Having enjoyed a few years with inflatable kayaks, in 2010 I bought myself a green, original-style Alpacka Denali Llama packraft – the ‘large’ model. A packraft may look like a pool toy, but because of its durable fabric and construction as well as other features, it adds up to a whole new way of exploring and enjoying the wilderness. It’s not a new idea: there more on the fascinating origins of packrafting here.
I sold the green packraft (it’s featured in this video) and got the new 2011 shape yellow Yak. I’ve since paddled in Utah, far north Scotland, France and the remote Fitzroy river in northwest Australia. I’ve also tried surfing, disc sailing and bikerafting in my yellow Yak. In 2014 I downscaled to a simpler, lighter and slightly longer Yak (right) and used that in Turkey.
With an 80-litre backpack (left) you can carry the boat and several days of food on your back. At the water’s edge you set up the boat in less than ten minutes, secure your backpack over the bow and ride rivers or cross lakes, then deflate to carry on trekking.
A packraft also makes a fun WW boat (left) that’s effortlessly transported, and with a deck manage gnarlier water than you’d imagine. Like IKs, packrafts bounce off rocks, are more stable than regular kayaks, and can even be rolled with suitable thigh straps. There’s no need for a pump; you inflate by scrunching a featherlight airbag (right) then top off with a twist-lock mouth valve.
From arriving at a beach with your paddle in your pack, to loading up
and paddling off, took about 8 minutes, (speeded up 15x)
You can walk or bus a few miles upriver, put in and paddle back; you can shuttle back on a pushbike with the boat rolled up under your arm. You can even return the favour and strap a bicycle on the bow and bikeraft (left). All because a packraft is exceedingly light but very buoyant and, being made of durable fabric, won’t burst on encountering a sharp noise.
On flat water and calm seas it can happily carry up to 20 kilos strapped over the bow (or inside the chambers, see below). In fact it yaws less like that as this trims the boat level against the paddler’s weight. As for speed, I took a 12-km run along the Medway River in Kent and managed to average 3.4mph or 5.5kph. And best of all, didn’t feel exhausted afterwards.
Alpacka aren’t the only packraft makers, though for years it felt like it. There’s more on some other packrafts here,
For a while I and others experimented with ‘skinning’ the outer chamber off a cheap and wide PVC pool toy to make a lighter, less slow but still marginally durable slackraft (left and right). It’s an ultracheap cheap way of getting into packrafting before taking the plunge on a proper boat. For more on all that see the Slackrafts menu above.
In 2011 Alpacka introduced the longer, more pointy ended ‘fastback’ shapes, along with other worthwhile refinements discussed here. It was a real step forward and seeing the potential, I replaced my little used, old-shape green Denali with a yellow Yukon Yak – the ‘Medium’ Alpacka. Much longer overall but slightly shorter inside, with a Yak I’m more jammed in, butt-to-toe (I’m 6′ 1″) which improves control and response. The current shape is faster on flat water too, it tracks better and can actually be faster than walking when the terrain alongside is rough and boggy, as it often is in northwest Scotland where I frequently paddle, or the Turkish coast, where I don’t.
Alpacka originally developed spray decks which you could roll up or even zip right off, but have moved to more permanent decks (left, actually a Nortik) with a large hatch and a combing or rim to take a regular spray skirt, making them suited to white water or surfing. Nortik trekrafts, above, have adopted a similar kayak-like system
I had a zip-off spray deck on my first green Alpacka (above right; MRS have very similar decks) as well as my first Yak, but hardly ever used them, partly because they felt flimsy. A deck might be a nice option but if it’s that cold I’d sooner wear a dry suit and I rarely tackle long stages of white water where a skirt would be essential. When I bought my third Alpacka I didn’t bother specifying a spray deck.
An Alpacka comes in several sizes (right) and costs from $900 in the US or more from the Packraft Store in Germany or Back Country in the UK.
The best alternatives are the one-size-only Russian-made Trekraft (above left in green) sold by Nortik in Germany for €600, or the Chinese-made MRS Microraft for €1000 with a skirt (right). I’ve used both and they go and appear as well made as an Alpacka. Full reviews here. Click on the chart right for their full comparison.
For a truly portable boat you’ll want a compact four-part paddle. I can recommend my Aqua Bound Manta Ray 220, but there are a few more out there.
Alpacka can even make you rafts with cool, Mondrian-y multicolour panels (right) to your own spec, and also make the CuriYak, a lighter, cheaper, slimmer, packraft based on their smallest Scout model but the size of a Yak.
At the end of 2012 Alpacka introduced another innovation: a waterproof zip called the Cargo Fly in the tail of the hull. Using a pair of dry bags you can store gear inside the boat. Better stability and no more backpack lashed over the bow blocking the view, even if an external bag is easier to demount for quick portages. The zip obviously needs to be kept clean so adds a weak spot to the boat. I feel it’s better suited to all-day paddles without portage- or other boat lifting interruptions. In 2016 I hear of the Cargo Fly zips having delamination issues if not dried fully and have become subject to warranty claims. The zip fabric absorbs water and the coating below can crack, leading to slow air loss. A Cargo Fly is a smart idea, but not if it undermines the airtight integrity of your boat. Similar drysuit zips work fine of course, but they’re not under pressure, like a packraft.
If you’re buying a packraft and you’re heavy I’d recommend specifying or adding additional butt and heel patches from new on the underside of the floor. The tiny weight penalty is well worth it for added durability. On a full-size Alpacka you can save a bit of weight by specifying the lighter (but still adequate) Curiyak floor, as I did on my 2014 Yak. Small rafts are back heavy, so in shallow rivers the sagging floor under the seat will wear. Note that the 2014 boats are a couple of inches longer at the back which helps level them out a bit.
The heel area at the front is actually more vulnerable, especially if wearing hard boots when striking a shape edge like a submerged concrete bridge abutment. I once holed my floor like this. Another way of limiting impacts like this is to use a bit of closed-cell foam mat inside (right). It softens heel stikes with submerged obstacles and partly insulates your legs from cold water too.
All these measures will help make your packraft last longer, because although it’s durable it’s still a very light and expensive inflatable boat that’s prone to damage from sharp objects. Repairs in the field are part of ownership, and can be done in a couple of minutes with tape, or over a few hours with Aquaseal sealant.