Denali Llama packraft – handling and speed

On the water – ferrying and re-entry
I’ve tried the boat two up, over a couple of full days, with a test 12kg pack lashed to the bow and with the skirt deployed. I’ve tried it with a Thermarest floor, with padding behind the seat (to move me forward) and in rapids that I suppose might be WW2.
I’ve found ferrying (paddling against to current to get across a river) very easy and controllable. Stability is not an issue and flat water tracking is fine. Getting back into the high sided raft without a PFD from deep water took a few goes without pulling the unloaded boat over or bringing a little water in. I found hanging the paddle away off the far side like an outrigger stops the raft flipping too easily. With a PFD and maybe a load it ought to be easier, but still takes a bit of effort as the sides are so high and the boat is so light. As with other types of boats, re-entry is something you want to know how to do before you need to know how. With a full front load I imagine re-entry might be easier over the back.

Tracking and maneuverability
Unloaded, the bow yaws a foot or so from side to side as you paddle along but the boat stays on line. In this vid my g-friend looks all over the place, but bear in mind she is a foot too short for a Llama and half my weight. With a 12kg bow load, it yaws much less, with me in it a few inches maybe. In fast river bends it does feel a bit clumsy at times, like you’re being swept along and can’t do much about it (a feature of all rafts, I suspect). I miss the responsive directional lunge you can do in a nippy IK to get you out of a fix, though they say thigh straps may improve that.
I’ve found this directional flaw is just a matter of adopting an assertive technique as well as good positioning early on; a packraft is never going to maneuver as well as a 10-foot kayak. Bouncing or pushing off a rock is no drama, but being swept into an undercut or low, spider-laden trees is less fun. You can change orientation quickly with a firm stroke or two – in other words you can point left or right in a jiffy, but moving off in that direction is less responsive, though may well come with technique and hard shoveling. To be honest, my 4-metre Sunny IK was no point-and-squirter either, and would have got hung up on some bendy runs which the Llama slipped through like a cork.
Of course the benefit of poor tracking and short length is the ability to spin a 180 with just one stroke. This doesn’t help that much when you’re being swept towards somewhere you don’t want to be, but I’ve found that the technique can be used to spin-off and backup past an obstacle. You’re heading for a rock you can’t avoid say; it’s easier to draw hard and bring the back round and pass the rock backwards, then spin back to point forward again and line up for the next obstacle. It’s something that hardshell playboaters probably do all the time.
Interestingly, I had a day out in France with Llama and Solar IK and a mate who had no kayaking experience (though some canoeing and a rowing past). He took to the skegless Solar very quickly but although my weight seemed to have more trouble controlling the Llama, possibly because he kept his weight too far back and so yawed too much (as in the vid, above) which slowed him down. That day was so shallow we walked as much as we paddled.
With a load of about 12kg the nose sits lower (see a few pics down and the Scotland report) and the tracking improves at the cost of spinning ability which the Llama has to spare anyway. More stuff could be stored inside.

Speed
A Llama is slower than a Sunny or any pointy-ended boat, but it’s something you’ll only notice in non packrafting company. Last year on the Ceze river, g-friend was usually behind me in the Solar with me in my longer Sunny IK. This time she was usually ahead. We had a drag race but within a few strokes she was in front and extending her lead in the Solar. No contest there; you can’t paddle a giant inner tube fast through water, even if you are a glorified yuppie!
Alone or in a pack of paks, who’d notice speed? You paddle with the normal effort and the boat is as fast as it is; current plus say 2.5mph. I paddled our local French river and averaged 2.7mph, with 6.3mph max speed down a rapid. There is more on speed in a touring/hiking scenario on this page.
Up in Scotland recently I made some categorical speed observations with a GPS. No wind or current gives you a sustainable 4kph or 2.5mph. You can push it to 5kph but you’ll wear yourself out, look inelegant and frighten the fish with your splashing. Back winds, tides, rapids and tsunamis all give you more. I’ve recorded up to 10mph of the River Lochy, dropping through rapids I presume, and a steady 5mph with a back wind on a freshwater loch. Interestingly, a Llama is as fast backwards as forwards, but as a paddling technique that is much less sustainable and when you go flat-out backwards, the weighted stern eventually buries itself in the water and it’s all hands on deck.
In rapids paking is as easy (or as out of control) as an IK; just line it up, keep it straight and watch for rocks. When you do get it wrong it’s like a dodgem car bouncing harmlessly off the rocks. And when the underside gets hung up on a low rock and turns you sideways across the current it’s still much more stable as it has less flank, more side height and more width than a kayak. Some water may flow over the side, but I’ve only every got a litre or less. There’s a video here of me on a quiet Scottish river in spate.
I found a lot of the time on the above shallow river, I lent over to lift off the bottom with one arm when it grounded out. In a higher-sitting IK it’s easier to get out and so you’d probably hop out and by doing so spare the floor a rubbing.

Skirt, seat and floor
After six hours on the Ceze I can’t say the Llama felt any less comfortable than a Sunny, though you’re more jammed in. The Llama seems to swamp a little less readily than the Solar or Sunny – but anything over WW2 will come over the back sides.
However it has a secret weapon – a retractable spray skirt – something I often thought of applying to my Sunny IK in some way. It can get clammy under there on a warm day, but if it means less pulling over and tipping out, that’s fine with me. If you’re thinking of buying an Alpacka – don’t hesitate and pay the extra for the skirt. You won’t regret it.
You can deploy the zip-and-velcro skirt mid-stream in about a minute if Niagara looms ahead or it starts raining – and retract it and roll it up in about two minutes. The cover comes with a tab to yank on if you capsize or need to jump out fast. Another nice touch is a little ‘cod-piece’ air chamber in front of you that inflates to stop water from pooling in your lap. Most times the side velcro comes undone after energetic maneuvering through rapids, so letting water in, but perhaps I haven’t got a good sealing technique yet. Most of the summer I used the Llama without a skirt, either because it was warm or I was in a dry suit, but for heavier WW it’s a must and is partly what makes the packraft so versatile and better in rapids than a non-bailing IK.
Alpackas have no inflatable floor which can mean a sudden whack in the arse when it bottoms out on a submerged rock – or a bash at the heels when you have a bow load and big feet like me. The inflatable seat reduces butt impact of course but I worry about how the floor underside handles all this abrasion – there are already some noticeable scuffs and since then I glued on a second layer of material. See Llama mods.

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