I’ve had my Yak since June of last year.  It’s been paddled in almost every month of the year, on exploratory creeks and well-known big rivers, first descents, first packraft descents, day trips, big trips, and as every packraft should be, in Alaska.  I finally put a hole in it this past weekend (easily patched already), so at last it’s time to review it.

This is a review of the my 2010 Yukon Yak, and a discussion of the future of packrafts, because the futures of packrafting are already here. From expeditions to pocket adventures to serious whitewater, we live in the beginning of the golden age of packrafting.

I assumed packrafting would let me go wild places faster and more efficiently, access places I couldn’t otherwise go. These have all been true: floating rivers is often (but not always) faster than walking, integrating off-the-feet time into the days travel can be much efficient, and crossing and floating rivers while they’re cold, swollen, or otherwise uncrossable opens up vast avenues. More than any of these, packrafting has caused me to look at maps and the landscape differently. I plan trips in whole new ways, with old barriers cast aside and new avenues open. I also see things I wouldn’t otherwise, hiking a trail parallel to the same stream in the same valley. Many of the valley trail in Glacier, for example, are in dense forest. You’ll never see more than glances of the Upper Waterton or St. Marys valleys from their floor unless you are in a packraft. Traveling down the contour of the land, quietly mimicking the path of erosion is an aesthetically and spiritually different experience than hiking. Startlingly so.

In short, many more people would be enriched by a packraft in their lives than may presently think so.

This may be especially the case with NW Montana’s clear water.

While packrafting is self-evident, the packraft has a long way to go.  Packrafts are just beginning to diversify, with NRS, Flitepacker, and the Feathercraft Baylee joining/competing with the inventor of the modern packraft: Alpacka.  In my mind, all of these competitors fall short of producing a serious packraft.  The Flitepacker is too fragile, the NRS also a bit fragile and with a primitive design, and the Baylee is too heavy.  All of the competitors have uses, but the fact that they’ve thus far been content to nibble around the edges of the most useful instantiation of the packraft reveals how well Alpacka designed their boats in the first place.

The ideal packraft is packable and light enough to fit inside a not-gargantuan backpack and be part of a light backpacking kit.  If packrafting so beautifully opens up wilderness than a packraft should have as its first priority wilderness travel.  It should be tough enough to bash down the low-level creeks and rivers which suit packrafting so well, carry a heavy load while minimizing effects on handling, and be stable and agile enough to allow skilled paddlers to efficiently run tough whitewater.

I think the fabric on the tubes and floor of my 2010 Yak strikes an ideal balance between durability and weight.  My boat has been down a lot of low water, and it took some preternaturally sharp rock to finally cut it (and not on the floor).  I now have total confidence that my boat will take all but truly irresponsible abuse.

The design of the 2010 boats is pretty good.  The tube diameter seems a good balance between maximizing float without getting in the way of shorter paddlers strokes.  I do covet the 2011 stern, and hope to see the big side tubes of the 2010 boats return in 2012 with the fat butt and pointed bow of the 2011 model.  The 2011 floor fabric is rumored to be thinner than the 2010 floor fabric, which is very sad.  Hopefully the old fabric will return.  (Read this excellent review of the 2011 boat.)

The Alpacka seat needs serious improvement.  This is not merely a comfort thing, though I’ve yet to meet anyone who actively likes the horseshoe/toilet rim shape of the current model.  Loose your seat, as I did last month on the North Fork of the Blackfoot, or as Larry did on the Middle Fork of the Flathead, and your ability to paddle well and see obstacles suffers, and the likelihood of bruising your butt on rocks and putting a hole in your floor increases enormously.  I’d like to see a full seat, not unlike the explorer seat, standard on all boats.  In fact, something akin to two explorer seats integrated into one would be ideal.  Two separate chambers would create some redundancy, and if designed right allow for some degree of adjustability in seat height.  I’d like to see the bottom-most layer of fabric on the seat made with marginally tougher fabric, to better guard against punctures from gravel in the boat.

A spray deck is essential for serious packrafting.  The degree of warmth it adds is huge, to say nothing of the self-evident security when running whitewater.  The spray deck has also been the most-tweaked aspect of the Alpacka rafts over the years, and is still a consistent source of complaint.  I find the current spray deck to be pretty good.  Considering the challenging design parameters, and the varied uses packrafts get put to, Alpacka has done well with its one-size fits all approach.

Spray deck highly recommended.

I like being able to remove my deck, and think the zipper is an acceptable way to do this provided the user takes careful care of it.  Going deckless is handy when carrying big loads, multiple people, using the boat in warm weather, and when running sketchy stuff when instant exit is highly prized.  I do think the side opening approach has serious limitations.  In combination with the lap pillow, entering and exiting from the wrong side under duress can be tricky.  The lap pillow gets the job done, but is bulky and I find that it gets caught and forced down by the bottom of my PFD in whitewater when I’m using body english, and as a result water pours in.  The velcro on the deck has come under fire, but I can’t see a better option.  I added more velcro to the waist, as a pack on the bow often forces some tension on the deck and made the side hard to close.  The disadvantage of this is that my body weight is no longer enough to pop the deck when I flip.

Most of all, I’d like to see better fabric in the deck. There is plenty of 50 to 70 denier silicone impregnated fabric on the market, and this would be a drier and lighter (no water absorption) option than the current urethene fabric with coating side out.  I’d also like all spray decks to come with all seams factory taped.  (Seam sealing your deck helps keep those cold drips away).

Given these demands, multiple deck options seem inevitable.  Those putting thigh straps in their boats to run class IV are never going to be happy with a deck that suits the user looking for a swiss army knife of a boat.  In fact, boat specialization seems only a matter of time.  Packrafts as they stand today have limits, mainly hull speed and in serious whitewater an excess of floatation.  Things trivial in kayaks, like standing waves, are brutal going in a packraft if not outright impossible.  (Compare this to this.)  My assumption, and I might be putting the ass in that word by speculating beyond my knowledge here, is that packrafts will need a radical redesign to keep pushing the limits of whitewater difficulty.  Tougher, heavier boats with better outfitting, less floatiness, and a less forgiving and more aggressive shape will evolve for specialists.

My hope is that the all-around packraft will benefit along the way, with greater hull speed but the same huge float forgiveness and shallow-water prowess which make them so distinctive today.  It seems to me that this two attributes are linked: if big pushy water exposes the two biggest limits of the packraft all at once, shallow, low volume technical water reveals in tandem all the strengths.  I look forward to an Alpacka with fat tubes, a huge butt, tough fabric, and a better seat and deck.  My current boat is only the first on many packrafts I plan to own in my life.

These are rough thoughts, please tell us what you want in a packraft.