On the way back from some riding in the Pyrenees I persuaded my lift that a day’s paddling in southern France’s famous Tarn Gorge would be a good use of our time. The 20-odd kms between La Malene and Le Rozier via Les Vignes (see map) is about as good a day in the gorge as you’ll get. We last did the full 75km from Florac to Le Cresse in 2007 with a Solar and the Sunny and had a great time. Since then i did it in my Alpacka again.
On this occasion IKing chum Robin was baptising his new Gumotex Twist 2, an entry-level IK which in the MkII version has gone back to shiny Nitrilon Light inside and out. I do read here that one unhappy customer found out it was ‘70% less strong and only 30% lighter’ than the regular Nitrilon as used on Seawaves, 410C, Helios and so on. His boat flipped in the wind and punctured on a stick which does sound like a gale combined with an exceedingly sharp stick.
According to the Gumotex graphic (left) it appears like Nitrilon Light uses the same layering as the Nitrilon in the higher spec Gumboats, but due to a lower-strength fabric core Nitrilon Lighthas about a third of the tensile strength. Many older Gumo IKs were over-built with tough, commercial raft fabric and so the result is a light and affordable IK with a slick interior that wipes down and dries fast. As a reminder the T2 is 3.6m long, a generous and stable 83cm wide and weighs 11kg (2kg more than the old model). Payload is said to be 180kg. Robin has the original Lite Pack Twists but found they weren’t so practical or robust, at least not on the submerged light industrial detritus found in his neighbourhood. However, Nitrilon Lite was dropped from the Gumotex lineup in 2018 and since then all Twists are made from the same Nitrilon you’ll get in the bigger and pricier Gumoboats. That also means a post-2018 Twist weighs 13kg.
These MkII Twists also have detachable and adjustable seats – a big improvement (or return to former practises) because it means they can be easily replaced with something better. There’s nothing wrong with the blow-up seat base but the inflatable back section lacks support. Robin’s fitted some sort of SoT seat pad (above, in his T1). Another improvement on the MkIIs is making the top seam on the side tubes overlapping flat, not just pressed together which maybe simplifies assembly in the factory but looks cheap. There’s a mushy inflatable footrest for the front paddler; the back paddler adjusts their seat to use the back of the front seat as a footrest. And there’s now also a PRV in the floor chamber which the Lite Pack Twists didn’t have. We like PRVs here at IK&P. We even like PRVs all round.
The £350 T2 could actually be a good lightweight alternative to the 60cm longer 410C (later the Solar 2) which at the time costs £200 more (in the UK), as it still has a useful length for a solo touring paddler. Problem is, using just the back seat tips the weight back and the bow up unless there’s a hefty counterbalancing load on the front. The boat paddles OK like this and probably turns quicker, but yawed more than my packraft so seemed slower and just looked wrong. For a while Robin knelt canoe-style which looked more balanced but isn’t a really a sustainable way of paddling without a bench. the post 2018 models have a third pair of D-rings in the middle to position a solo seat in the right place.
We set off, me assuming my Alpacka would be a lot slower, but Robin likes to bimble along, waving his bow around. The Tarn was shallow and so his skeg took quite a beating, made worse by the rearward weight bias. They’re pretty much unbreakable but I’d have removed it even if the tracking may have suffered.
With careful scanning the Alpacka just about scraped through the shallows, with me occasionally resorting to ‘planking’ where you lift your butt by leaning back on the stern to improve clearance. As you can see right, the derriere is the lowest point which I why I glued on a butt patch. On the Twist Robin could only shove forward or get out and pull. By the end the Twist’s skeg patch was a little torn which takes some doing.
It took 90 minutes to cover the 9km of Grade 1 riffles to the Pas de Soucy where a rockfall blocks the river (left) and makes some very nasty strainers. Midway en portage we nipped up to the lookout for the view then had lunch and put back in for the 12km stage to Le Rozier and the van.
Soon after Pas de Soucy is the chute or glissade at Les Vignes where a typical indestructable rental brick tends to plough in at the bottom, while an airy inflatable surfs over the pile. The missing fourth frame in the pictures below is the blue SoT flipping over. ‘Prends pas le photo!’ No harm done on a 30°C day in sunny France.
This section of the gorge has some juicier rapids, but it’s still nothing that would freak out a first timer; that’s what makes the Tarn such a classic paddle: great scenery, some white water action, easy camping and the fun of splashing about among the flotillas of SoT rentals. There are several campings below the road right by the river, though this time of year they’re all packed out. On arrival we got the last pitch between two noisy young groups at Le Rozier and a free lift next morning up to La Malene from the kayak rental agency next door. There’s also a shuttle bus running up and down the gorge. Read more about southern France paddling here thenn hop on the TGV with your packboat.
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.
It was time to hop into my boat – a 2014 model Yak. You can read more about it here. There’s no real need to go on about it too much as it’s a well proven product. It’s use here was more to aid real time comparisons with the other four boats on test. I did this Medway run in it last year at an average of 3.4mph which for a packraft is pretty good going. Today with all the yaking and picture taking it was more like 1.1mph.
I knew the Yak was a tad short when I chose it and I see now that the tapered bow exacerbates that slimness at the feet. For me it’s fine bare foot, not so comfy in footwear. Because of this I rarely use the inflatable backpad to fill out the space.
It’s great to see how Alpacka have evolved since my first Alpacka, an old-shaped decked Denali Llama back in 2010. The ‘fastback’ stern introduced a year later was a convincing reason to sell the Llama and get a Yak. The stern prong acts both like a skeg, reducing the yawing motion at the bow – and adds buoyancy at the back of an inevitably back-heavy design, so improving the trim. It’s no surpeise to see the MRS and Nortik adopting similar designs. The old-style deck on my 2011 Yak was no better than before, better than nothing but feeling fragile and not that effective. Now Alpacka seem to have sorted that with a permanent, more kayak-like design also found on the Trekraft, and while I’m not convinced myself, the Cargo Fly is another ingenious innovation.
A question you might ask is having tried the competition, would I buy another Alpacka? as with all of them I bought it direct from the factory during a sale and either picked them up over there or got it brought over. I liked the fact that I could order a boat to my specifications (lighter floor, custom colours), even if that process took a long time and was incorrectly delivered. But I like to try new stuff so should my Yak be attacked and shredded by a pack of rabid Tibetan mastiffs, it’s good to have new stuff to choose from.
One tends to compare new boats against Alpacka because they were the innovators who took the whole packrafting game forward. Now that I’ve tried the competition I can see the gap between the Colorado-made boats and the two similar packrafts from China and Russia is much smaller than most would imagine.
But between them these five boats occupy three different categories, with some overlap. The MRS, Nortik and Alpacka all make great do-it-all boats, especially as the later two have spray skirt options. The Supai and the Aire (in prototype form) are more single-minded and uncompromising: extreme lightness or kayak-like hair-boating agility.
Back in the day the question was ‘which Alpacka should I buy and what specification can I afford?’ Now it’s great to have the choice that’ll no doubt see the new contenders evolve and others emerge.
Other vendors do exist but you can see the full range of the Packrafting Store’s 14-odd packrafts here. And don’t forget, you can rent before you buy to save you making an expensive mistake. Thanks to the floating foursome: Bob, Hannah, Lois and Robin, for giving up a day to help out with this group packrafting test.
The 200-ish mile Cape Wrath Trail from Fort William to the top of Sutherland was cooked up in the early 90s by David Paterson, a photographer who’d just come off a job shooting the West Highland Way. Paterson wondered if you could extend the WHW through the North Western Highlands to the very tip of the British Isles in Sutherland. Over many visits he established a route and in 1996 produced a beautiful book: The Cape Wrath Trail: A New 200-mile Walking Route Through the North-West Scottish Highlands’, creating what he humbly ‘dared to call the Cape Wrath Trail’. Since then various other routes have evolved between the two points. There’s no set route, far less two helpful waymarks to rub together, but it would not be an exaggeration to describe the CWT as Britain’s toughest long-distance path. Though it’s tracklogged comprehensively on walkhighlands, follows passes and valleys, and tops out at just one 600-m summit, the terrain, weather, scarcity of resupply points or any other services in the North Western Highlands puts the CWT in a class of its own. On occasions, there is no path at all, but the advent of the 2003 Scottish Land Reform Act opened the moors to all, offering an infinity of options or ‘variants’.
Originally Paterson’s route passed from Dundonnell through Ullapool, crossing the half-mile of Loch Broom from Altnaharrie on the Scoraig peninsula using a regular ferry. That ferry ceased operating in 2003 and the CWT now reroutes itself miles inland via Oykel Bridge. But as Cameron McNeish suggested in a rather hastily written ‘Foreward’ on a Cape Wrath Trail website:
‘…the route should follow a south to north line as close as possible; it should allow passage through the most scenic areas; it should try and avoid tarmac and paved roads or paths but instead follow existing footpaths and stalkers’ tracks whenever they were useful and it should avoid crossing mountain ranges and major rivers except where necessary.’
In 2013 Cicerone published The Cape Wrath Trail guidebook. They’d published an earlier version as ‘North to the Cape’ in 1999. The 2013 Cicerone author Iain Harper has a website on which he questions and then decides not to include his Coigach-Assynt route option for safety reasons. ‘… Not including an Assynt alternative in the guide was a difficult decision, but on balance I came down on the side of caution, however for the more adventurous walker it should definitely considered…’.
I’m not an especially adventurous walker and have yet to do the CWT, but knowing the Coigach-Assynt area, and from the walkhighlands reports I’ve read on the current route, Coigach-Assynt doesn’t seem much more dangerous or remote than many other rather hairy sections on the CWT. And furthermore, our variant stays closer to McNeish’s ‘south to north line [and takes a] passage through the most scenic areas’. The peaks of the Assynt are like nothing else in the Scottish highlands and it seems to me a shame that the original CWT route had fallen into disuse for want of a half-mile boat ride across Loch Broom.
That boat ride (or using a boat of your own) is the key to unlocking this Coigach-Assynt variant and on a pleasant summer’s morning it would be perfectly packraftable paddle from Altnaharrie jetty to Ullapool on the north side of the loch (David H did so in 2012 on his northwestern epic).
But after the six-mile walk up from the Badralloch turn-off near Dundonnell, arriving at Altnaharrie jetty on a rainy evening in early December 2013 with a spring tide in full ebb against a 20mph wind, paddling towards Ullapool’s harbour lights seemed less of a jolly jaunt. To cut a long story short, we had contacted the harbour master to see if he could help out with a lift. At least one other CWT walker has done this. He arranged for the night shift to come over and pick us up. [It’s worth noting the former Altnaharrie Inn gourmand’s restaurant alongside the small jetty in now a private residence].
After a cozy night and a lavish brekkie in the Ceilidh Inn, Robin and I set off set off for the 12-mile walk to Culnacraig. We didn’t quite make it and as it involves no actual paddling, you can read about it on Walkhighlands.
From the vicinity of Culnacraig our suggested variant takes a more direct line than the Cicerone suggestion shown in yellow (right). It crosses over to the narrows at Loch Lurgainn which are just about wadeable to a boatless walker with a stout stick, but which we paddled during a break in the December storms. You can read about that here.
Then a few months later Jon and I returned to Achiltibuie with our new Alpackas to pick up the variant from the foot of Stac and follow it through to Kylesku where it rejoins the regular CWT for the last lap to Cape Wrath. It can all be walked or waded but our route streamlined that by taking three paddles (right) and a shallow wade. You can read about that here.
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.
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.
The other day a friend relatively new to yaking invited me and a mate to paddle a river near her home. The Colne runs between the edge of Greater London and the M25 motorway just a stone’s throw from Heathrow airport.
Looking at a map (far below) and more so at a sat image, it’s hard to distinguish the actual course of the Colne among the many waterways, reservoirs, overgrowths and the Grand Union canal which all fill this part of west London’s perimeter, but Lois had already recce’d a route which included half a dozen fun weirs and other challenges along the way – all up a run of around six miles. Chief among these tests was what must surely be an urban paddler’s nightmare; a weir drop inside a low tunnel that passed under a kebab shop and which we dubbed TheKebab Death Tunnel Weir (the word order is interchangeable). The thought of being spun in a dank, sunless hydraulic or jammed against a rusting grate as clammy kebab fat dripped onto your forehead from cracks in the overhead brickwork was surely the makings of a deleted scene from David Lynch’s Eraserhead.
All that was far from our thoughts as we bundled over a bridge parapet and inflated Lois’ Sunny IK which Robin was borrowing. Lois was using her newish hardshell Dagger and I was in my Yak packraft. Lois quite rightly rationalised her controversial IK betrayal by explaining that as she lived on a canal she just wanted a boat to hop into anytime (her Gumos having sprung slow leaks). I can relate to that though I wouldn’t go as far as actually buying a plastic coffin. We swooshed off under the bridge and downstream on a lovely autumn’s day, along what transpired to actually be a proper river with a kosher current, far from my expectations of a concrete lined culvert awash with urban detritus and pestilent scum. We passed under a huge arc of brickwork supporting the westbound mainline railway and soon sidled up alongside the Grand Union canal. Not that we could see it. Even the OS map gets quite confusing, marking rivers or other waterways passing across lakes and wetland reserves. But once on the river the way ahead was usually obvious.
At one point what looked like thick mat of giant watercress carpeted the river bank to bank (actually pennywort, a very troublesome weed I am informed). Up ahead Lois’ Dagger ploughed into the vegetation (left) which amazingly proved to be paddleable, although with my wide, flat-hulled ‘packa I found reaching out and tugging on the floating wortrug worked best.
Soon we came to our first weir, a drop of a foot or so but where we did the right thing and hopped out to check we weren’t tipping over onto some gnarly boat spike. All clear so Lois slid over effortlessly into some shallows, then Robin beached himself inelegantly on the rim in the possibly under-inflated Solar. Knowing this, I sped the Yak up to warp speed and scrapped over with a splash.
More riverine bliss ensued with barely a crisp packet to sully our glide. Delicate foot bridges led to cosy cottages. Another double weir looked deadly from above but recce’d from below was no drama. No having yet recognised the benefits of spray skirts, Lois’ Dagger was taking a cockpitful on some of these weir drops. The Solar too scooped up some swill, but this was the first occasion where I zipped on the Alpacka’s spray skirt – mostly to keep my legs warm but also proving it did what it was supposed to.
Up ahead, another clot of creswort choked the channel, but this had got thick enough to catch some crap so we hauled out stinky twigs and other rancid mush before hacking our way in. The rigid hardshell was best; my Alpacka (above) while broad was at least light, while the Gumboat put up a fight and Robin split his paddle all the better to dig his way through (right). Another weir with a drop of a couple of feet gave Lois a fresh rinse as we neared the outer London suburb of Uxbridge.
Bankside trees gave way to razor-topped railings protecting the back end of industrial units and things turned decidedly less serene as we neared the gaping twin maws of the Death Tunnel. It burrowed under a parade of shops, the pride of which was unquestionably the broad, handsome frontage of the Burger Kebab Galaxy restaurant.
Two limbo-low bridges lead to an even lower rusty sewer pipe spanning the canal, and up ahead two arches reached into the watery gloom like a farmer’s rubber glove and where the rank stench of congealed doner fat choked the air. A chink of light marked the far end of the 70-foot tunnel (left) where the roof – strung with electrical piping, rotting rafters and mummified bats – pressed down to just a couple of feet right over the edge of the drop. Lois said last time the water was higher and they couldn’t even see the end, but they’d edged in anyway, slid over and survived.
Even then, you never know when a burned-out scooter or half a tree might be poised to spoil your weir and anyway, Lois was sure this weir was higher than anything we’d done so far. So Robin and I clambered up onto the footbridge (left), walked round the far side and waded up into the tunnel as far as we could against the current. With the help of my camera’s flash I was able to get far enough in to see that the three-foot weir was actually a narrow 45° slide of about 3 feet, not a straight drop. Much less risky.
Now reassured that I wouldn’t be pitched out of the packraft to smack, face-first into to a span of festering, greasy brickwork, back at the boat I squeezed myself under the sewer pipe (right) and let the speeding current draw me in, making sure to keep well away from a broad side tunnel which led off to the right and didn’t look like it had a happy ending. I didn’t want to end up being squeezed out of someone’s kitchen tap like rubber-boned Janus Stark. In the main tunnel, the roof bore down and I stowed the paddle as I tipped down the chute, getting shoved against the right wall as I ran out towards the light like a near-death experience.
Lois came down next (faintly visible above left) and also got pushed right at the base of the chute and semi capsized.
Kebab Death Horror!
Her paddle floated down towards me but before I could grab it the eddy caught it and floated it back up towards the chute. Meanwhile, soggy arsed Lois hopped out and dragged her waterlogged Dagger into the piercing daylight. Robin came down next (left), got pushed over but kept it together. It seems the tunnel weir had set up a long, thin anti-clockwise circulant or eddy which came upstream and looped back down just below the chute and explained why we’d all got pushed into the right wall as we came off the slide.
But we’d survived the KWDT and soon cruised past a striking municipal bronze statue depicting a trio of naked nymphs grappling over a giant Christmas pudding (left), a scene plucked from the otherwise unexceptional Lost Chronicles of Uxenbride discovered not far from Kebab Galaxy in 1892. And here at last! A plucky South Bucks District Council dustbin uprooted from it’s roadside vigil and flung into the Colne by some beer-crazed revellers high on nitrous oxide. Now that’s what you call urban packboating! There was more to come. What is a paddle in merry England without getting a bollocking from a vexed bankside angler. We’d seen a few upstream who’d mostly ignored us (I don’t waste greetings on anglers anymore), but as Robin and I rounded a bend following another weirlette, some grumpy git wearing rubber up to his neck let us know his feelings, concluding with: ‘You coming back?’ (demonstrating his lack of understanding about how kayaks and rivers interact). ‘No sirree‘ ‘Good!’
His mate just down the way was more civil and explained ‘there’s no navigation on this beat, it’s in the agreement…’ pointing to a sign, rather ineffectively positioned downstream that merely said Private Fishing or some such. I didn’t know the paddling status of the Colne and maybe Lois didn’t either, but a quick Google later on showed up threads on the SotP and ukrivers that indeed suggested the Colne hereabouts had been leased by a bankside golf club to Uxbridge Anglers Club, and their £80 membership fee helped entitle them to exclude paddlers on parts of the Colne. What about the Magna Carta and all that? Which parts are off-limits is hard to determine unless there is a blanket paddling ban.
We certainly saw no ‘ No Canoeing’ signs so it all left a sour taste for a while, but that’s the way paddling is in England thanks to Edward the 1st’s short-sighted bequest to his loyal noblemen (or so the story goes).
The last mile or two down to Packet Boat Lane passed without rancour as the late autumn sun seeped through the falling leaves. The current was speeding along by now and negotiating a squeeze around a fallen tree and some brambles, Robin managed to low side the unskeged Gumotex at exactly the point where Lois had tipped in on a previous occasion. Luckily he was also in shorts and hopped back in the Solar. Somewhere here there was a blockage of fallen trees and flotsam which we couldn’t paddle through and so made our only short portage. ‘Take out, rrrrrrriver left!’ yelled Lois, scarring the crows into the flight path of several 747s lowering their landing gear. Incredibly, Packet Boat Lane (near Iver) is actually a drivable ford across the Colne, rated at no less than five stars by the peer-reviewed wetroads.co.uk.
Once back at Lois’ cosy houseboat Robin couldn’t resist nipping back and having a crack at the car-swallowing ford on his well-travelled trail bike. I stood in the middle with water halfway up my thighs and filmed the action, thinking, ‘rather you than me, mate – it’s a long push back to Crawley’. Sure enough, before he got even halfway his Yamaha spluttered to a stop and we pushed it back like a couple of spotty teenagers trying out their first stolen bike. Back on the barge the throbbing woodburner and a hot bowl of soup soon thawed our chilled limbs as we tried to analyse what the heck was wrong with Robin’s moto, other than acknowledging an engine can’t run on water like a kayak can. We left Robin to it, I rolled up my Alpacka and rode back home across London. Thanks to Lois P for organising a great day out.