Around here the inshore sea paddling is exceptional, even if packrafting the inland lochs is also pretty good. Having done most of the latter routes, I thought I might try some coastal packrafting. Garvie Bay arcing west to Achnahaird Bay looked like a good one and happens to parallel probably the best walk on the peninsula which we’ve done many times. That route could be a 20-km combination of cycling, walking and paddling, but as it was the last calm evening for a while, we thought we’d go out together in the kayak and I’d try the packraft on the way back. That way everyone got to play.
A light NW breeze blew onshore as we cut across Achnahaird Bay like a blue fin tuna. The approach of HW meant we slipped through the submerged skerries of Rubha Beag and into the crab’s claw inlet of Camas a Bhothain (Bothy Bay). This seemed a good spot to deploy the packraft with the aid of my exciting new gadget, a mini electric pump. I unrolled the boat over the water and let the pump buzz away for a couple of minutes, topped off with the hand pump, then clambered aboard.
Paddling away, I realised this was the first time I’ve paddled my Rebel 2K unloaded and I was a bit shocked by the bow yawing. Now fully back-heavy, one good swipe of the paddle and it could flip a 180°, just like my old 2010 Alpacka Llama.
Ah, but in my haste to launch the lifeboat I’d forgotten to fit the also-untried skeg which comes standard on the 2K. I waddled over towards Rubha a Choin beach and slipped it on easily, while the Mrs transferred to the Seawave’s front seat.
I’ve been ambivalent about the value of a skeg on a packraft, but now back on the water the yawing was notably reduced. If you think about it, a packraft actually pivots from a point around the middle of your swinging paddle, not from the stern, as it feels from the seat. The centre of mass behind the pivot point does make an unladen bow yaw more, but the stern will yaw too; just less and unnoticed.
On the Wye my 2K was fully loaded with the centre of mass moved forward and which minimised any yawing, even without a skeg. (With a heavy load over the bow a reduction in yawing is well known with packrafts). Now unloaded and with the bow riding high, swish-swosh yawing was exacerbated, but is actually happening at both ends of the boat. So any type of fin or extension of the stern (like the post-2011 Alpackas – right – and all subsequent copies) will constrain this, while not affecting steering. So, bottom line: skegs work on a packraft and are easy to retro-fit.
All the remains is a packraft’s agonisingly slow speed. These are not boats made to enjoy the sensation of flatwater paddling; they are boats to enjoy getting to out-of-the-way places easily. Any type of disturbance to progress, be it wind or current, may slow you to a stop, or worse. Something like the longer Nomad S1 I had would be better for this while still being packable. Still, in these ideal conditions it’s nice to float along observing the coastal features.
Paddling back down the east side of Achnahaird Bay, a back-breeze made progress feel achingly slow. Lately, I’ve come to value metres per second (m/s) as a metric of wind or paddling speeds. Something moving past you (or vice versa) at three metres per second is easy to visualise, though I suppose we can all visualise a 3mph walking pace, too. It’s what YR uses and is easily converted to ‘double + 10%’ for miles per hour (so 5 m/s = 11.18 mph). Or just double it and you nearly have knots (5 m/s = 9.8 kn), for what that’s worth. Crawling past the rocky coast it looked like I was doing 1 m/s at times. We had a race: diminutive Mrs in a big, long kayak; me in the packraft. Within ten seconds the Seawave streamed away while Bunter frothed up the water like a cappuccino machine.
Oh well, you’re as fast as you are. Like cycling in Tajikistan rather than Kazakhstan, for the best experience match your routes with your mobility and conditions. Next calm day I’ll do the full Garvie loop.
Weight, Size & Volume Bag: 224g; straps 11g each (verified) 59cm wide, 43 cm long and ~15 high when full. Volume: 22 litres
Where tested Northwest Scotland, Medway, Knoydart
• Waterproof construction including IPX7 zip • Light • Variety of position options, providing you have the mounts • Four 58-cm straps included • Works well on the trail as a shoulder bag too • Handy Molle rim tapes
• On the bow of my Nomad was a bit of to reach • Not convinced it works well as a floor bag • Won’t stay up to be a pillow
What they say Waterproof zippered packraft bow or stern bag for easily accessible essentials on the water. Fits any Packrafts (and a lot of other boats) by full perimeter daisy chain (for variable fastening). With the Anfibio DeckPack you can transport your essentials safely and securely in all conditions. Splash-sensitive valuables like a camera, keys or documents as well as emergency equipment and spare clothing are always at hand on the bow, the stern or on the floor beneath your knees. The DeckPack can also be quickly converted into a daypack for excursions on land or the use as hand luggage on your journey.
Review The problem with packrafts is there’s nowhere to put your stuff other than the bag it comes in, usually a backpack. I wrote more about it here, before making my own small Pakbag.
Otherwise, I like a 20-30L holdall, like my old Watershed Chattooga, or my current Ortlieb Travel Zip (right) with a handier TiZip and mesh-zip external pockets. These bags sit accessibly, but out of the way, under my knees, and on previous packrafts attached to a tab mount glued to the floor for when you flip.
Anfibio’s DeckPack is another way of doing it. It resembles Alpacka’s larger, 24-litre Bow Bag but costs 25% less at current $/€ rates. It’s a vaguely semi-circular, PU-coated bag of around 22 litres which, unlike the Bow Bag, has a perimetre of daisy-chains (continuous attachment loops, a bit like Molle). It fits most obviously on a packraft’s bow, as this is where most packrafts have four tabs and where the weight trims the boat best. But you could as easily mount it on flatter sterns (as on my Nomad) if you already have a big backpack up front. Anfibio also suggest it can go inside on the floor too. Using the supplied straps, I’ve also used the pack as a daypack shoulder bag while on the trail.
On my Nomad it it just so happened the bow mounting tabs where just right to fit the bag without using the supplied straps. Mini carabiners or more rust-proof fishing snaps (above) enabled a snug fit. So would reusable zip ties – also rustproof. But mounted on the bow it was a bit of a reach on my Nomad unless I shuffled off the seat.
In fact there are enough hull mounts on my Nomad to position it further back (above right) using two front straps. Here it acts as a splash guard extension and was much more accessible on the water without making getting in and out too awkward. It worked similarly well on my Seawave too (below) – something I’ve been trying to work out for years.
I submerged the DeckPack in the bath and, pushed underwater (ie: under some pressure) air bubbles slowly leaked out via the zip head. But Anfibio tell me:
Please note, the zipper is one-way air penetrable, that means it will release air to the outside under some pressure along the zip, not only the head, but it remains watertight. It is actually rated IPX7. Under any circumstances, it can withstand submersion.
Without pressure, there may be no leakage and so the DeckPack doubles as a secondary buoyancy aid – always reassuring on single-chamber packrafts.
Once I realised it would work well on the IK, I ended up liking the Anfibio DeckPack a bit more than I expected, but here are a couple of suggestions: • Drop the price and make the straps (right) optional. Most paddlers will have their own mounting means or ideas. I use four reusable zip ties,
• A curved, meshed exterior zip pocket would be really handy for knick-knacks or having a GPS in a readable position. Or, run a line of daily-chains alongside the main zip, so you can DIY a mesh pocket to the outside without interfering with the main zip or bodging as I have done (left). It would make the DeckPack even more versatile and save over-working the waterproof zip to access stuff while on the water.
MYO Seatback Mesh Pouch As mentioned above, zipped mesh pouches on exterior surfaces are dead handy. You can put stuff in them, they drain or dry fast and they enable handy access without digging into a main bag. It’s one of the things I like on my Ortlieb Travel Zip.
On eBay I found 9″ x 7″ zip mesh pouches for makeup at about 3 quid each and quite well made. I zip-tied one around the side hem to the buckles on the back of my packraft’s foam backrest (above and below). It’s a handy place to stash the inflation bag, some cord, snaplinks, zip ties and the top-up adapter for my K-Pump. I even fitted one to my Anfibio DeckPack.
Packboat is my made-up word for easily portable boats that roll into a bag but deploy in minutes, in contrast with hardshell kayaks or canoes in aluminum, plastic, or composite. I’m here to suggest that if lugging a cumbersome hardshell on your overland rig isn’t for you, then a packboat weighing from 2 to 40 pounds and never bigger than a backpack might well be, while adding another great way to explore the outdoors…
As mentioned here, wafting down the Tarn Gorge one summer with a Watershed Chattooga drybag jammed under my knees gave me plenty of time to configure a ‘deckbag’ to better fit my needs.
Peli cases are too heavy and cumbersome for these sorts of trips, while dependably dunk-proof – or even submersible bags like the Chattooga are too big and too fiddly to seal easily (since replaced with an Ortlieb Travel Zip). All I needed a 5-litre bag to sit on the floor below my knees for my must-stay-dries. Using state-of-the-art Adobe Crayon™ CAD software I came up with a design (above) and optimal dims of about 29cm x 15cm wide by 12cm deep giving about 5 litres volume. Part of the attraction of this project was learning to heat-weld TPU fabric with a small iron. It looks so much easier and less messy than glue. Or so I thought.
Before I got – quite literally – stuck in, I considered adapting some of the many heavy-duty SealLine PVC roll-top dry bags I have knocking about. All I needed to do was stick a zip in, then somehow cap one end with a round piece of something. I may well try that later but what I was actually aiming for was a stable box not a cylinder to sit securely on the floor of a boat.
Heat welding: important to understand PVC plastic can’t be heat sealed with an iron because it’s double coated. With double-coated anything (TPU, PVC, etc) the hot iron will easily melt the coating and make a right mess. Done this way you need to use a heat gun and a roller (left) which requires three hands. Or use single-sided PVC seam tape. Or of course, use glue.
The body of my Pakbag could be made from single-coated yellow 210D packraft hull fabric, with the near-square end panels in ‘both-sides-coated’ 420D black packraft floor material. At 650g/sqm (27oz/sq yard) this stuff is good and thick. The thin yellow is 275g/sqm.
Half a metre minimum order of each cost €10 and €20 respectively from extremtextil in Germany; a very handy resource for the home fabrician. What you see left is what’s left over. Extrem were also one of the only places I found who’d sell a couple of 23-cm TiZip MasterSeal 10s for €23 each. Rolled delivery cost a bit more but avoided folds and was very fast. In the meantime I bought a used Prolux iron off ebay for 20 quid and already had some scissors, a table, a ruler and a knife.
I’m not so skilled at home handicrafts so expected to make a right mess of things first time round, and was prepared to make a second bag. The next best thing I could do was think carefully before diving in like Edward Scissorhands at a confetti convention. One smart decision I made was to use a wooden mould to form the bag around. I could have laboriously hand-sawn some kitchen-shelf leftovers down to size, but after more ebaying found a pair of hobbyist’s knick-knack balsa boxes which added up to 15 x 12 x 30 stacked. As mentioned, you can’t iron on the coated side of TPU fabric; the coating will melt all over your iron before it bonds to whatever’s underneath. You can only directly heat an uncoated surface while pressing down the coated side which melts to the corresponding panel – coated or uncoated.
You can learn a lot from the DIY Packraft website. Lord knows how these guys manage to make packrafts from a roll of raw TPU. There can be no doubt that my attempt would end up looking like Picasso in an abattoir, but a dinky, curve-free pakbag ought to be within my abilities.
They mention the need for an iron with an adequate and consistent spread of heat up to around 220°C. Rated at 205°C, my cheapo Prolux was not in this category. I understand model makers find them ideal for applying thin transfers. For TPU work you need an iron with more poke, costing at least three times as much. I practised joining 210D to 210D, but sealing was far from instantaneously miraculous. It took repeated ironing and pressing, as well as spot heating to get a full seal with virtually no air gaps or lifted edges. You could then peel it apart if you got an edge up, but you certainly couldn’t pull it apart. I thought maybe the coating may be too thin or once melted was gone for good, but it’s probably just my crap iron.
For the end panels you need to seal 210D on to the thick black 420D. The box mould really helped to make a neat-enough job. One interesting observation about joining fabrics by sewing or heat-welding is that millimetre-precise measurements aren’t critical as they are with wood or metal. I took more time than I needed cutting the exact forms and trying to get precisely perpendicular edges. A big metal set square may help, or you can find stuff round the house – in my case, some square glass bathroom scales. Another tip is arrange something sticky under your cutting edge ruler so it doesn’t slip as you slice hard to get a full, straight cut.
The length of the bag is partly governed by the available zip size. The 23cm MS10 Tizip which extrem sell is presumably used as a relief zip on men’s drysuits, but for a bag has a minimally useful aperture of just 19cm. The next size they sell is a massive 71cm. They must make TiZip sizes in between (for example for packraft cargo hulls), but good luck tracking them down online.
Several features are omitted from the Adobe Crayon blueprint at the top of the page:
• The overlap sleeve on the side to contain the shoulder strap to avoid entrapment. On rough water I’ll just unhook the shoulder strap and stash it
• Otherwise the full-length shoulder strap can adjust down to ‘handbag ‘length so there’s less is lying about
• No side net. Would still quite like this but not sure how to do it neatly
• TiZip is not diagonal – not important – but the arched stays idea underneath it may be. I noticed in France under the knees gets a lot of drips off the paddle (PSZ; right) which can get in when you open up. Convex top would be good but a shake of the bag may thrown off excess drips before unzipping
• Need to find a way to attach it to the packraft floor. Velcro might be low profile but with the repeated force of pulling apart, I’m not sure the shiny-backed stuff I have will glue to the bag or the floor well enough, even with proper two-part glue. So Ill just clip one of the strap rings a D-ring glued on, mid-floor
A few months later… using the Pakbag
After paddling the Wairoa River in New Zealand as a day trip, I can boldly claim my MYO Pakbag is fit for purpose. It’s just the right size for a water bootle, camera, GPS and wallet, even if the easy-to-use zip is a tad short for easy access. One thing I didn’t appreciate is that, slung over the shoulder while sat in the boat, the bag is still handy to access but keeps off a wet floor and is always attached to you. No need to think where it is.
Sadly my glue or gluing skills are not so fit for purpose. I need to reglue the strap end-rings and a couple of corners. This time I’ll probably use 2-part glue which I know will tear off the coating from the fabric core before it separates from what it’s glued to.
What I’d really like is for someone to make this properly. The difficulty – as possibly mentioned above – seems to be that anything with TiZips requires the consent and approval of TiZip Inc before they supply a zip. It’s a way of ensuring a proper application to their tight specs is done so that their reputation is not harmed. Which is why many TiZip products, like my Ortlieb Travel Zip bag are unusually expensive. You’d think there must be alternative or knock-off TiZips around; I’m pretty sure I searched and searched.
In 2005 the Dordogne and nearby Vezere were my first multi-day rivers in a Sunny IK, all helped by the discovery of the inspiring White Water Massif Central guidebook. The Dordogne was a good choice but to be honest, a bit easy. Ready for something more sportif, I’d got it into my head from the book that the Ardeche was too hardcore, so I’d be better off on the less famous Allier between Chapeauroux and Brioude (big map, above). In fact, as you can read here (admittedly at twice the normal summer flow; video too), parts of Allier can get tricky (see right). Even though a railway carves and tunnels right along the gorge, on the first two days from Chapeauroux there are places where the rapids come at you fast and with no easy way out of the gorge if you get in trouble. Over the years stranded paddlers have been rescued by helicopter.
Not fully comprehending all this, in June 2006 I set off from Chapeauroux in my Sunny, and at the very first bend was flapping about like a salmon with a seizure, trying to stay on track. It went on like that for a while, then eased up and actually got quite pleasant by the time I reached Alleyras for the night. This was more like it; a wild river rather than the broad Dordogne lined with water pumps irrigating the adjacent farmland.
Next morning a taxi transported me past the then-closed section dodging the Poutes dam below Alleyras (more below) and dropped me at Monistrol. Here again I failed to fully appreciate the greater challenges immediately ahead, even if the guidebook was clear: great fun in a creekboat, but an open canoe will fill up on the longer rapids. And if I didn’t know it then, I do now: the white water abilities of open canoes and IKs are closely matched, while IKs might easier to control for beginners.
This Monistrol stage is run by commercial rafting trips (above), also a telling sign about the nature of this part of the river. I scraped through that day, exiting a few rapids with a boat full of water, and on one ending up swimming alongside it. Below left, notice the baggage floating in the swamped boat. Looking back, I’m pretty sure this was the exit of ‘La Barraque au Ponnet‘ (KM3.5; more below) with that raft above coming through soon after I stopped. It was all a bit of a shock.
Unless you’re confident, I’d suggest not following my example in doing this section alone. Consider a recce in the raft if there’s one going that day, or ask if you can tag along for safety.
A few kilometres before Prades (KM12 from Monistrol) it became less of a white-knuckle ride, and what followed all the way to Brioude were fun, Grade 2 rapids and a couple of thought-provoking chutes or easy portages. All manageable in open packboats. As you approach Brioude on the last day, the paddling eases right up so that you start harking back for a bit of eaux vivants.
All along what they now call ‘one of Europe’s last wild rivers’ you’ll pass many striking outcrops of columnar basalt as well as pretty villages (like Chilac, below) with adjacent campsites, boulangeries, inexpensive hotels – and not a chain store to be seen. Like the better known Ardeche and Tarn, the Allier is another Massif classic, still distinctively scenic but with less of the nose-to-tail traffic during busy holiday periods.
Getting there Although the daily trains aren’t frequent, with riverside stations at Brioude, Langeac, Monistrol, Alleyras and Chapeauroux, the Allier (left) is easy to get to with packboats. First, Easyjet yourself to Lyon, or Ryanair-it to Nimes or Clermont, two cities which are also linked by the scenic Ligne des Cévennes rail line (below). Brioude is an hour south of Clermont, and Chapeauroux is two hours over the hills from Nimes. Between them, Brioude and Chapeauroux span the scenic and paddleable 88-km section of the Allier. One thing worth considering if you’re unsure about the Grade 3+ Monistrol–Prades section, is coming up on the train from Brioude or Langeac. It passes right above the gorge where you get a good view of the Barraque au Ponnet and a few seconds later the ‘Roche qui Pleure’ drop a few hundred metres upstream (right; Gumotex Scout canoe). I’m sure glad I looked when I came back in 2018.
Twelve years later I finally return to the Allier, this time with a packraft. I flew to Lyon (cheaper and more frequent than last-minute Ryanair), caught the train via Clermont to Brioude (5hrs), and next day caught the first train to Monistrol (left). I planned to miss out the Chapearoux–Alleyras stage to save time and the taxi faff around the dam**. It left me three days to cover about 70 paddling kilometres back to Brioude.
** I have just read that since August 2018 (click ‘P5’) the long-closed section between Alleyras and Monistrol is now open to paddlers, with a portage around the Poutes dam re-construction site (left), 3.5km from Alleyras (the train passes right in front of it). As part of the Allier resalmonification programme, the dam is being substantially lowered (video) and fitted with a ‘ladder’ to help the fish get upstream and propagate – and give anglers something to do. Note that local environmentalists fought a long battle to get this far so act sensibly, especially around the Poutes dam site. Don’t get run over by a digger!
The train heading upstream passed right in front of the Brioude weir (left) where I’d be taking out in a couple of days. The line then rejoins the Allier at Langeac before heading for Monistrol. Soon it enters the wild gorge and looking down at the rapids below I thought… ‘Hang on a minute!’ which, a rapid or two later escalated to ‘WTJOF!?’. I recall being unnerved in 2006, but I’m sure they didn’t look this gnarly. I realised later that the first 100-m white plume was ‘Le Barraque au Ponnet’, easily recognisable on aerial maps, pictured on the right in full winter spate. The other WTJ… was ‘La Roche Qui Pleure’ – two of the fruitiest chutes on this stage (map below left).
I got off at Monistrol, scoffed a petit dej at a deserted hotel and wandered around town wondering what to do. The river didn’t seem higher than normal; perhaps it was low back in June 2006? Either way, thanks to my train preview this stage seemed a bit too ripe for me; the Yak would be spilling over long before I was halfway through ‘Le Ponnet’.
For a while I actually wondered if I was suffering from false memory syndrome from 2006 and might have cause to claim compensation if I found the right lawyer. But I definitely recall the old Monistrol hydro plant (right) and my photo record shows I took the picture of the board below left at 9.03 and was at Prades beach by 1pm, invigorated but not inordinately traumatised, iirc. River pictures were few back then in that pre-Lumix FT2 era.
Later, trying to work out what was different (other than my nerve), I wondered if I’d glanced down on Le Ponnet during a particularly hearty pulse of dam-released water? Looking at the vigicrues website later, the flow graph for that day (at Prades) does show it was high as I passed by around 8am – before dropping six inches around midday. I knew from the Tarn earlier this summer that following a stormy night, a six-inch rise makes a difference – it speeds up the flow but can also smother stony rapids and make them easier. The pulsed releases every 8 hours are the lumpy pattern you can see along the bottom of the graph below for the days before and after I came through. As you can tell, I am bending over backwards trying to find ways to rationalise away my new-found timidity! Above right: from the Eiffel bridge in town, you can see the first rapid (looking back upstream). Like the books says: if you don’t like how this or the next couple of runs look, turn back.
Otherwise – strap on in for the ride!
Annoyingly, my GPS with good maps was at the menders. I borrowed a look off a trekker’s map (Monistrol is on the GR65 Santiago trail) but at 1:100k, I was none the wiser. I’d have needed a 1:25k map to find any viable paths along the gorge.
In the end I decided to follow a path by the bridge on the right side of the river, signed: ‘Viaduct, 1 hr’. It might continue along or above the gorge to a point where I could put in with the worst behind me. If it didn’t I could turn back and hitch or bus – or if desperate, clamber uphill to the D301 backroad to Prades. And that is what I did, but not without a huge amount of effort. Initially, the path followed the riverbank, passing a few Grade 3s (above, probably ‘La Benne’; KM1.8) which would have swamped my Yak like hot ‘creme anglais’ over a freshly baked rhubarb crumble.
Some three hours later, high above the valley and heading for dehydration (33°C in Brioude that day), I gave up. Fallen trees, brambles, scree slopes, an intermittent path and the 1:1 slope all took their toll. After a failed attempt climbing a loose cliff, I managed to hack my way uphill and emerged a sweaty mess on the D310, looking like I’d just escaped from a teenage slasher movie. Scratched, bitten, stung and grazed to buggery, I’d covered 3km in three hours.
I washed in a cattle trough and passed through the sunflower hamlets of Conaquet and Conac, before splitting left down a side track and path leading back downhill, hopefully to rejoin the river. This it did, just before Pont Gilbert and just below ‘La Petite Grille’, by chance nearly the last (and easy-looking) rapid, 8 river-kms from Monistrol. Although it didn’t feel like it at the time, this turned out to be pretty darn good route-finding without a map (left).
At one point earlier, while thrashing through the bush or teetering across scree slopes, I heard the telltale whoops of hyper-excited rafters far below. I realised that’s what I should have done: taken the fun option in a big-arsed raft as far as Pont Gilbert (if they’d take me, with baggage). I’d seen signs for the rafting centre near Monistrol station, but the town was so quiet I assumed they’d closed for the season. It would have been a great way to punch through the big rapids without a care in the world. Picture above left: the ‘Le Ponnet’ viaduct down below with the long ‘Barraque’ rapid starting just around the corner and ‘Roche qui Pleure’ laughing menacingly from behind the trees on the left.
Dropping the kit bag and setting up by the riverside ‘La Petite Grille’, it had indeed become hot enough to grill a ‘croque monsieur’, but once on the water it sure felt good to flop down and float away like a stray log. Just like in the wilds of northwest Scotland, if you have the choice: float, don’t walk. Obviously part of me wondered if I could have managed the gnarly rapids upstream. After all, I’d clearly scraped through before in the Sunny (still hard to believe). But I’d followed my gut and felt happy with that.
Watch Belgian packrafter Dzjow’s video below from 2014. He enjoyed the Monistrol stage so much he went back up on the train and did it again with GoPros rolling. Watching it, I’m glad I didn’t. From Monistrol starts at 1:57 and he shoots down ‘La ‘Roche qui Pleure’ (the image below) at 2:28, soon followed by ‘Barraque au Ponnet’ which starts at 2:34 (note the railway viaduct) and goes on for a while to the big rock (3:19) you’ll recognise on the left in the rafting pic, above. Dzjow is a hardcore adventuriste I’ve come across before. The following year he went on to do a self-admittedly tough and not so enjoyable trip in wild Patagonia. He hasn’t written about packrafting since. Next time I’m here I’ll rent a bailing IK as wide as a bed and give it a go.
After about 4km I pulled into Prades beach (below left). I needed salt and I needed drink. And while I was at it, what harm would a handmade mini quiche, some bacon crisps and a tartes aux framboises do? None at all, mon ami.
Now revived but still worn out by the morning’s commando course, I knew there was a bit of a drossage (great word) just around the corner, but it was all fun knowing a few others were playing around too, including SUPs. What is it with these SUPs? I’ve never seen them doing anything more than goof about in the shallows but rarely actually go anywhere, yet they are clearly more popular than IKs and packrafts combined. What does that say about the state of post-industrial recreation in the developed world?
Unusually, I had a hotel booked at Reilhac, about 18km downriver, past Langeac. With just a couple of canoes on the water, the afternoon passed without drama, bar the odd wetting. But approaching Langeac, the din from the weir just before town was unusually intimidating. The canoe chute here (left) is well-known as being a bit of a drossage because it’s about 3 feet too short and so pumps a plume of water into a nasty backwave which not all boats can easily escape.
And I do wish these Frenchies would mark the tops of their glissieres with two poles, indicating: ‘aimez-vous ici!’. Above, show me the chute entry point while wearing a pair of sweat-smudged specs! Maybe the idea is by not having clear markers, paddlers slow down and look carefully. I did just that above and portaged round off a little beach on the right. I could not be arsed with hitting the churning pile to get catapulted over the bow like a 40-kilo sack of dried beetroots. I felt that no matter how far back I leaned, my short, light boat would plough ‘n’ flip, unlike a longer IK. Back in the water, I paddled on through early evening Langeac and an hour or so later was slumped on my Reilhac hotel bed
Today was just what was wanted; a short, easy run of just 13km, ending at the UNESCO-overlooked village of Lavoute Chilac where the charming Hotel des Pecheurs tottered on the slender gooseneck bluff above the Allier.
Three clicks downriver (6km from Langeac) was a double-drop weir-chute (below left). Easy enough providing you steer straight for the lower drop, but I walked it as I knew it would be a bailing job, and today was some 10 degrees cooler. Splish followed splosh followed splish down to Chillac (below, 11.5km from Langeac), another picture-perfect postcard village sat atop a striking basalt plug with dreamy views across the Auvergnois countryside from the terrace by the church (big picture, top of page).
Half a click downstream from Chilac is an easy, short chute (above right) on the far left. But once down it I realised the old weir passing below the mill on the right had pretty much been washed away, making the chute redundant and a fun ride down a long, shallow rapid. Clearly I was recovering my mojo if I was looking for some white water action again. Later, I read this weir has been flushed away for some years, but is another thing the new Canoe Trips,South of France guide had overlooked.
Soon, the bluff of Lavoute Chilac rose into view. I pulled over left at the riverside park, let my gear dry, then walked into the village over the tall bridge (left). Les Pecheurs (white building on the right, below) was still on siesta, so I left the Yak by the steps and walked over to at Le Prieure, the other creaky-stair hotel in the village, for a mouth-watering ‘Salade Auvergnate‘.
Wandering around the old church and the imposing, 18th-century facade of the abandoned priory (right, due for luxury flat conversion), I was staggered to see a July 1866 flood marker at the church’s back door. In the photo left my hotel room would have been submerged by a few metres. Perhaps the river’s acute 180-degree turn causes floodwaters to back up.
It’s the last day of my packrafting mini-break and by my estimates, I had about 22km of paddling, plus another 4km walk to Brioude station to catch the 4:10 to Lyon. I didn’t want to miss that so set off briskly, passing a canoeing couple (the only other boat I saw all day) until I could estimate my pace against a landmark. Before 11am I’d reached the bridge at Villeneuve: 9.5 clicks in just 80 minutes which gave me plenty of time. This Allier flows quicker than it looks.
The book talks of another old weir to ‘shoot’ at Villeneuve campsite, but there’s nothing here except a ford with poles marking the car crossing. Many of the book’s ‘shoot an old weir’ descriptions are out of date. There’s rarely anything more than a line of rounded boulders and a drop of a few inches, making you wonder: ‘was that it?’ But at Ville Brioude, just before the tall bridge (right), the book suggests you can shoot a modern concrete weir (above left). Good luck with that and those boulders lined along the base.
Finally I was back at the public beach below La Bargesse campsite. Ahead was the big weir before the red brick rail bridge I’d crossed on the train a few days earlier (left). Here again the book now suggests ‘portage right’ and other convoluted options – perhaps a simple left/right mistake? You simply take out at the grassy park, river left, walk over a little footbridge and put back in below the weir under the railway bridge and above a shallow rapid.
All done. Once again, I’m amazed at the true amphibiousness of these packrafts, especially if not hauling camping gear on the trail. A long walk to dodge gnarly or closed stages is (potentially) easily done, even carrying an inappropriate kitbag. With plenty of time to catch my train, I dried off, got changed and walked over to Brioude for a coffee and cake in the town square below the basilica’s decorated tower. In the hills all around the petrified volcanos and lush grassy valleys of the Auvergne countryside could easily withstand more exploring on foot, by pedal or with paddle.
The basic gear you need for packrafting adventures so you don’t end up as above, or simply just inconvenienced and wet For general camping kit (sleeping, eating, washing) you’ll find lists all over the internet and beyond. I prefer a 1-kilo down bag, a roomy tent, a thick, full-length air mat and a Pocket Rocket-like burner with a big Tatonka or MSR 500ml+ pot/cup. Below, I suggest cheap alternatives in green. A cheap alternative to a proper packraft is of course… a Slackraft! You’ll only every buy one once ;-)
1. A pack for your raft
Do you use a regular hiking backpack packed with your boat in or outside, or a purpose-made drybag pack with usually a rudimentary integrated harness, or use a separate packframe harness as pictured?
If you’re a first timer and own a regular hiking backpack, make do with that, but having tried both I prefer a harness. You’re on the water so waterproofness trounces all-day carrying comfort. I find the best combination is my submersible UDB duffle that’s tougher and as airtight as a packraft. It also provides high-volume back-up flotation should you get a flat on the water; important and reassuring. And with a genuinely submersiblebag there’s not need to pack stuff in endless dry bags ‘just to be on the safe side’. A UDB or similar is as airtight as a jam jar.
For short approach walks like on the Tarn, or theKimberley, I used the UDB’s basic integrated harness: just sewn-on straps. For Turkey which was mostly walking, I fitted it into NRS pack harness (above left and right; no longer made) whose capacity easily exceeds its straps and your back. In Germany Packrafting Store sell the more sophisticated Six Moon Flex Pack (left; new 2021 design), a ‘drybag hauling system’. You can lash anything that fits within the straps, including your rolled-up boat. ULA Epic is another one. In Europe the packraft harness seem unknown. Remember: with any big backpack the key to support and comfort is a stiff board or frame connecting the hip belt and shoulder strap mounts so the weight can be carried low on your hips, not hanging from your burning shoulders.
Cheap alternative: any old rucksack and a tough bin bag.
2. Four-piece paddle
Get a paddle that breaks down into four pieces for easy transportation. A paddle like this may not be as stiff as a good two-piece, but a good one like the Aqua Bound Manta Ray left or the Anfibio Wave (right) will still be under a kilo and anyway, you’re in a slow packraft not a razor-thin surf ski. Some four-parters don’t like being left assembled when wet; don’t leave it more than a couple of days or it’ll be hard to separate.
Even cheap alloy-and-plastic ‘shovels’ come with adjustable feathering; an ability to offset the blades. Flat (zero offset) works OK, but most find a bit of offset makes paddling more efficient. I’ve got used to 45° Right (right blade rotated 45° forward) over the years. Left handers will go the other way. The Anfibio Wave had infinite feathering and 10cm length adjustment.
Cheap alternative: A TPC 2-piece or similar.
3. PFD (‘personal flotation device’)
A proper foam pfd is bulky in transit but is essential for remote solo paddles or white water (as might be a helmet). For flatwater paddles Anfibio’s lightweight inflatable Buoy Boy jacket (left) has twin inflation chambers, rolls down to less than a litre in volume and comes with handy net pockets and a useful crotch strap to stop it riding up when you’re flailing around in the water. Aired down at any other time, you’ll barely know you’re wearing it.
Cheap alternative: A used foam PFD.
4. Wet shoes I’m on my second pair of Teva Omniums (left) which are do-it-all wet shoes that are OK for walking too. If trekking the wilderness for days with a full pack over rough terrain, you’re better off with proper lace up trail shoes or boots, but bear in mind that anything with a breathable membrane takes ages to dry once soaked inside out. I use membrane-free desert boots. SealSkin socks are another solution, while they last. More here.
Cheap alternative: Old trainers or Crocs.
5. Day bag or case
You want something light to carry your valuables when away from the boat in populated areas. Choose a bag or case which fits under your knees without getting in the way. Whatever it is, it will sit in water, get splashed or even submerged, so it needs an airtight seal. If it has handy external storage pouches or pockets, so much the better.
I adapted a Peli 1400 (left) with a seatback net on the outside and a strap inside the lid to hold my Macbook Air (right). Volume is a useful 9 litres, but at 2kg the 1400 is a bit over the top. I don’t really need to throw it out of a Hercules from 24,000 feet, but I do want reliable submersability so I don’t have to think twice if I flip the boat.
Recently in France I used a smaller Underwater Kinetics box (22cm x 16 x 8; 540g, left) used on ebay for under a tenner. It’s about the size of a Peli 1150 but a bit less deep and took my Kindle Fire and bits, or camera and wallet and bits. Its light enough to carry away from the boat and also happens to make a handy camera stand for self timer shots. Otherwise I used my old yellow Watershed Chatoogabag (left, yellow), a 30-litre holdall with a big rubbery zip-loc seal and made from a hard, polyurethane that you can’t imagine getting pierced too easily. I can pack a flysheet, sleeping bag and airmat in there, but on the Tarn as a daybag I found it a bit too big to get my feet out quickly, and after years of use one flat seam was separating (easily glued up). With both the Peli and the Watershed, I find opening a bit slow or effortful if, say, you want to get to a non-waterproof camera quickly. Nothing you can do about the Peli’s heavy clamps, but a drysuit-type zip instead of the Watershed’s seal would be better. I replaced the Chatty Bag with an Ortlieb Travel Zip and haven’t loooed back. As for a camera? This is what you want.
Cheap alternative: large, clip-seal lunchbox and a plastic bag.
6. Repair kit
A couple of feet of Tyvec or similar tape and a small tube of Aquaseal is probably all you need for quick repairs. Something I’ve never had to do in years of packrafting.
Just back from Tarn Gorge with the Yakraft, All the way from Florac to Millau; about 86km. I’m amazed the beating this boat takes, scrapping through the shallows and bouncing off the scenery. It took me two days plus two half-days each end, so about 18 hours of actual paddling. Surprisingly, I saw only day-renters or youth groups on the river – zero other private tourists like me. And from Florac to Montbrun, and Rozier to Millau I was the only boat on the water of any kind, unless you count an inflatable flying Pegasus.
There are two + one unavoidable portages: Prades (KM23.4) and a longer haul at Pas the Soucy (KM51.6), plus the bridge being repaired at Ispagnac (KM8.9) which will be fixed by now. There are also two canoe chutes (Les Vignes; KM54.1, and just before Millau (KM83.3) plus an odd, unsigned low weir drop at La Malene (KM42.2). See the map below.
Besides a quick 1-day-er two years ago, we last did the Tarn in 2007 in the Sunny and a Solar: Florac to Rozier. It’s worrying what I’ve either forgotten, conflated with other Massif rivers or has changed, but the Tarn is actually a perfect first-time packrafter’s camping adventure. There’s a road alongside (not always accessible without pitons); daily villages for resupply and enough WW challenges to keep things interesting. The scenery and la belle France you get for free. I shipped a few litres on rougher drops but never came close to flipping, unlike a few hardshell SoTs I observed.
Getting to Florac (KM0) I took the cheapest redeye Easyjet to Montpellier (there are 2–3 a day), got a train from Gare St Roch to Ales (changing at Nimes) and next day caught the only bus at 12.10 from Ales for Florac, getting on the water at 2pm. You might also try Ryanair to Nimes but the way the timetables were at the time, you’ll still miss that key 12.10 Ales bus on the same day. Assuming it still runs post Covid. Another idea might be the way I came back: express bus between Montpellier St Roch and Millau (2 hours) then non-direct train and several buses back upstream towards Florac. You might just manage that in a day. Work it out with the Millau tourist office or the internet. Eurostar London to Nimes in 6-7 hours sounds so much more relaxing apart from the change in Paris, but usually costs more than the cheapest flights, and you still won’t get that noon bus from Ales same day from London.
Knives & Gas At least on a train you don’t pay extra for baggage, but they won’t allow a useful-sized knife or camping gas cans. On a plane camping gas is also a no-no, so I planned to buy a can for my threaded burner in France. No luck as outdoors shops like Decathlon were all in out-of-town retail parks. Your classic blue Camping Gasis widely available in bigger supermarkets but has a different push-and-twist fit. I thought we sorted all this out years ago! Oh sorry, this is France. After traipsing around Ales finding only blue cans, I ended up buying the can and push-and-twist burner in St Enemie (probably could have bought in Florac too). At least next time in France I’ll have the burner and know I can get blue gas easily enough. Or you could always use a plane & rain proof ethanol Gimp Stove. I didn’t actually use my 10-function survival knife, but you know how it is; taking one makes it more of an adventure. You can buy inexpensive wooden-handled Opinels easily in France.
River levels Not being a crusty demon of white water, I’ve never been that bothered about river levels, but a very good website is vigicrues.gouv.fr. You will see live measurements for the Tarn recorded at Florac (KM0); Montbrun (KM18), Mostuéjouls (KM65; near Le Rozier) and Millau. Generally in mid-summer Florac will read minus something and Montbrun will be between 0.3 and 0.5m. Let me tell you, once Montbrun gets towards 0.7m the Tarn is moving along very nicely indeed – up to 8kph in places – but 0.7m is usually a summer storm peak which subsides within a day. They say anything up to 1m at Montbrun is safe enough; beyond that things can get hairy.
I found the old 2002 Massif Central book (right) not so helpful this time round. Even though I sort of knew what to expect – no outright Niagaras – I would have appreciated better, bigger maps with each bridge, weir, portage and so on clearly marked to help orient myself. Also, the descriptions at each end, from Florac to Montbrun (first 18km) and beyond Les Cresses to Millau (last 12km) are either skimpy or now inaccurate, presumably because rental outfits don’t cover these sections of the river. On both these stages are rapids you’d really rather know about (see my map below). Read my review of the new edition, now renamed Best Canoe Trips in the South of France but with a near-identical cover (below right).
Thing is, on the Tarn you can pretty much blunder along in the dark; you won’t get lost, the rapids are never that technical, especially in a stable and agile packraft, wild camping is easy and proper bankside campsites, from basic to full-blown Hi-di-Hi holiday camps are plentiful and the main villages – St Enemie, La Malene, Les Vignes and Les Roziers are handy for snacks, drinks and pool toys. Can’t wait to get back to the Massif again.
The Anfibio Packrafting Store in Germany was one of the first Alpacka dealers in Europe, but now sells other brands of packrafts from China, Russia and the US. It’s probably the only ‘packrafting supermarket’ of its kind and in 2015 we group tested a selection of their boats.
They also produce their own Anfibio branded packrafting gear, like the dry suit and inflatable jacket I use myself; the latter has become my go-to ‘pfd’ for tame paddles. In cooperation with MRS in China whose boats they were the first to import into Europe and whose design they’ve influenced, they’ve now added three lightweight Anfibio packrafts to their lineup of over a dozen boats: the Sigma TX double; Delta MX single and smallest and lightest Alpha XC which we tested here. I knew the XC would be too small for me so that job went to my g-friend who’s over a foot shorter and 40+ kilos lighter. It costs just €470 plus one type of seat or another.
Alpha symmetry In a bid to keep costs down and make them the lightest in their class, Anfibios are all symmetrical, with identical bows and sterns and parallel sides. Unless it’s like their double-elongated Barracuda R2, a conventionally short stern can make a boat back-heavy without a balancing load over the bow, as right. Even my original, first-generation green Alpacka Llama had a fattened stern to compensate for this.
This is why Alpacka’s now much-copied elongated stern from 2011 (my 2014 Yak, left) was such a clever innovation. It trimmed (‘levelled’) the boat by effectively positioning the paddler more centrally, and also acted as a skeg to further reduce the side-to-side yawing of the bow which short, wide packrafts are prone to. (It’s important to recognise this yawing is just an annoying left and right ‘nodding’ of the bow; people often confuse it with tracking (‘steering’ or going where you point it) which packrafts do better than some kayaks.
Weights and measures ** After verifying the kitchen scales (1000ml = 1000g: √) the Alpha weighed in at 1822g out of the box; the bare boat was 1422g. Interestingly, at 120cm the interior length is actually a bit more than my Alpacka Yak. At 185cm tall, I can sit in the Alpha with backrest deflated and with the same comfortable knee-bend as my Yak. Meanwhile, with legs flat on the floor, g-friend has some 15cm of foot room to spare up front.
Anfibio have missed a trick here. Assuming I’m at the upper level of average adult height and weight, and geef is at the other end, I think Anfibio could offer another model 10 or even 20cm shorter, more like Alpacka’s ultrabasic Scout (left); let’s call it an Omega XS. There are many, many packrafts for people of my height or more, but very few for 5-footers if you take the view as I do, that in a packraft you want to fit snugly, feet pressing against the bow with knees slightly bent. Being shorter would make the ‘Omega’ at least 200g lighter and enable that snug fitting for the majority of shorter-than-me persons. Like a shoe that fits right, that means better control, comfort and efficiency and is one reason I choose to replace my original Llama with the shorter Yak.
Perhaps there are buoyancy issues in such a short boat which means tubes need to be fatter, speed suffers and you effectively end up in a slackraft. You don’t want that. The 25-cm side tubes are the slimmest of the Store’s dozen-plus boats, but we both found the 32cm interior width, a bit tight for comfort. Slimmer hipped individuals will feel right at home. All this doubtless carefully juggled volume, length and width adds up to a recommended payload rating of just 110kg. That’s plenty for most folks who are lighter than me. The next-size-up Anfibio Delta MX weighs only another 225g but is rated at a massive 180kg.
The hull is made from the 210D, single-coated TPU, sewn and heat welded (no glue). Most packrafts are made from this wonder fabric. I think the slight translucence of the yellow Alpha makes it appear thinner than my Alpacka Yak, but feeling the fabrics up, they’re very similar. You’ll notice that, unusually, the taped join of the tubes is around the perimeter of the boat, not hidden under where the floor attaches to the hull.
The floor is smooth, double-coated 420D TPU and feels tough without making the boat bulky when rolled up. The width of the heat-welding attaching it to the hull is little more than a centimetre in places. Perhaps putting the side tube join elsewhere eliminates a weak spot at the floor and reduces the need for excessive overlap, as with the 8cm on my Yak or the Longshore. As it is, we’re assured that TPU hull fabric will tear before a properly heat-welded join separates, but as with any packraft, I’d be careful putting too much pressure on the floor. “Get in bum first!” I had to remind my tester.
Fittings and finish The Alpha comes with 5 taped loops with a pleasing textured Cordura finish to the patches. As other reviewers and the commenter below have mentioned, the three on the bow look too close together to securely lash down a load, far less a bike; the ‘triangle’ is too small and positioned over the domed bow. I also feel the fitting points are the wrong way round: you want the single central point at the front and the other two behind on the next panel back. Glue two here and you’ll have a stable, 4-point lashing base with another tab to spare. I don’t really see the value of attachment points on the already over-loaded stern of a packraft, especially when it’s not elongated. I’d sooner load stuff centrally, under my knees and have a single loop here to hang shoes off or for towing.
The inflation valve follows MRS’ innovation in fitting a Boston valve as commonly found on cheap Slackrafts (about the only useful thing on them). For a short, low-pressure boat like a packraft (as opposed to an IK) Boston valves are ideal. A Boston valve has two caps; the bigger one opens the main port for fast inflation / deflation. On top of that is a smaller square cap; unscrew that to access the one-way mushroom/flap valve and top-up the boat by mouth. Both caps also have nifty swivelling attachment collars so you can’t lose them while also making the caps easy to turn. The whole set-up is so much better than my old-Alpacka style dump valve which you need to secure with a line which gets in the way as you try and quickly screw it up. It also eliminates the separate twist-lock elbow valve which never felt that solid and being small bore, are harder to blow through and get a good fill, unlike the 2cm-wide Boston. The supplied air inflation bag (see video here) is a denier or two up on my flimsy Yak one which I often think is on the verge of ripping apart. I also like the fact that it’s a bright dayglo green; you never know when you might need a signalling device.
The seat resembles an old-style Alpacka base with backrest, except that it cleverly attaches to the back of the floor with a single adjustable strap and buckle. Simple and effective; that is all that is needed to keep the light seat in place compared to my Yak’s OTT arrangement. You also suspect that the length of this strap may have been designed to enable a shorter paddler to position the seat a little forward so as to shove a bag behind it (below). Doing this centralises their weight and helps level off the trim to reduce yawing. We tried this idea on the water – see below.
One thing I recall of a similar seat on my old Llama was the annoyance of the backrest flopping forward every time I got in (an elastic fixed that). Taller Alpha XC paddlers: consider saving €34 by ordering the plain seat base and simply lean on the back of the boat instead of using the €59 backrest version. That’s what I did briefly paddling the Alpha and it felt fine.
As for build quality. With only my 2014 Alpacka to compare, all the taping and fitments are as neatly applied. The lack of tape over the floor panel join exposes a slightly uneven cut in places and, as mentioned, the welded band interface looked rather slim. As a result of all this weight saving the Store rates the Alpha’s durability accordingly, but it’s unlikely they’ve gone too far as Alpacka may have done with their short-lived Ghost. Yes but what about the strap, you ask? Well that weighs in at 22g but is a good half-a-metre longer than it needs to be to cinch the rolled-up bundle (below), so some weight could be saved by snipping it.
On the water With light winds forecast, we picked an easy circuit with about 4km of loch paddling and a couple of short portages where we could carry the inflated boats. We often paddle together in the Seawave but I’m not sure if the g-friend has paddled a packraft since a quick go in my Llama back in 2010. So this would be a good test on how a beginner handled the Alpha.
Once the Alpha was inflated, geef went out for a spin to get a feel for the boat, then came back and went out again with my empty Chattooga dry bag behind the seat back (this bag seals 100% against air leakage – a true ‘dry bag’). No surprise: she yawed less and felt more in control sat more centrally.
With another bag of stuff under her knees the boat sat almost level. Watching her paddle she still looked a bit low in the boat which interfered with a good paddling technique, so we pulled over and pumped the seat right up and I advised trying a high-angle paddling to clear the sides and get a fuller draw from the blades. As it is, on flat water no packraft is actually that satisfying to paddle – unlike a slick kayak there is no glide. The fun lies in the places they can reach and the ease of getting them there.
We emerged onto the west end of Sionascaig loch (above) surrounded by the dramatic mountains of the Assynt, and turned south for the sluice. Being thorough, we tried sat right back without the bag one more time, but got the same high-bow yawing. Even with the bag I still observed some yawing, but as it was intermittent it could be down to my test pilot’s as yet unrefined packraft paddling knack, just as it can be trying to get a hardshell to go straight the first few times. Yawing is not tracking – this boat will go where you point it, but you’d imagine pivoting is inefficient. A bit like moving off from standstill on a bicycle, my Yak also yaws wildly as I set off, but settles down once there’s some directional momentum, nodding maybe six inches left and right.
We clambered around the sluice (above) and sat down on a tiny beach below for a snack, then I went out for a quick spin in the Alpha. At nearly twice the weight and of course without the dry bag behind, the boat was back heavy and very easy to spin. A light breeze was now blowing little wavelettes up the loch and powering on too hard, it shipped a little water over the back sides.
I reached back and felt the horizontal tape line was below the water, but the Alpha was nowhere near as edgy as the Supai Flatwater Canyon II in which I dared not even breath in too fast. Yes it yawed more than my Yak but long, smooth strokes minimise that. I’d be more concerned in less calm water, but then I’m clearly on the weight limit for the Alpha. I probably could have done this whole circuit in it but it would have not conducive to relaxation.
Through the shallow narrows we passed, arriving at the next ‘sluice’ at the end of the loch. It’s actually a runable two-foot drop if you take it fast. Like last time I came here, I wondered about trying it for fun, but chickened out. Beyond the pool below it becomes steep, narrow burn dropping to the next loch. So we tramped through the springy heather made crisp by over a fortnight without rain. We chucked the boats over a nasty wire fence then set off across the last little loch and the short walk back to the car.
Bravo Alpha Being a large person, the benefits of saving a kilo or two add up to not much in my overall packrafting mass. Therefore I don’t resent the weight of my Yak for its benefits in durability and functionality. But not everyone thinks like me. Adventure racers, canyoneers and something called ‘fast-packers’ focused on absolute minimal weights while undertaking short or easy crossings will love this boat. So too might a travelling cyclist or a light person who just wants a handy, inexpensive packraft for the odd evening splashabout rather than an expedition-ready heavy hauler. The yawing is something you can minimise with good technique or balance-out with frontal loads or weight shifting, as we did. For the price of just €470 + seat, this must be the cheapest decent packraft around. No one likes excess weight but I know I’d feel more confident paddling a proper TPU packraft like the Alpha over Supai’s amazingly light but unnervingly skimpy alternatives The extra 700 grams I can save in peace of mind.
On the way back from some riding in the Pyrenees I persuaded my lift that a day’s paddling in southern France’s famous Tarn Gorge would be a good use of our time. The 20-odd kms between La Malene and Le Rozier via Les Vignes (see map) is about as good a day in the gorge as you’ll get. We last did the full 75km from Florac to Le Cresse in 2007 with a Solar and the Sunny and had a great time. Since then i did it in my Alpacka again.
On this occasion IKing chum Robin was baptising his new Gumotex Twist 2, an entry-level IK which in the MkII version has gone back to shiny Nitrilon Light inside and out. I do read here that one unhappy customer found out it was ‘70% less strong and only 30% lighter’ than the regular Nitrilon as used on Seawaves, 410C, Helios and so on. His boat flipped in the wind and punctured on a stick which does sound like a gale combined with an exceedingly sharp stick.
According to the Gumotex graphic (left) it appears like Nitrilon Light uses the same layering as the Nitrilon in the higher spec Gumboats, but due to a lower-strength fabric core Nitrilon Lighthas about a third of the tensile strength. Many older Gumo IKs were over-built with tough, commercial raft fabric and so the result is a light and affordable IK with a slick interior that wipes down and dries fast. As a reminder the T2 is 3.6m long, a generous and stable 83cm wide and weighs 11kg (2kg more than the old model). Payload is said to be 180kg. Robin has the original Lite Pack Twists but found they weren’t so practical or robust, at least not on the submerged light industrial detritus found in his neighbourhood. However, Nitrilon Lite was dropped from the Gumotex lineup in 2018 and since then all Twists are made from the same Nitrilon you’ll get in the bigger and pricier Gumoboats. That also means a post-2018 Twist weighs 13kg.
These MkII Twists also have detachable and adjustable seats – a big improvement (or return to former practises) because it means they can be easily replaced with something better. There’s nothing wrong with the blow-up seat base but the inflatable back section lacks support. Robin’s fitted some sort of SoT seat pad (above, in his T1). Another improvement on the MkIIs is making the top seam on the side tubes overlapping flat, not just pressed together which maybe simplifies assembly in the factory but looks cheap. There’s a mushy inflatable footrest for the front paddler; the back paddler adjusts their seat to use the back of the front seat as a footrest. And there’s now also a PRV in the floor chamber which the Lite Pack Twists didn’t have. We like PRVs here at IK&P. We even like PRVs all round.
The £350 T2 could actually be a good lightweight alternative to the 60cm longer 410C (later the Solar 2) which at the time costs £200 more (in the UK), as it still has a useful length for a solo touring paddler. Problem is, using just the back seat tips the weight back and the bow up unless there’s a hefty counterbalancing load on the front. The boat paddles OK like this and probably turns quicker, but yawed more than my packraft so seemed slower and just looked wrong. For a while Robin knelt canoe-style which looked more balanced but isn’t a really a sustainable way of paddling without a bench. the post 2018 models have a third pair of D-rings in the middle to position a solo seat in the right place.
We set off, me assuming my Alpacka would be a lot slower, but Robin likes to bimble along, waving his bow around. The Tarn was shallow and so his skeg took quite a beating, made worse by the rearward weight bias. They’re pretty much unbreakable but I’d have removed it even if the tracking may have suffered.
With careful scanning the Alpacka just about scraped through the shallows, with me occasionally resorting to ‘planking’ where you lift your butt by leaning back on the stern to improve clearance. As you can see right, the derriere is the lowest point which I why I glued on a butt patch. On the Twist Robin could only shove forward or get out and pull. By the end the Twist’s skeg patch was a little torn which takes some doing.
It took 90 minutes to cover the 9km of Grade 1 riffles to the Pas de Soucy where a rockfall blocks the river (left) and makes some very nasty strainers. Midway en portage we nipped up to the lookout for the view then had lunch and put back in for the 12km stage to Le Rozier and the van.
Soon after Pas de Soucy is the chute or glissade at Les Vignes where a typical indestructable rental brick tends to plough in at the bottom, while an airy inflatable surfs over the pile. The missing fourth frame in the pictures below is the blue SoT flipping over. ‘Prends pas le photo!’ No harm done on a 30°C day in sunny France.
This section of the gorge has some juicier rapids, but it’s still nothing that would freak out a first timer; that’s what makes the Tarn such a classic paddle: great scenery, some white water action, easy camping and the fun of splashing about among the flotillas of SoT rentals. There are several campings below the road right by the river, though this time of year they’re all packed out. On arrival we got the last pitch between two noisy young groups at Le Rozier and a free lift next morning up to La Malene from the kayak rental agency next door. There’s also a shuttle bus running up and down the gorge. Read more about southern France paddling here thenn hop on the TGV with your packboat.