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12/4/2012 1:59 PM
 

I've received several PMs about buying a packraft recently, so there's obviously interest.  Opinion follows.

At the moment the only manufacturer worth considering for real wilderness packrafting on moving water is Alpacka.  A few companies make small, super-light boats for lake fishing calm river crossings, but they aren't durable enough for bouncing off rocks and the abuse that always results from the smaller, shallower rivers and streams to which packrafts are best suited.  The NRS packraft is an option, but it's not that much cheaper than an Alpacka (unless you have an REI coupon) and the materials are a few steps down.  Feathercraft makes solid packrafts, but they are too heavy.

Once you've decided to lay down the cash necessary for an Alpacka, you'll need to honestly answer some serious questions about your most likely use and desired compromises.  A bigger boat will be more stable in rough water, so long as you aren't sliding around inside it.  It will allow you to carry more stuff, but will weigh more.  Boats with bigger tubes (the main line boats, Double Duck and Explorer) will keep out a lot more water than those with smaller tubes (Scout, Curiyak).  A spray deck keeps the boat drier and thus more manuverable in rapids, keeps out rain, and adds a ton of warmth in colder weather.  It also adds weight and a fiddle factor.  Packrafting can be a miserably cold activity, as even hard paddling doesn't generate that much body heat.  Similar compromises apply to paddles, PFDs, and protective clothing.  Indeed, under summer conditions on most lower 48 rivers floating isn't much faster, and can be slower, than a fast walker on the horse trail which usually runs parallel.  Packrafting isn't just about opening up new terrain, it's about seeing old terrain in a new way.

Most users who suspect from past experience that they'll get obsessed quickly, and do a variety of trips including whitewater, and in a variety of conditions, will be best served by following Alpacka's sizing instructions and getting a main line boat (Alpaka, Yak, or Llama) with the cruiser spraydeck.  People with a whitewater background who will probably want to run big water class III, class IV creeks, and will want a very dry boat should get the heavier and futzier (in the pack) whitewater deck, and add aftermarket thigh straps.  If you'll want to regularly carry  a dog, mountain bike, or really big pack (>60 pounds) get a boat the next size up.  If you dream of floating out a boned-out elk or moose get the Unrigged Explorer.  If you're small and only want to fish the middle of alpine lakes or cross easy rivers, get the Scout.

Your paddle should reflect your intended use and performance preferences.  All paddles should be four piece so they fit in the pack.  Paddles straped to the outside work fine on trails, but are a nightmare when bushwacking and tend to get lost.  Nylon  bladed paddles, like the lower-end Aquabounds, are gorrila proof and affordable.  Alpacka's Sawyer paddle is elegant, light, and the adjustable length very handy, but it's a bit fragile (IMO) for whitewater use.  I won't buy one until the newer blade design proves itself.  Performance paddlers will find the extra cash of a fiberglass and carbon Werner money well spent.  The extra stiffness wins more energy savings than the lower weight would suggest.  Resist the temptation to get larger-sized blades; they're tiring and packrafts turn really fast with even the smallest paddles.  I've used a Werner Shuna for over a year now and it one of my favorite pieces of gear ever.  210cm is a good all-around length for packrafting.  Go shorter for hard WW, longer if you'll do lots of calm water paddling.

PFD selection will have a lot to do with personal risk tolerance and conditions.  It's foolish to run whitewater, even mild low-volume whitewater, without a PFD, but if you packraft in the wilderness for a while you'll find yourself doing it.  I have and will again, but also haul my cheapish foam PFD along quite often.  I've experimented with inflatables, but haven't found one I liked yet.  Look for a foam PFD which has flexible foam, for comfort, and weighs less than 20 oz so you'll take it more often.

Protective paddling clothing is another area where risk tolerance, technique, and personal style will make a big difference.  I own a full-bore Kokotat drysuit, but have never hauled it on an overnight.  I have packed along a 3mm farmer john wetsuit on a few trips, when it wasn't that cold but I thought swimming was likely (the Selway, for instance).  Wetsuits double as decent sleeping pads in camp.  Usually I pack my normal rain coat, paddlers pants with a neoprene waist band, Goretex mitten shells, and an extra fleece vest (beyond what I'd take on a backpacking trip in the same conditions).  Neoprene socks are a good idea.  Conventional rain pants fail in a packraft by letting splashes creep down your sides and butt.  Count on being darn cold by the take out, and making a fire at the end of the day to dry out in all but the best weather.

A helmet is a very good idea in shallower creeks where a flip is probable.  It's not up to whitewater spec, but I find the lighter foam climbing helmets to be acceptable for this use.

 
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12/5/2012 9:57 AM
 

Great write up, thank you.


Co-Owner Hill People Gear "If anything goes wrong it will be a fight to the end, if your training is good enough, survival is there; if not nature claims its foreit." - Dougal Haston
 
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