Advanced Elements’ hybrid AirFusion EVO (AE1042) is a good looking IK that slipped under my radar for a year or two. It replaced AE’s AirFusion Elite (right) which used two low-pressure side bladders (four in total) stacked one over the other, and an alloy keel rod along a plain, single-skin floor. Like a folding kayak there is no inflatable floor. The EVO version (above) looks very similar, but replaces the four bladders with a pair of drop stitch panels running a much higher 6psi (0.41bar). Both methods keep the boat slim, and bow and stern alloy ‘C’ ribs are tensioned by a long slot-in keel rod, like a thick tent pole. On Some older, low-psi AE’s these ‘backbones’ are optional, but on the AirFusion it’s part of the design. They say this rod gives the AirFusion a V-shaped hull, but if you can find a picture of this, let me know. The best I could find was below. The rod’s chief purpose is to add tension between the bow and stern which presumably the new D-S sides can’t do alone.
The EVO also retains the low-pressure thwarts (air bags, left) which help push the deck up so water runs off, push the sides out to make the skin taught, and up front give something for your feet to push against (assuming the span is correct for you; there’s some adjustment in the seat). There are additional small airbags at the bow and stern to firm up the wave-cutting plastic mouldings there. Tthe coaming (deck rim) is inflatable too, as is the seat base. The AirFusion EVO is the opposite of most ‘hybrid (part drop-stitch) IKs which combine D-S floors and round tube sides. Such boats, like the Gumotex Rush, are rigid but, with round side tubes, end up wider and so, more stable.
The AE1042 is all wrapped in a separate PU shell making it another ‘shell & D-S bladder’ IK with all the drying issues that entails, and made a little harder by the fixed deck. As with the bow and stern ribs, the D-S panels come pre-positioned out of the box and are fixed in with velcro. They can be left there or removed for a deep dry and clean.
Numbers are 14.5kg/32lbs; 4m long x 61cm wide (13′ x 24″). Because of the lack of an inflatable floor, the capacity is a modest 106kg (235lbs) and, as the thwarts take up a lot of interior space, like the all-D-S AirVolution, this ends more of a day boat than an overnight camping tourer.
Gumotex use equally inelegant and bulky alloy bars to separate the sides and make the deck convex. Another boat I had used slim curved glass fibre stays or stats to do the same job (left). This has got to be better than bulky air bags – a typical AE design after-thought. It might be possible to run a similar arrangement of the AirFusion to free up a whole lot of interior space. At 24 inches wide this is one of the narrowest IKs around, similar to Itiwit’s 25-inch X500. The X500 is known to be tippy (it’s worse for larger paddlers) and so the slimmer AirFusion might be worse, but without an inflatable floor you sit a few inches lower which greatly aids stability. Certainly online reviews don’t mention the AirFusion’s tippiness as much as the X500 which runs 10psi. Dropping the pressure can improve things at the cost of performance.
The integrated rear plastic moulding can take skeg which is optional (or ‘free’ from some outlets). This is not your usual slot-in sharks-fin under the boat, but a rudder-like pivoting blade (left) which can be lifted and dropped as needed with a loop cord. I tried a similar MYO rudder set up but it had a lot of annoying ancillary rigging. I’ve often thought of adding something simpler like this to my own IKs to eliminate scraping in shallow water or when coming to land (the blade will just swing back harmlessly along the sea bed), or when beaching a loaded boat which needs to be rested on your mate’s boat (above right) if the under-skeg is not be be strained. You may get by without the skeg on the AirFusion as the PU hull shell floor include shallow strakes which will aid tracking while not getting in the way when on land or in shallows. A couple of reviewers have mentioned this PU shell is easily holed when scraping. Maybe they went a bit too far to get the weight low, but a quick bit of tape fixes that as the skin is separate from the pressured D-S panels.
Assembly does seem quite a faff compared to simply inflating three chambers (read the manual here or watch the vid below), but as with all things, you’ll get the hang of it. Remember, you’ll have the same alloy-framed folding kayak worries with salt and grit getting into the anodised alloy tube joints after sandy or saltwater paddles. The assembly video below shot on a sandy beach made me wince a bit.
But as with a folding kayak, it may all be worth it if performance is responsive once on the water. Some photos do show a saggy, creased shell (left) – you’d think they could have made a better fit. And the sides are quite tall and slabby (also typical of a Full DS IK) which will make it susceptible to side winds, especially without a skeg. That’s the case with most IKs, but you’d think with a single skin floor and a deck, it could be nice and low, like a Feathercraft.
It looks as bulky as all PVC D-S or bladder IKs, but at under 15kg it certainly is light for a 4-m boat and appears to zip along. The back deck has an integrated velcro hatch / rolltop drybag and you have your usual bungy deck lines to stash a paddle while having a photo-snack. In the US the AirVolution EVO goes for $1200; that works out as £1200 in the UK, plus a $/£40 pump which will need three nozzles for the raft, Boston and twist lock valves. That’s nearly twice the price of the X500 or a FDS IK like the Shipwreck. Here an owner’s review.
I love packrafts, but not their prices. Three years ago I bought a Klymit Litewater which served me well, but wanted something faster and more beautiful, yet almost as light. After a lot of internet research I decided the packraft I needed was an Alpacka Caribou or a Kokopelli Rogue Lite. But if I ever told my wife I had spent about 900€ on something that looks like a beach toy I would be in serious trouble.
And then, early in 2020 I found a pre-owned but unused Rogue Light for just 450€ including a carbon fibre paddle. It seemed too good to be true – was it some kind of scam? In fact the vendor had bought it for a trip that had to be cancelled, and he had no further use for it. One man’s misfortune is another man’s luck…
Sadly, before I had the chance to try it, the pandemic was in full swing and we were confined in our homes. I had to wait for June for a chance to use the Rogue Lite. My parents-in-law own an apartment in Costa Brava on the Mediterranean. There are a lot of nice beaches, coves and beautiful spots there, and many of the best can only be accessed from the sea. As I was teleworking, we moved to the apartment from June to September: what a beautiful chance to use the Rogue Lite in full!
There was an unused closet in the apartment and the inflated Rogue Lite fitted in quite well (it’s 2.15 metres long and 94 cm wide). Kokopelli boasts about the Rogue Lite having ‘the most bombproof valve on the planet’; in those three months I only had to top it up once, so I think Kokopelli has some reason in that.
The beach is about two kilometres from the apartment. As the Rogue weighs under 3kg, I could easily carry it fully inflated under my arm… That’s what packrafts are for! The boat is very robust and the paddling position is comfortable. The seat is good, and you can back lean on the stern. I am 1.83m tall and can keep my legs fully extended, which means that I can paddle for hours without feeling cramped.
My usual starting point was the north side of Sant Pol Bay, between the towns of Platja d’Aro and Sant Feliu de Guíxols. The sea is usually quieter so it’s a good place for embarking and disembarking, but the beautiful coves are in the south side. In the beginning, I just crossed the 1-km wide bay always in protected waters, to a small beach in the other side, that can only be accessed by sea, had a rest then came back. But, as my confidence in the Rogue Lite grew, my excursions became longer, even going out of the bay into the open sea. I once obtained a top speed of 6km/h, and I could keep 5 km/h for 15 minutes and 4 km/h for more than an hour. A 10-km round trip in the sea is not difficult in the Rogue Lite.
I was surprised of how seaworthy the Rogue Lite felt: it’s not difficult to paddle against a head wind, and side winds don’t make it drift too much (I imagine that the pointed stern acts as some kind of keel). One day, the sea conditions seemed awful, with a strong Force 4 winds and metre-high waves (Mediterranean waves are short, steep and have a high frequency, so 1-m Mediterranean waves are worse than 2-mAtlantic waves; believe me). I decided to go out anyway, as the wind was blowing onshore. The Rogue Light did outstandingly: I could paddle into the wind, and the boat handled the waves easily. To make things worse, some large powerboats were around, creating their own waves, so sometimes I got waves from different directions at the same time. In some moments, I was in the trough between waves and completely surrounded by water… then, the Rogue Lite rode the wave and I was on top… easy! The tubes are high enough to avoid water getting in, even with these waves. If a wave seemed too menacing, I simply paddled straight into it. The rockered bow made an easy job of climbing the wave. Overall, it turned to be a lot of fun.
The only negative aspects I found are: the price, and the the floor: Kokopelli seems very proud of the kevlar floor, but they could have made it a little longer and wider, so it could better protect the lower part of the tubes. Overall, I really like my Rogue Lite and I hope to keep it for many years.
I fell in love with the idea of packrafting as soon as I read about it. Sadly, when I started looking at prices I almost had a heart attack… an average Alpacka or Kokopelli costs more than 900€ in Spain – that’s a lot of money for me. But then I found the Klymit Litewater cost only 200€ including transport and import tax. I decided it deserved a try.
Two weeks later the first thing that surprised me was it’s really light (1300g in my scales) and easily packable. At a toy shop close to home I got a] cheap 7-piece paddle. The boat, the paddle and my everyday gear all fitted in a 5-litre Decathlon backpack. From March to October I always carry it with me so if I have a couple of hours free, I can go to the nearest water body for a paddle. That’s the whole point of ultralight boats like this.
The inflation bag is small, but is sturdy and waterproof. It serves to carry the boat and once inflated, a place to keep your belongings safe and dry. It takes between 5 and 10 minutes to inflate, after which it needs to be topped by mouth. The integrated seat is mouth-inflated. Once done the shape feels a bit odd as it’s short (1.93 m) and wide (1.15m). It has six tabs around the outer edge of the tubes for securing your belongings.
The paddling position is surprisingly comfortable: the sidewalls are low, but the stern provides good back support. The boat is long enough for me (I’m 1.83 metres) to keep my legs fully stretched. The material feels REALLY thin, but in three years my Litewater has rubbed against sand, gravel, rocks and concrete, and it still looks good. No punctures. The valve is simple, but doesn’t leak. This summer I kept the Litewater inflated for more than a month with no need to top up The deflation valve is a simple dump valve and one good feature of the Litewater is it dries fast.
I’m an atypical packrafter, as I use my boats in the sea. I alternate the Mediterranean (Costa Brava) and Atlantic (Ria de Arousa, a very large bay in northwest Spain), so all my comments will be related to the behaviour of the Litewater at sea. On the water it’s slow, but this is to be expected, as it’s short, wide and low-pressure. I don’t think I’ve ever gone more than 3 km/h. On the other hand, it’s more seaworthy than I expected, can hold its own quite well in the waves, and you can make headway against a moderate wind. Once I found myself in an unfavourable situation: the sea and the wind were calm, so I paddled for 20 minutes to a small island one kilometre off the beach. But, when it was the time to come back, a strong wind had risen up, blowing across my course. There was also a noticeable swell, and a tidal current against me. It took me almost an hour to get back, but the Litewater managed it. Of course, with such low sides, you get pretty wet but overall, I’m very satisfied with it. I now have a Kokopelli Rogue Light but am keeping the Litewater for when I need to travel light, or for my son or guests.
I bought one of the last Itiwit EB-100 sold new in Spain for 40€ from Decathlon which, in my opinion, is an absolute steal. It cost about a quarter of the price of the incumbent Itiwit 1-person inflatable kayak, but does almost anything the larger boat can do (maybe, that’s the reason why Decathlon discontinued it). I use it with a Decathlon 4-piece aluminium paddle. For 75€ I got a kayak (with a carrying bag), a paddle, and a foot pump.
It’s a small boat, about 215cm long and 95cm wide. Decathlon declares a weight of less than 3kg but, on my scales, it was about 4kg. It has the same construction as other Itiwit kayaks: two side air bladders with a removable outer nylon cover and a PVC floor. I find it robust enough: mine had close encounters with rocks, concrete and gravel and came away intact. If Decathlon had tried a little more seriously, they could have created a very nice budget packraft. The air valves are mini-Boston and are robust and leak proof, but require a specific nozzle in the pump that’s difficult to find. I had to cut and customize one of the adaptors of my foot pump to fit.
I use mine in the sea, both off the coasts of Galicia (northwest Spain) and Catalonia (Med). It’s not very fast as it’s short and wide, but it’s very stable and holds its own at sea with some waves. I’ve found I could paddle easily against a Force 3 wind and a tidal current, and have paddled with one-metre waves without a problem.
There are some negative points: the worst in my opinion is the paddling position: you sit high with legs in a 110º angle and no back support. It’s comfortable for about an hour but after that, your back begins to hurt and your legs feel cramped. On the other side, you can easily take a 10-year old child between your legs. Another negative point is the looooong time it takes to dry, even in August in the Mediterranean it can easily be more than an hour. Overall, I think it’s a great beginner’s kayak for the price. It’s a pity Decathlon doesn’t make it any more.
Shipwreck is the latest contender in self-branded full drop-stitch (FD-S) IKs customised in China to an importer’s specifications. With the ArrowStream – not a bad name – you get all the kit including two four-part paddles and a two-way barrel pump. The box it came in weighed a staggering 29.5kg – I could barely get up the stairs; it’s twice the volume of my Seawave 2. But once unwrapped, the whole kit: everything in the bag, weighs 25.4kg.
The bare boat itself is only 17.8kg, and with one seat and footrest, the splash vizors and the skeg comes in at 19.7kg on the water (plus pump and bag) according to my kitchen and suitcase scales. By comparison, had I kept the stock seat and footrest on my Seawave 2, it would have been 17.7 kg on the water, so that’s not as bad as the bulk – about 90cm x 70cm x 35cm boat alone in the bag – might suggest. According to my tape it’s 431cm long and 83cm wide. That gives it an LxW ratio of 5.19 which, compared to the table here is also pretty good. And don’t forget the maximum width is measured high up on the outward-angled sides; the actual width at the waterline is around 60cm or 23.6 inches – fairly slender by IK standards. More on that later. The big advantage with these slim, 10cm-thick side panels compared to round tubes is loads more space inside. The interior width is 45cm at floor level and 66cm at the top of the sides.
The seats include a hefty 9cm-thick seat base incorporating a firm, 6cm foam block which can be zipped out. I can see that foam feeling a bit hard sat on the hard, 10psi floor after a few hours, but it could be easily replaced with something softer or lower. Or you could even zip an inflatable cushion in there to reduce the packed volume. The backrest is tall and wide, with loads of tensioning straps to get the position and angle to your liking. You can reposition a solo seat in the middle, a big benefit with any open tandem IK.
The footrests add up to a couple of 4cm ø hard foam tubes. This diametre is too small for a secure foot placement and they squidge once you push on them. For the test I replaced it with a section of 10cm PVC drainpipe. There are two pairs of D-rings on the floor to attach the tube, presumably with the two packing straps supplied. But that means adjustment is only forwards, away from each seat. So if they’re too far away for your feet you’ll need to adjust the seats forward which may not ideal for trim. However, in the tandem video above the attachment D-rings appear to be in the right spot, even if the trim at 2:09 appears a bit front-heavy. For my solo paddle I joined the two straps into a loop (above left) to use the footrest pipe. Pushing off a proper footrest makes sitting more comfortable and less slouchy. The important thing is the D-rings are there.
Flexible plastic splash visors slip under the rims of the short decks, and the slot-in skeg is the usual (for this type of boat) 9-inch monster. There are handles at each end and a pair on the sides.
The supplied mesh-sided backpack is commendably huge: big enough to get everything in. There are cinch-down straps on the sides and the top, and a big zip plus a clear pocket on the front. The mesh sides will help a wet boat air off. But considering the weight it’s carrying, you do wonder if the shoulder straps will survive too much heaving on and off on public transport. I know my Gumotex backpack didn’t, and neither did the similarly huge Kokopelli Moki bag.
The whole assembly of the boat is very clean – that’s the wonder of heat-welding compared to messier rubber gluing. An exception are stray thread ends inside where a tape covers the floor–sides cavity (left). Once inflated I could see no blisters in the D-S panels which, with threads every 5mm, adds up to an estimated 4 kilometres metres of space yarn! Maybe that’s what explains the bulk, but once vacuum sucked down, I don’t think so. It’s more that the stiff but soft-textured PVC can only be loosely folded over, not rolled up. Half the bulk is just air. The supplied four-part 220cm alloy paddles weigh only 950g and have blade-angle adjustment holes 45° either sides of flat. The blades also have little hooks cut in the sides which are actually quite handy, now I think about it. Assembled, there’s quite a lot of slack in the three joints which will only get worse with use but they’ll certainly get you moving until you decide to upgrade.
Pumping stations Pumping up the ArrowStream to an indicated 10psi measured by the 1.7-litre barrel pump’s built-in manometer took less than 90 seconds for the floor and a minute for each side. The pressures may be high but there’s much less volume here than a tubed IK. The pump comes with a nifty red cap which you easily unscrew to switch to downward-action-only to help attain higher pressures. I actually managed those times on double action all the way to 10psi. It’s manageable, but others will welcome the lighter pumping option as pumping effort increases. Checking against my accurate Bravo hand manometer, the 10psi figure on the dial was spot on. Good to know.
One good thing about the 64cm tall pump is that, I at least, stoop less compared to my 45cm Bravo. That makes pumping a whole lot more comfortable, though conversely shorter pumpers may find the height awkward. As mentioned here, a barrel pump suited to high D-S pressures needs to be relatively tall but slim. The raft valve nozzle on the end of the hose had the bridge inside to press open the inflation valve once clamped on, so as to ease the pumping effort. This also enables sucking the boat down to maximum compactness. I’ve only just realised these nozzle bridges are the key to compact suction packing, as long as you have push-push valves. After shrink-packing, as you quickly remove the nozzle the valve closes and virtually no air in sucked back in. One thing you don’t get on a self-branded boat like this is a conformity table stating recommended pressures, HIN, payloads, ISO rating, CE stamp and so on. But there’s a one year warranty against manufacturers defects.
On the Water
I’ve been speculating about these boxy, hardshell-stiff full drop-stitchers for years and finally had a chance to try one. I picked a 21km (13 mile) section of the Thames from Shepperton to Richmond with three lock portages on the way. From where I live it’s an hour and a half by train, then a 20-minute walk to the river: a good test of real-world packboating. All I had to do now was sit back and wait for a sunny, mid-December day. In the end I settled for a dry day and once I got there, it dawned on me I’ve not been to my local train station for 9 months or more. To spare the mesh backpack, I used an old folding trolley. It can hack rough treatment but these days most London stations have lifts, so the whole trip was rather effortless.
A 15-minute walk from Shepperton station, I’d located a perfect put-in off Google maps: a paved dock down a bank tucked between trees and just a foot above the water (left). As so often happens when setting up in the more populated south, as I set up a passing chap was curious about the boat. Little do these people know they’ve stumbled upon the UK’s self-styled inflatable guru! A comprehensive exultation of The Packboating Way may have been more than they bargained for.
The planned route broke down as: 4km to Sunbury Lock; about the same to Molesey Lock; another 8 to Teddington and 4 or so to Richmond. As I wrote recently in an IK guidebook (out later): first time in a new boat choose a quiet, safe and easy spot and if in doubt, do the tippy test before you let go of the river bank. Perched on the thick 9cm seatbase, the ArrowStream felt wobbly on its relatively narrow hull that’s about 60cm wide at the waterline where you sit. At a guess my Seawave 2 might be 70cm or less at the water level, but the difference must be that the Seawave sags a bit and leans over onto round side tubes (below right) which vaguely maintain the waterline width; the Shipwreck’s super-stiffness and near-vertical sides are what I’ve decided to call a ‘flowerpot’ profile (below left) which quickly narrows and has less to support it as it leans over.
Had it been a lovely summer’s day in a shallow pool, it would have been interesting to push the tippy test past the limit. And also find out how easy it was to re-enter the ArrowStream from deep water. But it was a cheerless mid-December day on the Thames. I suspect the Shipwreck is more stable than it feels: what they call low primary (upright) stability but good secondary (leaning) stability, though some think latter concept is bollocks; a kayak either feels stable to you or it doesn’t. As for deep-water re-entry, like a canoe, the tall, thin sides may make that tricky, depending on how well you can dolphin-launch yourself up and into the boat without pulling more water in. Luckily I had the option to zip out the 6cm foam block from the 3cm padded seatbase envelope and sit nearly on the floor. I could try the block later when I was more accustomed to the boat. Sat lower, the boat felt normal. It can be rocked side-to-side more readily than my Seawave and you have to make sure you sit right on the centre line. As others have said it may tip off centre but it won’t go right over, at least on flat water.
On this first stage, in the interests of analytical rigour I planned to use the four-part paddle before switching to my trusty Werner. In fact it worked perfectly well for an alloy straight-shaft. You don’t really notice the slack joints, though the width of the boat’s high sides caused the paddle to brush against them. It was the same with my Werner later, so it might be an idea to tape this area against wear. Sat on the seat foam block or other added padding would get you higher for more paddle side-clearance. Once I got on the move the biggest problem was as anticipated: the tendency of the ArrowStream to track straight as an arrow. Normal inputs to fine-tune the direction had no effect and progress became an annoying succession of straight lines broken by occasional hard hauling or jamming in a stern rudder/forward pry (it’ll all be in the book!) to get it on track. This was the same issue we had with the Moki a few months back. Is it the stiff D-S floor? Is it the huge skeg? The sculpted hard plastic bow and stern prows? Read on, but I got to Sunbury in less than half an hour which was a pretty good 5mph with help from the current.
Here I didn’t think to investigate what had looked on Google like a fish-ladder/mini weir on the left of the lock. I now realise it was a very handy canoe roller ramp: a slopping drop which would have made portaging near effortless. I’ve never seen these before; with a little more excavation they could be made into chutes as found uniquely on the Medway but perhaps the Thames’ current gets too strong for them. Instead, I hauled the kayak up onto the towpath, carried it past the lock and clambered back down a dockside ladder. Grabbing one side-handle, a solo paddler can rest the boat on the hip and carry it a short distance.
Paddling off with the weight (trolley, pump, spare paddle) now in the back and my Werner in hand, progress improved. A favourite paddle of 15 years fits like a well worn pair of boots, except boots would never last that long. I still hadn’t got to grips with steering nuance. There is just no way skipping a few strokes on one side will make any difference: the Arrow Streams full ahead like a rocket sled on rails. Of course, it’s better that way round than the other. Somewhere downriver a mate who lived nearby was standing by to grab some drone footage, but you’ll see better video at the top of the page. A few stills below.
With half an hour spent chatting or in a holding pattern while the drone buzzed overhead, annoying all in earshot, I wondered if I’d left it too late to get to Richmond before dark. At Molesey Lock I nearly made the same portaging mistake had not a kayaker catching up scooted down the ramp (below). They may not be as much fun as a chute, but with shallow water on either side, you can hop out and portage in a minute, even without using the rollers. It’s probable the day’s three locks (plus Richmond’s tidal barrier, just downstream of town) are the only such roller-ramps on the Thames’ 45 locks.
From here it was an 8-km stretch to Teddington where I thought I might bail if I felt tired. That’s the great thing with a packboat: you can change plans as you go. After passing rows of cute riverside dwellings and many seemingly abandoned boats, from here on the river was less grubby and urbanised as it passed the vast grounds of Henry VIII’s Hampton Court Palace. Right from the start I’d been surprised at the number and variety of birds on the Thames, not least the hordes of swans (which were protected by ancient royal decree until 1998). I noticed one had a cunning way of fluffing its wings out into a pair of downwind sails to tale advantage of the tailwind.
Like a weary traveller, I came upon a glittering riverside metropolis and for the life of me couldn’t work out where this was. Happy shoppers and joggers where cruising along the waterfront. Cafes, bars and patisseries were making the most of it before Covid restrictions ramped back up in a few days. Was Thames Ditton really like a mini-Manhattan? Or have I been cooped up indoors a little too long. I asked a passing boatman what was this place of wonder. “It’s Kingston, mate. Why, wherja think it was?” I hadn’t the heart to tell him.
As I paddled past, I clocked the distinctive slabby flanks of an Aqua Marina Tomahawk tucked between two raptor-like speed boats. That particular boat was about as good value an FD-S IK as you could buy until this Shipwreck washed up on the ebbing tide.
I drifted under Kingston Bridge which I must have ridden over scores of times in a past life, when the Miracle of Kingston delivered one final benefaction: the setting sun burst out from beneath the carpet of clouds which had smothered the London skies for the past week. The shock was so great and the light so stunning against the steel-blue clouds, it could not have been a better time for the cold to get to the camera’s battery. I managed to rub it into delivering one last shot of the stately riverside plane trees before it packed up for good. This illuminated setting invigorated me for the final lap to Teddington Lock and Richmond beyond, but three hours in, the old butt was getting sore. One good thing with the ArrowStream and similar is you can lift yourself up on the hard sides to aire le derriere. This turned out to be one of the nicest stretches on the Thames I can recall. The riverside sticky-beaking, enigmatic islands and doubtless loads of history if you care to investigate, makes me realise that without its sporty chutes, Kent’s Medway is just another ordinary, agri-saturated Southeastern drain.
Converging on Teddington Lock with a quartet of silver-haired sea kayaking ladies, like a well-conditioned lab rat, I knew the form by now: canoe ramp, river left. Here I decided to remove the skeg. Straight away I set off at a faster paddling rhythm and found the boat much more lively, but in a good way. Yes, small corrections were needed to keep track, but now I was off the monorail and could wander and weave around like a normal IK. I wish I’d done this earlier. As suggested elsewhere; the sweet spot must lie with chopping that dorsal fin down. At the lock I also slipped the seat block back under the seat … for as many nano-seconds it took to realise that was still a bad idea. Something softer but less thick is needed.
The trees of what I thought was Richmond Park (actually the near-contiguous Ham Lands) glowed orangey-red as I cruised below Richmond Hill and under another familiar road bridge to arrive at the ramp where Steve and I had set off for Greenwich nine years ago, just after the last London riots. Lord know there’s plenty more to riot about these days, but now it’s all conducted online which is much more hygienic. Like Kingston, twilight on Richmond waterside was throbbing with ducks and Christmas revellers. I took my time draining and folding up the boat (chatting IKs with another curious chappy), rather pleased I’d managed the distance in exactly four hours without ending up too knackered. Part of that must be down to a backwind and the Thames’ swift winter current, but most of it’s owed to the Shipwreck ArrowStream, a fast flatwater cruiser whose potential is released once you dial in the right amount of skeg which may be none at all. It’s hard to see that price of £550 lasting for much longer.
Drying The twin drain plugs at the back worked fairly well on the ramp at Richmond; a pint or two spilled out from the cavity formed between the sides and the floor and which will almost certainly not dry out fully. The mesh-sided backpack helped, but you could tell it would take more to dry the boat off fully prior to long-term storage. In our flat I left it in the warm hallway (with an appropriate warning sign) and gave it what I thought was a final wipe down, but folding it up more water splashed out from somewhere, possibly the hollow prow beaks at either end. If you have the space the best way would be to lean it inflated on a wall in a warm room (or out in the sunshine), let what’s in there run to one end and deal with it there. If you’re really serious about the side cavities, you might get to them from either end with a hose attached to a hair dryer set on low.
In a line Nippy self-bailing 3-chamber PVC / high-pressure packraft/IK suited to white water and surfing.
What They Say Completely new concept of packrafting. Instead of mushy packraft, you get a High Pressure Packraft from extremely heavy duty fabric, that takes you anywhere and make it fun! Stable and self–bailing (realy self-bailing) packraft with performance of hardshell boat. Fast and manoeuvrable, good for beginners, for experienced boaters or experts as well. Packraft for bigger boaters or for long expeditions, sometimes called Big Bro. For paddlers and gear up to 140 kg. Fast and responding boat from extremely tough fabric. High profile bottom with comfortable seat, self-bailing up to 5 secs completely full boat (with standard load). Price: €750
Out of the box
The Big Boy is the second largest in ROBfin’s range of four packrafts, rated for loads of up to 140kg. Self-bailing holes in the floor set limits on payloads; tape them up and you may well be able to carry more without sitting in water, but heavy hauling is not what a self-bailer is about. Although PACKRAFT is emblazoned boldly along the sides, this is not your typical, single-chamber TPU Alpacka or Anfibio, but more like an IK with three chambers including an inflatable floor.
Made from stiff, 1.1mm PVC, raft valves and the small Bestway Air Hammer will get 3psi (0.2 bar) in there eventually. The stiff hull works well with the integrated footrest/thigh straps for a better connection with the boat. You may notice below left how the floor expands and thickens towards the back to add more buoyancy in the seating area where it’s needed.
On the Water
Where I live there’s no white water for miles. The Lee River White Water Centre on the other side of London would have been fun to visit, but was closed for Lockdown and requires passing an assessment course before they let you loose on the two short artificial courses. So the ever-reliable Medway and its sporty canoe chutes would have to do. And with the recent rains the river should be moving right along. But on arriving at Sluice Weir there were barriers everywhere, and the river level above the lock was several feet below the jetty. The upper Medway was closed for winter maintenance works. I’ve been caught out like this on the Medway before. Better to check at http://allingtonlock.co.uk. So after waiting weeks to try out the ROBfin on a sunny day, all I got was a muddy, flatwater paddle. It was altogether a bit of a washout.
My big IK barrel pump inflated the boat in no time. The yellow conformity label says ‘0.2 bar/ 3.5psi’, but 0.2 = 2.9psi, so that’s what I put in. At this pressure the PVC ROBfin was firm like an IK and not mushy like a packraft. Setting off downstream, the way the floor drops like a keel helps the boat track reasonably well, though you do can’t power on and will need to correct once in a while. If you stop it veers off to one side. With gentle strokes, you move along with none of that bow yawing you get with a packraft. The packraft-like 1-metre width meant it was stable, even with the higher seating position.
As it is, the water level in the boat was only about two inches below where I sat, so any fast moves or turns brought it up momentarily. You will get a bit wet. Judging by some brisk riverside walkers, the boat was managing over 3mph against the current, and back at the lock it was easy to wipe down and dry.
It’s a shame I wasn’t able to get splashy with the ROBfin; it would have been fun to belt flat out down the bigger chutes to test out the bailing, and mess about below them. The taut hull means the thigh straps work well and the short length would make it agile in the rapids. And should you tip over, getting back on would be dead easy. For playing in white water I’d sooner get a boat like this than a decked packraft and the ROBfin is much cheaper than a Chinese-made Kokopelli Nirvana. Packraft or IK? I’d settle on the latter which might put it up against a 12-kilo, 3.3m Gumotex Safari at more or less the same price. The shorter, wider ROBfin would be more stable a fun boat in the right element. What a shame I never got there.
I had a chance to take a prototype Anfibio Rebel 2K out for a short paddle the other day. A couple of hours trapped between weeds and weirs on an obscure urban waterway meant I wasn’t able to properly try out the test boat’s many features. Just another packraft you might say. There’s now a booming cottage industry of packraft makers, each seeking ways to make their very similar looking boats stand apart from the competition. How is the Rebel 2K different?
The Rebel 2K derives its name for a claimed weigh of under 2000 grams without the optional TubeBags: Anfibio’s answer to in-hull storage (more below). The boat we used was not standard and with the seat removed weighed about 15% more (as listed above. * Anfibio reweighed the same seatless boat and got 2450g). Saying the Rebel ‘… hardly takes up more space than a 2L drinking bottle..’ is a bit wide of the mark. That’s broadly true of the Nano RTC I tried the other week but, like most similar-sized TPU packrafts, the Rebel (210D hull and seat, 420D floor; 75D deck) rolls up to about the size of a compact 2-man tent. I like the ‘olive & lemon’ colour scheme and the whole boat looked put together as well as any packraft I’ve tried over the years. They’re really can’t be that much to it!
Besides the fitted TubeBags, the boat we tried had handy grab lines front and rear and a second patch for a frontal skeg. It may also have had patches for thigh straps inside. The front and rear tracking fins are a novel idea I’ve only seen on some drop-stitch IKs. Neither were fitted on our short spin. They weren’t needed and as you can see, they’d have probably stopped us in the thick weeds. I know that my blue, 60-cm longer Nomad certainly never needed the rear skeg (tracking fin) the way many IKs do.
Sure, like all packrafts the Rebel waggles its bow left and right in response to paddle input, but it still goes where you point it, gales notwithstanding. It would have been interesting to see how the frontal skeg affected this yawing. Assuming it eliminated it, would it have made the Rebel easier to paddle faster but at the same time harder to turn? That could be useful for longer crossings where a packraft’s relative lack of speed can hold you back. One for next time.
We used the Anfibio hand pump (left) to firm up the boats but had to back off the Rebel a bit to get the curved deck zip to close. With that done the 2K was taught and crease-free.
Normally I’m not a fan of decks, certainly not fixed ones, but on a chilly October day both I and Bob were glad to be tucked in and protected from splashes. One thing I’d like to see added is a tab on the right tube to secure the unzipped deck. [Edit: I’ve since been told it is a standard feature on production models.]
The TubeBags are also an interesting concept. Even before hearing of early failures, I was never won-over by Alpacka’s Cargo Fly (hull zip) innovation of 2014. Benefits in visibility and stability by storing luggage in the hull tubes were genuine, but is it a good idea to meddle with hull integrity in a single-chamber inflatable? The fewer failure points the better and who hasn’t had a zip jam or break? Now these airtight zips are commonly seen options on all packrafts and must be more reliable, but the zipper will always need care to seal well, especially in this era of pump- assisted hull pressures.
Like a hand pocket in your jeans, the TubeBags are pouches fitted into the side tubes and accessible from the cockpit via IPX7 zippers (left). But the 70-litre pockets must be packed and zipped up before the boat is inflated. Then once inflated and on the water they cannot be opened because the hull pressure behind them will cause the contents to disgorge until the pouch itself spews itself inside-out, leaving a slight drop in hull pressure. So if they’re not a handy ‘glove box’ what’s the point? Well, for starters once the boat is inflated the surrounding hull pressure keeps the bags’ contents pressed in place a bit like reverse vacuum sealing. Leave the pouch zip a little open as you inflate the hull and the contents will all be squished firmly in place. Then close up the zip up. Plus separate chambers add some back-up emergency buoyancy, and a faulty zip need not be critical to hull pressure. As with all in-hull storage, TubeBags won’t be that handy for day paddles but are a great way of storing stuff securely and out of the way on over-nighters. Once at camp you loosen the main valve to drop hull pressure a bit (as below). Then you can access your TubeBags. This will only work well when you’re on the water all day without interruptions. Portages with a loaded boat might be awkward compared to unclipping your bag from the bow and the rhythm of classic packrafting: walking then paddling then walking then paddling, might be slowed down a bit. But as long as you have a drybag or pack big enough, you can always bung it on the bow. You don’t have to use the TubeBags.
Other than that, the Rebel is fairly normal packraft. I found plenty of room my legs and hopping in off my kayak-like Nomad (my last paddle in it, as it turned out), it sure was nice to have something solid to lean on. As it came, with deck, tube storage and two fins, the Rebel would cost around €1000 and looks like a great do-it-all expedition boat. I can see it being ideal on a big French river where weirs are easily bypassed by shooting down glissieres (chutes). The cached baggage will be out of sight when leaving the boat moored and popping into a village for a pan au choc and visibility and stability in rapids will be improved.
I recently bought myself an Aqua Marina Tomahawk Air-K 375, after floating around on a cheap Bestway Hydro Force (right) over the summer. The choice was partly driven by availability – the Tomahawk was still on sale where others had sold out, perhaps because it was specifically listed as an intermediate to advanced kayak, while beginners are driving the shortage.
Overall I am pretty satisfied with the boat, though it’s not perfect. It comes in a fairly hefty package, but it is manageable for myself, an average fitness male. Smaller people and/or those with less strength may struggle a bit. The bag fits well and it technically a backpack. I wouldn’t want to go far with it but it works sufficiently well to get it out of the flat, down the stairs, and into the car.
Some work is required for set-up – the included pump is effective but needs some effort towards the end when approaching 10PSI. I may invest in an electric at some point. In fact the hardest bit is fitting the twin skegs: these are very stiff, and it’s difficult to apply pressure to the thin edge. I may need to take some sandpaper to get these to fit better, though I’ll try some silicone grease first. The seat and footrest are effective, a little strap threading is needed for the latter, nothing terrible. The seat straps keep their tension once set up, but the footrest doesn’t. Total setup time is about 20 mins, though that may reduce as I get more familiar with the kayak.
On the water it is a step change from the basic inflatable, though you’d expect that based on the price! It’s much faster, tracks amazingly well, and is a lot less tiring to paddle. The addition of an entry-level carbon fibre paddle provides a lot more range before fatigue sets in (though I still need to improve my stamina!). It turns relatively slowly to compensate, but I’ll take the better tracking any day.
I removed the front skeg to see if it would make it turn better. Turning was indeed a little easier, but the tracking was noticeably less effective (though still far better than the budget IK). In the end I decided I preferred both skegs, plus it’s reasonably heavy and right at the bottom of the boat and so provides a bit more stability. It would work fine without through so it’s more a case of personal preference. It is noticeably tricky in the wind – because it’s relatively light, I’m slower in a headwind than a friend with a Point 65 sit-on-top. In crosswinds the high sides catch the air which makes stability less good in a gust.
It feels a lot less stable than the Bestway (I’m 77kg). I’m constantly working to balance it though I think more use will see that become less of a worry. Once or twice I’ve had a wobble and almost felt like I’ve gone over. However I think it’s actually a little better than it seemed. I deliberately flipped it to ensure I could re-enter and it took a lot more leaning over than I thought to capsize. It is probably not suitable for beginners whose balance is questionable, though. Re-entry was a little tricky put perfectly doable.
Packing up is reasonably quick – note that I do it with minimal drying on site, then re-inflate it fully once home to give it a proper wipe-down and time to dry. The drainage issue mentioned in the article is definitely evident: it’s basically impossible to get every last drop of water out, though I’d say no more than a tablespoonful was left which is not terrible. The joins between the floor and the sides also tend to attract sand and grit – the wipe-down gets rid of most, but I suspect at least a little is starting to build up there, though I don’t know how much of an issue this is in the long run as they shouldn’t rub against each other.
Despite the ‘Intermediate to advanced’ labelling, I think a beginner wanting to move on from an Intex or similar could do worse as long as they have at least a modicum of balance and confidence. I don’t think it would be for everyone though, as there are definitely more stable FDS kayaks out there. Overall I’m pretty pleased with with the Tomahawk, and hope the construction is good enough to provide many years of kayaking to come!
In a line Super-light but sturdy packraft with a low-maintenance solution to in-hull storage.
What They Say Extremely light packraft with roll closure (RTC), which enables luggage to be stowed in the tube and thus offers higher transport capacity. Minimal pack size, 1kg light and robust enough for calm and tame waters allow combined adventures with increased payload. Price: €389
Out of the box
This pre-used Anfibio Packrafting Nano RTC came with an optional backrest seat (€57), the airbag, an optional mini top-up hand pump (€10), a strap and 3 patches but no glue or instructions. The latter appear online. On the IK&P scales the boat alone came in at 1002g. The full seat adds another 237g with the horseshoe seat base weighing 135g. All the other dimensions in the image above closely match Anfibio Packrafting’s own data.
This is not your usual shiny-exterior packraft; the Nano’s coating is instead on the inside like the plain Nano SL model. The woven texture of the 210D nylon fabric still gives a sense of sturdiness which I can’t say I felt with the 75D Supai Flatwater and Matkat we tried a few years ago. Such perceptions are important when bobbing about in the middle of a breezy loch or tackling some light whitewater. Maybe it’s the black colour, but the Nano also managed to look bigger and tougher than the virtually same sized Alpha XC (left) we tried a year or two back.
The RTC is a new idea to Anfibio Packrafting, though I see the scantily described Rapid Raft in the US uses a similar closure. The Nano differs by being a more sophisticated design, with a broadly symmetrical hull made from just three pieces of fabric: hull top; lower hull and floor; inner ring. This adds up to just two long seams which ought to mean fewer chances of errors during assembly as well as less weight. Symmetrical also means you can have the closure up-front (normal) or at the back where, with just four folds rather than five, it creates an elongated stern which adds more buoyancy where most of the weight is and acts as a fixed rudder to limit side-to-side yawing endemic to packrafts. Payload is 135kg.
The RTC has an extra TPUfilm bonded inside to ensure an airtight seal, as long as you roll it up tight with no wrinkles. Providing it works, as a way of enabling in-hull load-carrying, I’d sooner put my faith in this than a TiZip which must be kept lubed and clean and dried properly to work well. At the RTC-end you have four mounting tabs on the tube top. On this you can mount Anfibio’s DeckPack, as pictured below. Bigger exterior loads may also be more convenient here if your route includes many awkward portages where carrying the otherwise heavily loaded and inflated boat may be tricky. Otherwise, there’s a tab inside the hull to secure loads and keep them towards the RTC end. You get seat mount buckles at both ends too, though I found the fully inflated seats jammed in well by themselves. There will be the age-old annoyance of the backrest flopping forward as you get in, but used RTC-sternward you can hook it upright to one of the tabs. This backrest design hasn’t changed since I had my first Alpacka Denali over 10 years ago. What is actually wanted is lumber support which is best achieved from strap-braced backrests, as in my Nomad, but that gets complicated.
No you can’t inflate it by opening the RTC to the wind unless there’s a gale on, but it helps to fluff the boat out, and using the usual airbag, 5-7 scoops fills the boat, after which you top up the one-way Boston valve by mouth. If you find this a bit awkward, I find a section of half-inch garden hose works as a ‘blow-straw’. Or use the top-up hand pump (137g) to get maximum firmness. On the Nano it worked very well and for only €10 I’d say is a worthwhile addition for any Boston-valved packraft. More below.
“The RTC cannot be compared to the usual roll closures of simple pack sacks [dry bags]!” proclaims the website, and I can believe them. We all know that Ortlieb-like roll-top dry bags don’t have a proper seal; water will seep through and air will leak out. But the multiple rolling of the film layer, as well as the fact they’ve dared use RTC on a packraft, gives a sense of confidence. Time to get paddling and see if that confidence is warranted.
On the Water
Mid-September and it’s nearly 30°C: too good to pass by so I head for a short run up and down the Medway. Airing up at Sluice Weir Lock, I had a good feeling about the Nano, even if at 95kg I expected to be on the limit, as I was on the Alpha XC. The extra 6 centimetres all round looked enough to make a difference, and one way to help the trim (level) would be to run the RTC at the stern and as long as possible (four folds) while perched forward on the backrest seat option. In the end I didn’t feel the need to do this.
Once inflated by bag and topped up by mouth, I knew the Nano would need a damn good tempering today. A boat firmly inflated by hot ambient air will go soft once cooled in the water. Sure enough, after some splashing the Nano went as limp as a stunned trout. While doing this I was reminded of the indispensability of a bow line to manage a boat at the water’s edge. I hooked the metre-long strap through the RTC (left); better than nothing. Back on the jetty I tried the two-way hand pump: 20 pumps firmed it up. After over a decade of proven hull integrity, it’s become the norm to top-up packrafts with mini-pumps and not by lung, raising pressures up to 2psi or more. This added tautness is what differentiates packrafts from slackrafts and has a huge benefit on paddling efficiency and satisfaction.
They say don’t overdo the pumping but how are you to know? A well-made packraft may well handle a massive 0.5 bar or more before it blows a seam, but assuming the Boston one-way valve can handle it, I think the mini PRVs I tested the other day would be a useful addition to packrafts. They cost only 4 quid and you just keep pumping away until they hiss, knowing the boat’s reached the valve’s purge pressure which cannot be exceeded. It’s like an in-built pressure gauge. Fitting one to the open-ended Nano (or any TiZip packraft) would be especially easy
I decided to try RTC bow first (it made using the DeckPack easier). Once in the boat I felt fine, though from the pictures it’s clear the trim looks nearly as back-heavy as on the Alpha. Too many pies. But on these recommended ‘calm waters’ that didn’t seem a problem.
Confident I wouldn’t wet myself, I set off 2km up river for Oak Weir Lock, passing some happy Itwiters on the way (left). Those things are everywhere now! Good on Decathlon for satisfying the huge demand this summer. Within a few minutes it became clear the Nano had cooled further and needed another 50 pumps off a handy concrete slab below the steep riverbank. I also remembered that, unlike my IKs, low-floored/high-sided packrafts want the seat base pumped right up to give height so as to get the paddle over the fat sides.
Back on the move, speed and response increased dramatically, but not having paddled a normal-sized packraft for a while, I’ve forgotten how slow they are, topping out at maybe 2.5mph/4kph. Riverside walkers were outpacing me; normally it’s the other way round on the Medway, albeit heading downstream. Where noticeable, the current here is about half a mile an hour. I took off to explore some mysterious side creeks which I’d normally shoot past on my downstream burn-ups, careful to avoid the many brambles which line the river here. There’s a perception that the Nano’s textured woven surface could snag a bramble more easily than a smooth one, but should that happen it would be easy to open the RTC and slap a stick-on patch on the inside: the best place for such a repair. The heat and dense, overhanging vegetation reminded me of a boat trip I took years ago up the remote Roper River in Australia’s Top End.
Back out on the main channel and heading upstream, after a while it took some effort to move the Nano along, with the tell-tale bobbing of a soggy slackraft. A squidge of the sides showed they were soft again. More tempering needed or a slow leak, probably from the inexpertly sealed RTC. I hacked on and at Oak Weir jetty and got my weight over the bow to push the RT closure underwater. A couple of tiny bubbles popped up occasionally, but they may have been just trapped air escaping the folds.
The picture above makes it appear worse than it was, and being a hot day on cold water, I felt one more tempering may do the trick. I often have to do this with my bigger Nomad; which takes a good few minutes on the water to fully cool on a hot day. I did my best to check for tell-tale bubbles elsewhere, but anything easily spotted would have seen the boat droop in minutes.
I realised the seemingly redundant hand pump hose was actually ideal for topping up on the water. I reached behind and carefully undid the upper cap of the Boston valve (you don’t want to undo the main valve…), pushed on the pump hose nozzle and gave it another 50 jabs + 10 for luck (about 8-9 litres). With the Nano taught again, I couldn’t resist hopping out and sliding back down the shallow Oak Weir canoe chute which the Nano took in its stride. This boat could easily manage river riffles; the caveat would be too much scraping in the shallows. The exposed fibres can probably take some rubbing but it’s the coating inside that counts. I wonder if spraying a slippery coating (303 Protectorant springs to mind) on the undersides may help reduce possible wear.
I’d asked for the backrest seat option to push my bulk forward off the overloaded stern, but comfort, or a relaxed all-day paddling posture, will take some experimenting. With the unusual raised floor and seat base pumped right up, the now higher backrest had less to lean against so I tipped backwards. I should have tried deflating the seat base a bit. Even at my height (1.82m) I can still stretch my barefoot legs flat out, when in fact a bent leg is better for paddling. So you might want to fit Antibio’s footrest (as I use on my Nomad), shove a bag or shoes up there, or better still (for trim), put something behind you to act as a thicker backrest and centralise your weight (as we did on the Alpha). However you achieve it, a solid back–to-foot brace improves paddling efficiency which means it takes longer to get tired.
Running back downstream to Sluice Weir felt like it took half the time, and I got there with the boat still firm. I do wonder if wetting the inner film surface provides a better seal, just as licking a suction cup before sticking it to glass. One to try next time. I also noticed that for a short, wide raft, the Nano barely yaws left to right. Besides my fine technique honed over the years, the profile of the raised floor may help the side tubes ‘bite’, like ice skate blades. Or it may be the subtle protrusions (below) under each end of the boat which my 2.9-m Nomad also has and which are said to have a skeg/keel effect.
Either way I was confident I’d survive the sporty Sluice Weir chute, catching only a cupful of water as I hit the frothing base. With that ticked off, I paddled over to the portage jetty crawled out and aired down. Being a black boat on a hot day, the Nano dried itself off in no time.
Packing the boat up, I checked for seepage into the RTC when it had been submerged for a minute or two. As expected, water crept along the textured outer nylon surface but the inner film was dry, though as Gore Tex will tell you, air can pass where water can’t. If that was the issue, not just heat, I’m sure getting a good seal is a knack that can be acquired.
Providing they can handle the added pressure of a hand-pump, I wouldn’t be surprised to see RTC-type closures becoming more common on packrafts. Using zippers for such a critical seal always seemed a bit dodgy to me, though I’ve only read of them playing up. Besides that novelty, the sturdy 210-D Nano makes a great crossraft at a price that’s competitive with the thinner Supai boats. It’s very light, compact (3 litres rolled up), comes fitted with enough useful tabs and can be paddled RTC-stern to level off the trim, if needed. Seats are quite a lot extra, but you can sit on your gear, and for a tenner, the little pump is a no-brainer to get the most from your boat. And if the Nano’s RTC arrangement is not for you, choose the conventional Nano SL costing about 15% less. Either could make a great entry-level packraft or an ultra-light crossraft.