Packrafting Equipment Guide

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Disclaimer! I’m reviewing these boats based on my style of boating: Class IV creeks, Class III big-water, and remote wilderness trips. I like a snug fit in the boat. I am not sponsored by these brands, but I do have a good relationship with Alpacka, meaning that they provided a loaner boat for Iceland and have been really responsive to my repair needs.

Packraft

I was able to try out a few new boats at the 2016 American Packrafting Association Roundup in Jackson Hole. I was pleased to discover that my preferred boat is still the one I own, a Yak with white-water deck and thigh-straps/backband outlined on the Pimp My Packraft page.

Alpacka basic models

These are still the best option. I think Alpacka‘s sizes run large. The Llama feels XL, the Yak is L, the Alpacka is M. I’m 6’1″ and the Yak is a good fit. Sarah is 5’6″ and I think the Alpacka is too big for her. I don’t think anyone besides hunters should buy the Mule. These sizes changed in ~2014 or so, when the cockpit was moved forward in all the Alpacka models.

Go with the white-water deck unless you want to paddle with a kid or dog in the boat.

I love the cargo fly and feel that it is worth the extra cost for anyone doing long trips or remote white-water. I used to feel on-edge in Class II water with a full pack strapped to the front, and now I’ve done a few Class IV sections with the boat fully loaded via the cargo fly.

Alpackalypse

I really like the boat geometry; it feels more like a kayak. The Vectran fabric allows for significantly higher pressure, which makes the boat feel edgier, which I really like. But the outfitting and price tag are a deal breaker for me. The backrest and seats didn’t hold up on an extended trip in Iceland, I don’t like the knee cups, and I’m not willing to carry all the extra crap. I’d be very interested in an Alpackalypse with simpler outfitting, but for some reason that isn’t an option. The Alpackalypse is easier to roll than my Yak.

Alpacka self-bailer

I would be too cold in the self-bailer. The inflated floor/seat extends 3/4 of the boat, which means my feet just sat in cold water the whole time. I like the idea of the self-bailer, but either this one isn’t ready, or self-bailers aren’t appropriate for cold water. If you are serious about self-bailers, I’d look into the modifications that Mark Oates is promoting.

The major breakthrough on this boat is the 4-piece thigh strap. The straps were very secure, maybe even too-secure, though I never tried to release in the water. This was the easiest inflatable boat I’ve rolled, and I love the likelihood of a reliable roll in these straps. The self-bailer I paddled was a Yak, so the only difference was the straps. Alpacka will not be selling these straps on a decked boat! Bummer.

Aire BAKraft

I liked the two-part air-bladder/shell and super clean design. The BAKraft was easier to roll than my Yak. My biggest issue, and a deal-breaker for me, is that my butt and feet are at the same level, and I’m not flexible enough at the waist to get a forward lean and as much power from my core as I want. It made me more appreciative of the double-seat in my Yak. Also, the boat was too clean for any cargo, safety rigging, and wet-reentries are more difficult.

Kokopelli

I really wanted to like the Kokopelli boats because they are more affordable and I am cheap. My impression is that the boats are not appropriate for white-water or anything remote. I don’t like the designs, I don’t like the materials. I watched a NOLS instructor do some incredible surfing in the self-bailer, and one of the guys in Jackson liked his, so I could be wrong here. But I don’t trust the construction and the designs looked significantly behind the curve. **See the comments for a better opinion of the 2016 models. I haven’t seen the 2016 models.

MRS rafts

I haven’t seen one of these in person, but they are gaining a following in Europe. My understanding is that the high cost of importing boats to Europe led some folks to go into production. The designs and options are similar to Alpacka’s, but I don’t know how the fabric, durability, etc., compare.

Paddle

I’m 6’1″, long arms, and I use a 197 cm and 193 cm paddle in whitewater. I don’t think there is any reason for anyone to get anything longer. 205 cm might be good for a flatwater trip, but the 197 would be fine with me. Aquabound (Shred) is cheaper, heavier, and has better customer service. Werner is expensive, higher quality, and charges a lot for repair/replacement. The Werner Powerhouse is a good candidate for white-water, but pretty heavy if you are carrying it on a long trip. The Werner Sherpa might be a better hiker’s option, though if you aren’t seeking whitewater, Werner’s high-angle touring paddles are lighter still. I think 200 cm is the shortest, and that’s what I’d get. You are likely to break these paddles if you use them in whitewater.

If you do a lot of road-side paddling, it is worth getting a one-piece paddle. Otherwise, you will wear out the joints on your more expensive 4-piece and need to replace it after a few seasons.

Drysuit

In Alaska, you have to include the cost of the drysuit when you consider buying a packraft. Rafting without a drysuit will be uncomfortable and can be very dangerous in cold water. I’m intrigued by the economical Mythic drysuits. They aren’t as durable in terms of small tears, but people seem generally pleased with them, especially given the cost. I think the O.S. Systems non-breathable rear-entry drysuit is another good economical option, especially for very cold water.

A lot of guys are happy with the thinner and lighter Alpacka drysuits, but they aren’t durable enough for my needs. Roman and Brad love theirs, but they also wear rain gear over them to protect them in the brush.

I think ‘splash suits’ are appropriate for some mellow water, but I’m not very interested in anything without latex neck and wrist gaskets and sewn-on booties. I’m wearing the suit because I think I might swim, and if I swim, I want to stay dry. If I don’t think I’ll swim, I’ll wear rain gear. For remote trips where I anticipate Class I/II water, I bring a pair of old Patagonia sea-kayak paddle pants and a rain jacket. I like both the Kokatat hooded rain jacket, and Patagonia’s M10.

For more serious white-water and durability, Kokatat has the best reputation, though other Gore-Tex options should work find. NRS suits have a poor reputation right now. For any brands, the Gore-Tex option is probably better than the cheaper breathable fabrics since packrafters do plenty of walking with the suits on. I don’t trust the 2-piece suit (I’ve heard of a few leaks) and would just stick with the standard front-entry. If you anticipate doing some kayaking as well, you will want a suit with an over-skirt, which adds cost and weight.

PFD

Vests fit differently, it is worth trying some on for a good fit and features match.

Astral’s Camino might be the best weight-to-floatation option. Something like the sub-pound MTI Quest or Journey would be a good choice for minimum weight on class II water.

Astral’s Green has been the go-to rescue vest for folks on Class IV and above water. The Kokatat Ronin is also well-reviewed, featuring more flotation and a lower fit.

Throw Bag

I’m partial to the NRS Wedge because it fits well in a sleeve in my PFD and I like how it throws. The bigger bags aren’t very practical for packrafting, but you want at least 50 ft. of rope. The NRS Guardian or Salamander Retriever (waist-belt) throw ropes are probably the best option if your vest won’t fit the wedge. The Guardian comes in a Pro model (Dynema), that is probably overkill for packrafts. Solgear is working on a packraft-specific throw bag, but it isn’t available yet.

Helmet

It is worth trying some on for a good fit. The small bill is an important feature; it can create an air pocket over your face.

Repair Kit

  • Tyvek Tape
  • Aquaseal (the small tube that comes with replacement gaskets is nice)
  • Tenacious Tape
  • a strip of tube material long enough to replace the cargo zipper
  • mouth valve cap (long trips only)
  • main valve cap (long trips, big groups, only)

4 responses

  1. First: Thanks once again for putting together very usefull high-quality info package.

    Second: A word on the MRS boats as I’ve been using them for a year now. For me the materials, quality, workmanship, etc. seem up to par with the Alpackrafts. So in the end it comes down to availability/costs and personal preferences as designs are little different. A month ago I bought the MRS Alligator 2S, the “white-water boat” of the lineup. Based on a few days of paddling I like it a lot. I can’t comapre it to Alpackalypse as I haven’t seen one live but compared to my (2014?) Denali Llama the Alligator:

    has better geometry (pointier, smaller tubes for edging and stroke placement, etc.)
    has better spraydeck (similar design btu beefier fabrics and somehow drier)
    comes with excellent 3-point thigh straps

    Personally I like it a lot more than my Llama. Especially as with the weak euro, they are cheaper for us Europeans. It’s little heavier but that’s the price of thigh straps and beefier fabrics. Next upgrade would be to get one with cargo-fly style compartment solution.

    July 28, 2016 at 7:56 am

  2. Roman Dial

    I have a 2014 Yak with a cargo fly, zipper, whitewater deck. Paid full retail for it and got it in a custom California King Snake banding pattern.

    It has a couple other mods and I prefer the lightweight internal dry bags over the zipper dry bags if I am carrying the boat at all.

    This boat has been super versatile: it worked on a self-supported full length trip down the Grand Canyon (with a clean mountain can suspended inside the tube); Upper Willow (multiple times — see Luc’s Show Up and Blow Up Alaska), Six Mile at 10′, Lost Coast with a bike (where a long 210 cm paddle is nice), and a week long multi river trip across the Talkeetnas (including Big Su, Watana Creek, Fog Creek, Talkeetna Canyon, upper Disappointment, and Clear Creek), as well as a Class II packrafting and hiking trip from the Noatak to the Kobuk Dunes and down the Kobuk.

    So that’s one boat to do a great variety of things. Last year I could combat roll it occasionally. It has old Aire thigh straps and a Jackson back band.

    Is it perfect? No, but very versatile.

    And I love that boat. Every time I get in it I say a private thanks to Thor and Sheri Tingey for getting the packraft to where it is today

    July 31, 2016 at 7:29 pm

  3. Thor Tingey

    Thanks for the great write up Luc. I’d like to add a few things from my perspective. For anyone that doesn’t know, my background is that I started packrafting in 1997 and founded Alpacka Raft with my mom, Sheri, in 2000. Although I remained peripherally involved in the company, I pursued a separate career in Portland Oregon from 2004-2015 and recently rejoined Alpacka full time in 2016. I do lots of different kinds of packrafting, from long hikes and easy floats, to targeted hunting and fishing trips, to both backcountry and front country big and small water whitewater runs. My personal boats at the moment are a self-bailing vectran Yak, a medium Alpackalypse, and a couple of prototypes. I still believe that the best all purpose AK boat is a whitewater deck and cargo fly Alpacka/Yak/Llama/Mule

    Sizing – Our sizing probably is a little big, but I’d make a couple of notes on that. First, I’m 6’0″ and 200 lbs and I still wear a medium in every premium brand of outdoor apparel except baselayers. I paddle a Yak for WW and a Llama for expeditions, so our sizing is somewhat comparable with the rest of the industry. If you paddle with a high knee bend as most people with thigh straps do, then the shorter boat fits better. But l don’t like sitting with my knees in kayak position for 8 hours of flat water and riffles which is where the Llama comes in.
    Comparison of your boat to current models – The boat you tested was a little bit different from your current one, the main thing being that it was made out of 100d Vectran. That adds quite a bit of the stiffness that you liked about the Alpackalpyse. If we ever get enough of it, we’ll offer it as an option although its crazy expensive (roughly 4x the cost in fabric and a minimum $300 upcharge). I really love my vectran boats. The 2016 boats also have a little better fitting deck (you didn’t test this) and a slightly more extended stern. We are constantly working on our designs and try to work those changes into the model lines as quickly as possible even if we don’t do much advertising of those changes. But overall, the shape of the boat isn’t going to be a whole lot different than your current boat.
    The Self Bailer Setup Conundrum – I think you indirectly hit on a really important issue when it comes to packraft self bailers. That issue is how high you are willing to make your seat position and what are the effects of that change–which is all about your center of gravity (COG). We know two things about that setup when it comes to self bailers. First, as you mentioned, sitting flat is pretty uncomfortable so your heels need to be lower than your butt – in my opinion a 4-5″ difference in butt and heel position is best for paddling. Second, all self bailers are going to fill with water up to the displacement line of the boat. Pretty much all packrafts are going to have at least a 3-4″ water displacement, so if you want to be totally out of the water, you need at least 4-5 inches of floatation under your heels to stay completely out of the water. But that then means your seat at least 8 inches tall to get that nice comfy paddling position.

    Here’s the issue and you noticed it immediately when rolling the Alpacka self bailer. Its not just the new thigh straps which are fantastic, but the fact that your body has a lower center of gravity in the boat which is critical to proper rolling setup and clean hip control over the boat. In my personal experience, I have found a low COG (more like a kayak) much easier to roll and actually necessary to hit a combat roll. So, when you are talking self bailer, you have a choice of either getting your heels wet and hitting the big combat roll or staying dry but probably swimming if you get upside down in a decent rapid. Also, Alpacka’s approach to self bailers really tried to offer both worlds although we’re a bit biased to the lower COG. All self bailers are shipped with a front pillow that fully covers the open area of the floor and keeps your feet out of the water. From this, you either have to sit flat or you can add another seat which gives you a high COG. The best fit with the thigh straps is the low COG and half pillow that you demoed. There are lots of ways to do it, its just kind of up to the person to figure out what they want to prioritize.

    I also would note that you might find better rolling performance in your personal boat if you slightly lowered your seat height. I tested a setup based on yours in Alaska this summer and the only thing that I found difficult was rolling from a high COG position. The four point straps will make a difference too.

    Alpacka and Thigh Straps – I figure this is as good of a place as any to clear the air a bit about Alpacka’s stance on thigh straps. Some of this is probably our own doing in not articulating our reasons better, but we get lots of inquiries from folks that say that we “hate” thigh straps. Its a bit more complicated than that, but the simple answer is that we are a really small company and when thigh straps first started being added to boats 8 years ago we didn’t have any of the risk protections that we felt were necessary to offer thigh straps on a decked boat from the factory. Many things have changed over the last 8 years and we’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out a solution that is acceptable to us–we didn’t come up with the Alpackalypse straps and the new bailer straps overnight=) It is my sincere hope that we can figure out a way to offer thigh straps in the decked boats at some point, but we won’t be able to do so until we get our ducks in a row when it comes to risk protection.

    Many new packrafters do not have significant prior WW kayaking experience which is essential to understanding how to safely evaluate and handle the risks of being upside down inside your boat in a rapid. Adding thigh straps to a boat means that the person really should spend some time in the pool or flat water (just like buying a a kayak) where you learn how to properly wet exit from the boat, shield your body from hitting obstacles underwater, and learning proper rolling technique. If you do that and exercise other normal safe boating practices, adding thigh straps to a boat is a great way to improve edge to edge control and handling. But the boater has to be both knowledgable and practiced at the increased risk that is associated with those straps.

    August 1, 2016 at 3:24 pm

  4. In reference to the kokopelli boats. I think you may have seen a 2015 boat. The 2016 Nirvana is totally redesign. I never cared for the pre 2016 boats. But the 2016 are pretty good. Ive been having students and myself paddle them all summer. Students are picking up WW skills fine. I have paddled a yak in whitewater, and agree smaller boat is preferred in class III+. After running Echo Bend at 4.3 ft, class IV level, the kokopelli nirvana L, performed well.

    August 2, 2016 at 1:19 pm

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