Packrafting in Racing

Team Rogue practice their packrafting setup in Alpacka Explorer 42s at Expedition Alaska.

Team Rogue practice their packrafting setup in Alpacka Explorer 42s at Expedition Alaska.

Packrafts.  Spend any time in adventure sports and you are probably familiar with these back country toys.  For those who are just having their eyes opened to the possibilities of packrafts, take a crash course in their history here.

Geocentric Outdoors have put the cat among the pigeons with the announcement that a packrafting leg is now going to be part of the AR World Championships in the Shoalhaven region later this year.  The use of packrafts in expedition racing has seen a steady increase in the past few years, featuring at AR World Series races such as Untamed New England, Mayan Mountain Adventure Challenge, Expedition Alaska and the 2015 World Champs in Brazil.  And rumour has it that this new discipline will be taken on by multiple other world series races for the first time in 2017 including the world champs in Wyoming.

So the first question is, should we be happy about the inclusion of packrafting in expedition racing?  After all an Alpacka packraft, the gold standard in packrafting, is not cheap.  If you are flying internationally to compete at a race, they definitely represent an additional bulky weight hit at the check in counter.  And isn’t it the race organiser’s responsibility to provide boats in a modern day expedition race (the last expedition race I’m aware of where teams had to provide their own boats was the World Champs in Scotland in 2007)?  The beauty of the packraft is it allows accessibility to waterways, particularly whitewater rivers, that are otherwise not accessible by any other means sans helicopter.  They open up a world of new and exciting padding options, so if the terrain dictates it – that is, a whitewater paddle that can only be accessed with a back country hike in – then I think they make an exciting addition to adventure racing.  And from my understanding from discussions with the event organisers, this is exactly what we have in store for us at this year’s XPD.

So let’s have a look at a couple of considerations and options for packrafts, particular as they relate to the 2016 World Champs in Australia.

Beg, Borrow (or Steal)

From the description of the packrafting stage at the XPD ARWC race this year, the discipline is a single stage of 45km.  This is includes a minimum of around 4 hours paddling (but anywhere up to 12-16 hours) in what could be a 150 hour race.  My suggestion for intermediate to novice teams not looking to make a major investment is to keep it simple and not over spend in time, effort or money.  Ask around your adventure-mates circle – you would be amazed how many people in Australia already own a packraft (I can think of 6 friends off the top of my head who own one in QLD).  Just be understanding if they are a little reluctant to loan because, while they are a pretty bomber piece of kit, the last thing you want to do is return a patched up, punctured raft.

Alpacka

Godzone Adventure Team paddling Alpacka Gnus at the 2015 ARWC Pantanal.

Godzone Adventure Team paddling Alpacka Gnus at the 2015 ARWC Pantanal.

There is no doubt that the absolute gold standard for packrafts are Alpacka.  Enough said.  But which Alpacka raft to get if you want to go down the road of hire or purchase?  We did a bit of research into this and decided on the Alpacka Explorer 42 (pronounced Explorer “For Two”) for Expedition Alaska.  These are a double packraft weighing in at 3kg each.  Another popular choice is the Alpacka Gnu (a derivation of the word Canoe).  In theory these double rafts have a slightly faster water line than the Explorer 42 and are the packraft of choice by some of the top teams in the world including Seagate, Godzone  Adventure Team and Adventure Medical Kits.  However, the Gnu is significantly more expensive to purchase than the Explorer 42, heavier by a kilogram at 4kg per raft and are designed to be paddle while kneeling with a single bladed paddle, which is not ideal in shallow rocky water in my opinion.  In a flat water paddle test, under ideal conditions, we managed 6 km/hr in the Explorer 42s.  Both rafts are very expensive, particularly with the Australian dollar as it is, and you won’t be walking away with less than a $3000 hit if you want to import a pair into Australia.  The comparable Chinese made MRS Adventure x2 is of similar build quality and specs, but also comes in at a very similar price point, hence the tendancy to lean towards he Alpacka options.

We opted for two double Alapacka rafts (3kg each) over four single rafts (2.4kg each) as there is only a small weight difference between the two, meaning an overall weight saving for the team.  However, I did see Traces of Nuts using a double and two single rafts at Expedition Alaska and the guys in the singles seemed to be having much more fun than us.  Put two 85kg blokes with all their gear into a 3kg boat and send them down grade III rapids and it can make for some interesting and uncomfortable times.  Plus, if you are going to use the raft recreationally in the future, you probably want to own a single raft as a first choice (not that you can’t paddle a double packraft comfortably by yourself).  For someone looking for a roomier double, there is the Kokopelli Twain, however this boat is significantly heavier than the Alpacka options at a very similar price point.  We also opted to skip getting skirts for the boats, saving on cost, weight and faff during the race setting them up and getting in and out for portages.  If we survived the glacial waters of Alaska without a skirt, you definitely won’t need one in NSW in late spring (and they can always be retrofitted on Alpacka rafts).

Check out Traces of Nuts paddling two single and one double Alpacka packraft at Expedition Alaska.  This was the first time we hit the water during the race with our rafts and we were eddied out just upstream from them ready to follow on.

Hire Options

Big fans of packrafting, USA team Yogaslackers take a creative approach to the discipline in this single packraft using hand paddles.

Big fans of packrafting, USA team Yogaslackers take a creative approach to the discipline in this single packraft using hand paddles.

If you are buying a set of boats, make sure you have the “it will be a great toy for the kids to use” excuse ready for your significant other.  However, if you are convinced XPD will be your only use for a packraft, there are hire options out there.  Unfortunately, from within Australia, hire options are very limited.  There is Packraft Australia, however rates are not cheap and I would look to negotiate on the fact that the boat would only be used for a single day.  There are a number of companies in Queenstown, NZ that will hire out Alpacka Rafts such as Get My Boat and Packrafting NZ.  I’m not sure if they will ship to Australia, but they may be an option for one of the eight NZ teams racing at XPD.  There is even talk of a new packrafting company setting up in Te Anau in NZ producing rafts to rival Alpackas in quality, however they won’t be ready for commercial sales until around September I’ve been told.

Another option is the Packrafting Store, based in Germany however they will only hire out boats within the EU.  Their rates are very reasonably so they are a great option if you are one of the 16 European teams racing at XPD or if you have overseas connections.  In addition, there are a myriad of hire options out of the original home of Alpacka, Alaska, but given the poor Australian dollar and the length of hire period, I’d suggest this would work out too expensive for any antipodean teams.

Doing It Cheap

A cheaper option the "Explorer 100" is a little different to an Alpacka "Explorer 42"

A cheaper option, the “Explorer 100” is a little different to an Alpacka “Explorer 42”

As I said, the packraft section of XPD at a minmum is only 3-4 hours of paddling in a 150 hour race.  Boat speed should be less of a concern than boat durability.  For those teams that are looking to just finish the race as their “A goal”, then I would advise considering a cheaper option.  Single raft options like this from K-Mart or this from Harvey Norman at $12-$15 will guarantee you will start the race having spent less any than any other team on the course – a noble aspiration.  You could spend a bit more money and even get a double raft from Anaconda.

These cheaper options have another major advantage over their expensive Alpacka counterparts and that is weight.  These style of boats typically come in under a kilogram, meaning you could save up to 4kg of weight for the hike portion of the race – a significant saving.  Their two disadvantages are paddle speed and durability.  As I alluded to, for the amount of packrafting in XPD, the paddle speed should not be a consideration for any team not fighting out for a podium.  Their big down fall is durability – it is pretty easy to puncture one of these toy rafts.  My suggestion for teams opting for one of these rafts is to buy at least one spare raft and carry it for the leg: the cost and weight is negligible, making it well worth having available in case you puncture a boat.  That, and carry lots of gaffa tape.

A comparison chart of other notable packraft alternatives to purchase or hire.

A comparison chart of other notable packraft alternatives to purchase or hire from the PackraftingStore.de

As further insight, when the XPD course setters were vetting the course, they did so with both an Alpacka raft and a toy raft option between two people.  The Alpacka raft was described as “awesome fun – really, really fun”.  The toy raft punctured early (in part due to poor packing of a pump on the floor of the raft which lead to a tear on a rock), and they had to resort to using a backup raft, which was more torturous and lead to a lot more hiking.  But they did make it down the river – food for thought.  And while the paddle portion of the leg is a minimum is 3-4 hours, you may wish to opt for more paddling and less hiking, extending the paddling out to 12 hours, so you want to make sure that whatever your setup is, you have practiced it.  How much hiking versus paddling you do might also be dictated by the quality of your raft, and not just the course and conditions.

A Supai raft might represent a good middle ground option.

A Supai raft might represent a good middle ground option.

There is a middle ground option for a cheaper packraft.  Supai make a raft that on face value looks more durable than your general pool toy, at a middle ground price.  At 800g they are significant weight saving, pack down much smaller than an Alapacka and will be easier to distribute the weight for hiking among the team.  Again, I would still carry a spare pool toy option during the leg.  For a great review of all the different packraft model options, check out this blog.

Once you’ve settled on your raft of choice for XPD, there are still a couple of other considerations to take into account.

Packs

Fully loaded, ready to start the first packraft leg of Expedition Alaska.

Fully loaded, ready to start the first packraft leg of Expedition Alaska with a 40L Berghaus Octans pack.

When I first looked at the ARWC gear list, I was pretty excited.  Having only raced gear intensive, cold races like Exp AK and GODZone the past four years, the gear list for XPD seemed pretty minimal.  Originally it would be possible to get away with a 30L pack.  But throw in a packraft, paddle, helmet, PFD, throw bag, pump and patch repair kit, and that is a pretty bulky weight addition.  I wouldn’t recommend anything less than a 40L pack.

One option would be to have a larger pack set aside for just the packrafting leg.  Indeed, this could be the bag that is used to transport the packrafting gear around the course by the organisers.  Personally though, I think I will just race with my 40L pack for the whole race and keep it simple, given that it is only 120g heavier than my smaller option pack and gives me more flexibility for carrying team mates gear or additional equipment for the rest of the race.

Paddles

Typically a packrafting mission is done with a 4-piece paddle.  These pack down smaller and more securely in your pack than a two piece paddle.  I would be very reluctant to use my carbon wing two piece paddle (900g) for a packrafting leg for two reasons.  Firstly, the paddle sticking up from the top of the pack can easily get caught up in thick bush and become cumbersome.  Secondly, I’d be a bit nervous about using it in shallow, rocky whitewater for fear of chipping or splitting the blade – in the very least I would tape the ends of the blade for protection on that stage.

The gold standard in 4-piece paddles versus one of your cheapest options.

The gold standard in 4-piece paddles versus one of your cheapest options.

The standard option for a four piece paddle is the Manta Ray from Alpacka – either the fiberglass model or the carbon model if you have the coin and want to save weight.  The absolute rolled gold, ducks nuts option is the 4-piece carbon mid wing paddle from Epic (700g).  These are the paddles used by team Adventure Medical Kits, are super light and have the advantage that they can be used for both the kayak legs and the packrafting leg, meaning you only need to transport one paddle to the race.  You would want to be pretty loose with your cash though to make this longer term investment – something for your kids to inherit upon your eventual passing from this world.  The bare bones option I would recommend is a Bic 4-piece fold up paddle (1.35kg).  At $35 each plus $20 postage for up to four paddles, this alloy and plastic paddle can afford be trashed at this price.

Don’t worry about bringing two paddles to the race if you can get them there – teams are allowed a dedicated packrafting bag to be transported by organisers, so the weight is not counted towards the maximum limit of the team’s kayak bag.  My understanding from discussions of the packrafting leg with race organisers is that they vetted the course with a two piece paddle, but they weren’t “racing” and nursed the paddle in the whitewater, and suggested a 4-piece paddle would be nicer for the hike portion of the leg.

The Wrap Up

Packrafting at its best: team Rouge at Expedition Alaska.

Packrafting at its best: team Rouge at Expedition Alaska.

I know for many teams, having a new discipline thrust on them for a race they have already committed to can be difficult.  My understanding is that the permit permissions for the packrafting leg at XPD have only just been cleared, hence its inclusion three months out from the race.  But I’m excited by the possibilities for this stage at the race: packrafting has the potential to become a true race highlight.

As an avid follower of adventure racing, I suspect this discipline will grow to become an ever more prominent part of the expedition racing scene (I’ve already used our Alaskan packrafts at the 2015 GeoQuest to great success).  Given the 15% discount offered by Alapcka for competitors at XPD, now might be the time to buy in for those looking to race semi-frequently on the ARWS scence and chalk it up to one more expense in an already gear-intensive, expensive sport.  Strong rumour has it packrafting will feature again in a number of 2017 ARWS races including the World Champs in Wyoming, and I suspect that for all these reasons an Alpacka packraft will have good resale value.  And for those looking to keep it cheap and simple, there are a raft of options available.

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