Tag Archives: denali llama

Kayak and packraft sails

Updated summer 2019

You may have read in the Shark Bay story what a relief it was to turn into the wind at Cape Peron, get Jeff to flick up his Pacific Action sail (below left) and shoot down across the Reach, with me clinging to Jeff’s hefty sea kayak. There’s a bit more Pacific Action sailing action attached to an Incept K40 in this video.
To me, sailing a kayak or packraft is a smart idea in the right conditions and with kayaks, some people think so too. The now moribund US-dominated packraft forum didn’t get so excited when a bloke demo’d his WindPaddle (see below); perhaps in the US most packrafters do rivers, not lakes or certainly not sea. In Scotland where the lochs can be long wind-channels and the boggy ground alongside horrible to walk over with a full pack, sailing a packraft down a 20-km valley full of water in half the time it would take to paddle makes sense.

V-sails and Umbrella sailing
I never got round to fitting a Pacific Action sail [video and left] onto the Sunny IK. In the UK they cost around £250 but it’s more or less two sticks and a sheet and some string. Here is a great thread on SotP about making your own V-sail, although now I notice the original model of the PA sails going for as little as £160 in the UK to make way for the new, mostly clear models.
I read about a guy who mentioned he umbrella-sailed his packraft back across an Arizona lake on an afternoon breeze. So with an old brolly I’ve barely used in 20 years, I gave it a go.
First time was in the Sunny kayak on a very windy day – too windy in fact. I found an out-of-the-way loch on the north side of Stac Polly mountain, hacked into the 20 mph headwind, turned round and opened up the umbrella expecting to catch the wind and rip back to the shore like an ekranoplan. No such luck. In a way the good thing with a brolly is that it inverts long before it drags you out of the boat and across the lake like a character from a cartoon. But because of that in-built safety overload I couldn’t get going. Oddly, all that happened was instead of the bow coming round down wind, the boat kept getting side-on until the brolly inverting on a gust. Why side on? Was it the fact that the sail’s pivot point was effectively my shoulder in the middle of the boat, and not a point fixed on the front end? Could be.
A few days later I tried with my much lighter Llama packraft, but this rare day there was not enough wind to prove anything. As you can see left, I tried to use the paddle as a rudder, but on that day it would have been better used in its traditional role.

Flip-out disc sails
Since thenflip-out’ disc sails came to my attention: lighter, simpler and more compact than a PA. They work like those clever flip-out tents (see below): release a sling and it springs into shape on an unfurling hoop or batten. I made myself one from a spare tent.
Here is a great IK page by a French gonflard, Andypink picturing all sorts of kayak sails and having assessed all out there, he designed a 1.2m2 ‘spoon sail‘ which is now being sold by Bic (right) for about £50 – just under half the price of a smaller US-made WindPaddle (good canoer’s review here). As you’d expect, the places selling the Bic in the UK merely parrot the blurb from Bic  with no detailed analysis or photos of it in use. To do that you have to dig into Andy P’s blog; there are photos of an actual Bic-in-action here and here and especially here (also left, his picture cropped for clarity). You can see there are no less than three attachment points on each side of the sail.
Having used my similar but ultra-basic home-made version, I’d say the properly designed Bic differs in the following ways:

  • It has a window – always nice to see what’s ahead.
  • I assumed the inverted teardrop shape would make it unstable, but I suspect the close base-mount points make it easier to pull the sail hard down to one side for angling off the wind at up to 45°. And like a PA, it’s bigger up top where there’s significantly more wind.
  • The ‘control string’ attaches to the side of the sail at three points and then is attached to the hull (not one point and held in the hand like my MYO disc). I presume they are all chosen in position and length to maintain a certain optimal form. 
  • It appears the dishing as featured on a WindPaddle and its knock-offs is not necessary.

Here’s a good intro to kayak sailing on Douglas Wilcox’s inspiring Scottish sea kayaking blog. DW paddles hardshells mostly, has actual sail boat experience and these days uses a fixed Flat Earth sail (a jib?) which I don’t think would work on an IK.
Douglas told me that on the faster boats they all use (proper sea kayaks with bows sharp enough to cut week-old brie) the WindPaddle proved to have a fairly narrow range of operational effectiveness (same with the Bic I imagine). In a strong wind the flexible hoop distorts and loses effectiveness; and in a light wind they find it’s barely worth the bother. But don’t forget this is in a slick kayak that can easily be paddled at 5mph while slicing through the swell. A packraft manages about half that and fast IK like a Seawave or Incept maybe 70-80% of that speed. So at the lower wind speeds I can paddle, a sail may be worthwhile – and in sail-distorting high winds; well, it didn’t happen with mine in 20mph winds (F4-5). I didn’t go that fast, but I can’t see me voluntarily being out at sea at wind speeds of 30mph, which is F6. It’s F7 out the window right now, pelting down and the sea looks utterly grim.
A ‘0.9m2’ WindPaddle is the same size as my disc sail, left (ie: 1m diametre which = a radius of 0.5m x 0.5m x π actually = 0.785 m2, but perhaps the dishing makes a bigger area?). As this guy suggests, this may not represent great value for money for a nylon sheet in a hoop plus some string. My own disc sail seems to work OK, but I may end up trying a Pacific Action – see below. My only reservations might be that it’s yet more stuff and a Bic or PA may be a little more complicated to rig and operate than a plain old disc sail.

More kayak and packraft sailing thoughts
I forget of course that my disc sail was primarily made as a portable sail for my packraft; I never really expected it to work on what was my Incept IK, but having done so anyway, I think at 0.78m2 it’s too small and too low. I block much of the backwind and I’ve been told the higher a sail the better it works; it’s just that too much height can affect stability in a gust. We don’t want that.
We were out yesterday on Loch Broom with Steve and Micheal in the Feathercrafts and me in the K40. By the time we finally put in at the back of the loch near the river, it had gotten windy and the fetch up the valley was pushing up a short chop which mid-loch, made forward progress slow. But now I have a nifty way of carrying my disc sail securely and out of the way on the Incept (right), I went right ahead and deployed it for the return. As before, I found that a stiff headwind paddled into at 2-3mph (see graph, left), didn’t correspond into a scintillating downwind glide under sail. Top speed was just over 4mph at which point things begin to get interesting and you want more. But most of the time Steve was able to keep up and even take pictures between paddling his Kahuna, so all I was gaining was some rest rather than extra speed.
Nothing wrong with resting on the move, but compact and handy though it is, I think my home-made disc sail is too small to get the K40 moving with my weight in it, let alone adding a camping payload. Researching more about V-sails, including the SotP thread mentioned above, I see that here and there PA sails are getting discounted to nearly the same price as a WindPaddle.
Having thought it over and actually seen one in use, a PA is more like the real thing compared to any disc sail, whose USP is that they’re compact and deploy in a flash. What a WindPaddle, Bic or my home-sai-sailormade disc sail can’t do so easily on the water in anything longer than a packraft is fold up easily. On an Alpacka you just reach forward and twist the disc sail down out of the way and clamp it, but alone on a choppy sea in a long kayak, it’s far out of reach on the bow of my Incept, unless I just pull it back and lash it down over my knees. A headwind would hold it in place like that, but one may have other things on one’s mind in heavy conditions and a side- or backwind gust could catch it where it might dig into the water and act as an unwanted sea anchor, upsetting the boat. We don’t want that either.
Update – a cheap Windpaddle knock-off (above left).
So, having experimented with the concept of kayak sailing for little outlay, I can now see the value in actually buying something like a PA that’s made for the job, partly because we’re intending to paddle the Ningaloo this September where a sail will be useful, and sail-savvy Jeff (left) will be there to give me some tuition in the art. Short version: it didn’t go so well for me.
Where’s a windy day when you want one? Not today, but the next time I must take the Alpacka Yak out with the disc sail and see if the new shape and a bit more experience makes any difference. As you can see here, it wasn’t so conclusive with the old shape Llama on a reservoir in Surrey, but the pointier Yak, a bit of paddle rudder finesse and a stiff Hebridean breeze may make a difference.

Pic below:  not given up on WindPaddle sailing yet.

coi - 8

Packraft versus cheap dinghy

To most people a packraft looks much like an inflatable dinghy you can get on ebay for £30. The difference is in the design and materials: bigger diametre tubes enlarged front and back mean more buoyancy plus an upturned and narrowed bow to better ride over waves. It’s also lighter, less bulky and tougher than an ebay dinghy such as the Intex Seahawk 200 pictured above (235cm x 114cm, 220kg claimed payload) which manages weighs 6kg I’ve since discovered when I persuaded a mate to buy one.
An Intex ‘pool boat’ like the blue boat, right, will be made of PVC plastic like a beach ball. Alpackas, IKs and the like are made of urethane- or rubber-coated fabric – that is the big difference. It’s like having a tent made out of bin bags versus a tent of PU-coated nylon or whatever. A bin bag tent will keep the rain off but won’t last so long. Pakboats can be pumped up stiff – critical to good performance – while retaining a pre-determined form and won’t burst when they heat up a bit in the sun or at the sight of texrolloxsome nettles. Closer examination of the Intex Sea Hawk II hull suggests an underlying fabric covered in PVC coating, but in fact it’s just the texture of the PVC – there is no fabric underlay which is why the boat is so squidgy like a balloon, even at full pressure.
Build quality less good, but it’s still a boat that floats. Is performance and durability related to price, or are old PVC dinghies the packrafts we never knew, and packrafts the ‘glorified inner tube for yuppies‘ quoted elsewhere? Summer 2011 we found out, when a mate in an Intex and me in the Yak did the Ardeche in France: short version, the Intex lasted 5 minutes…


Alpacka Yak vs old style Denali Llama

Back in the UK and took a run today in the new-shape Yak on the sunny Medway in Kent with my old-shape Llama. Impressions: the slightly longer Llama sure is roomy – you can stretch your legs which is relaxing, like my old Sunny IK – but the feet-jam feeling in the shorter Yak I’ve quickly got used to.
Other things, the rounded Llama does seem to yaw left to right more (as you’d expect), especially without a frontal load – but this impression is strongest when watching the boat rather than actually being in it, as you body moves left to right with the boat, be it Yak or Llama. Yawing is in the eye of the observer. Most obvious best thing besides the colour is that new seat; no more messing around yanking the annoying back up as you hop in in less than ideal circumstances.
A week or two later I took the Yak out on a windy loch in Scotland. How easy it is to inflate with the wind at your back! On the water with the bow splashing water over my head, I got a chance to appreciate the skirt as well as how stable it feels with gusts up to 25mph or more. One thing I did notice was after stepping out in the shallows the thing was gone in the wind (towards the shore, luckily). I’d never have caught it if I was in the water and hyperventilating from cold shock. It reminds me that in such conditions I ought to attach the stick to a loop in the bow chord to slow down an escaping Yak.
Is the pointy Yak faster? Forgot the GPS to find out for sure and our paddles where too different in size to run the Yak and Llama side by side (plus we were towing a sick Intex), but we felt the Yak had the edge, again as you’d expect but we’re talking less than  1mph here. Now I’m up north in packrafting country I have more Yak mini adventures planned. More about the test against my mate’s £30 Intex dinghy here.

Packraft sailing

See also this post

First sunny spring day around here so we went out to try out the flip-out disc sail I made over the winter on my Llama and Steve’s Big Kahuna. Wind was forecast at about 8 mph but was gusty – a bloke in a dinghy sailboat said it was up to 15 mph.
Folded and clipped on the packraft, the sail sits out of the way and can be opened and – more importantly – closed easily with a twist, as long as you have a clip of some sort to keep it closed (and that clip is attached to the sail so it does not spring off and sink to the bottom of the lake…).
Initial impressions were disappointing, I did not rip off across the reservoir like a hooked marlin out of a Roadrunner cartoon. But watching the vid back it’s clear the boat did noticably drift downwind across the reservoir with the sail aloft, often at speeds similar to paddling (about 3 mph). Problem with the sail on the Alpacka was the boat soon turned off the wind one way or the other, swinging left and right. The pointier Kahunayak was better, especially once Steve trailed his paddle like a skeg. Didn’t get to try that on the Llama as I was fiddling about with the string trying angle the sail so as to steer the boat into the wind. This worked quite well in correcting the direction as you can see in the vid, but staying in that position was a problem.
Could this be due to ‘wind-spill’ off the flat disc sail which lacks dishing like a WindPaddle? Maybe. It will be interesting to try it on my ruddered Incept IK when it turns up, as well as the new-shape Alpacka which I am picking up next week.
More testing to come this summer up in windier Scotland with my all-new packboating flotilla. Or just enjoy this 2014 video from Finland by JP. More here at leftbound.

First time packrafting in Scotland

First time packrafting gear

It was a bank holiday weekend in Scotland and the West Highland Line from Glasgow to Mallaig was packed out, but only one person got off the train at Morar station. There was nothing here other than a few houses, a B&B and a lovely sandy beach facing the isles of Rhum and Eigg. The waters of Loch Morar spill out onto those sands and meander down to the sea. Me, I was heading the other way, inland alongside the loch’s 20-km long north shore on a back road that turned into a track and finally a narrow path rising above the waters.
I was of course taking a very keen interest in the state of those waters. As must be normal around here, the wind off the North Atlantic was blowing up the loch with me, but not enough to make hauling the 20-kilo backpack on soft rafting shoes any easier. It looked like a downpour had recently smothered the area; transient waterfalls were running down the valley sides and occasional squalls rushed up the glen.
By the time I got past Swordlands Lodge – a WWII-era spy training base for the predecessors of MI5 – all I wanted was a flat patch of dry land to pitch. I’d got further than I thought, covering about 14kms in 4 hours and was now just 7kms direct from the bothy (refuge) at the far end of the loch. The wind had calmed, but the bothy could wait till the morning. I spread out on a narrow jetty (left), inflated the boat and went for a walk over to Tarbert Bay, a few houses on the tidal Loch Nevis where a ferry drops in from Mallaig every other day on a circuit serving the roadless community on the Knoydart peninsula. The paddle up Loch Morar and easy portage to Loch Nevis to follow the coast back to Mallaig was a popular day trip for sea kayakers.
Never mind about that. The thought of my first real, fully loaded packrafting paddle alone on the 1000-foot deep Loch Morar was a little unnerving. Even fresh water inland lochs like this are prone to sudden storms that have drowned ill-prepared canoeists. How would my boat handle in a swell with a 12-kilo pack strapped to its bow?
When the time came next morning I found I just went through the motions, knowing that I’d done my best to get it right. Sealed inside a dry suit, I pushed off and tried to keep a respectful distance from the steep shore, as the bay I’d sheltered in overnight opened out into the winds. Out there, funnelled in by the 1000-foot ridges, whitecaps furled the foot-high swell, but despite my dry mouth and hyperactive paddling, there was really nothing much to worry about other than worrying too much. With an open deck and the wind to my back, the loaded raft sat on the water as reassuringly as a wet mattress and tracked well enough.
At one point the sun came out and soon after the white speck of what must be Oban bothy came into view at the base of the narrow, cloud-filled valley which would lead me over to the next loch. Coming back to shore I felt a small sense of achievement; I’d managed seven whole kilometres across a windy loch carrying all my needs. With the wind and hard paddling, it had taken only one and a half hours, much faster than following the shore on foot, but that was enough adventure for one day. Though it would put me behind schedule, I decided to spend the rest of the day there, drying out the tent soaked by overnight rain and my dry suit soaked by over-anxious paddling.
On the map only intermittent paths lead to Oban bothy which seems rarely visited and as you can see from the video, is pretty basic but a very welcome shelter set in a brilliant location. Across the loch abandoned crofts reminded me that that this part of Scotland was not always the wilderness we like to think, but a land abandoned two centuries ago when poverty and expulsions to enable sheep rearing forced the inhabitants  to the coasts, cities or overseas. Amazingly, in the next bothy the logbook showed a recent visit by some Canadians whose forbears had abandoned Glen Pean in 1793. With the gear drying on the line I went for a walk up the valley to confirm just how mushy the track would be. Later that evening I scooted off in the empty raft across the loch just because I could.

Over the pass
Next day was going to be a short haul, just 8km by GPS up the valley and down the other side to another bothy in Glen Pean. I’d rather taken to bothy life. Though these places are basic and grubby, with no facilities other than a fire place, some bed bases, left-over food and rubbish, the simple presence of space, shelter and mouse-eaten furniture is so much better than sodden tent camping.
While a packraft does open out your mobility options, especially in the Scottish Highlands, it does increase a typical 12kg camping payload by 50% once you add in a dry suit. Carrying that sort of load over the boggy, hummock-ridden terrain, where the high summer grass and reeds obscure knee-deep ditches and peat channels is probably more dangerous than bobbing around in the middle of a windy loch. To this end I’d adapted a sawn-off piece of paddle shaft to slot on the end on my Aqua Bound paddle to make a pakstarfpackstaff. It proved to be one of my best ideas on this trip, useful as a probe (boggy-looking ground was often actually firm, and vice versa) and a balancing- or weight-bearing aid. Climbing or descent, it helps take the load off the knees and saved a lot of the energy expended in avoiding or trying to hop over peaty  trenches which could suck you in down to your knees. I’ve been using the pack staff (right) for Scottish hill walks ever since.
This attempt at dancing around the mire while hauling 25% of my body weight was partly what had worn me out on the walk in from Morar station, not helped by trying to keep my feet dry in my quick-draining ‘canyoneering’ shoes. Today I decided to try out my Seal Skinz socks which had sat in a drawer for years. Even though once wet, wool socks keep warm, the waterproof but breathable Skinz were as good and should mean less chance of trench foot. All I need for next time is a wade-proof, knee-high pair, though in fact the waterproofing or rather far fetched membrane element of Seal Skinz socks doesn’t last.
With an improved packing set up, I set off for the pass, no longer skirting the puddles and putting my weight onto the packstaff when needed. Taking it slow, I felt much safer with the staff as I plodded steadily up to the watershed. Here, still surrounded by boggy the steep valley sides, a faint sheep trail descended steeply to a water-logged valley where it disappeared altogether. Even with a staff and wet-proof feet, the valley still took some negotiating, inching around outcrops while leaning on the firmly planted staff which would have pretzeled a Leki walking pole. In the end it was simpler to follow the stony river bed.
Presently enough I came upon Lochan Sagairt as marked on the map, unreached by paths from either side and jammed in among dense contours in a gorge. Either side would be a tiring climb with the load I carried and so here was a perfect evocation of the Packrafter’s Choice: to expend effort but possibly save time by keeping on land – or to deploy the raft and scoot across the lochan effortlessly, and maybe even catch a bit of a ride off the stream on the far side. (If you’ve watched the vid below, it’s here that the film and my photos end – my 8-gig SD card filled up).
It took just 12 minutes from stopping to paddling out through the reeds onto the lochan. (Here’s another version.) Following the stream gave me up to a kilometre of paddling distance, but soon that became too shallow and worse still, up ahead seemed to drop through a small gorge. Very keen to play it safe on this stage, I rolled up the boat and took to what was now a quad bike track which brought me through a jungle of ferns to the deserted bothy in Glen Pean, 9 kilometres’ walk and 4 hours from Oban.

Glen Pean
The plan here had been to track along the Pean river on foot and put-in as soon as it became reliably paddleable, hoping that that would lead smoothly to Loch Arkaig, the next big body of water. I had my doubts it would be as simple as that, and after lunch set off, first up to an interesting-looking waterfall on the far side of the valley, and then back down into the valley to recce the river downstream. This exposed one of the flaws of packrafting in this sort of wild terrain. If you’re walking your load, following the water courses in the valley bottoms, you’re in the worst, waterlogged terrain, fit only for birds and slugs, trapped in a squelching morass of saturated peat and spongy moss.
Up here the meandering Pean river flipped between deep, Guinness-coloured pools and clear, shingly shallows. No big problem in an unloaded raft as I’d found in France where I’d spent the last few months, but with a load you ground out sooner, meaning getting out and pulling or even unpacking and carrying; not an efficient use of energy. I tramped downstream around the deepest mire where the forest plantation met the river, and up ahead noticed an ominous dip in the tree line between two knolls. Deadly, Alpacka-shredding rapids!
A perfectly walkable track led through the forest to the head of Loch Arklaig and a group of houses known as Stathan. I looked closely at the 1:50k map and sure enough, where a path came down the valley to bridge the river and join the forest track to Strathan, two 25-metre contours crossed the river within a quarter kilometre.
To confirm that paddling the Pean may be more effort than it was worth, at 6pm I set off along the forest track to that bridge and suss out the river. An hour later I looked down on a two-metre drop in the river before it led into a boulder-chocked stage. My hunch had been right, though of course, terrified as I am of being swept unwittingly into a mini Niagara, I’d have surely heard the waterfall and done something about it.
Back at the bothy, I was satisfied with my recce. The upper Pean was navigable with a little effort for about 4kms from the bothy to the bridge, but at the bridge you’d need to pack up and haul up a messy track into the forest and walk on down to Strathan, or stagger along the banks until the river cleared up. (I’ve since returned and paddled the Pean from that bridge down to Loch Arkaig, I also submitted a report to ukrivers here, even if it is really a joke river by Scottish standards.

Loch Arkaig to Gairlochy
Next morning I stood on a bridge in Strathan, a few buildings for Glendessary estate at the west end of Loch Arkaig. Below me the Glendessary river rushed towards the Pean in a tumble of white water, while the Pean river itself wound placidly into Loch Arkaig.
Like Morar, Loch Arkaig ran for 19kms end to end, a long paddle that might take most of the day and certainly most of the day’s energy. A back wind was rushing along, maybe only a little worse than on Morar; here would be a good place to experiment using an umbrella as a sail as I’d read on a forum. A narrow road also trailed the loch’s north bank and having lost a bit of time hanging out in the bothies, I thought I’d try and hitch a lift towards the Great Glen and Loch Lochy where the Lochy River lead south to Fort William. If I could get there tonight I’d have caught up with a chance to carry on to Rannoch as planned.
Plodding along the road eyeing up the loch, I passed a bunch of young canoeists on a course and figured if I couldn’t get a ride I’d be better off getting on the water and riding the swell down to the east end. Before that decision became necessary, a car squeezing past saw my thumb his mirror and half an hour later dropped me at the loch’s east end. Rich worked for the local Outward Bounds kids adventure camps and spent his spare time adventuring himself on the islands and highlands. He told of some canoeists last winter who’d portaged the way I’d come yesterday and ended with one breaking her leg somewhere near Lochan Sagairt and getting helicoptered out (in fact I found the thread on that event here and there’s a video here). Portaging a canoe from Loch Morar? Have these people not heard of packrafts?!
Either way, I was sure glad I didn’t have to trudge down that long, lochside road; I’m sure whitecaps or not, eventually I’d have taken to the water. It brought up another flaw in my gear: I was wearing shoes for boating which gave little more support than a pair of Tevas. I should be wearing boots for hiking a 20-kilo load on rough ground. They did the job but the insides of my Keen Arroyos were being ground to a pulp and my feet were beginning to suffer.
Rich dropped me off somewhere near Clunes, a shopless wooded hamlet surrounded by retirement homes. I was back in tourist lands on the Great Glen Way footpath. Possibly as a result of yesterday’s efforts, I suddenly became ravenous and tore into my food bag to boil up a mug of soup and some stew-in-a-bag paste while the wind howled through the trees. The freeze-dried food I’d been eating was pretty tasty and very easy to prepare, but I knew that for once, I wasn’t eating enough. Twenty kilometres away, Fort William would see to that.
All that remained to see was whether Lochy loch was paddable in all this wind. Sure enough, the west bank was sat in some kind of wind shadow. With a swell running at a couple of inches this was a loch I could do business with. No need for the dry suit, just zip out the skirt to keep the insides try.
How nice it was to paddle on a calm loch. Back in phone range I called the g-friend to fill her in on my triumphant achievement. A lighthouse marked the top lock on the canal: right for the canal and Gairlochy left for a weir which led down to the river. Camping by the lock on trimmed grass was free, and many recreational boaters were berthing for the night. Fort William and a Seafood Basket with salad, chips and a capuccho would have to wait; I pitched the tent, de-aired the raft and went to suss out the state of the Lochy River from the towpath.
Between the trees and the wild raspberry bushes I spotted some fly fishermen by a couple of sporty rapids and found a good place to put-in tomorrow just past the lock. I was getting a bit desperate for proper food but Gairlochy had nothing except all-you-can-eat wild raspberries. The nearest resto was up towards Spean Bridge, more than my blistering feet could manage. Where’s a push bike when you need it!

River Lochy to Fort William – riding the wavy trains
I was fairly sure I had the measure of the River Lochy, a canoeable river that led down to Fort William and tidal waters, interrupted only by one WW3 rapid which the Scottish canoe guide warned of, but didn’t locate. A look on Google Earth had pinned down the probable location which I put in my GPS where the river took a hard left with a tell tale smudge of white.
I set off down the Lochy, knowing I’d be having lunch of real food off a plate, not out of a bag. It was great to be riding the wavy trains again, with nothing above WW1 as long as you chose the right chute. At one point I hit 14.5kph (9mph) according to the Garmin and safe in my dry suit, what control I had steered me from tedious shallows or boat-flipping boulders. The grade three waypoint was right on the money, where some young boys where being tutored in the art of fly fishing by a ghillie (river gamekeeper) dressed in full regalia, including a deer-stalker hat and a crimson face.
Inspecting the rapid, I’d have been curious to see how even a proper kayaker could manage to fly down the chute and stay upright where it ramped up to the left to flip you right, straight onto the rock. UK Rivers rates the Lochy quite lowly and barely mentions this rapid, but then goes on to add that a poacher and 12 commandos have drowned here over the years. The mossy, muddy portage was another job for the packstaff, and now a little braver, I took the hardest line through the remains of the rapids and presently rocked up at the rail bridge at Inverlochy, a suburb of Fort William.

Loch Ossian
It was Wednesday lunchtime and my train out of Rannoch was due in 48 hours. If I was to make it I’d have to move on that afternoon, but after checking into a hostel I was dizzy with hunger. The afternoon would have to be spent answering the priorities of the stomach. In between I paid my respects to the outdoor gear shops in search of bargains but merely confirmed the depressing truth: other than a couple more dried meals and some 2-for-1 mini karabiners, there was nothing I needed.
So the trip was not to end at Rannoch station but instead on Rannoch moor. Next day the train dropped me off at lonely Corrour station, a mile away from the lovely wind-powered SYHA hostel alongside Loch Ossian. All that remained was to spend the afternoon paddling down with the wind to the Corrour estate lodge at the far end of the loch and walking back along the shore to satiate another ravenous appetite.


I now have an idea about  packrafting in Scotland: what sort of routes are optimal and what gear works best. The recce around Glen Pean made me realise that no matter how up for it you might be, hiking cross country across bogs and tussocks as I’d planned to do from Glen Nevis over to Blackwater and from there to Loch Laidon, would have been a hiding to nowhere while hauling a heavy pack.
pakeastwalkIf I’d had the time I’d have followed the West Highland Way out of Fort William to Kinlochleven and on to the Kings House hotel in Glencoe (40kms – two days). From there an eastbound moor path passes close to Loch Laidon (we did it years later, right), either can be taken to reach Rannoch station.

The raft can be pretty quick on a loch, paddling hard with a backwind, even with a load, and so some sort of sail would reduce the effort and so give more range. I never expected to try and paddle the full length of Morar or Arkaig (19+ kms).
Loch Ossian (6kms long) was surprisingly slow as at one point I headed across the width of the loch with a stiff sidewind to see how the unloaded boat handled (pretty flappy but probably more secure than an IK).


Packrafting in Scotland – intro

For more recent packrafting in Scotland click ‘Scotland’ or ‘packrafting’ categories above or right.

Northwest Scotland is about as ‘Alaska’ as it gets here in the British Isles and after years of going everywhere else, I’m beginning to realise what a wonderful area it is for adventuring – when it’s not lashing it down, that is. Thousand-metre peaks surround isolated inland lochs fed by a streams or ‘burns’, linked infrequently by walking trails. It’s an ideal place to experiment with the Packrafting Way.
This uncultivable land – either steep or saturated – is mostly owned by private estates who used to run fir plantations, but now tend to get grants to rehabilitate the land to attract tourism, including charging a small fortune to catch salmon or shoot deer and grouse.
One benefit is that bothies (basic refuges) used by the estate for their activities are open to all at other times and free. They can make a great place to escape the notorious midges which infest the highlands in summer. Just like Alaska then.
The West Highland Rail Line from Glasgow to Mallaig on the west coast is a great way of getting in and out of the area highlighted on the map at the top, with several isolated stations where you can pick up the twice-daily train. The fact that the 160-mile long WHL is also considered one of the world’s most scenic rail journeys makes the getting there as satisfying as packrafting back.

For me you can’t beat alighting at Rannoch station, one of the most isolated in Britain. All around is the sodden mush of Rannoch Moor feeding a string of lochs between ranostnGlencoe and the River Tay. I missed making the most of a good winter in Scotland this year, but after Christmas couldn’t resist nipping up on the train from to camp overnight in the snows above Rannoch.
39For my first packrafting mini-adventure I planned a 130-km (80-mile) route from near  Mallaig to follow the 12-mile long Loch Morar eastwards, initially along a track then on the water when the path ends and valley sides get too steep. Loch Morar is Scotland’s answer to Lake Baikal, at over 1000′, it’s the deepest lake in Britain, with it’s own legendary monster and a sinister WWII history of espionage straight out of The Thirty Nine Steps (which actually had it’s climax on Rannoch Moor). At the far end of the loch a burn leads up Glen Pean over a gnarly 15-km watershed to the adjacent Loch Arkaig.
Once over the pass on the watershed, it might be possible to hop into the east-flowing burn and paddle down to Loch Arkaig. On Google Earth it looks possible and will be a lot easier than trudging through the bogs. There’s a road along the north side of Loch Arkaig  which may be easier if the loch doesn’t look too inviting. At the east end, after a dam a weir and some rapids, you reach Loch Lochy, a southern continuation of Loch Ness on the Great Glen, the distinctive fault line you can see slicing southwest through Scotland on the map above. Traditionally, northwest of that line is where the true wilds of Scotland are to be found. We like those.
At the south end of Loch Lochy the River Lochy parallels a canal for 8 miles down to Fort William alongside Ben Nevis. The river is paddleable I read, bar one easily avoided Class III. Fort William will be a chance to dry out, restock and eye up Stage 2.
It would be fun to climb over Ben Nevis and down the other side, but unlike many English or Welsh peaks, that’s not so easily done it seems. I’ve been warned off coming off the summit down the south side. That leaves the CMD arete I’ve heard of over the years as the only way  eastwards. It’s the local answer to Striding Edge or Crib Goch – exposed  ridges which, depending on the day, might not be the best place to be caught with a boat on your back.
Around the south side of Ben Nevis a track leads up Glen Nevis valley from where I can take off over the moors or the Mamores to squelch towards Blackwater reservoir. It’s notable that the popular West Highland Way walk doesn’t go this way. After paddling over Blackwater there’s a trudge over to Loch Laidon to raft up one more time and row my boat to the eastern end for the short walk to Rannoch station and the 12.42 to Glasgow.
Sounds easy when it’s all in your head, less so with mist at ground level and the next Low rolling in off the Atlantic. I’ve been watching the weather and it looks like six days of rain  followed by a day of showers. So I’ll be satisfied to expend my time and effort on the western part of the route where there are a couple of bothies and less people, and then catch my train early at Fort William.

Read trip report

Packing for packrafting
It was quite a challenge managing all the gear into a portable format. Initially I was going to lash dry bags to a packframe, but that was just too bulky and uncomfortable. So I’ve settled on using a newish 60-litre rucksack which is much more comfortable – at least on the short walk to and from the bathroom scales. With several external pockets and lashing points, it’s more accessible and functional than a drybag too.
For packrafting you have to be ready for submersion, not just lashing rain, which complicates matters a bit. I managed to grab a huge 100-litre drybag off ebay to use on the water. Inside the pack, what’s important (principally clothing and sleeping bag) is inside additional dry bags or zip lock bags, and with this in mind I found a near-half-price Crewsaver dry suit too. Despite the 2kg weight penalty it’ll be reassuring to be in one of these when bobbing around in the middle of a 1000-foor-deep loch, or being swept towards some rapids, as well as something to wear if having to walk in heavy, cold rain. I’ll be able to wade through waist-deep rivers without a care.
With 4 days dried food and drink, the load came in at 20 kilos (44lbs). Basically, it’s a fairly reasonable solo camping load of 12 kilos plus 8kg of boat and boating gear. It all adds up. This is summertime in Scotland so any water I need will find me long before I need to look for it. Not sure I’ve ever walked with that much weight; such loads can bring on knee injuries or accidents, so I’ve converted the shaft of my 4-part Aqua Bound paddle into a staff for steep slopes and river crossings.

  • Backpack 2kg
  • Dry food & drink 3.5 days 3kg
  • Camping, cooking, clothes, maps, camera, gps, etc 7kg
  • Boat, paddle, pfd, dry bag 6kg
  • Dry suit & gloves 2kg
  • Total … 20kg

Packrafting in Scotland ~ gear

This is the gear which worked for me (or not) on my first big trip to the Scottish highlands in summer. There’s plenty more chat about gear and tips on the Alpacka forum, among other places.

Backpack – TNF Terra 60
I bought this last year for Coast to Coast when my packframe and dry bag idea proved dumb, and then realised it’s the first new backpack I’d bought since the 1970s – a Karrimor Annapurna I recall. They’ve got a lot better since then and although parts of the Terra’s shell seem as thin as tights, it has all the features you want: adjustable strap height, shoulder pull and chest straps, fat padding, attaching loops and buckles for lashing on the boat wrapped in the pfd, and a lower access zip to save tipping it all out. The back ‘verti-cool’ panel is of course bogus, you’re going to sweat carrying this thing, but even at 2.3kg I couldn’t have expected better from the Terra for what it carried.
This year the colour has of course changed and the size has gone up to 65 litres or more. Mine cost around £70 in a sale, but for what I used it for it was only just big enough. PFD, boat, paddles and dry suit all had to go on the outside.
In late 2011 I bought myself a 65+10-litre Berghaus C71 (right). It had many of the handy features of the Terra: what they call wand (mesh) pockets where the paddle blades can slot and sit under the side compression straps, an elastic on the back to stuff the rolled up packraft under, as well as a pair of straps along the bottom to take a rolled-up drysuit and to stop the mounted packraft slipping down. Well that’s the way I visualised it while staring at the internet. Oh, and like the Terra last year, it was reduced drastically from £140 to 80 quid. More news in Gear when I’ve got something to say about it. 

Shoes – Keen Arroyo II
After years with Tevas, a few months ago I figured I’d try something that held the foot securely with more than Velcro and which had a better sole. The Arroyos turned up at half price – about what they’re worth – and have been OK for what they are. For some reason the sides carry the boast ‘waterproof’, but so what if it pours in and out of the holes?
I like the wide fit very much, the quick synching lace system is… quick; if you need more security you just tie a knot or convert to regular laces. My only complaint is that I doubt they’ll last long, especially tramping cross-country under a load, though to be fair they weren’t built for that and anyway, what gear does last these days?
Problem is, your shoes and socks will be soaked at the end of the day. Sure I had a spare pair of wool socks, but put those in the wet shoes and they get wet too. What is needed are knee-high Seal Skinz and around the bothy a light pair of ‘hut slippers’ or even just slip-ons to stop bare wool socks or Seal Skins wearing through. Some sort of roll up, unlined, no sole, Moccasin slip-on. Something like the hut socks on the top right, in fact.
When the Arroyos fall apart I have an OK pair of Karrimor trail shoes. They claim to be Goretex which is actually a pain for quicker drying, but I can tell you now I spent a lot of time last year looking for wide, non-Goretex trail shoes (for an annual desert camel trek that I lead) and gave up. As the Karrimor’s were cheap (and I have Meindls for proper walks), I think I’ll convert them to quick-draining river and trail duties by poking holes through each side, just above the sole. In Seal Skinz my feet will be dry anyway and the holes will mean I’m not walking around with an unnecessarily heavy shoes full of water. There’s more on that and packrafting shoes here.

Dry suit – Crewsaver Hyperdry Pro
I sold my nice yellow Kokatat Tropos Semi Dry suit the day before I decided to buy a packraft. That was a pretty good suit on the Spey one autumn, and the Crewsaver Hyperdry pro I picked up for £180 (rrp £300) looks as good, if not a bit better. It fits me great and like the Kokatat, has integral rubber feet – an essential feature IMO – as well as braces.
First thing I did was get it sent direct to a repairers to get a relief zip installed (£50-70). With a stiff back zip it can be hard enough to put on and take off; when tired you could wet yourself before that can be accomplished. Male or female (using a SheWee), you won’t regret a relief zip in your dry suit.
I knew if before I went, but what this suit also needs are some exterior draining pockets on the arms and legs for GPS, cameras and so on. It has a tiny key pocket on the left upper arm; can’t see much use for that. My Yak pfd has no useful exterior pockets and on my Kokatat pfd they’re a bit too small to be jamming in a camera while lining up quick for a rapid.
I found it a bit sweaty across Loch Morar, when I wore full-length under clothes and was paddling a bit too energetically. Next time, a couple of days later just in shorts and T-shirt on the Lochy it was just right, but they say far from a shore or bank in cold seasons some sort of thick underfleece is essential once you fall in, otherwise you get hypothermic almost as fast as without a suit. I’ve since given the Crewsaver a few immersion tests by wearing it for an hour or two in the water, practising rolls with a mate in a SinK. No leakage at all which may be to be expected but is still pretty amazing.
Packrafts and IKs are a bit different to SinKs in that a drysuit is handy against splash, even if you’re not falling in. And with the legs exposed and lacking a deck a quick draining pocket on the thigh, for a GPS for example, would be handy. If I get round to this I think I’ll get some velcro sewn onto the thigh front and the left forearm, so that any pocket construction is less critical. For the moment I’ve made an arm/leg strap-on pocket out of a spare Aqua Pack, some glue and a bit of the ballistic nylon left over from the floor. And I’ve now got a waterproof camera.

Paddle as Packstaff
My 4-piece Aqua Bound Manta Ray is OK as far as rigidity goes, but of course is very handy for travelling. I knew I’d need something like trekking poles with the heavy loads and terrain I’d be crossing, but of course didn’t want to take trekking poles just for that. In the end an old Lendal paddle sacrificed itself to make a 6-inch ‘nib’ to slot into the end of the Manta’s shaft, making a shoulder-high staff. While using it for what turned out to be a 3-day walk in winter, the fibreglass nib wore down, so needs some kind of metal over-nib.
sulpackstafferAs mentioned in the text, this proved to be a great aid on the gnarly crossing to Loch Arkaig and all the better for not having a trekking pole’s handle or loop. It’s just the right thickness all along of course, so you can vary your hand height, probe the ground, rely less on balance (so saving energy), use it to vault over ditches and streams and lean on it hard as you step around an outcrop above a mire. Plus you can lean on it when drinking by hand from a stream with a pack still on – very handy. I couldn’t see a £90 Leki pole taking such weight, let alone the cheapies I use which fell out of a cereal packet. Cross country in Scotland with a load, you need a packstaff or something similar.

Camera – GoPro mini camera
Short version, as these are well-known to kayakers and hair-boaters. They use two buttons but the menu is easy to learn. I set mine on SD (‘1’) but ran out of card in 2 days, long before the battery went flat. Looking at all the mounts which came with it, I settled on the headband which did most things for me. For back shots in the boat it tucked under the pack lines. With the cam on your head (make sure it’s not set too high), after recording in very still conditions you can hear the blood moving in your brain on playback; weird!
The 5mp stills are not as good as my heavier and bulkier LumixTZ6 (12mp), but for a fixed-focus, wide-angle, the video, even at SD, is OK. The only flaw is that it tends to underexpose (too dark) and the audio dies inside the waterproof housing when it’s not on your head. On your head your skull is a kind of amplifier when you talk, but you won’t hear what other people say. I may have the exposure set wrong but I’m sure it’s on auto. I expected this duff audio and removed it mostly when on dry land to do talking, or lately have got into taking and using the better Lumix for talking when not in rough water – but that means 2 cameras. If you’re talking to the Go Pro in the housing, get close or shout.
The best thing is the GoPro is so light and has a good series of mounts there’s plenty of scope to shoot good action creatively. But for £300 it’s too much for what it is and after a year or two I sold it. Check out this videos. Instead I use my waterproof Panasonic Lumix FT2 as a day camera and for paddling: better stills, better video exposure, easier to use, better sound and sells for a fraction of the price used. The GoPro is everywhere these days and lately improved, but to me is over-rated for the price.

Tent – Black Diamond Lighthouse
blackdiamondlighthouseI see packrafters talking about rigging their boats as shelters or setting up a simple tarp with string and using the paddles as tent poles. The way I see it, either you can sleep out in the open on your part-deflated raft or you need a tent for shelter from rain, insects or wind. In Scotland you need a tent for all three.
I don’t begrudge the 1.5kg of tent, poles and 4 pegs of my BD lighthouse. It uses a single skin of ‘breathable’ Epic fabric which in my experience breathes better some nights than others. Unless it’s freezing (and I’ve had minus 6°C inside) I very rarely sleep with all the flaps zipped up, but condensation seems to have a mind of its own, whether it rains overnight or not. No complaints about waterproofing (that failed later despite halfdomereproofing so I sold it). Like a packraft itself, it’s so small and light you don’t think twice about taking it and using it. They make it anymore as the fabric wasn’t fireproof (legal) in some US states. I bought it in Colorado in 2007 for about £200 – in the UK it was nearly double at the time. I since replaced with  conventional REI Half Dome (left) that can be pitched inner- or outer only. More on packboating tents here.

Sleeping bag – Mountain Equipment Sleep Walker U/L
Sometimes I look at this thing and think surely the Polar Loft fill has collapsed over the years when I compare it to my recently re-fluffed Yeti down bag which just makes you want to get in and hibernate. But at just under a kilo, it’s an ideal summer bag that works fine with a tent and a good sleeping mat plus a hat if necessary. It can feel sweaty and doesn’t feel half as nice as a down bag, but for watery activities with a risk of getting wet, synthetic does the job. If it’s too warm it zips right out into a blanket. It’s good to have a cheap bag for rough trips and save the down Yeti for when it’s needed.
They don’t make it anymore – or they probably do but it’s got a different colour and name. It cost me about £50 in a sale in 2005. Since replaced with a lovely down Marmot Arroyo Long.

Sleeping mat/raft floor – Thermarest ultralight
I slept on one of these for years before I moved up to an Exped Syn Air DLX after a period of back pain. Now the ¾ length Thermarest (118cm x 50cm, 535 grams) doubles up as a handy floor for the raft, something light to sit on and an OK overnight pad when lengthened with a pfd. I suppose the current version is the ProLite which is as wide and thick, but full length and 100 grams lighter. Since replaced with an Exped UL.

Dry bags
I got some imperfect Seal Line Baja bags years ago in Seattle that still have several more years left in them. On the Scotland trip I realised they also make a handy bucket (left) to save trips to the stream or lake.
The giant Mil-com bag (right) cost just £15 off ebay and make a great dry bag for my backpack. Alpacka advise that a simple, light inner dry bag will do inside the pack – let your pack take the hits. To me it seems obvious an exterior bag that keeps the whole pack dry up to a point is the way to go. It also makes a good sitting mat or door mat to the tent. The closure has no stiffener so isn’t as secure at a Seal Line or others, but it keeps the splash off and slows ingress if you capsize.
I’ve found a Decathlon compressor bag seals better than the fancy Exped ones I also have, most obviously because the smooth plastic rolling portion seals better than nylon fabric. The idea of a purge valve at the other end is definitely the way to go. Stuff the bag in there, roll it up and clip shut then sit on it to purge the air and plug the plug. A great space saver that’ll keep a bag dry underwater too, I’d hope. It only costs a tenner.

A mate put me onto Tatonka 500ml mug. With graduated lines inside showing the volume, it works fine as a cooking pot and drinking mug. One thing I’d do for next time is make an aluminium windshield to wrap around the mug and hang from the handles down over the burner. Speeds up cooking and so saves gas.
They’re a bit hard to find in the UK. Amazon sell them for £12, though they’re listed as €10 from Tatonka.com.

No-name butane burner
It’s like the MSR Pocket Rocket but at £14, it was half the price and better still comes with a piezo igniter so no lighter needed (though I carry one just in case). A great little cooking gadget.

Pack & Go meals
The last time I ate a freeze-dried meal was some awful stuff by Raven about 30 years ago. Never again, and since then I convinced myself that this sort of stuff was just more overpriced camping gimmickry; you can buy the same or better in Tescos.
But I’m not sure I’ve ever walked alone for over three nights between re-supply points until this trip. I saw a good review of Pack & Go meals and bought a few day menus. Breakfast is ready brek with raisins, plus an oatmeal bar, rehydration powder (left at home, used lighter/litre Zero tablets instead, below right), a chocolate drink, an evening meal and a pudding. All up £10 and less than a kilo per day, but as you’ll have read, I got pretty hungry by day three as no lunch is included. For that I had cuppa soups and tea.
In Fort William I bought a similar Mountain something meal, tasty salmon and potato but I realised what makes the P&Gs so user-friendly: you pull apart the base to make it stable, rip off the top, open out and pour in the given amount. This is often stated as too much and does not match the three suggested boiling water level lines marked inside – use those not that stated quantity. Then you zip it up, put on the water for the desert (variations on choc or custard or rice pud and fruit) and 6 minutes later dinner’s ready while pudding warms up.
As you’d expect, some meals taste better or are more satisfying than others. Boil-in-a-bag options may be tastier, but are twice as heavy and will use several minutes of gas for boiling. With plenty of water around, stew-in-a-bag saves gas and means no washing up.
I wouldn’t want to live off this stuff for days and days and I found the daily quantities not quite adequate for what I was doing. However, preparing for another Scottish packrafting trip in late November (when I imagine I’ll need more fuel to keep warm), I now see they offer two sizes: 125g at ~400 calories, and 180g with around 700 calories for ‘big eaters’. That’ll be me then.

Gear summary: what worked well in Scotland

  • Pakstaff – a great idea
  • Mini carabiners, great for lashing and attaching
  • TNF backpack (comfort, not capacity)
  • Mil-com dry bag (failing a submersion)
  • GoPro camera, all things considered
  • Garmin 76 CSX with OpenStreet mapping
  • No name Goretex light cag
  • And of course, the Alpackerai!

and what didn’t

  • Keen Arroyo II shoes
  • Sock/hut shoe strategy

What I could have left

  • Gloves
  • Head torch (as usual)
  • Water bladder (water everywhere)

What I should have taken

  • Ally wind shield for stove
  • Lid for the cup
  • Hut shoes or slippers for when day shoes and socks are soaked
  • A lighter that doesn’t fall apart
  • Another SD card
  • A brolly to try out as a sail. More on sailing here

Denali Llama packraft – handling and speed

On the water – ferrying and re-entry
I’ve tried the boat two up, over a couple of full days, with a test 12kg pack lashed to the bow and with the skirt deployed. I’ve tried it with a Thermarest floor, with padding behind the seat (to move me forward) and in rapids that I suppose might be WW2.
I’ve found ferrying (paddling against to current to get across a river) very easy and controllable. Stability is not an issue and flat water tracking is fine. Getting back into the high sided raft without a PFD from deep water took a few goes without pulling the unloaded boat over or bringing a little water in. I found hanging the paddle away off the far side like an outrigger stops the raft flipping too easily. With a PFD and maybe a load it ought to be easier, but still takes a bit of effort as the sides are so high and the boat is so light. As with other types of boats, re-entry is something you want to know how to do before you need to know how. With a full front load I imagine re-entry might be easier over the back.

Tracking and maneuverability
Unloaded, the bow yaws a foot or so from side to side as you paddle along but the boat stays on line. In this vid my g-friend looks all over the place, but bear in mind she is a foot too short for a Llama and half my weight. With a 12kg bow load, it yaws much less, with me in it a few inches maybe. In fast river bends it does feel a bit clumsy at times, like you’re being swept along and can’t do much about it (a feature of all rafts, I suspect). I miss the responsive directional lunge you can do in a nippy IK to get you out of a fix, though they say thigh straps may improve that.
I’ve found this directional flaw is just a matter of adopting an assertive technique as well as good positioning early on; a packraft is never going to maneuver as well as a 10-foot kayak. Bouncing or pushing off a rock is no drama, but being swept into an undercut or low, spider-laden trees is less fun. You can change orientation quickly with a firm stroke or two – in other words you can point left or right in a jiffy, but moving off in that direction is less responsive, though may well come with technique and hard shoveling. To be honest, my 4-metre Sunny IK was no point-and-squirter either, and would have got hung up on some bendy runs which the Llama slipped through like a cork.
Of course the benefit of poor tracking and short length is the ability to spin a 180 with just one stroke. This doesn’t help that much when you’re being swept towards somewhere you don’t want to be, but I’ve found that the technique can be used to spin-off and backup past an obstacle. You’re heading for a rock you can’t avoid say; it’s easier to draw hard and bring the back round and pass the rock backwards, then spin back to point forward again and line up for the next obstacle. It’s something that hardshell playboaters probably do all the time.
Interestingly, I had a day out in France with Llama and Solar IK and a mate who had no kayaking experience (though some canoeing and a rowing past). He took to the skegless Solar very quickly but although my weight seemed to have more trouble controlling the Llama, possibly because he kept his weight too far back and so yawed too much (as in the vid, above) which slowed him down. That day was so shallow we walked as much as we paddled.
With a load of about 12kg the nose sits lower (see a few pics down and the Scotland report) and the tracking improves at the cost of spinning ability which the Llama has to spare anyway. More stuff could be stored inside.

A Llama is slower than a Sunny or any pointy-ended boat, but it’s something you’ll only notice in non packrafting company. Last year on the Ceze river, g-friend was usually behind me in the Solar with me in my longer Sunny IK. This time she was usually ahead. We had a drag race but within a few strokes she was in front and extending her lead in the Solar. No contest there; you can’t paddle a giant inner tube fast through water, even if you are a glorified yuppie!
Alone or in a pack of paks, who’d notice speed? You paddle with the normal effort and the boat is as fast as it is; current plus say 2.5mph. I paddled our local French river and averaged 2.7mph, with 6.3mph max speed down a rapid. There is more on speed in a touring/hiking scenario on this page.
Up in Scotland recently I made some categorical speed observations with a GPS. No wind or current gives you a sustainable 4kph or 2.5mph. You can push it to 5kph but you’ll wear yourself out, look inelegant and frighten the fish with your splashing. Back winds, tides, rapids and tsunamis all give you more. I’ve recorded up to 10mph of the River Lochy, dropping through rapids I presume, and a steady 5mph with a back wind on a freshwater loch. Interestingly, a Llama is as fast backwards as forwards, but as a paddling technique that is much less sustainable and when you go flat-out backwards, the weighted stern eventually buries itself in the water and it’s all hands on deck.
In rapids paking is as easy (or as out of control) as an IK; just line it up, keep it straight and watch for rocks. When you do get it wrong it’s like a dodgem car bouncing harmlessly off the rocks. And when the underside gets hung up on a low rock and turns you sideways across the current it’s still much more stable as it has less flank, more side height and more width than a kayak. Some water may flow over the side, but I’ve only every got a litre or less. There’s a video here of me on a quiet Scottish river in spate.
I found a lot of the time on the above shallow river, I lent over to lift off the bottom with one arm when it grounded out. In a higher-sitting IK it’s easier to get out and so you’d probably hop out and by doing so spare the floor a rubbing.

Skirt, seat and floor
After six hours on the Ceze I can’t say the Llama felt any less comfortable than a Sunny, though you’re more jammed in. The Llama seems to swamp a little less readily than the Solar or Sunny – but anything over WW2 will come over the back sides.
However it has a secret weapon – a retractable spray skirt – something I often thought of applying to my Sunny IK in some way. It can get clammy under there on a warm day, but if it means less pulling over and tipping out, that’s fine with me. If you’re thinking of buying an Alpacka – don’t hesitate and pay the extra for the skirt. You won’t regret it.
You can deploy the zip-and-velcro skirt mid-stream in about a minute if Niagara looms ahead or it starts raining – and retract it and roll it up in about two minutes. The cover comes with a tab to yank on if you capsize or need to jump out fast. Another nice touch is a little ‘cod-piece’ air chamber in front of you that inflates to stop water from pooling in your lap. Most times the side velcro comes undone after energetic maneuvering through rapids, so letting water in, but perhaps I haven’t got a good sealing technique yet. Most of the summer I used the Llama without a skirt, either because it was warm or I was in a dry suit, but for heavier WW it’s a must and is partly what makes the packraft so versatile and better in rapids than a non-bailing IK.
Alpackas have no inflatable floor which can mean a sudden whack in the arse when it bottoms out on a submerged rock – or a bash at the heels when you have a bow load and big feet like me. The inflatable seat reduces butt impact of course but I worry about how the floor underside handles all this abrasion – there are already some noticeable scuffs and since then I glued on a second layer of material. See Llama mods.

Alpacka 2010 Denali Llama review

Getting the right size Alpacka is important as you’re supposed to fit in snuggly front to back to aid control in white water. At my height (6′ 1″) the Llama is just right, with a little optional padding behind the seat to get my feet pushing firmly against the bow. With my set up my Llama weighs in at just over 3 kilos and has nearly as much payload (~15kg) as well as a similar if not better white water ability as my Gumotex Sunny IK. (The boat pictured above is a Solar, not a Sunny).
The Llama is 180cm x 97cm. Alpacka don’t give payloads but I’ve paddled it with the g-friend adding up to 150kg total. Depending on what you’re paddling I’d say 115kg is about optimal as me (95kg) plus 20kg of clothing and camping kit and boat.
Out of the bag (into which it’ll never fit again…) first impressions are the toughness of the material and the quality of construction. Tube diametre varies so the various-sized panels are stitched, glued and taped together to give the slightly narrowing bow, with a kicked-up front and a bulkier stern to take your weight. Rolled up (right, with the blue air bag tucked in) after sucking all the air out via the mouth valve, it’s about the size of a bulky two-man tent.
Inflation relies an ingenious super light ripstop bag which screws into the boat’s dump valve at the back. Scoop up some air, twist the top of the bag shut and then squeeze it in with your chest and knees, filling the boat. It sounds clumsy but works very well and takes about 10 squeezes to nearly fill the boat. Once done, unscrew the air bag and screw in the cap quick. You then top it off by mouth via an elbow valve with another 10 lungfuls. Once you get on the water the air inside the hull cools and pressure drops so you’ll need to give 2-3 more puffs to firm it up; easier to do out of the boat.
The inflatable seat is light and basic, almost flimsy compared with the rest of the boat, but absorbs the blows from submerged rocks (though mine burst a leak early on). It’s actually very comfortable and the ‘toilet seat’ design means you’re not sitting in pooled water. One annoyance is that the backrest always flops down when you’re trying to re-enter and get set up fast before the next rapid. It needs holding back which I’ve easily done with an elastic.
As it stands I am very pleased with my Llama’s colour, features, weight, comfort and performance. You can tell a lot of thought has gone into refining an old design without forgetting that simplicity means less weight, less stuff and easier repairs in the field. Durability of such a light craft is my main worry, but the proof will be in using it more. They say they’re tougher than they look, but obviously you want to treat it with care.
I suspect long-term ownership and hard use of an Alpacka may mean occasional field repairs, but a little TLC and maintenance is the way it should be to get full use out of quality gear, rather than wearing it out and throwing it away.
When it’s all over deflating takes a minute and drying is as fast as a full-coat Gumo IK. You can then wrap it up around your paddle, swing it over your shoulder and head home.