As we’re normally way up north for the British summer, I’ve forgotten how great a sunny 26-° southern English day feels. It’s been years. If it was France it’d be normal, but in the UK it’s not which adds to the magic. A perfect day then to bang out a Medway run from Tonbridge to Yalding in my newish Alpacka Yak. Even the wind was up for it, with a stiff, 15mph breeze forecast from the southwest.
With shoes, shirt and pfd in the wet bag, I slid down the chute off Tonbridge’s Town Lock, sat up straight and set sail. Overhead the wind was lifting the leaves, exposing their lighter underside, and with the river course (below) oriented right on it, I suspected this was going to be a good run. Eldridge Lock chute rolled up in under 20 minutes and that felt like at least a mile (1.3). And with no shoes or pfd the Yak felt roomy so I pushed the backrest low to get nicely jammed in. Paddle at eye level, a full draw from the feet, and I crack on.
Porters Lock already? OK then. How far is it to Yalding, anyway? Twelve something; couldn’t remember if it was kms or miles (13km), but I knew when we did it last June in my new IK that I was pooped well before the end. After Porters I pass some canoe-ers crouched on the floor of their boat, battling upstream. There’s no current but they’re sure fighting the wind. Further down the river, a couple with a camo-pattern IK are lunching by one of the locks. With the trees in full summer bloom and yellow lilies at the banks, in places the pea-soup Medway could pass for a backwater in Kakadu, with salties lurking in the shallows, eyeing up wading jabirus.
Much sooner than expected it’s the big slide down Sluice Weir Lock (above) which I knew was near the end. The short Yak surfs over the frothing base a lot better than a nose-burying kayak. I took no water on any of the chutes and the backwind even helped keep the paddle splash off me. After a quick visit to water the bushes, I top off the seat and hull. Holy moly, now the firmed up Yak is skimming along like a surf ski under the big-bladed Corry paddle. This last section was a l o n g haul last time, but I power on and there is, the Anchor Inn at Yalding. Don’t want to eat there again, so I finish off my water and check the watch. Two hours twenty. That seems fast; it was an all-dayer last time.
It’s another 5-10 minutes scoot down to the take-out at Hampstead Lock and a short walk to the station where it costs over a fiver to ride three stops back to Tonbridge. When I get home I Google Map the river distance: 7.5 miles or about 12 clicks to the Anchor. In two twenty that’s a pretty surprising 3.4mph or nearly 3 knots. I’d be pleased with that in my 14-foot IK, but in dumpy packraft? Not bad at all.
I am slowly working my way through a western variant of the Cape Wrath Trail, a hardcore, unofficial Long-distance path that runs some 200 miles between Fort William and Cape Wrath. I talk more about the CWT here. After scraping through the first part of the variant from Dundonnell in December 2013 (see this), I returned with paddlechum Jon to complete the remainder from Stac Polly mountain to Kylesku bridge where the regular route comes in from the east at Kylestrome. Following several humiliating episodes orchestrated by me in slackrafts, Jon had finally seen the light and bought himself an Alpacka Alpaca (the next size down from my Yak).
Then, after kayaking around the Slate Islands near Oban I rode up to Achiltibuie on my very overloaded bike and we met up at Di’s croft in Altandhu. We fixed up her electric bike, extended the goat shed then next day left a car at Stac car park for our two-day walk to Kylesku. But things had already got off to a bad start: Jon had done his knee in on the previous day’s Etape Caledonia cycle race. As a result progress was slow up the steep path onto Stac mountain and even slower once we left the path down the north side (left) for the trudge towards Sion loch. By this time Jon had recognised the value of using his hefty TNP paddle as a packstaff. As the slope levelled off, ahead of us a deer fence cut through the scrub; we followed it until a stout corner post provided an easy hop to the other side. We were now heading directly for a bay with a small island to put in, but that was further than it looked, down small cliffs before dropping through an enchanting light birch woodland. While it was nice to come across the lost pocket of woodland, walking or boating, next time I think I’d take the Linneraineach path which starts a mile or so east of Stac. It leads all the way to the wadeable stream running into the loch (on the edge of the map, above) and is probably quicker and less effort. A walker would certainly be better off going this way instead of rising halfway up Stac and then down again, as we did. As it was we were lucky that a recent dry spell had left a spongy crust on top of the saturated post-winter mire. On a few occasions that crust sheared away from the soggy underlay and sent me flying. Either way, this was packstaff terrain par excellence. Have I mentioned packstaffs yet? On the small beach at ‘Island Bay’ we pumped up our supple new Alpackas and paddled out north across the loch towards Suilven mountain, passing between small islets and landing an hour later for lunch near ‘Shielding’ on the map. The northwest breeze put us at the fetchy end of the Loch and we took on the odd splash. But even with a wet bum, from any vantage point you care to choose, with its ring of peaks the primeval Inverpolly basin (below) has got to be one of northwest Scotland’s most stirring landscapes.
Over lunch I measured up Jon’s red Alpaca against my Yak but could hardly see a difference (one is 3 inches shorter inside and out). But Jon was having trouble getting a full draw of the paddle with his bag across the bow (mine was below my knees). It’s possible these newer Alpackas have more of a wave-riding upturn at the bow which makes any bag slide backwards. That, plus a need to adapt to a gentler but more frequent ‘packrafting cadence’ saw Jon’s red Alpaca lag behind my Yak. Later we swapped paddles which made a small difference – we should have swapped boats too to see if man or boat is the culprit. My 2014 Yak has the slightly longer stern, but paddles much like my old one. From Shielding we walked over the pass to Fionn Loch directly below the south wall of Suilven. As before, some canoeists were camped by the Uidh Fhearna river crossing (a deep wade for a walker – see right), practising their moves and barely noticed us slipping into the water from a reedy lagoon. Once on the north side we found an oddly deep channel which led inland for a hundred metres saving some tussock and bog walking. Rolling the boats up, I tried to persuade Jon that the seemingly vertical clamber up Suilven would be excellent knee therapy, but he wasn’t buying it. He had ten weeks to get into shape for a four-day trans-Pyrenean ride and didn’t want to risk it. So we set off north below the western prow of the Pillar. The 50k map doesn’t show a series of gradually ascending ups and downs over ridges running parallel to the mountain. With Jon’s paddle-supported hobbling it took an hour and a half to get to the high point where a view of our next challenge – Quinag (right) – revealed itself across a string of lochans. Soon we caught a view of Suileag bothy far below but the terrain got gnarlier still, winding around lochans, small passes and down steep slopes. Somewhere here Jon chose to follow an indirect low route to spare his knee and somehow managed to sneak past me while I scanned from a high point for half an hour, trying to track him down. He was behind me all the time, kettle on and yellow paddle resting by the bothy’s doorway as a marker. I needlessly paddled over Loch an Alltain Duibh, assuming the river gully just upstream would be too awkward to cross. In fact Jon had found it an easy ankle wade. In hindsight I’d say the path climbing up and down the saddle of Suilven to pick up the jeep track west to the bothy would have been not much slower than our route around the mountain’s prow, let alone the added appeal of taking a quick detour from the saddle to Suilven’s western summit. Suileag bothy is one of the tidiest I’ve seen, clean and basic with a fireplace and water from a nearby burn. It’s so much more agreeable to barge into any bothy and spread out, than crawl around a tent like an invertebrate. Next morning we took the path north over a pass for two or three miles to the footbridge over the River Inver to Little Assynt; all up much quicker going. At the footbridge we carried on west then north, over another deer fence and ankle twisting tussocks to a beach beyond the sluice where Loch Assynt drained into the river. Up ahead loomed the mass of Quinag mountain and Jon and I debated the feasibility of tackling the Bealach a Chornaidh from the pathless west side. Leaving the Drumbeg path, a slope leads a kilometre and some 400m up to either a harmless scree bank or a lethal cliff. It was probably the former but too much for Jon’s gammy knee. We finished off our food under a gale-bent birch below Tumore and, as the wind was with us, decided to paddle Loch Assynt east to the road junction instead. The back way up Quinag pass would have to wait for another time. On the water the southwest breeze wafted us helpfully down the loch, though the Alpaca was still notably slower despite my helpful demonstrations of how to paddle. I really ought make one of those instructional dvds, like Jane Fonda. Once ashore all that remained was a seven mile road walk to Kylesku by which time the forecast wind and rain had caught up with us. On the road walk I eyed up the terrain northwest of Quinag massif. It looks like the planned orange path shown on the map above would have been another convoluted cross-country struggle, even if it was a more direct line. Leave that to the crows and follow the regular path down from the pass east to the road (unshown on the map but it’s there). And that was the lesson learned on the land stages of this CWT variant. While there may now be a right to roam across the glens and bens of bonnie Scotland, who in their right mind would want to do that for any longer than necessary? Even wild animals develop paths; it’s less effort and happens to be quicker, even if it’s not a direct route. Lured by the promise of a free meal at the Hotel, Di drove up right on time and took us the last mile to Kylesku where a TV crew happened to be recording the retirement of the postmistress following no less than 61 years on the job. So, my summary for this nearly completed CWT Assynt variant? For a walker once over Loch Broom and in Ullapool, the Postie Path is a great way of getting to Achiltibuie where there’s a hostel, pub and shop. Over the hill it’s a major wade across the Narrows and then I’d recommend the Linneraineach path to the stream before the long cross-country trek to a shorter wade across Uidh Fhearna river at Fionn Loch. From here take yourself up and down Suilven saddle, then from the bothy take the track to Little Assynt footbridge. From here it’s a two-mile road walk to Tumore where you take the Drumbeg path before breaking off up to the Chornaidh pass and down to the road using the path to get you there. With a boat the Narrows can be paddled, so can Loch Sionasgaig, cutting out a long cross-country yomp. Another quickie over Fionn Loch, up and over Suilven and paddle the west end of Loch Assynt to Tumore from anywhere north of the sluice. Job done. As far as I can tell, there are few other places on the regular CWT path where a packraft is worth carrying (which is probably why the path goes that way and avoids Assynt). Except of course to get across the Kyle of Durness sea loch after the walk’s end at Cape Wrath, if the boatman is not around and you don’t fancy the detour upstream. The image on the left from a few years ago must be a very low tide, but as you can see it’s potentially just a swim of a few metres. Another one to try later.
Alpacka’s comprehensive and innovative range (left) lead the field for years, but several equally effective alternatives are now on the market. Some are locally manufactured and sold in the US, Russia, France or New Zealand, but most are Chinese-made and re-branded with a logo and sold in the West. Don’t be put off: I’ve yet to see a poorly made TPU Chinese packraft. The ones I’ve seen and have used appear to be as durable and well made as an original Alpacka. Read the group test we did a few years ago, even if things have moved on a whole lot since then.
Some copy Alpackas, some go out of their way to be different and some are ‘crossrafts‘ suited only to calm rivers or flatwater crossings. These prioritise ultra light weight over durability which can be a gamble in a single-chambered boat. Still others are designed to carry heavier loads or for all-out white water. Read about the Anfibio Alpha XC and our test on the Longshore International EX280 double.
Don’t forget that at any waterside resort you can buy cheap PVC beach toys (left) which are OK while they last. Slackrafts get their own page on IK&P and are agreat way of investigating the packrafting experience before you splash out on the real thing.
Most of the boats described below I’ve only seen and evaluated from pictures, but in 2015 we tested four packrafts from MRS, Aire, Nortik and Supai alongside my 2014 Alpacka Yak. To read more about our actual observations and conclusions (as opposed to this page’s web speculation) click this or the banner on the right. Of course things have moved on since then. Click the ‘packrafts’ category menu somewhere on the right.
A word about denier – a unit of measurement used to describe the weight (not the thickness) of a material. It is calculated on the mass in grams of a single 9000m strand using one 9000-m long strand of silk as a reference for one denier). It’s a mistake to think a fabric made from 210D nylon will be three times thicker and three times stronger than 70D. The thread or yarn used ought to weigh three times more so will be stronger and more resistant to tearing, but not as a factor of the D-rating.
Crossrafts seems to have slipped from usage but usefully defines a sub-category of packrafts: very light rafts made from nylon or polyester with the non-porous PU coating inside, like your tent or backpack, as opposed to the more durable shiny exterior coating of TPU on a normal packraft.
Crossrafts are best suited to crossing or navigating calm bodies of water rather than paddling along them, far less tackling white water, though this doesn’t seem to stop people trying. The low prices and light fabric enables weights of a kilo or less, creating a much needed link between slackrafts and packrafts. Because of the thin fabric, you do lose out on durability, as well as the performance and response of stiffer TPU hulls found on packrafts like an Alpha XC (left) which still weighs less than 2kg.
As the name suggests, the 670g Supai Flatwater II is an ultra-light crossraft suited to small lochs, canyoneering or following calm rivers. With its narrowed and tapered bow, it resembles the much admired Sevylor Trail Boat – the Lost Prince of Slackrafts – and at the time appeared to be a more sophisticated. The Supai’s dimensions as measured by me added up to 92cm wide, 157cm long and 106cm inside. We tried one – read about it here. A couple of years later we also tried the fatter Matkat version.
The Anfibio Packrafting in Germany started by importing other brands and now also collaborates with and sells MRS from China (we tried the MRS Microraft). They now have their own brand of Anfibio packrafts which are among the lightest in their class. We tried the Alpha XC(above left). The range packrafts now goes right down to a sub-1 kilo crossraft: the Nano SL and Nano RTC.
Another distinction is the use of a Leafield valve you’d normally find on a IK or whitewater raft which inflate to higher pressures with pumps. And yet Kokopelli packrafts still inflate with regular air bags and then top off with a detachable mouth tube so it all seems like overkill or being different for the sake of it.
See this video where they say you can inflate up to 2psi. A K-Pump will easily do that but it’s probably not possible by lung unless you’re 1970s muscleman Franco Columbo who managed to blow up and burst a hot water bottle.
With a range of models from lightweight to white water, as well as tandems, the distinctively angular shape of US-branded Kokopelli packrafts sets them apart. Certainly for paddling efficiency you want as firm a boat as possible, especially once a packraft gets beyond a certain length. But over-inflate it (or leave it in the hot sun) and it may well rupture a seam. The Kokopelli range includes the Nirvana white water boat which comes as a self-bailer or with a deck. Decked packrafts are two-a-penny now, but self-bailing is a more unusual solution to white water packrafting, more common on big white water rafts where you sit on thwarts high above the wet floor.
In a self-bailing packraft or kayak a thick inflated floor pad is needed (or just big fat seats) to get you above the water that will always be present around the floor. Holes round the edges (small picture right, and like the discontinued Baylee, below) see excess water flow out. What pours in over the sides flows right out the draining holes until the water level reaches equilibrium; the boat cannot get swamped. Depending on how fast it drains, for whitewater I’d prefer a bailing packraft to a deck and skirt, but that’s partly why I also prefer open IKs.
Found on eBay from under £600, Sputniik looks like an Austrian design or brand that’s made in Russia by TimeTrial. There will be a certain kudos in having enigmatic Cyrillic on your boat but, not unlike the German-designed/Russian made Nortiks (maybe even the same factory?), from 3.7kg for the Sputnik 1, these are relatively heavy boats using tough 420-D hulls with heavy 650g/m2 PVC floors when most others use 210D hulls and 420 TPU floors. Remember: heavy does not always equal robust and durable, as with MTBs it can just mean cheaper.
…was the only UK branded range of Chinese-made packrafts but after a couple of years closed down in 2020. For our spin on their EX280 click this and discover that China need not be a dirty world. It’s as good as anything out there.