Nov 12, 2016

Testing Alpacka Raft's new Self Bailer

Recently Kirk and I were given the chance to test out Alpacka's new self-bailing packraft. I was intrigued since my 2012 boat frequently fills with water despite using the cruiser spray deck (repeated portages with the boat has added to the dirt and moss accumulated in my velcro...despite cleaning it after each trip, it doesn't fasten as well as it once did when a big wave comes my way).

We took it out one afternoon in Bend's new whitewater play park (the park is a pretty big disappointment, but that's a post for another day).

Alpacka's four-point thigh-brace system

The self-bailing floor

Kirk surfing
Then we planned to paddle an 11 mile canyon section of the White River in Oregon above Tygh Valley. We knew water levels would be low, but that's never stopped us before! But, by the time we made it Maupin, we determined our daylight hours were too short for the excursion at low flows. Finally we decided to park on the Deschutes River across from the White River confluence and walk up to the falls and boat down. A mere 2 miles, but hey, it was something. 

We were joined by our friend Brian who owns an old school Alpacka from the days before the shaped bow and stern. He paddled my yellow Llama while I paddled the self-bailer and Kirk used his multi-colored circus boat.

Our plans were thwarted once again when Kirk's shoe decided to blow-out on our hike up the canyon. The shoe completely disintegrated and we were faced with the decision of whether to continue while he wore down his dry-suit foot on the rocky shore. Ever the problem solver, he wrapped his foot in the rope from his throw-bag, but soon that fell apart. Nice try Kirk!

We decided to cut our losses and boat out. Kirk and I switched crafts and paddled a few of the small rapids a few times, then Brian and I boated out to the Deschues to the Sandy Beach take-out, and I got to paddle through a few big wave-trains. The boat handled well!

The boat had good punch due to the added weight of the water that comes with paddling the self-bailer. Something I enjoyed.
So after all that we sat down and wrote out our observations on the self-bailer boat...which had thigh-straps and a foot pillow included. Now most of our notes on room for improvement were on the backband and thigh straps that Alpacka provides:

Because the foot pillow I was using isn't actually attached, it just has a hook with a huge loop, it came unhooked twice at the play park after 5 minutes of use, and a third time on the White River. I lost it when it fell out when I was carrying the boat. A more secure attachment (buckle?) option would be better (even in the photo the pillow had come unattached). In moving water a simple hook to the boat is just a plain bad idea in our opinion.

The new rocker on the boat compared to ours we purchased in 2012 is a big improvement for running rapids, although it does seem to be quite a bit less snappy in catching eddies; a good aggressive lean does not seem to help. On the other side of the spectrum eddy lines seem to effect it less than our 2012 models, and the water seems to slip under it effortlessly...but all boats are different and have a slight learning curve to make them do what you want them to do.

Overall I really liked how it handled through rapids, and it seemed to keep good control though waves and such. The boat does carry a load of water under the seat due to the fact that it is not a true self bailer (no inflated floor) but this has mixed reviews from us. I liked it as it makes it more stable, but Kirk was not as big of a fan of the extra weight. When leaning the boat, water shifts around and there is excess weight when picking up the boat, though he is seriously considering buying one for some of our river-wide log-every-hundred-feet portage-fest excursions.

The backband is probably the biggest area we see could be improved. The rope to webbing attachment point is prone to ripping out and there isn't a way to fix it without taking the whole thigh brace patch off.

The webbing and ropes will cut into each other after just a little use, especially somewhere as high pressure as the backband. If the rope were actually bar tacked to the webbing so it couldn't slide, it would be a better, but you could really only do this on one side if it needs to be removable. Instead we suggest the backband strap either connects to some plastic/metal hardware like at d-ring or buckle, or the webbing on the backband is sewn to the patch on the boat with 1/2 coming from the left, 1/2 from right, terminating with an adjustable buckle in the middle of the backband. We also think this webbing should be run through loops to let the backband move and not sewn directly on. As is, it doesn't allow any movement at all, only excessive pulling at the attachment point. We were told this rigid attachment was for rolling purposes, but Kirk has never had any problem rolling with a backband that moves when cinched up correctly.

The other items on the backband we think would be a good idea to replace are the 2 lateral straps going to the back of the boat with something non-rigid. A backband works better when it's fluid and dynamic and should move with you; bungee cord would be a better solution. The only reason those rear attachments are there is to keep the backband in a vertical position until your back comes into contact with it then it becomes an obsolete attachment. The way the backband is set up puts stress on the attachment patches, thus ripping at the patches...(already happening...uh oh!)

We think cam buckles would be much better than ladder locks or plastic buckles on the thigh straps. It makes it much easier to adjust, especially if it is not buried under your hip next to the boat. In addition wet webbing really does not glide through any plastic tri-glide buckle very well. Having the buckle out on your thigh makes it easier to adjust, and it is much more accessible if you need to release it for any reason. Everybody wants the lightest thing out there in a packraft, but shave too many ounces and the function and durability can suffer.

So yes...we will probably order a self-bailer, it rocks actually! And put in our own thigh-straps and backband just like we did before.


  1. Do you have try the self bailing Gnarwhal since?or any 2017 model?


    1. Hey, we've only tried this one model...debating trying to convert one of our Llamas though!

  2. Thx for the review.
    Do you think using my NRS thigh straps (cam type) will work with the stock attachment points.

    1. That might be doable! NRS straps are what we used first time around, if you can find a good attachment system, should work.