On the way back from some riding in the Pyrenees I persuade 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.
This time 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. Nitrilon Lite was dropped from the Gumotex lineup in 2018. 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 (left, 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 which 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.
On the old Sunny (and maybe the 410C which replaced it), to paddle the double boat solo you just flipped the front seat to face backwards, put the skeg on the bow end (skeg patch came fitted on a Sunny) and paddled off balanced in the middle of the boat. The Sunny and the 410 are possibly symmetrical boats with an identical bow and stern. I’m not sure the Twist 2 is (right), though I doubt you’d notice any difference paddling it stern first. If you do do this front seat flip/paddle ‘backwards’ trick you’d need to stick on a second skeg patch (£12, easily done) under the bow. Or, to paddle bow forward, you’d need to stick on a couple of Gumo d-rings (€15 in Germany) midway between the current two seat mounts to sit you in the middle of the boat. I’d also recommend using the various floor fittings to mount something like a solid footrest tube. The mushy inflatable Gumotex ones were never much cop, need inflating and weight more. 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.
There’s an old post on southern France paddling here. Hop on the TGV with your packboat and get down there.
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 Packrafting Store in Germany are now selling the Russian-made Nortik Trekraft. As mentioned a few months ago, it does bear an uncanny resemblance to a standard Alpacka, right down to the ‘fastback’ stern. In appearance you might call it a knock-off, but it has it’s own distinctive attributes and anyway, every rotomolded creek boat you ever saw looks the same. Overall the tubes are a bit smaller diameter than an Alpacka and the whole boat is only thermo-welded but not sewn (as other boats are). Very slightly thinner tubes may provide less buoyancy but add a lot more room inside (1.34m). You’re feet aren’t jammed against the bow too, which is a plus over my Yak. This extra foot room also allows positioning bags low down in the boat. The bow has less of a lift which means it won’t ride over waves so well but be less slowed by head winds. In white water situations that slack space in length and width will be less good for quick turns and feeling connected to the boat. Even on flat water I find it’s good to push against something with the feet to make an effective power stroke. It occurs to me that you could put a bag behind you and then be more centrally seated, like in a kayak. A few years back whitewatards were trying that with Alpackas to reduce bandersnatching which was the partly why Alpacka introduced the elongated stern in 2011. The Nortik uses that idea too. The Trekraft is made from double-sided TPU-coated nylon as opposed to whatever Alpacka uses – higher-spec’ polyester TPU? The ‘roller-press’ coating method Trekraft use is less expensive to manufacture but makes the Trekraft about 20% heavier than a similar-sized Alpacka (we’re talking ~500g here).
It’s going for €599 with tax and free shipping in the EU. Right now with the weak Euro for us Brits that’s a good deal. Enough speculation and interpolation. Recently I tried out a Nortik Trekraft for a day, along with a few other alternatives to Alpacka packrafts. The green, early-production batch Trekraft I used (left) weighed 3331g on the water, so plus carry and air bags and big repair kit. That is 430g more than my customised Yak once I added extra floor patches and other bits, but subsequent versions are expected to weigh some 200g less..
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 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.
Ages ago I must have over-tightened the twist-lock mouth inflation valve cap on my Yak, probably ham-fisted ahead of a tense crossing. Actually it’s not so hard to do to the cheapo plasticy valves. And once you’ve gone too far and rounded the threads, the valve will only seal in the exact right position and with less tension than normal. With a trip coming up, I set about replacing the black valve cap, but for the life of me could not locate one on the web in the UK, googling every permutation of ‘twist, lok/lock, valve, cap’. Fancier oral inflationvalves exist for scuba BCDs but I wanted to keep it simple.
Trying to order from the US came up with $50+ postage for a 50-cent part. It gets even more fascinating but, to cut a long story short, eventually Supai Adventure Gear (there ultralight packraft previewed here) sent me eight valves for $12. And then Alpacka unexpectedly replied and sent me a couple of theirs for free. I thought just the softer plastic twist cap could be yanked off the white threaded section and replaced, but the blue cap Supais came threaded to the white bit, so perhaps caps and threaded sections are a unit and separating them pre-damages the threads. Don’t want that so the old valve needs to be cut off the red inflation tube. Still here? Turns out the Supai valve has a bigger bore than my 2011 Yak valve but when trying to over-tighten a Supai valve as a test, I couldn’t manage it with my bare hands so it seems to be better than what came with my Yak in 2011. Looking closely it’s hard to see much difference in the design or materials, but even though the diameter is about 2mm more than the Alpacka valve, with a bit of glue as lube, it slips easily enough into the cut off red tube end.
Moral of the story: if you need to replace your thread-damaged Alpacka inflation valve you’ll need to cut the old one off and may prefer to replace it with a blue Supai unit (unless Alpackas have changed in the last couple of years). In North America you can but these valves for a $1 or so from Advanced Elements, Feathercraft, NRS, Alpacka and Supai. The inflatable seats on my old Incept from NZ also had them, and iirc they were notably chunky. I’ve since learned that the Packrafting Store in Germany can sell you a twist valve for an Alpacka or a Supai.