Choosing the right packraft

Learn about the various models of Alpacka rafts, including personal testing comments, to help you choose the best packraft for you.

There are so many packraft brands and models out there at the moment, which makes it harder (now more than ever) to know which is best for you. To give you some pointers of where to start, here’s a bit of the process we go through with our customers when selecting a packraft.

 

Firstly, think about what you want to do with your Packraft 80% of the time.

Whilst you are thinking, consider this: All full packrafts (and we are talking about Alpacka Raft’s only) can basically do everything you want them to, however some can do certain things better than others.

All packrafts:
– swing a bit side to side when paddling – this is normal.
– struggle in headwinds – this is also normal.
– are extremely lightweight, durable and pack down well (so can be easily carried.)
– easy to repair yourself if you ever have an accident.

 

Below are the experiences we’ve had with specific Alpacka raft models over the years. Hopefully this will give you some guidance as to which Alpacka raft would be suit you and your packrafting ability.

 

The Caribou.

The Caribou is designed to be a bike rafting boat and has a bigger front with more volume. It’s a one-size-fits-all raft and is one of the lightest boats in the range.

Best suited for: bike rafting or long distance adventures where every single gram counts. Awesome basic boat with a very comfortable detachable seat (models 2018 onwards.) The standard fabric is durable but lighter than Alpacka’s standard 200d material which they use on most of their boats.

 

We’ve tested this boat. We’ve used this raft for a few years now as our main teaching and rental boat. This raft has never ceased to amaze us with its stability every time we take it out.

Some disadvantages (for us personally) we found:
– As it wasn’t designed for white water, we found that the handling wasn’t quite there.
– The one size fits all also has had some challenges, especially for the smaller people, and due to it not being a self-bailer boat, it was regularly full of water. All it means is that we’ve had to stop more often and bail it out or have a wee cup and do it on the go.

 

The areas where we tested The Caribou:
– Teaching up to class 2 – doable (downsides: size, handling, no deck or self bailing.)
– As a rental boat – very doable (super stable, no additional issues with size other than those already mentioned, very lightweight.)
– Adventure Racing – a tight fit for 2 people but doable. Surprisingly fast with 2 paddling.
– Bike rafting – obviously here is where it shines. The extra length means extra room to paddle without hitting your bike all the time or adjusting your paddle stroke. The addition of the cargo zipper meant the bike is at the front, and the rest of the gear is inside the boat.

 

 

The Classic.

This boat was designed as an all-round raft. Whether you run it open or with some form of a deck, you have a very reliable adventure buddy. It’s very versatile and reasonably priced, and is super stable in most (if not all) situations.

Best suited for: long distance adventures where speed and whitewater performance is not top priority. Reasonably light and packs down nice and small. Optionally, I would probably go for a removable whitewater deck.

 

We’ve tested this boat. This model has been with us since the beginning of 2011. We’ve tested open boats, boats with the cruiser deck and the early whitewater decks. We mainly ran it with cruiser deck configuration, which means the deck has a zipper on one side and velcro on the other.

Some disadvantages (for us personally) we found:
– Very easy to set up, but no matter how close we pulled the deck up, we always got a little wet inside.
– For us, the lack of thigh straps and self bailing floor was a little bit of a downside.
– We find the hull speed could be a bit faster, but if you decide you get into packrafting, speed should not be the first consideration.

 

The areas where we tested the Classic:
– Multi day trips around the Hollyford Pyke loop (extensive testing.) Configuration cruiser deck, no cargo zipper – very cool boat, simple, light and packs down super small.
– Grade 3 + 4 water – doable, but with the limitations (i.e., a lot of water inside the boat after some bigger waves.) Whitewater deck would be the better choice here.
– Multiple multi day trips around Fiordland. We found the hull speed of the models improved from the first boats we had (small butt was around 4 – 4.5km/h, where the new ones can do an easy 5km/h.)
– I used this as my primary guide boat for about 6 years.
– I used an old Alpacka Classic on a big, unsupported expedition around the West Coast of Fiordland. Loaded it up with a 40kg pack + me (about 95kg) and it handled all of it just fine.

 

 

The Expedition.

The big brother of the Classic, this boat is designed as an expedition boat (hence its name.) Designed with a new hull and a flatter butt, this boat is one of the lower volume boats in the range, despite you still being able to carry a lot of gear on it.

Best suited for: extended expeditions with some serious km’s involved. Doesn’t matter whether you’re on a lake, river or ocean, this boat can handle whatever you can handle, and due to the higher hull speed compared with the classic, you’ll get to your next campsite quicker.

 

We’ve tested this boat. We really love this boat due to its low volume. It feels really responsive and fast which is good when you are paddling down some of the higher volume stuff – speed is definitely your friend. Seat is a standard detachable Alpacka seat and you have a proper backrest. The thigh straps, if you know how to use them and properly set them up, give you a lot more control which makes “edging” a lot more fun. I had the feeling that it also handled headwinds slightly better than the Classic.

Some disadvantages (for us personally) we found:
– The added weight (compared to the Classic), but its performance and handling is the trade off. My personal setup is a removable whitewater deck, so I am able to choose if I go deck for those colder days.
– It was not designed to do big whitewater (I LOVE whitewater, haha!)

 

The areas where we tested the Expedition:
– We use the Expedition boat as our guide boat for day/multi day trips, and also used that for teaching up to class 2+.
– Ran quite a few expeditions with some good class 2+ boulder gardens in the mix, and it was great.
– We had it on the ocean for some surf missions a while back and it handled well.
– Ran well in some higher volume class 2+ 3-.

 

 

The Wolverine.

The Wolverine is the lower volume brother (or sister) of the Gnarwhal. Designed for whitewater, this smaller volume boat has a very similar hull design to the Expedition but with a slightly bigger rocker which makes surfing a bit easier. Perfect for warmer conditions, quick entry and exit and anyone that prefers a self-bailing setup.

Best suited for: smaller paddlers.
Note: I never had the chance of actually paddling one due to my size and weight, and opted for the Gnarwhal which is a  bigger volume boat.

 

 

The Gnarwhal.

Designed for whitewater, as it’s a bigger volume boat. This is in my world at the moment – it’s the best, most versatile boat you can buy at a reasonable price across the board. Designed for whitewater, so it responds really well to weight shift or edging if the paddler knows how to. It is super stable. It has one of the faster hull speeds in the Alpacka range.

 

Best suited for: pretty much everything depending on what configuration you are running it with.

Run it as a self bailer only and you have a reasonably light setup with a high performing boat which packs down small enough. An advantage? It’s got no deck, which helps with the packing volume and weight. A disadvantage? You do get wet and your feet are wet the entire time (dry suit use is highly recommended.)

Run it as a fully decked boat. A bit more packing volume and weight and a bit more to carry with you. You do need a little tent pole to attach the actual skirt to the boat. An advantage? You will stay dry inside the boat. A disadvantage? Self-rescue is a wee bit more cumbersome, as it takes a bit to get sorted once you are back in your boat. With a deck you get to choose if you want a fixed one or a removable one. Removable has a zipper on the outside and will let a tiny bit of water in through the zipper over time. We never had an issue with the zipper being a weak point.

Run it as our special edition (self bailing boat with removable deck.) This is our personal favourite as you have pretty much all the configurations mentioned above in one boat.

 

The areas where we tested the Gnarwhal:
– This is our fleet boat for all our safety courses, expeditions and private trips.
– My personal race boat due to its speed.
– We use it to go surfing on a regular basis (so much fun!)
– Ran it on multiple rivers of up to class 4 rock gardens.
– Endured some ocean paddling with this boat.
– Have used it on multiple expedition trips with customers (reasonably newbies in it.)

 

A couple tips from us…

If you want a dry boat for winter trip: use Tyvek tape or duck-tape to tape the self bailing holes shut, put the deck on and take your skirt with you.

If you want a self-bailer with some added protection from the elements (wind/rain): leave the holes open and put the deck on (leave the skirt at home.)

If you want a boat as light as possible with a fast hull speed: leave everything at home – deck, skirt, thigh straps, backrest and foot brace and you come very close to the weight of a similar sized Alpacka Classic with much better hull speed. Obviously whatever you have or not have with the boat affects the packing volume as well.

 

 

The Ranger/Forager.

Designed for the hunting and fishing market, the Ranger is the smaller brother of the Forager. Both boats are more than capable in all sorts of water. If you can handle it, so can the boats. The Ranger is a 1-person boat and the Forager is for 2-people. Both boats are self-bailing boats with a fully inflatable floor.

The Forager is the aircraft carrier of all the boats. That thing is capable of carrying an entire moose, the passenger and a kitchen sink! Both boats are more than capable in whitewater – the Alpacka guys took the Forager down the Grand Canyon.

 

Single or double? Doubles can be beaten in terms of speed (but that should not be the first consideration when looking at packrafts, unless you go racing.) Doubles require a bit more skill from its paddlers and react differently (obviously) when going through waves, and entering and exiting eddies. Advantages of a single: much faster. Disadvantages of a double: takes a lot longer to inflate.

 

We want to test these boats a bit more. We’ll be doing some more testing over the coming season, so will report back to you guys on this one.

 

There are multiple packraft options / configurations you can have with these two boats. These include:

Open boat: super lite, small packing volume, colder than a decked boat, more water gets inside.

Decked boat:
Cruiser deck
– super easy to use, does not add a lot of packing volume, warmer than open, less water in the boat but you do still get wet.
Fixed whitewater deck – dry cockpit, warmest deck option, bigger packing volume, more gear to carry, more gear to break or loose, slower to get in and out of the boat.
Removable whitewater deck – same as fixed whitewater deck but with the option of leaving it at home. Zipper may let some drops of water through.

 

Self-bailer: super quick to get in and out of the boat, however colder in the cockpit. The bigger seat keeps you mostly above the waterline, however you will always have a little water in the boat. Water level in the boat will not change when adding more water to it, little slower than a non self bailer, bit more stable.

Cargo zipper or T-zip? Allows you to store gear inside the boat – a great advantage when doing whitewater as the center of gravity is lower and you can see easily over the front. All gear will stay dry. Downside – if you want to get to your gear in the boat will need to be deflated. Bit harder for rivers with lots of portages.

Thigh straps and backrest – absolutely great for adding control, the backrest is brilliant for adjusting seating position for more relaxed paddling (backwards) to more control (more center). Adds a good point for holding on to the boat when capsizing, however adds risk of entrapment. Adds the ability to roll your boat – you will definitely need practice getting out when capsizing.

A couple tips from us…

What are my requirements on weight? Going super lite means a less capable boat for technical water.

Hull speed? Packrafting is for sure slower than kayaking, but with the biggest benefit of easy to carry if, for example, winds are too strong to paddle.

Caribou = 5km/h easy paddling – max longer distance 5.5km/h.
Alpacka Classic = 5km/h – max 5.5km/h.
Expedition = 5.5km/h – max 6km/h.
Gnarwahl = 6km/h – max 6.6 to 7km/h.
Oryx = 7 to 8km/h.
Wolverine = 5.5km/h.
Ranger = has not been testing yet.

Please note: all the above speeds are measured on an empty boat and lake paddling with very little to no wind. There will be slight differences depending on who is paddling and between different boats. In general self-bailers are a bit slower.