Light, compact Takes as long as a clumsy air-bagging Can suck (vacuum) as well as inflate Has conventional slide switch, not ‘touchy’ inductive switch on the newer Max 2 version Will do other stuff, like Exped Synmats and fire embers Newer models can be used as a power pack, have LED lights, are IPX7 rated and can be programmed to sing Waltzing Matilda.
Slow to recharge Packraft still needs topping up by mouth or mini hand pump Will run out eventually, unlike manual methods, and will eventually die for good
What they say My name is Max Pump 2020. I can quickly inflate and deflate your swimming tube. air mattress. and other inflatables. With vacuum bags .I can create more capacity for your suitcase and wardrobe at home. When in outdoor.I can provide oxygen for your burning ovens. enabling you to enjoy your food more easily.
Review An electric pump to save a couple of minutes’ packraft air-bagging? Do me a favour! That’s what I think when applied to bulkier IKs where a two-way barrel pump is fast and easy. But factor in cost, weight, size, USB rechargeability plus supplementary uses and, for a packraft, something from the FlextailGear’s pump range will be worth a punt. Air-bagging is a clever idea to quickly inflate a typical packraft, but on some days it’s not the most intuitive of movements. Once a day is fine, but particularly on a trip where you’re airing up and down a few times a day, the effortlessness of the Max is most welcome. A good case to point was my recent paddle on the Wye where accessing my Rebel 2K’s internal storage pockets to get to the camping gear each night meant re-inflating the boat every morning. The Flexpump would have made this less tiresome. Another example was getting back from a tiring sea paddle and wanting to reinflate the rinsed boat to dry properly. Plug in the Flexy and get on with other after-paddle chores.
Out of the box You get the pump, four nozzles, a short USB-A lead and a small bag. While one nozzle will fit loosely a Boston valve’s threaded airbag port, nothing fits the one-way valve body where you’d stick your hand pump nozzle. You’d think with Boston valves so common on Chinese-made slackrafts, packrafts and cheaper IKs, this Chinese brand would include a Boston valve nozzle. Luckily, I’ve amassed loads of adaptors and nozzles, and one 16mm (5/8″) adaptor fitted the pump’s main nozzle and jammed into the Boston port. Off a computer allow two hours to fully charge the pump out of the box. After just three fills (12 mins?), it took another hour to get the green light. Maybe off the mains is faster.
I estimate the volume of my Rebel 2K is 550 litres, so at the claimed flow rate of 300 litres (currently the highest in Flextailgear’s range of mini pumps), that ought to take about two minutes. In fact it took 2:30s to reach the equivalent of airbag pressure in my unpacked 2K (full volume; above). And this was pushing through the valve, not direct into the body via the airbag port which may have been quicker. When the 2K is fully packed (with up to 140 litres stashed in the side pockets) it will be quicker. And it does this while left jammed into the valve so you make other preparations, or look around and admire the scenery.
My fat and comfy full-length Exped Synmat XP 9LW – which also needs air-bagging to avoid humid breath – inflates in just 25s. And as many will know, air-bagging a sleeping mat in a cramped tent when you’re worn out is not one of the joys of camping. The Max 2020’s 3600mAH lithium battery is claimed to run for 40 minutes, so that ought to do at least 10-15 raft fills plus a few mats, when camping. By comparison, I read that their Tiny pump (just 80g) will do three raft fills.
Deflating either of these items is of course as easy as rolling them up, but getting the last bit of air out can be tricky, even though it can save a lot of packed volume. Pump suction definitely works on my Seawave IK because the one-way valve can be pushed open with the bayonet nozzle. On the packraft and mat, you have to suck from the unvalved port, and by the time you’ve plugged that, some air gets drawn back in. I found plain rolling up and squeezing or sucking the last of the air by mouth was easiest.
Last word to Sven from Anfibio: “Can’t live without one anymore. Cannot remember when I last used an inflation bag.” These young people, honestly.
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. Mixing paddling with walking, I prefer a 1-kilo down bag, a compact 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 but 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 (unless you can store in the hull, waterproofness trounces all-day carrying comfort. A submersible UDB duffle is tougher and as airtight as a packraft and provides high-volume back-up flotation should you get a flat on the water; important and reassuring.
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 Anfibio Packrafting now 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 seems 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 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 is a helmet if you’re really going for it). For flatwater paddles and calm, warm conditions Anfibio’s lightweight inflatable Buoy Boy (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, but at any other time, you’ll barely know you’re wearing it. Note It doesn’t claim to be a CE-rated buoyancy aid
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.
Recently in France I tried an Underwater Kinetics box (22cm x 16 x 8; 540g, above 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, camera, wallet and bits. It’s light enough to carry away from the boat and also happens to make a handy camera stand. But most of the time I use a 20-L Ortlieb Travel Zip (left) which zips open easily and stores loads. 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.
The other day while leaning over aboard a salmon pen platform, my cherished six-year-old Benchmade Griptilian slipped out of the pfd and into the briny depths. We ummed and ahhed about diving down to retrieve it, but I’m told these pens are 20-metres deep and can hold no less than 80,000 fish. It was a bitter loss, all the worse when I saw what a replacement cost new. Long story short, I replaced it with a similarly anti-stealth orange PBK EMT Rescue Knife for a few quid. Like they said “you won’t worry too much if you drop it off your lifeboat and [it] sinks into the depths.” No I won’t.
At 150g it’s heavy but locks out with one of those cheap ‘liner’ locks and has a window smashing stud, should I ever find myself in the nightmarish scenario of being trapped in a sealed aquarium. You also get a pocket clip, plus a handy line cutter – a good idea when your packboat begins to acquire yards of lines and straps all adding up to an entrapment risk when expelled from the boat in moving water. As it is, I’ve long had a quick-grab Benchmade #8 Rescue Hook permanently attached to my main pfd (see below and right). With no knife-like sharp point, it’s a good thing on an inflatable and rusts quietly away.
Once you’ve cut yourself free from your boat, the next thing is to alert others of your distress. Gael had a nifty ‘survival’ whistle on our recent Mull trip. This isn’t just any whistle, this is a bonafide survival aid. You also get a thermometer to check on the hypothermia index, a mini magnifying glass for roasting ants, and a compass to help evaluate your drift. All that for just 99p from China, or under four quid in orange from the UK. The only thing that’s missing is some sort of pea in the whistle body to give it a more punchy warble. I tried shoving a lentil in there, but first go it blew out and temporarily blinded me – which was when the magnifying glass came in handy. Search eBay for “4 in 1 Thermometer Whistle Compass Magnifier Survival” and feel safer out there.
Seriously: the best way to avoid dangerous situations is to avoid them in the first place. That’s not as glib as it sounds. For me, who’s written and talked (and even won awards) about adventure travel for over four decades, paddling is one of the more potentially risky things I do these days. Or one where I’m very aware of my limitations in paddling mostly alone. I got the white-water thing out of my system some time ago and have settled on no more than Grade 2, or portaging. At sea, I mostly do day trips in fine weather, which in the UK can mean days or weeks doing other stuff. But I’ve yet to have a ‘moment’ nor come close to falling out of my sea kayak. On river’s I’ve not been tipped out of an IK since my Sunny days and never in a packraft. That’s how boring my boating is! I’ve managed that by avoiding the high-adrenaline side of things: technical white-water, pounding surf, gale-force winds, as well as changing plans on a trip. I’ve had my share of dramas. For me the adventure with paddling is quietly exploring wild places with packboats. I leave the appalling fascination of this sort of thing to others ;-)
The range of packrafts has slowly expanded since I bought my first Alpacka Llama in 2010 and Alpacka rafts themselves have changed a lot in that time. But here in the UK people are still slow to see the benefits of these lightweight portable boats. Much of this reticence must be due to the price of these niche-interest boats which, at a glance look not much different from what I call Slackrafts: disposably cheap vinyl beach toys. Another reason might be that packrafts appeal more to outdoorsy types looking for a new way to enjoy the wilderness or countryside, but with no interest in acquiring the technical skills far less the storage and transport issues of hardshells. They won’t come across these boats very often but as this test clearly proved, anyone can hop into a packraft, set off down river in a straight line and tackle an Environmental Agency Grade III canoe chute. The testers all ‘got it’ and by the end some were already cooking up packrafting adventures.
We’re comparing a prototype Aire BAKraft as well as the new Supai Matkat, bothfrom the US; the Russian-made, German-branded Nortik Trekraft, and the Micro Rafting System (MRS) Microraft from China. The unusual Aire calls itself a hybrid IK-packraft, the Supai is an ultralight ‘crossraft’ intended for flatwater use. The other two more closely resemble Alpackas in current or former iterations. My current 2014 Yak made a fifth boat on our test, one which I at least could compare against the others.
These four boats were lent to us by what is now called the Anfibio Packrafting Store in Germany which sells, rents and now makes under its own Anfibio brand, the biggest range of packrafts and packrafting gear in Europe. Sven at the Packrafting Store helped clarify or correct technical aspects in this review but the opinions, observations and most measurements are our own. Some of the more exciting photos are also from the Packrafting Store. We asked NRS to participate: they didn’t answer. At the time Feathercraft’s packrafts were another option but Feathercraft is no more.
For this group test it would have been great to set off across the hills of Wales or Scotland, deploy the boats and then follow a river, hop out, walk some more, set up camp and swap notes. The reality of combining good weather and four other people with the free time to help do all this was slim. So we settled on an eight-mile day trip down the Medway River in Kent (above): me and four testers who’d all paddled (some with trousers rolled up) but had never packrafted. At each lock and chute we swapped boats, so everyone tried each raft at least once.
Me – Height 1.83m; weight 93kg Experience: Into IKs and packrafts for day trips and touring. On my third Alpacka.
Bob – 1.78m; 85kg Lilo incident, Margate 1965. Lea River canoe lessons, Harlow 1980.
Hannah – 1.75m; 75kg Much canoeing, some kayaking, love touring. Don’t understand eddies, yet.
Lois – 1.62; 63kg Dicking about on the Thames in Gumotex IKs and a Dagger. Rely on enthusiasm rather than skill.
Robin – 1.78m; 85kg Scouts canoeing, NZ white water, Colorado kayaking, various inflatable trips, usually with tides.
How the packrafts were weighed and measured Weighing was done using the classic Salter 1004 SSDR digital kitchen scales. They come with a classy brushed steel finish and still rate at 4 stars on amazon. They were checked and registered 500ml of water as weighing 500g.
Each boat was weighed exactly as it came out of the box, and then weighed again as it was actually paddled, without air bags, repair kits or straps (where included). It was then weighed again before going back in the box. All dimensions were also taken twice, the second time using stakes to get the external measurements at the widest points (above). Internal dimensions were taken at the shortest point, usually halfway up the curved tube side. Measurements from other sources may vary; there’s a table at the bottom of each review’s page and the summary for quick comparison. * Our exterior measurements for the Matkat were 3- to 5cm less than the Store, but 4cm longer and 1.6cm slimmer than Supai states. Unnoticed leaks during the measuring stage may have stopped us pumping the boat up to actual size.
Construction All these packrafts are made from pliable fabrics which form airtight vessels when inflated by human power alone. That’s about 0.03 bar or 0.4psi according to the Packrafting Store’s tests and probably too low for a regular manometer to measure accurately. The BAKraft uses an in-line ‘squeeze pump’ to potentially attain 0.17bar or 2.5psi – firmer than most vinyl IKs. All the models used here except the Supai were pressure tested to an impressive 0.5 bar (7.25psi) by the Store without exploding into a blaze of TPU. As a comparison, my old Grabner ran 0.3.bar as was as stiff as a gangplank. Hardshell-like rigidity is an inflatable boat’s goal, and while design and shape might come into it, some rafts become more rigid than others and so perform better. The best rafts use a fabric (or construction design) which becomes stiff when inflated but is pliable when folded (especially at low temperatures) as well as being durable against sharp impacts and abrasion. Among other things you could add resistance to UV rays, ready supply and ease of assembly in the factory, repairability on the trail, and a range of fabulous customer-friendly colours.
Broadly speaking the hulls of the Alpacka and MRS use ten panels of urethane (TPU) coated nylon fabric which are sewn together. Tape is then heat welded over the seams. The Alpacka fabric is only coated on the outside; the Nortik uses a similar double-coated fabric to the MRS (above; green, but not our Trekraft), but the Nortik’s seams are heat-welded with thicker tape (no sewing).
Double-coating adds weight and other technical aspects of proprietary coated fabrics vary greatly; they’re often specifically formulated for a raft manufacturer. The benefits of an inside coating are a second barrier to punctures when a light scratch to the exterior reaches down to the fabric core but doesn’t actually cut through it.
The floors on the Yak, Nortik and MRS are glued on then taped over (Nortik on the inside, the other two outside). They’re typically two or three times the denier rating (thread weight) of the hull fabric. The Alpacka uses something called ballistic nylon which sounds cool but I’ve found is far from bulletproof. No part of an inflatable raft weighing just three kilos can be expected to be. Occasional repairs are all part of ownership, like a bicycle’s tyres. So is rinsing any grit out the boat before it works its way into the nooks and crannies. On the right click the extra large picture to have a close look under the boats and compare workmanship.
The superlight Matkat is in a class all of its own, entirely made from 75-denier ripstop polyester with a single urethane coating on the inside, the same weight (and sealing method) as an MSR water bag. The red picture below right is of another Supai we tried which you’ll see had a diamond pattern on the surface. The black Matkat we used here had a plain surface like an MSR bag. On both boats the four panels (floor, inside, top and bottom hull) are heat-welded together. It’s possible to repair these seams with a hot iron (or glue).
The AireBAKraftprototype we tested used a thin and slightly stretchy urethane film ‘inner tube’ or collar supporting the hull, and a much thicker and stretch-free urethane-coated yellow nylon fabric for the I-beam floor (left). These bladders or ‘AIREcells’ as Aire calls them, are contained inside a sewn-up shell of fabric which need not be air- or watertight. If I interpreted the owner’s manual correctly then the BAKraft’s green exterior shell is made of Spectra and the grey interior of lighter-weight Dyneema fabric. You may know stretch-free Dyneema guy lines found on better tents.
The urethane bladder can be accessed for repair via long zips (left); the nylon floor can be pulled out for repair from each end. On packing or refitting care must be taken not to twist the bladders. I’ve never been a fan of it (for reasons explained later) but this AIRECell system has been used by Aire on their PVC whitewater rafts and IKs for many, many years. With minimal seams compared to a traditional packraft hull, air retention is excellent. On all the boats seats, backrests and decks (where present) are typically made from urethane-coated nylon with seams or joins heat-welded and maybe taped.
Inflation/deflation If you’re combining walking with navigating bodies of water – packing + rafting – you want a boat which inflates and deploys without any faffing about. In this respect the Microraft was the best of the bunch. It used the proven screw-in inflation bag (see video below) and, being a small volume boat, took about ten ‘scoops’ to fill up. The main valve cap is attached with a short plastic ring tab – no fiddly bits of string. Top off the air pressure by blowing all you got into the twist-lock valve and with practice you’re good to go in three minutes.
In the video below, from arriving at the beach to paddling away takes about 8 minutes. Speeded up 15x. A jet passes overhead.
My Yak followed exactly the same inflation procedure, but being a higher volume boat (a little bigger than the one in the video above) took twice as many ‘air-grabs’ to fill up before topping off with lung power. Every time I do this I wonder whether my super-thin airbag will split or unravel at the seams if I scrunch too hard. I can feel the air leaking through the sides.
Like the MRS, the Trekraft’s airbag is also made from a reassuringly thick fabric, but is spoiled by a push-in plug, even though there’s obviously a thread in the boat’s port. Compress too hard or if it’s wet and the bag plug might pop out, so inflate gently. Instead of using the old twist-lock to top-off, the Trekraft has a one-way spring valve stem with a cap (which came adrift and eventually got lost). This valve (above left) is dead easy to use and avoids the risk of over-tightening a cheap plastic twist-lock valve (as on older Alpackas). But when airing down, with the spring valve you can’t suck and seal the remaining air out unless you jam something in the valve as you suck. Packraft or IK, this ability to suck your boat down is handy for compact packing.
Next comes the Matkat. No airbag supplied even though the Supai website states: ‘We are working on developing an inflation sack to work with our valves hopefully we will have it released in mid-2014.’ When we tried the smaller red Supai Canyon Flatwater II in late 2013 we found it took about fifty breaths to fill, plus topping off. The higher volume Matkat takes about eighty breaths. I like breathing but that’s not something I’d want to do more than a couple of times day to save the 100 grams of an airbag.
Unlike the Alpacka, Nortik or MRS, the Supais use a male threaded dump valve which protrudes from the boat and onto which screws a cap with a thin tube and the twist lock valve on the end (right, red boat) – a neat and simple system that’s just about accessible for on-board top-ups. Alpacka use an identical threaded valve port but on their air bags; it’s a regular American plumbing ¾-inch size. If I had a Supai packraft I’d get an Alpacka airbag for $20 and then either find a female-to-female plastic connection, or jam on a short section of clear plastic tube to join them together. That way I can save the hyperventilating for Glastonbury.
That leaves the BAKraft. Even before I received the boat I had my doubts after seeing pictures of the convoluted inflation system which Aire suggest.
The BAKraft uses Halkey Roberts (or very similar) valves, as found on proper IKs and whitewater rafts: one in the floor and one for the urethane bladder that fills both sides of the hull, or what what they call the ‘collar’. These valves work like car tyre valves (or the Nortik top-up) – a spurt of high pressure opens the seal and a spring seals it shut – except that you can lock them open by pushing and twisting the valve stem. This is necessary to deflate a boat easily, or to loosely pre-inflate it without having to push against the valve spring. These valves are really designed to be used with pumps not flimsy air-catching inflation bags, far less lung power. A simple and compact push-fit pump like a K-Pump will work. A high-pressure stirrup pump with a ‘Summit’ bayonet connector on the end will be even quicker, but is way too bulky to travel with.
With the BAKraft you’re supposed to use the backrest/cargo bag as an inflation bag and scrunch air into the boat via a tube fitted with a bayonet connector (left). But the backrest bag’s weight, odd shape and relatively small volume makes this task awkward, even past an opened intake valve which is still a restricted airway. I gave it a go but soon saw that, while I’d get there in the end, it was going to take ages.
Once the boat has ‘shape’ you’re then supposed to quickly close the boat valve then splice in a low-volume/high-pressure hand-squeeze pump into the ISC bag. The squeeze pump has another one-way spring valve in it: charge it with air from the backrest then squirt air by hand past the closed valve until the boat is firm. This squeeze pump is quite a clever idea but at about 150cc a go will take a while to do the job. Sorry to say I wasn’t even curious to find out how long – I’d guess at least 15-minutes for the whole inflation, same as it took to pump up my 4.5-metre kayak the other day with the one-litre K-Pump Mini. So instead I reached for my Bravo stirrup pump – it took two minutes – and on test day I brought my compact K-Pump which took about twice as long.
I see now that I’ve actually RTFM I used an alternative method. The image above right suggests you don’t use the backrest bag to charge the squeeze pump, but just blow then squeeze the hand pump directly using an oral tube, like a silent bag pipe. If I’d thought of that I might have tried it as it’s a much less clumsy way of topping off the BAKraft.
All the other packrafts here run at an air pressure that’s governed by the lung power you can exert through the top-off twist valve (left). But with a one-way valve you can pump more air into a raft (that goes for the Trekraft’s top-off valve too, now I think of it). The BAKraft is made to run an IK-like 2.5psi although you’re warned not to over-pressurise or allow it to happen. That can be easily done of you get carried away with a stirrup pump or leave the raft out in the hot sun. It may have seemed clever to give the necessary backrest multiple uses, but it works only a little better for filling the boat with air than it does as a backrest (see review). I’d recommend getting a $20 Feathercraft inflation bag which comes with the ‘Summit’ bayonet fitting from their BayLee packrafts (they also use Halkey-like valves). And if you don’t get on with the oral/hand pump system, then get a 600-g K-Pump Mini too. I’d guess using both these devices will more than halve the inflation time.
From the four corners of southern England the throng gathered at Tonbridge Town Lock, the boats got pumped up, cooled off in the water then topped up some more. Then, after a quick groupie, we set off down the easy first chute. I took it upon myself to get in the Matkat while I was still feeling fresh.
No one’s ever asked me how to make a packstaff attachment for their four-part paddle, but I’m going to tell you anyway. After seven years use, I’m still a big fan of my idea.
What’s so good about packstaffs? Well, they’re a great way of converting your light but strong paddle shaft into a light but strong walking staff that’s stronger and longer than walking poles which are useful on the trail, but redundant on the water. While not needed on the flat ground, staffs help you trek uphill and down dale with the same benefits as walking poles; they spread the load off your ageing kneesto your arms and chest. And when hauling a full load, they help with balance, reducing the effort of your core in self-correction. I am sure my legs have felt less tired after a full day of loaded packstaff walking in the hills.
Plus a longer packstaff can easily take your weight as you inch downhill with a heavy backpack pushing you forward. A cheap telescopic walking pole would collapse, or sure feels like it might. Like any long staff they’re also handy for prodding bogs, fighting off Turkish mastiffs plus help with vaulting narrow streams or fording stepping stone rivers in a bid to keep the feet dry. Again, a lightweight walking pole may not be stiff enough to do this. An MYO packstaff nib weighs 200g, costs next to nothing, and works with any four-part paddle, like my Aquabound Manta Ray. There’s even a bloke on ebay who’s partly copied my concept.
Find a bit of tube that’s close to the right diametre to slip into your paddle where the blade goes. My blue tube was from some cheap paddle that came with a long-gone slackraft. Add tape to make a snug fit, if necessary. But not so tight that you risk jamming when wet. Drill a hole at a point where there’s enough overlap to make the assembly strong, and then fit a spring clip. I bought a pair on eBay for a fiver, though you can buy cheaper pressed out ones for less. As it happens it turns out my AquaBound uses cheap pressed clips. You may not be able to find the typical 7-8mm buttons to fit the AB files. I settled with 6mm. This spring clip is easy to fit and a big improvement over my previous ‘slip-on’ nib which got sucked off in bogs.
Next, line up the two holes or fit the spring clip and add a collar. You don’t want the nib’s striking force impacting on the clip’s button alone. I sawed a bit of old fibreglass kayak shaft which was a tight fit on the blue tube, so split it then glued it on. That glue didn’t work so well so I roughed it up, more glue then added a couple of rivets. The collar also protects the end of your paddle shaft a bit. The actual end ‘nib’ is currently a black plastic screw section. Stuff and glue in a bit of cork or other blockage in your nib end (right) to stop the tube slowly filling with mud or stones. The nib weighs 137g.
Using the packstaff with an open shaft at the top, I sometimes worry that stumbling onto that shaft at face height could be painful. With a canoe T-grip (left; fiver on ebay) you can press comfortably on the staff coming down a hill, and it also acts as a handy hook. Mine had to be ground down to fit. It weighs 78g with a 6mm SoftTie to attach it to the nib during transit.
When you don’t need to carry the packstaff you can stick it under a shoulder strap, but I find it slips out. So better to break it down to two parts and slip it under a belt or similar loop. Again, I find the double-loopable SoftTies handy for this, and the loop stays on this paddle to make a handy paddle leash attachment using the mooring line when sailing or in rough conditions.
At a verified 670g (23.6oz) including an added grab line, Supai Adventure Gear’sFlatwater Canyon II ($300) must be among the world’s lightest and most compact boats. Before a winter storm blew our plan off the map, the trip we’d lined up in northwest Scotland was ideal for the Flatwater: short crossings saving lengthy overland detours or risky deep wading, but no extended or exposed paddling.
Fabrication Examining the deflated raft, it became clear it was composed of just four pieces of flat material: the top and bottom ‘rings’ which define the hull shape, an inner hull wall joining the top to bottom, and the floor fixed under the completed ring. You could almost make one yourself.
No fabricdetails on SAG’s website, but the Packraft Store states: ’75 denier polyester with single, innerside urethane coating’. This whole denier thing can be a bit misleading, the raft fabric looks and feels similar in thickness to my MSR Dromlite water bags (right) made from 200 denier, PU-coated Cordura (nylon?), but the Flatwater polyester has what looks like a reassuring ripstop weave (visible below left). And as we know from our studies in IK hull fabrics, polyester stretches less than nylon and so is more suited to inflatable boat applications than compact water storage. Where the seams overlap on the outside edge they’ve included seven reinforced tabs (above left) to use as attachment points (a weak point on my non-ripstop Dromlites, even with an eyelet). The floor is made of the same weight fabric and shows what look like ‘spot welds’ along the inch-wide seam (middle).
That’s it, apart from a big threaded inflation port onto which screws a white cap fitted with a 18-inch hose topped with a blue twist-lock valve (left). You blow the boat up by mouth (took me about 45 breaths) then top up to operating pressure with the twist lock, like on an Alpacka. But unlike a pre-Boston Alpacka, the long hose means you’re able to further top-up from the water where inflatable boats initially sag as they cool. Plus you could potentially manage a slow leak the same way.
The hull form tapers and narrows towards the bow to resemble a blunt wedge, similar to old Sevylor Trail Boat (right). Like all packrafts and even slackrafts, the added buoyancy (tube diameter) in the stern counteracts the mass of the paddler’s weight. There’s no seat and a new boat comes with a repair kit with full repair instructions on the SAG website.
Some of my measurements (checked several times and now confirmed by the Packrafting Store) vary greatly from those still posted on the SAG website many years later in 2020 and which had their Canyon over 10% bigger, inside and out. Even if they’re factoring in ‘paddler squidge’ making more room inside by pushing on the hull, that won’t make the boat seven inches longer.
As for buoyancy, SAG originally quoted ‘250lb’ (now a more realistic 200lb or 90kg). Robin briefly paddled the raft with his pack which we thought added up to about 100kg. That felt like the limit once a light breeze came up the valley, and required gentle paddling to avoid too much cyclic bobbing and possible swamping.
With the weight; the Store states 633g, SAG quote 24oz (680g). As mentioned, with a grab line and traces of dirt, our boat comes in at 670g on the IK&P calibrated kitchen scales (left). I won’t quibble over 40 grams; to be able to paddle across a loch in a boat weighing less than my trousers is quite something.
On the water The air was calm but temperatures were close to freezing as we set off to cross the eastern narrows on Loch Lurgainn below Stac Pollaidh mountain. We’d originally planned to come over in the other direction from the Culnacraig shore, but the storm which went on to wreak havoc across Britain nixed that plan (story here). So today we were just taking a 10-mile day trip with a short paddle, from Stac car park southwest back to Altandu.
‘Fragile and small’ had been Robin’s first impressions after Sven from the Packraft Store in Germany sent us the raft to evaluate. Robin had recently upgraded to a couple of Gumotex Twist IKs so may not have been impressed by the Supai’s thin fabric. I had more faith in that, but as for the size, I too anticipated that SAG had cut it a bit fine with the Flatwater II, even if it lived up to their motto: ‘where every ounce counts’.
Down on the loch shore, even with a helpful breeze to fill my Yak’s bag, inflation time for both boats was actually the same, although by the end of it Robin was staggering around a bit. As Tim Evans found on his trip, other inflator bags can be adapted to avoid passing out.
Now, laid alongside my Alpacka Yak (same width but 66cm or over two feet longer), to me the Flatwater’s proportions rather too closely resembled a slackraft I skinned from a Sevylor pool toy a year or two back. I knew that with my weight of about 100kg in gear, I’d be pushing this boat’s limit. Without a drysuit I didn’t want to risk it.
It took some prodding to get packrafting newb Robin (80kg + clothes) in the Supai and I’m not sure I blame him. A sudden move could see the stern dip down and douse the butt. After fitting his closed cell mat to keep warm and protect the thin floor, he set off for a quick spin and soon realised there wasn’t so much to worry about. Paddling gingerly with his home-made paddle (a broom stick, two sawn-down buckets and zip ties) he did a few loops while learning to control the annoying yawing you get with short packrafts and slackrafts, as well as managing the less welcome bobbing which might amplify into a back-end pour over. Yawing keeps the speed down which may be just as well. Start paddling too fast and the bow will rise with a corresponding drop at the stern when slowing down, again risking a pour over in wavy conditions.
Having established he wasn’t going to sink with all hands, I lowered Robin’s 10-kg pack onto his legs then hopped into my Yak. The pack’s added frontal weight should minimise the Supai’s yawing – at least that’s the effect on my Yak. But it’s well known that first time in a new packraft, especially a short one like the Flatwater, paddling efficiently is an acquired knack. Our extra chilly scenario (not helped by his experimental B&Q paddle) meant that Robin couldn’t really relax or bomb around in the Supai. (I tried his B&Q but soon sent it back as it brought in unwanted splash all over my boat). A gust rolled up the valley, rippling the loch’s surface, adding further to the feeling of anxiety in the Supai. From my PoV it looked like the stern was more than half sunk at times – and half sunk on a round tube makes pour-overs all the easier. I skimmed over to the other side and got out to get some long shots and was reminded yet again what a great boat my Yak is. No worries about getting in clumsily, sudden winds or carrying Robin’s pack. Sat here a day earlier when a gale was ripping through at an average of 35mph and gusting to twice that, it may have been a different story, but my long-bodied, yaw-suppressing, high-sided, tough hulled Yak inspires confidence, even without the spray skirt.
The price you pay is weight and bulk. Ready to paddle, at 3.1kg with seats, heel pad, pack attach and lead,plus other straps and some mini krabs, my boat is 4.5 times heavier than the Supai as tested, and even more bulky when you add in the blow bag, skirt and repair kit: the red bag shown right.
Robin slowly waddled over to the south edge of the loch and got out with care before pulling the plug and rolling it up. As on any inflatable, the floor is vulnerable and we discussed ways of getting round this. One problem is the Supai’s floor glues to the hull ring above the lowest points in the hull tubes which means the undersides of the hull are actually lower than the floor (until you sit in it on the water). Using a thicker floor panel won’t eliminate all possible wear. Robin is a versatile home-fabricator (as his B&Q paddle proves) and we decided the least invasive way of protecting the entire underside – hull and floor – would be to string a sheet of whatever you like from the peripheral half-inch hull seam (the seven reinforced tabs not being quite enough to do the job). No messy, irreversible, crease-inducing gluing required, just a line of holes along the seam plus a drawstring. Pre-emptive protection is something I’ve done to my Alpackas’ ballistic nylon floor and although it won’t look too neat, a floor sheet would enhance the less robust Supai’s undercarriage, despite a weight penalty.
Our conclusion He may have got used to it over time, but the Supai felt too skimpy for 80-kilo Robin. Ill-dressed on the day and over-fed in general, I didn’t even try to get in. Build quality is great and the fabric I could live with; it’s much better than slackraft PVC and the extra care needed in handling is well worth the weight saving over an Alpacka. Factoring in experience, company (support), weather conditions and operator weight, the Supai felt right on the limit. Initially you’re reluctant to paddle normally for fear of swamping which could turn exponential. Alongside a Yak it’s a pretty slow too, although I don’t think that’s a flaw. My Yak is slower than my IK which in turn is slower than … As long as it makes progress, a boat is as fast as it is.
Alpacka’s Scout might be a fairer comparison with the Flatwater II. According to Alpacka stats it weighs 1450g, is 4.5cm narrower, 2cm shorter inside and 26cm longer overall, while costing at least $200 more in the US. That still puts the Supai well in the ballpark on weight and cost.Anfibio’s Alpha XC is another which I’ve actually tried. Although it looks to have been designed for the canyon lands of southwest USA, for the lighter paddler the Supai could a great packraft for less predictable Scottish conditions involving short, flatwater crossings. The negligible weight really opens out the options and means you don’t have to get too fanatical about the rest of your gear which can translate into greater comfort.
I knew this even before I saw the boat, but what I’d love to see is a Flatwater XXL more closely matching my Yak’s (or my) size. I’d happily trade the extra 8cm of width the Supai has at the hips for fatter and higher tubes all round, plus another 10cm added to interior length. It’s hard to think that would add up to much more than a kilo overall, but would reward the portlier or overnight-equipped paddler with a more versatile boat able to deal with dodgier conditions. Let’s hope this is part of Supai’s game plan. * SAG later released the Matkat. Not exactly what I was thinking but we tried that too.
Photos also by Tim Evans who writes:
I got interested in packable boats as I love both walking and being on the water. My first major trip was in an Alpacka Yak from Whistler to Vancouver. I hiked for 2 days, paddled the Cheakamus River for a day (with some easy whitewater), then paddled 24 miles of ocean inlet back to Vancouver. This trip was only possible because of the packraft. Then I bought a Supai and did 35km through a lake system north of Vancouver that included a number of portages. I saw a pair with a canoe which they pushed on a trolley through the portages with 200lbs of gear. It took them hours to go a few km. I did the 4-day trip with 16lbs of gear including food, just to see if it could be done (it can). I could have jogged through the portages with my little boat tucked under my arm. The Supai was a light as it gets, but SLOW for any sort of distance.
It’s understandable to worry that something like an inflatable boat is a bit of a liability when out in the middle of a deep lake, hairing down some white-water or when far out to sea. This is especially pertinent if your only experience is a beach toy made of a thin and stretchy PVC film.
Once on the actual water it’s hard to think of anything actually puncturing my full Nitrilon Gumotex IKs or the old Grabner. What more often happens is some kind of accidental wear or rubbing when not paddling or during transportation, like the trolley wheels which wore a hole in my Seawave, or the windy tree branch which rubbed (but did not puncture) my Grabner (left). I also snagged my packraft’suninflated floor on submerged concrete once, then added protection to the outside and padding on the inside to stop that happening again.
I’ve also travelled with cheap slackrafts that have got ruined within minutes and punctured every other day. You do get what you pay for. So when it comes to glue I’ve learned that preparation and application are vital to getting a good repair: rough it up; wipe it down with solvent, apply the right glue to both surfaces, wait, then slap on the patch and press down hard with roller to achieve a long-lasting bond. More below.
Is your boat plastic or rubber? As explained here, broadly speaking IKs are made of either rubber- or PVC-coated fabrics. Rubber-based Hypalon, EDPM or Nitrilon is much less used now and most with the tubeless construction method. On a boat like this, rough up the surface, clean with solvent (see below), apply the right glue and a same-material patch, all which needs to be done well as the patch is vulnerable on the outside. Or, you can just dab some Aquaseal directly onto a small hole in the hull to protect it from wear, as shown above left (not an actual puncture).
One-part glues I’ve succeeded in gluing on non-critical D-rings onto Nitrilon and EDPM (Grabner), as well as PVC to Nitrilon using single-part Aquasure urethane sealant/adhesive (‘Aquaseal‘ in North America). Allowing Aquasure or similar to half-cure in air for 30 minutes, then sticking together and letting it ‘seal’ to itself is a way of bonding anything – even non-compatible rubber-based Nitrilon to PVC, as I did here. SeamGrip is a runnier version of Aquasure to get into cracks and seams. Though I’ve not tried it yet, British-made Stormsure is the same thing. Apply a thin film of Aquasure to both surfaces; wait half an hour, then bond with all you’ve got.
In the UK you can buy Aqausure in 28g tubes from £6, or 250g for around £24. Unless you have a lot to glue/seal jobs, be wary of saving money with the big, 250-g tube. Give it a chance and it’ll split and harden before you get to use it all, even if it’s effectively over half price. Alternatively, I’m told a good tip is to store it in the freezer once opened.
The other one-part glue I used on my PU/PVC Incept IK, Slackrafts and used recently on an old hypalon Semperit is Bostik 1782, not least because it once went real cheap on ebay.
I can’t say it worked that well on my Incept; two-part adhesive is always better. Even on the slackraft the Bostik softened and shrivelled the thin PVC. But on non-critical applications (D-rings and none-huge tears), 1782 seems to work well on hypalons (rubber is always easier to glue than plastic PVC) and at £10 for 100ml was good value. Plus it’s a nitrile rubber/resin-based solution and I’ve found won’t go off and harden in the tube like Aquaseal often does. It’s my favourite, do-it-all, one-part glue.
For years Gumotex supplied rubbish Chemopren Universal gluing in their repair kits. It looked like the brown rubber solution you’d use on a bicycle inner tube. I tried to use it on my Gumotex Sunny years ago and found it was crap. Back then it may have been me, but I tried to use Chemopren again recently on my hypalon Semperit and it wouldn’t even adhere to a roughed up, MEK’d surface! To be fair, it might have been many years old, but so are my other glues.
The glue that came with my second Seawave in 2020 was a small tube of Elastick (left). It looks like a generic polyurethane do-it-all glue, like Aquasure. It will probably remain unused with the boat until it turns solid. I’d sooner rely on Nirtile-based 1782 or Aquasure for field repairs. Tbe problem with these urethane glues is once you open them or the alloy casing cracks they dry up and harden.
For important jobs use much stronger two-part adhesives suited to actually assembling air boats as well as making more permanent fittings and bomb-proof repairs. At about £15 posted for a 250-mil tin, PolyMarine 2990 Hypalon adhesive is much cheaper per ml than Aquaseal or Bostik 1782. In the UK Ribstore and Ribright sell similar stuff, and Bostik 2402 is the same but prices vary wildly. Just make sure you buy for Hypalon or PVC. I’ve used it to glue D-rings onto my Grabner (more here), floor patches to my Alpacka, latex socks to my dry trousers and patches as well as repairs to my Nitrilon Seawave and Sunny. It sticks like shit to a s***el.
The trick is to measure out the correct quantity. Above: the small bowl about half full of glue and hardener – about 10cc or 2 tablespoons? – was enough to fit two 80mm D-rings. Each surface: the back of the Ds and the hull, need two applications half an hour apart.
In 2017 when I dismembered an old IK, I was easily able to pull off recent patches glued on with Bostik by hand. But I could only pull off Polymarined patches with a pair of Knipex hydraulic trench pliers and even then, the patch coating pulled away from it’s core (lighter exposed weave below) or the patch remained stuck to the boat and instead pulled off the dead’s boat’s hypalon coating revealing the fabric’s yellowed core or scrim. The two recently glued surfaces could not be separated. They say the mixing of the two components causes a chemical ‘vulcanisation’ and molecular cross-linking which creates a very strong bond. Mixing and applying two-part is a pain, but it works.
Get a good roller
Single or two-part, once you apply your patch, roll it very hard with something like the classic Baltic-pine handled Sealey TST15 stitch roller (left) aka: tyre repair roller used for innertube and tyre repairs. The knurled metal wheel set in a solid handle applies much greater pressure than a wide plastic roller I used to use, and they’re only about a fiver on eBay. Buy one now so you’re ready.
Bladder boat and packraft repairs With smooth-skinned Alpacka packrafts, they recommend two-inch wide Tyvec adhesive tape produced by DuPont. Just peel off the back and apply a section to pricks or small tears once the surface has been cleaned and dried. No need for roughing up, but a quick wipe with solvent won’t do any harm. Larger tears can be sewn then taped. Tyvec will work on urethane IK bladders and extra tacky duct tape or gorilla tape will do too, but is unlikely to remain impermeable once immersed for a while.
Aire-style bladder boat repairs are actually easy. According to Aire’s youtube vid, you unzip the hull shell, slap on a bit of Tyvec on the split, tape up the inner side of the hull shell gash to keep out grit, reflate and off you go. You can glue up in the usual way later, if necessary. I had the feeling that on my Feathercraft Java the urethane-coated sponsons made of thin ripstop nylon fabric (like tent flysheet material) couldn’t have been securely repaired with tape. In fact, it would be difficult to bond anything well to the slippery nylon fabric compared to smooth urethane plastic or hypalon-like surfaces, but perhaps once inflated the seal would have been fine.
Once you’ve done your roughing up (sandpaper or a foam abrasive sanding block, left) you need to clean off the residue as well as any oil or grease present. Anything will do in a pinch; alcohol and spirits, after-shave or nail polish remover (acetone), lighter fluid, white gas or petrol of course, but not oilier diesel, aviation fuel or Nivea for Men. Bleaching agents aren’t the same thing. In the end just use water to remove the dusty, post-roughing residue, and on a cold day it can help to warm up the damaged surface to cure the glue more quickly.
For a travel repair kit a tin of lighter fluid (same as white gas) or nail polish remover (acetone) are easy to buy and handy to pack. Back at home I’ve found MEK (Methyl Ethyl Ketone) is inexpensive at £9/ltr and hideously effective. Acetone is even cheaper and perhaps less extreme – all we’re really talking about is cleaning off any grease and the dust after sanding. They say MEK is for PVC boats rather than Hypalon, but on a thin plastic slackraft the PVC will shrivel up before your eyes once MEK’d. Even on rubber-based coatings use MEK or similar toluene sparingly. Expect some colour to come away on the cloth and the coating to soften at bit: good for adhesion. Note the NRS video above specifically recommends toluene (the second ‘T’ in ‘TNT’ explosive, fyi) for hypalon. On ebay uk it’s the same £9/ltr but they won’t post this stuff around the USA.
Huge tears and bear bites
If you have a huge gash, as in the folding Klepper’s hull below, sewing is the only way to contain the tear when applied to an IK. Then apply a huge patch with adhesive, as normal. The boat below caught a cut-down metal fence stake buried in a shallow river bed and was actually sent back to Klepper for professional repair. It’s tempting to think an IK’s pressurised hull would have skimmed over the stake rather than snagged it. The smaller 1-inch L-tear on the left was glued with a 5-inch patch but the 30-year-old IK proved to be totalled.
I thought I liked the idea of packframes for pack boating – a rigid rucksack harness and frame without the bag element. The boat, paddles plus dry bags are all lashed to a frame, alongside a drybag.
In the US one time I saw some packframes at a hunting outfitters in Flagstaff (left) that were much better than anything I’ve seen in the UK and going from just $80.They had hinged L-sections to support loads, and looked like an ideal carrier for the UDB and boats. As it stands, my UDB is still my preferred haul bag for overnight pack boating activities. Good analysis, history and list of packframes
Tatonka Lastenkraxe review Lastenkraxe? A Nordic nutcracker? An uncredited evil troll out of Harry Potter? Tatonka is a German company who produce some crafty and functional stuff, such as their pot/cup. A little research reveals that Lasten + kraxeadds up to ‘load bearer’ + ‘rucksack. Vorsprung durch kraknik.
The Lax differs from the hinged hunters’ frames by having a well triangulated, rigid platform. A bit over the top for load bearing perhaps and it certainly won’t slip under the bed so easily. But besides being rated at an eye-watering 50kg, the platform provides the unexpected benefit of standing up straight when placed on flat ground and being a ready-made camp seat.
It weighs 2.7kg but feels lighter for the amount of alloy in there. And like all modern packs, you can adjust the harness to suit your back length, as well as do the usual micro-adjusting to the chunky hip belt and shoulder straps and the all important, non-elasticated, sternum strap. The Lax will obviously work fine for packraft expeditioning, plus kayak day trips where a trolley can’t be used, but I wanted to see if carrying my Amigo IK was a viable option for camping too. The Amigo weighs about 15kg ready to go, and as you can see, takes up much of the packframe when strapped on vertically. Horizontally would make more space above, but having walked about five miles on road, track as well as very rough hillside, treating the Amigo like a packraft will be a tall order.
I recall the Terra backpack on my first packrafting trip in 2010 weighed 18kg with a few days’ food and a drysuit. The Amigo is at least 12kg heavier than a packraft so that’s 30 kilos. I was walking around with about 20kg which felt like plenty. As said, the Lax is rated at up to 50kg which is hard to believe; the stitching alone would be under immense strain.
Realistically, camping with the kayak would work best where there was more water between short and fairly easy walks (few bogs and steep inclines – so not really Scotland then). Of course, having a kayak as opposed to a packraft makes lone coastal paddling and sea loch crossings less intimidating.
Comfort is as good as can be expected with a 20-kg load, but I think it’s safe to say a rigid frame is less compliant than a modern frameless backpack like my Berghaus C71 (2.6kg). On one stage the lower frame was digging into my hips through the hip belt, although on the next walk I must have adjusted it better and it was fine over terrain that at times was barely walkable. I wasn’t using a packstaff this time, but off-piste that would be a great help.
Early days yet, but quality of construction seems good. I like the lift handle and generous padding. One thing I’d like to see on any harness like this is a pocket or two on the padded hip belt, or even just a bit of tucking mesh. The platform construction looks solid and as well as being a pack stand, with a some cushioning would also make a solid camp seat when unloaded. This is a much discussed and under-rated item, and one on which you could even lean back on, just like you weren’t supposed to do in school. The solidity of this structure also opens up the possibility of adding that nirvana of urban packboat portaging: trolley wheels. More about that if I get round to it. Rrp in Germany for the Tatonka Lastenkraxe is €170. My green one cost £95 off amazon. Black ones were another 20 quid.
In my packframe investigations I discovered that in the Tatra mountains of eastern Europe there’s a local ‘iron man’ sport of ‘Nosicsky’ (‘portaging’): carrying massive loads on wooden L-packframes. Perhaps it was once a way of resupplying mountain refuges when the mules were on strike. As you can see, over 200kg was a record one time, but it proves that L-frames were the original do-it-all packframe, long before modern backpacks found frameless alternatives that kept the weight closer to your back.
I also came across the Kiwi Aarn website which showcases a frontal load ‘FlowMo Bodypack’ to help improve you posture and balance weight distribution. They’ve designed two pockets for the front straps to carry dense but compact items (like water) while still being able to see where to put your feet. Sounds like a good idea but many of us, like Jeff on the left in the Kimberley (with my old Terra 65), have come up with a similar solution intuitively, when needing to carry a day pack as well as a backpack. Still, it’s an idea worth considering when you have a 15-kilo boat on your back.
Since I wrote this I did try a similar idea on our CWT recce, well at least carrying the packraft on my chest. It did feel good on regular ground: better posture, less stooping – but on gnarly terrain the bulk got in the way of the ground at my feet which got dangerous in the places we were walking. To be fair, Aarn acknowledge this limitation.
As we left one car near Stoer, out to sea a stampede of white horses were galloping in towards the Bay of Clachtoll. It looked like a late 90s Guinness commercial out there. We didn’t want to be kayaking in that, no sirree. So instead Jon and I swapped craft and set out to follow a string of lochs which filled a fault line marked on the maps as ‘Gleannan Salach‘ (above). It ran west from Loch Assynt to the sea, across a lochan-speckled headland tipped by the Point of Stoer. To the south Enard Bay (which I kayaked a few weeks ago) to the north Eddrachillis Bay; all ringed by the cute Drumbeg road. I’d clocked this as a viable packrafting ‘line’ some time ago and today was the day.
It was only about seven miles, road to road. But from the look of the map and knowing the terrain around here, I expected the walking stages to be sodden, gruelling bogs or chest-high fernfests. We’d found as much on Horse Island the previous day. Jon was debuting his skinned dinghy (more on that idea here), last seen here during a bitterly fought offshore jousting tournament we’d held off Achnahaird Bay a year or two ago. I’d cut my own slackraft down a while back but found with my weight, the freeboard was a limited and the slightest wave would swamp it. Luckily that was all the excuse I needed to be allowed to use my proper packraft.
It was going to be a day of blustery winds and heavy showers so appropriately dressed, we parked up at the Leitir Easaidh end near Loch Assynt and put in at a shelter by a boat ramp. On inflation, Jon’s slackie looked ridiculously small, an impression that worsened once he actually got on it. And on the water the situation deteriorated still further; that thing pulled half the speed of the ‘packa, yawing left and right like some demented dashboard ornament in need of a good slap.
A relative novice to slacking, it’s possible Jon was paddling as if he was in his 17-foot sea kayak which has a length/width ratio of over 8:1. On his slackie it was less than 2:1. Long, powerful strokes merely flip the bow left to right, as I found when I first tried my original Alpacka Llama. It takes a bit of a knack to limit yawing, although the newer ‘fastback’ tailed Alpackas like my yellow Yak, greatly minimised that. Previous slacking expeditions in France and the Kimberley has been with unskinned, full-width slackboats which attained some two thirds of an Alpacka’s peak velocity, once you’ve divided the surface tension by Ω x π. It brought up the troubling possibility: was removing the outer hull to gain slimness at a slight loss of buoyancy not as efficacious as previously thought?
By the time we got to the far end of Loch Leitir Easaidh we’d already been rained on and blown about twice. Faced with a steep climb through knotted woodland and thick bracken, we rolled ’em up and go stuck in. Soon we were at the pass which overlooked the next lochan and by the time we were back at the pumps that one mile had taken an hour.
We estimated the rest of the crossing would probably be at the same slug-like pace, so to get home before Christmas, I towed the slackraft. Jon paddled too of course, the tow line constraining his rampant yawing as we clung to the leeward south shore. Alone on windless flat water, my packraft can sit on 3 mph. Out of the wind our packboat convoy managed about two which was good enough. At the far end a short portage dropped us a few feet down to Loch Three, and at the end of that one a deer fence stretched across the small weir before Lochan a Ghleannein Shalaich, loch #4.
At this point the map showed the flow funnelled into a narrow gorge which could mean an awkward climb to get round. We’d decided if it took ages to get to the gorge we’d turn back, but lined up we were averaging a little over our target 1 mph so the mission rolled on. Better still, an easily walkable route ran alongside the stream through the gorge (above), then opened out to an agreeably grassy basin that didn’t involve thrashing through chest-high bracken or sinking into unset peat. Unusually, walking here proved to be faster than paddling.
That stage gained us some time, but back on the water we took a few steps back. The southwesterly gale sweeping across Loch na Loinne must have been accelerating round Cnoc an Dubharlainn, at 223-metres, the highest hill in the ‘Salach’. A couple of islands provided inadequate protection from 35-mph sidewinds which hammered down on the rafts. We both dug hard on the right and barely the left across the exposed bays, managing between 1.5- and 2 mph, though it sure didn’t feel like it. The shortest rest saw us skitting across the choppy waters to the northeast bank.
Out of the wind it’s another world. By a wooded cliff we glided past the controted, banded Lewisian gneiss that makes up the bedrock of this waterlogged region. Said to be three billion years old, the Salach badlands has had its capping of oxblood coloured Torridon sandstone scrapped away, right down to the raw bones of the primeval gneiss. At the far end they’d built up a rubble and mat barrage which diverted the outflow through a pipe. Purpose unclear, but after the effort of getting here, I suggested we unline for the next little loch before one more portage brought us to Loch Poll, the last and biggest loch.
Untethered, the Alpacka Yak skimmed across the lochan like a spun stone. Jon was not so far behind and we both squeezed under a fence and along a channel before we ground out on mossy boulders and took to the banks. The whole traverse seems to follow an ancient wall and a newer fence, and as the winds strengthened we popped through a lonely gate and over a pass clinging to our inflated boats. Down on the far side, again we managed to paddle a meandering, reedy stream until a small waterfall barred access to Poll. Raining, blowing and cold, it was a good time to cram in the last of our squashed snacks for the final haul.
Slackerman, where you gonna run to? And a haul it was. The winds and rain intensified to the point where we decided, that even at our glacial pace, better to take a longer route around Poll’s southern edge. Flat against the wind at times, from the look of the passing shore, our lined-up flotilla crept along at barely a mile an hour. In fact a ’10’ marked on the OS map has obscured a couple of handy islands that would have made crossing Loch Poll’s 300-metre wide ‘neck’ not so exposed, though that route may have put us against the biggest fetch and rebounding winds.
We curved round the loch’s southern shore to gain a brief spell of backwind and then with more hacking, arrived at the take-out bay at 7pm, six hours out of Leitir Easaidh. It was a ten-minute walk to the road and the car, somewhere within a mile. Half an hour later, where was the car? Not in Strathcoy, not in Imirfada. Had we turned the right way off the Salach? At Clashnessie Bay I was forced into that ultimate humiliation: looking at the map. Oh dear. I got Clachtoll near Stoer mixed up with Clashnessie, also near Stoer; I had assumed the Gàidhlig Buidheann-stiùiridh doi Teanga (Gaelic Language Directorate) had changed the name. Another three miles march it was then, into a headwind so strong we couldn’t hear each other talking. Ardmair near Ullapool recorded 48 mph around that time.
So, has the cut-down slack rafting myth been finally punctured with a blunt wooden spoon? I knew they were slow but Jon’s boat seemed worse. Still, my Amigo IK is the same alongside Jon’s Scorpio sea kayak – not as fast – so you’re as fast as you are. I still think for a hill trekker carrying a slackraft that’s no slower than a Supai, lighter than my Alpacka and a fraction of the price, still enables water-inclusive routes across the well-suited northwestern highlands. Longer crossings may take a while but you paddle. That’s what you do. Splish follows splosh follows splish follows splosh. Good things come to those who wait.