Futures of the Packraft (Alpacka Yukon Yak review)

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.

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17 thoughts on “Futures of the Packraft (Alpacka Yukon Yak review)

  1. i am pretty stoked to see all the different options of packrafts available now. it has opened up phenomenal loop options down in the grand canyon, where the only way home is to float downriver to another break to get out. just last week, we were able to piece together a rim to rim route in remote western grand canyon that crossed the river by packraft (mainly homemade boats, and flytepackers). i’ll send you a trip report when i have it all written.

    viva la packraft!

  2. Nice post, Dave.

    My feeling right now is that for me with my boat in the last quarter of 2011, it’s my skills and not the boat’s properties. There’s still more water this 2011 Llama w/its super deck can run that I am not a good enough boater to run.

    I can feel it. I am afraid of big water, not because of the boat’s limitations but because of mine. The reason people aren’t running big water Class V is not necessarily the boat, but the boaters. The reason nobody is running big water class V in a boat like mine is mostly because nobody is out there showing that it can be done. Because the packrafters have never paddled water that big and the kayakers don’t feel comfortable in a boat they can’t roll or accelerate or carve like they have come to expect and rely on.

    Personally, being days away from 51, gray-haired, crippled-up, blind, deaf, and forgetful, my testosterone and reflexes are drying up and slowing down.

    Watching real boaters like Thai Verzone, Paul Schauer and Tim Johnson is instructive. Of the three Thai has been packrafting the longest, Paul the least, and Tim has embraced it like no other hard shellers in Alaska have yet to do. Luc Mehl is one of a handful of Class IV/low water V boaters who learned his boating skills in a packraft. He picked up a kayak because he felt it would improve his packrafting.

    What that group of boaters have shown again and again is that when they get into water that has never been packrafted before they find the boats do shockingly well — but first they have to get in the water. And big water always scares us — we just don’t get in, even when we go look at it.

    We are all afraid to get into Six mile at high water, not because the boat will not perform but because nobody knows HOW it wil perform. This is both the appeal and the problem: discovering what is possible.

  3. Yes, so sorry, what I want in a packraft that I don’t have now:
    1) A solid seat (I have two inflated and one’s always leaking) — maybe minicell
    2) Knee cups and better foot bracing
    3) An even pointier bow
    4) A better boater sitting in it!

  4. In case you’re wondering, I’m waiting to see if you’re still here next Spring before I buy a packraft. Though I still might since I’m interested in the Wilderness Classic “someday.”

  5. After just packrafting for two seasons I’m not that expierenced, but the one thing I would like is a tougher deck fabric, mine has ripped along with my wife’s.

  6. I’m not very experienced but agree the seat could be improved. Maybe removable layers of minicell like suggested above with tougher fabric just under the seat area. I’ve only had a 2011 boat but the floor fabric seems fine to me. it has taken a lot of scraping with only superficial damage. And the spray deck could maybe benefit from a small stretch of velcro on the left?

  7. I wish someone would invent a packraft that can temporarily block debilitating hydrophobia every time you put it in the water.

    I keep holding out for a significant psychological shift, but until that happens I may be one of those sad folks who remains self-confined to land-based recreation no matter how super-awesome the micro-boat becomes. Although frozen water doesn’t bother me at all.

    I sometimes believe I’m not a completely lost cause. I’ve done my fair share of river canoeing and sea kayaking, but every time it’s realistically been more traumatic than fun. Even big rafts on calm rivers make me feel uneasy. Wish I could teach my subconscious to separate real dangers from perceived dangers. You’re in psychology, Dave, any tips?

  8. 1st of all thank you for the great post and informative blog.

    To put my remarks in context: I am fairly experienced hiker but am a total noob and beginner when it comes to packrafts. I have bought and read Mr Dial’s book and been reading the usual suspect’s blogs about it.
    This weekend will be my 1st packraft try…

    My main problem I walked into is that there seem to be 2 sort of pack rafts, the serious one (expensive to buy/try) and… well …. a $30 plastic boat from ebay.. The rivers I am looking to do are nothing serious, my idea of packrafting is to cross a river or float down a calm one (I live near the hawkesbury river in Sydney Australia) there are seem be nothing between a cheap toy and serious boat. Alpacka (scout) is s step in the right direction but surely it should be possible to make something in-between $30 and $300 ? something that’s not a total toy but something cheap enough that people that want to get there feet wet are willing to fork out to try if they actually like it. something around the $150 to $200 maybe?

    just my 2 cents worth.. now I have to get my feet wet in a $30 boat I really do not feel safe about…..

    keep up the good works guys, great reading all your info and stories

    Joost

  9. I’m only a beginner in packrafting but I still have opinions!
    – I think the packraft would benefit from a better deck design for the more white stuff. Roman Dial’s center velcro style might be the solution. Could deck like that be made removable? And also better fabric and seam sealing as Dave pointed out.
    – Even pointier bow would help pushing through waves but being well over 6´ with shoe size 13 I need some space inside the bow. Maybe same sort of solution that was done with the new butts?
    – The seat has worked well for me but I haven’t used it that much yet. Maybe there is a need for better seat? At least is could be positioned a bit more forward.
    – And I need more skills and a better paddle… When the pool season starts, it’s time to play with some glue and learn to roll the goddamn thing.

    Maybe it’s time that Alpacka (the only serious option there is) should start to offer custom options for their boats: different styles of decks, different fabric strenghts, different seat styles, etc.

  10. Great review! We bought ourselves 2011 Denali Llamas this summer. Coming from a background of ICF racing kayaks, a bit of kayak polo and a tiny flirt with white water kayaking, I’m hugely impressed with the capability of these little rafts. The flatwater speed it absolutely acceptable for such a vessel, the portability nothing but stunning and from my limited experience, the performance in white water more than good enough for me. I have yet to take it out on anything more serious than the occasional small riffle, but are looking forward to try it on more demanding rivers in a controlled way. There is probably room for more specialised packrafts, but for my intended use (low volume, low water rivers and lakes), the Denali Llama seems to fit perfectly.

  11. I took my packraft out on my first bigwater, Alpine Canyon of the Snake. We did two runs down to Palisade Reservoire, which was low and exposing the most difficult rapid. The Snake was flowing at 5, 500 cfs. I am pleased with my 2012 llama in handling the large waves, and paddled up over 6 foot foam piles in the wave holes in the center of Kahuna and the left side of Staircase. The 2nd time paddling center in Kahuna I didnt quite make it over. I got surfed in front of the wave for about 10 seconds, but the boat was stable enough to get flushed out while staying right side up. I did swim once in Champaige rapid, but that was because I tried running it backward. The big butt packrafts arent as capable of running tall waves backward because their rear keel is shaped like that of a canoe and can cause the raft to flip in swirl rapids. Still happy with the boat though. I paddle up to V- regularly on steep manky creeks in the Wasatch Mountains, and on the Blackfoot in southeast Idaho.

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