Packrafting Equipment Guide
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Vests fit differently, it is worth trying some on for a good fit and features match.
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.
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.
- 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)