I consider packraft as one of the most, if not the most, rewarding investments into outdoor gear I have ever made. Typically when jumping into a new hobby, it would be great to have the opportunity to try it out, to see if it fits, before going full monty. But I have a habit of getting involved in niche activities, and back in 2011, packrafting was exactly that. Though gaining momentum in US, there was no local community or any retailer in Europe, though rumor had it there were few rafts already imported to Finland. Stoked about fatbikes as well, I watched videos from Alaska and read about adventurers bikepacking in, and using rafts to traverse, the wilderness, sometimes combining the two. And I tried not to pull the trigger.
My paddling experience prior to owning a packraft was close to non-existent. I had paddled a bit with a canoe, running down flooding rivers with a friend. But living in a block of flats, I had no room to store a canoe or a kayak of my own. Running across these little vessels online, I was immediately intrigued, as I saw the potential with storability and portability of such rafts. At the time, Alpacka Raft was pretty much the only feasible option, especially for a guy my size, with only one other company in the market, offering slightly more fragile, but also a bit more lightweight rafts for standard-sized paddlers. As packrafts were raising some interest within Europe, I managed to hook up with two guys from Germany, for a group order of rafts and accessories from Alpacka Raft. These guys later established the first European store for packrafting gear, the Packrafting Store.
Exactly 5 years have now passed since I placed the order and few weeks later unpacked a shipment of a Alpacka Raft Llama and a beautiful 5-piece Sawyer paddle, made specifically for packrafting. Ordering a relatively expensive raft just based on videos and reports online, I had opted for a version without a spray deck, to cut some of the cost. I also had no plans to do any white water, and felt I could get by without it just fine. Cost of the optional spray deck was at the time around 250 EUR, while the raft and the paddle together were around 1000 EUR, delivered.
My concerns whether I had made a bad call, purchasing one blindly, quickly evaporated, as I inflated the raft and started exploring the nearby rivers and lakes, and the Baltic Sea archipelago. It quickly became a go-to tool for majority of my outdoor endeavors. Winter in between, once spring floods arrived, against my initial plans, I did venture into rapids and white water, and quickly realized the importance of some sort of spray deck. I also started to see benefits of such for paddling through persistent rain. Hence I ended up selling the raft on the verge of summer, and ordering a new one with a Cruiser spray deck. And, as I could get a very good deal with the raft on a new, reinforced version of the Sawyer Paddle, I also upgraded that with no loss. Total cost of an Alpacka Raft with a spray deck and a Sawyer Paddle (plus some spares and kit) was 1300 eur - this was in May 2012. At the time, Alpacka was doing quite significant remodeling on their packrafts. The latest model I received, sported the extended stern which added stability in rapids and made the raft track much better especially on flats. Compared to the earlier versions, also the bow was more pointed and slightly upturned, which helped the same, with minimal weight penalty.
During the 4+ years I’ve had this marvelous vessel, it’s been a trustworthy tool for plenty of adventures and an enabler for a whole lot of new experiences. It has been paddled on calm lakes, maneuvered through meandering rivers, splashed through white water and slid over countless of submerged rocks. It has been dragged through bush and over obstacles on land and on water. It’s been stood on, sat on, slept on, and it’s been scraped, scratched, poked and punctured. It’s been loaded with gear, it has carried bicycles, it has been used as a sled in the winter, and it has been pulled across a lake by a large pike. I’ve sailed with it, capsized it and relied on it, without any concerns.
With packrafts gradually gaining popularity, getting into packrafting is much easier today than it was some four, five years ago. Plenty of local and regional communities, many with Facebook presense, provide forums to discuss and learn. Increasing popularity of packrafting has also bred new companies and original designs, but sadly, also copycats. As Ron Bell from Mountain Laurel Designs just the other day meritoriously called in the company’s Facebook page, copying is a problem that often goes beyond the debate of global trade, ethical and legal discussions or intellectual property rights as, and this applies very much also to packrafts, it can also be a matter of personal safety. The prices I have listed in this blog post serve a purpose of highlighting the fact that when I made my purchase, prices were significantly cheaper (some 30% or so, likely due to increase in material and labour cost and the USD exchange rates), close to what you today need to pay for a Chinese raft.
Now, whether any of the available mimics of Alpacka Raft’s packrafts are of inferior quality or not, I cannot attest, as I have no personal experience on them. And hence I leave it to that. But what I can say, from the experience with Alpacka’s, the quality and reliability of these packrafts are second to none. Despite the continuos heavy use, my Llama has no significant damage, and any wear and tear seen also in the photos here is plainly cosmetic. Being a lightweight vessel, initially holding it in my hands, I was almost certain it would not survive long, and that I, as a person who does not pamper gear, would quickly wear it out, or break it, beyond reasonable repair. I was obviously proven wrong, and as of now would not hesitate to recommend these rafts to anyone interested in getting into packrafting. And should I ever need to replace my raft, I would be strongly inclined to purchase another Alpacka Raft. Since my purchase, they have further lengthened the stern and also offer the innovative Cargo fly as an option. Neither of these induce gear aquisition syndrome for me, but could tip the scale for someone else.
A given product is rarely a perfect fit for everyone, as we all have our own preferences and priorities for gear we use. Of course, some products also have flaws that anyone can (and will) agree upon. Where for some user a given feature is mandatory or considered working perfectly, for another user that same feature can be redundant or seen as flawed and unusable. While the Llama has proven to be a great product for its intended use, and I am overly satisfied with it, there are few caveats I hope Alpacka Raft would address in some way, going forward.
First one would be the inflation bag and the large valve on the raft. Most of the people using inflation bags, based on what I’ve discussed, end up having the supporting struts (on mine they were made of bamboo) ripping through the sleeves quite quickly. I continued to repair mine, sewing them in over and over again, and finally ditched them completely. The inflation bag actually doesn’t really require them, as one can still inflate the raft relatively easy. But I would still like to see some improvement there. When I forgot the bag home once this summer, huffing and puffing through the small valve to inflate the raft, I played with an idea of an integrated inflation bag, that would be screwed in to the valve and stored stuffed inside the raft. This would require a larger valve and some minor engineering with nested threads, but Alpacka Raft, if you read this, feel free to look into that option!
A more notable inconvenience is the raft’s main valve, or actually the cap on it. While the nozzle on the inflation bag threads easily on the main valve, the cap refuses to thread easily and every time it’s an unnecessary struggle to try to screw in the cap fast, without loosing at least few puffs worth of air. It’s been like this from the very beginning, so it’s not simply worn out. Turning the cap first counter clockwise helps a notch, but it is really no match made in heaven, valve and the cap. Inconvenient at most, better cap would still be very welcome.
Second one is about bottom wear. While the standard width and length of the bottom, made out of more robust material than the tubes themselves, is perfectly acceptable, in my own experience I would extend it backwards quite a bit, as the stern gets pretty beaten up. Again, this has not caused a failure yet, but just thinking of maximum longevity, I would appreciate it. It has also to do with the way you enter the raft, since wet entries would not cause any extra stress on bottom of the stern. I however do almost exclusively dry entries (and exits), which means often a loaded raft, with me and gear, gets slid down a river bank or a waterfront rock or a cliff, often scraping the bottom of the stern against ground, sometimes above water, at least momentarily. With repetitive touch downs, there is some visible wear, though no leaks or holes. But in order to prevent further damage, I have now, since this summer, addedd few rows of Gorilla tape on the stern, as shown in the photo below.
Third one is a bit more complicated. As I mentioned, I upgraded my Llama in 2012 from a barebone raft to a one with a Cruiser spray deck, attached with two zippers and a velcro strip. When I decided I want to have some weather and splash protection after all, I opted for the Cruiser, instead of the Whitewater version, as I wanted to have the option for an open boat. This was smart call, as I’ve for example paddled with my daughter when she was younger, and could easily fit us two, something that wouldn’t have been possible with a Whitewater deck. Same goes for fishing, I like it fully open there as well.
Llama is a snug fit for me and I can just straighten my legs when seated without shoes and the backrest I never use. Opting for the Whitewater deck would have required me to customize the boat, adding some 10 centimeters to its length. Over the years, also capsizing the boat in safe environment to learn how to exit from the raft in case of emergency, I have grown less and less reliant on it, mainly trusting it for flatwater paddling in the rain, where it works reasonably well. In rapids, I am always concerned of capsizing and not being able to pull the velcro open, and even when sealed as tight as possible (purpose of having the deck), water always seeps in, as waves and splashes flow over the deck. So it remains a mixed bag for me. I don’t however have any feasible suggestions on how to improve it, and I do understand its limitations for white water, that’s where the Whitewater deck reigns. For now, my priorities and preferences for boating support having an open boat that I can cover with the removable deck when needed, even if it’s not perfect. So this is not a deal breaker for me.
Not a caveat, but worth mentioning - I use an elevated seat, which gives me superior ergonomics over the standard seat. Mine is a simple inflatable seat from Thermarest (NeoAir) which I bought second-hand, on a whim, and turned out to be a keeper. Patched up thrice over two years or so, it’s not overly delicate, but for example fish hooks and such easily puncture it. If the raft would have attchment points for the standard seat some 5-7 centimeters higher (or have that much larger seat), I would happily leave this accessory behind.
This was my personal take on these little chubby boats, hope it gives you some ideas what to expect, and answers some of the questions or concerns you might have. If not, feel free to drop a question below, or contact me directly, I am happy to assist in any way I can, for smooth entry into a new hobby. If you’re from Finland, and capital area, I am happy to offer a demo, should that help to decide which size or which accessories would suite you best. As a photo is worth a thousand words and video is thousands of photos, I’ve hyperlinked both in the text, from the trips I’ve made over the years, to give you some idea what the raft can handle and support.
Although at least here in Finland the season is gradually coming to an end, though not just yet, I felt the timing is good, to plant the seed for the next season. I also did get my first raft in November, you see. Should this post got you interested in Alpacka’s rafts but left you pondering about finances, I remind you that Alpacka Raft has typically had a Christmas sale in November-December, shaving off 10% or more, which might help you to decide to what to invest.
As the communities are growing, there starts to be also a reasonable second-hand market for packrafts and packrafting related gear. To try to consolidate that, few weeks ago I took an initiative and opened a global Sell & Buy group in Facebook. This I hope proves to be useful for anyone looking to save some money or to sell gear no longer needed. At this moment, there are several rafts available within US and Europe, and other good deals on related gear.
❯❯ Flickr album (with more photos): Alpacka Raft Llama
If you already own a packraft, feel free to drop a message below, and share your experiences.
Disclaimer: Despite the obvious appreciation and goodwill towards Alpacka Raft and their products, I have no affiliation with the company, and opinions expressed here are mine, and mine only. Read the Outdoor Blogger Codex for more information on blogger transparency