Wolv. vs Gnar. If one of those boats makes better sense in your price range, go for that model. They are all great boats. The Classic (plus DIY thigh straps and Alpacka-installed zip) does 90% of what I want from my boat. The Wolverine is a real treat, and a better boat, but the high performance features might be lost on you as a newer (whitewater) boater.

      I sure like the whitewater deck… drier and warmer, nice features to have in Ak. I’d probably go removable ww before going cruiser.

      -Luc

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  8. Hi Luc, So we put our order in for two Wolverines, thank you for your advice, it really helped ! I am asking about the adjustments you made by purchasing an Expedition seat and attachment kit. I assume you mean DIY for the toggle to hold the seat ? You said it was for longer expeditions. We didn’t add this into our purchase yet, could you go into a little more depth why you did this and how it will help us ?.

    much Thanks,
    Todd and Suuz

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    1. Awesome, you will be psyched!

      When I take my boat on long trips (without whitewater), removing the thigh straps and replacing the long seat with a short seat saves ~1 lb. If that appeals to you, you can order a short seat from Alpacka (“Alpacka Series Seat Bottom w/Toggle”). The seat can be wedged into the boat if you aren’t too worried about swimming and losing it, or you could glue a toggle attachment point to the floor. For the latter, you would need to contact someone at Alpacka to order the toggle attachment. Since that attachment will be under low stress, I’d just attach it with aquaseal.

      https://www.alpackaraft.com/rafting/product/alpacka-series-seats/

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