Packraft Review by Caleb Despins

Kayaking

Kayaking for me is one of the great outdoor escapes. From the purchase of my first kayak, I realized the freedom of movement that a kayak gave on almost any territory that had water. This freedom led me to own several kayaks over the years, short recreational kayaks good for paddling shallow streams and quiet inland lakes as well as large touring kayaks capable of cutting through rough open water and being packed with gear for multiple day excursions. I felt my small fleet of kayaks could take me on almost any water to any destination that I wanted.

It was when I was spending the summer in Alaska that I started to realize that perhaps my kayaks where not always the best tool for all the adventures that the landscape offered.

I had brought my Prijon touring sea kayak along, assuming that it would offer the best option for either multiple day excursions on inland lakes or rivers, or a stable safe platform for dealing with waves and offshore conditions in the ocean. I quickly came to realize these assumptions wouldn’t prove to be quite true.

Unlike the Midwest’s more gentle flowing water, the rivers of the Kenai peninsula were quite fast flowing, making maneuvering around bends troublesome when broadside to the current in a sixteen foot long boat, and despite the many inland lakes the the area had to offer, not all had easy access to a 60 pound boat that had to be transported by car. At one point, while looking to kayak to the terminus of a glacier, I realized that the nearest point to put in my kayak would leave me with a 30 mile paddle, while on the other hand there was an access point to the glacial lake at the end of a two and a half mile hike, leaving a simple three mile paddle. I knew hauling my heavy kayak that distance alone would be a ridiculous idea. Simply put, I needed to find a lighter more versatile boat.

Enter the Packraft

Packrafting isn’t necessarily a new concept. In his book, Packrafting! An Introduction and How to Guide, adventurer and expert packrafter Roman Dial gives credit for the “invention” of modern packrafting to Dick Griffith, who used an Air Force surplus survival raft to explore parts of Mexico’s Copper Canyon in 1952 and then again used the same raft in the 1982 Alaskan Mountain Wilderness Classic, a carry everything on you back adventure race through some of Alaska’s most challenging terrain.

It was in Alaska that packrafting took its hold. Suddenly Alaskan adventurers had a way to access parts previously unreachable, often carrying homemade rafts in their packs and then floating rivers and lakes inaccessible to traditional boats. It took more then a few miserable cold experience in these early rafts to spawn the gold standard of rafts produced today.

Alpacka rafts was born out of the trials of adventurer Thor Tingey. It was his complaints about the lack of durability and comfort of early production packrafts that lead his mother Shirley to begin working on a better design for a packraft. It was Shirley’s constant tinkering and talking with users of her new boats that lead to so many of the innovations that set the Alpacka packraft well ahead of any of its competitors.

Alpacka Denali Llama

When I first received my new Alpacka, I have to admit that I felt like a kid at Christmas. My passion for being out on the water was finally going to meet the raft that could make it possible to literally access water that was unreachable in a traditional kayak. Dreams of paddling alpine lakes or rivers only accessible via hiking trails began to swirl in my head.

Durability

The very first thing that I noticed after, as I unpacked and inspected the Alpacka raft I received, was the feel of durability that it had compared to other inflatable rafts that I had tried. This was a raft that definitely did not feel like a pool toy. I’d paddled a friend’s Sea Eagle inflatable kayak before, and despite it standing up to the river we were paddling, the raft felt like it was made of the same material as a pool floaty; every rock and branch in the river felt like a lethal object to the raft, lurking. Unlike the Sea Eagle or Sevylor, Alpacka makes their rafts out of a urethane-coated nylon. Though not indestructible, the urethane-coated nylon can stand up punishment that I could never have imagined subjecting my friends inflatable boat to. It also offers the ability to make quick and easy repairs to the boat in the field in case of puncture or cuts. Anyone who doubts the durability of these boats only has to search Youtube to see that these are rafts that can stand up to some serious punishment.

The Alpacka website openly invites new buyers to put thier rafts to the test, by standing on the tubes and overloading it in still water they are so confident of the construction. Rightly so, considering that Alpacka packrafts have stood up to the demands of adventurers from Antarctica to the Brooks range of Alaska and everywhere in between.

Packability

Though there are many collapsible boats on the market, like the famous Klepper brands, Alpacka is the first to combine a durable working boat with true packability; after rerolling mine and securing it with two accessory straps it still is smaller then my two person tent, despite being one of Alpackas larger rafts. Even some of the “lighter” collapsible boat brands can come in weighing well upwards of 35 pounds, due to internal frames or construction methods that add weight to the boat. Though these boats can easily be shipped to locations, they are mostly well beyond the weight of loading it onto one’s back for a multiple day trek into the back country (my friend’s Sea Eagle weighed  over 50 pounds) or even comfortably carrying a few miles to a put in spot not accessible to a car.

Alpacka gets around all of these problems with its design that uses air to replace the heavy frames of many other collapsible boats. Using a single air chamber design, Alpacka is able to keep the boat ultra light compared to a raft constructed with multiple air chambers as each air chamber wall adds weight to a raft. Alpacka rafts can weigh as little as 3 pounds 3 ounces(the Alpacka Scout) and top out at 5 pounds 14 ounces(the Explorer 42, a double seated two man packraft), with small weight gains depending on what extra features you wish to add.

Innovative

From its very inception, Alpacka has been the company that has set the highest standard of packable boats. Luckily for adventurers and recreational paddlers alike, Alpacka isn’t a company to rest on its laurels and over the years Alpacka has continued to find ways to improve its rafts. Recently, Alpacka have made two key advances in the design of their boats that can only make them better. The first was the design of the “big butt” stern to the boat. Where as the earlier Alpacka rafts had an almost matching bow and stern, the newer models now come with an extended stern that provides the boat with better tracking, acting similarly to the “V” hull of a kayak.

The Newest leap that Alpacka uses to take their rafts to an even higher level is its new cargo fly system. When I first started looking at packrafts the only way to load them was by securing one’s backpack to the bow of the boat. It was a rudimentary way to get gear on the boat, but as long as gear was properly strapped down and protected from the elements, it worked well enough. Now Alpacka can give you almost as good(or possibly even better) protection for your gear than the cargo hatches of a touring kayak.

Alpackas cargo fly is located at the rear of the raft, using a zipper that is similar to the air and water tight zipper on a diving dry-suit. Alpacka has designed a multiple chamber design that fits inside of the single air chamber system for gear storage. Though this system can’t hold as much gear as the cargo hatches of a 16 foot kayak, I was able to easily pack almost all of my important camping gear inside with the added protection of knowing that at the end of the day my gear would be coming out dry and ready to use, no matter what kind of water or conditions that I had the boat in, which is more then I can say for the cargo hatches of every kayak that I’ve owned.

Performance

Handling

The first experience with an Alpacka packraft can prove to be a little interesting. The first thing I noticed coming from a kayaking background was that each paddle stroke seemed to have a tendency to want to push the nose of the craft away from the paddle blade in the water. Because of the design of the boat it doesn’t have the same V shaped hull that my kayak does so initially it took a bit to get used to but I was able to quickly change my stroke from the way I would paddle a kayak to meet the new feel of the the packraft. Within minutes I was capable of tracking a straight line with it, no problems.

Speed

Coming into the testing I knew that a packraft would be slower then my kayak. But found that with a comfortable pace and smooth stroke I was able to average about 3 miles an hour(on open flat water). This was pleasantly surprising considering the fact that some things I had read had originally pegged an average speed of closer to two miles per hour.

Stability

The most impressive thing to me was the feeling of stability that the raft had to offer. I have paddled several makes of kayaks that simply left me feeling that I was one wrong lean from being in the water. The Alpacka Denali Llama had none of that feel to me. With the inflated tubes on each side, the boat felt as solid as a rock, even when I left it broadside to waves. Packrafts, like any boat, can be flipped depending on what and how they are being used, but in the testing that I did with the Denali Llama I felt more than comfortable with the boats stability. I even watched a friend, who is a pro stand up paddleboarder, stand on my boats tubes with almost no effort.

Final Verdict

I love kayaking and the Alpacka packraft is NOT a kayak. That being said, I’m glad it isn’t. For years I’d resisted trying stand up paddleboarding because I thought that a kayak was the ultimate form of transportation when it came to getting out and enjoying the water. Once I finally tried it though, I realized that I had been missing out on a seriously fun hobby. Luckily when it came to packrafting I didn’t make the same mistake.

To be fair comparing the two is almost like comparing apples to oranges. Yes they are both delicious fruits but that is where the comparison ends. Packrafts and kayaks are both water craft, but serve two absolutely different rolls, even though there are areas of use that cross over which makes it hard not to compare the two. Especially when it is probably the kayaker market that is most prone to converting into packrafters.

Packrafts  are not as fast as a kayaks, but offer a range of versatility that could only be had by owning several different types of kayak. Even then with several different types of kayaks, you will never be able to pack one onto your back and hike with it for multiple days(or even hours for that matter) to some of the most beautiful back country locations. They are stable, durable, and fun to use.   Yes there are cheaper options than an Alpacka Packraft, but at the end of the day, you absolutely get what you pay for, a lesson that should be learned early when it comes to the purchase of quality outdoor gear. I wouldn’t trade my Alpacka for any other inflatable raft, even one for half the price, because I know I would end up buying two or even three of the cheaper rafts as they wear out over the course of time that my Alpacka will last me. Would I trade my touring kayak for it? No, I wouldn’t, but I wouldn’t trade my packraft for a kayak either. I’m happy that I own both, for once my fleet of paddle craft feels complete.

At the end of the day an Alpacka packraft may very well be the most versatile watercraft on the market. It can handle whitewater, flat water, tiny creeks and open ocean, it can even be dragged behind as a gear sled in the snow. From adventurers who want to push the limits of the unexplored to a weekend backpacker that wants access a few remote lakes and streams previously inaccessible, Alpacka has you covered. There is not a single boat on the market that can change the way that you view the world the way an Alpacka can, suddenly every single body of water feels like it could be your playground.

Scroll to Top