Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Alpacka Alpackalypse long term review.

There aren't many whitewater-specific packrafts out there as yet.  There may be something new available in the past ~week that I haven't yet heard about, but failing that I've spent a good chunk of time in every packraft that makes any claim to whitewater competence.  Of these, Alpacka's Alpackalypse and Gnarwhal stand head and shoulders above the rest.  

About to go deep in Slaughterhouse Falls.  Jesse Selwyn photo.

Honestly, it really isn't even close -- any/every other boat out there has at least one fatal flaw that immediately demotes it in my eyes.  I think of everything else as a 'class III boat': not really apropos for paddlers intent on progressing beyond that level, nor for experts to come to from a kayak background and expect the boat to perform and/or last very long.

I've been paddling an Alpackalypse full-time, roughly 80 to 100 on-water days per year, since 2013.  I'd guesstimate a minimum of 400 on-water days in that time.

Surfing at 29 road.  Greg Luck photo.

Do the math indicated above and you might conclude that I have more time in a 'lypse than probably anyone else on the planet.  Couple that with me being one opinionated (and picky) S.O.B. and you can bet I have a lot to say about the boat.

The first and most obvious thing I can say about the Alpackalypse is that it's not for everyone, and in fact I think it's got a pretty narrow range of ideal end users.  If you want to be able to carry your dog, your bike, or your partner at times, the 'lypse can do it but it certainly isn't the ideal boat -- none of those were part of the design intent.  If what you aspire to do is become more competent at technical whitewater, the 'lypse is inarguably the best inflatable on the planet for that purpose.  If competence in whitewater is your goal, and traveling far or deep to get to it is on your agenda, then I think the Alpackalypse might be one of the best products you could ever spend your money on.

About to get slapped down on the Salt.  Moe Witschard photo.

The first 3 'lypses I paddled extensively were pre-production prototypes that Alpacka loaned to me in exchange for honest, critical feedback as they were fine-tuning the original production hull.  These boats all had compromises -- that's the nature of pre-production iterations -- but Alpacka provided them because they were genuinely, aggressively pursuing improvement of every detail.  

They were experimenting with variations in hull shape, hull materials, coaming size and shape, skirt material and fit, and they spent literal years fine-tuning the rigging that keeps the paddler locked into the boat.  The initial production iteration that hit the market was awesome relative to everything that came before.  But everything can be made better -- weight removed, comfort increased, performance ramped, durability improved, price dropped.  Each of the above has been systematically addressed since that first Alpackalypse I paddled back in the spring of 2013.  Could it still be improved incrementally?  Sure -- everything can.  That said, the Alpackalypse has arrived at a place such that what I want at this point has nothing to do with changing the boat, and everything to do with simply finding more time to be in it.

Getting stopped on Four Falls, Bailey.  Evan Stafford photo.

I'm not an aggressive paddler.  I didn't get into a boat until I was in my 40's and I'd spent the previous 35 years riding bikes.  With brakes.  I think I'm just conditioned to be able to squeeze the binders and slow down, or stop, now -- and since that really doesn't work in a boat, I prefer to move slowly, pensively, unwilling to just commit to a rapid where I can't see a clean line or at minimum the next eddy.  I tend to drift and look a little longer than I should, when I should be digging hard to build momentum to break an eddy line or punch a hole.  This doesn't really work in the Alpackalypse -- it demands that you paddle aggressively at all times.  It rewards being on your toes, punishes lollygaggers whom sit back on their heels.  The Alpackalypse -- each successive iteration -- has forced me to become a more aggressive paddler.

Exiting Trash Can, Vallecito Creek.  John Baker photo.

I learned to roll within my first year of paddling whitewater, and I continually work to maintain and refine that skill.  More and more people are rolling their packrafts now, but a far larger number are content to swim when they flip, and then perform a wet re-entry.  One way to know if the Alpackalypse is right for you is where you fall in that range.  Plan to swim or learn to roll?  If the latter, you're a good candidate for a 'lypse, for many reasons.

Taking advantage of a predictable, safe environment to refine new skills: Montrose Whitewater Park.  Greg Luck video.

If you have little interest in learning to roll -- for whatever reason -- then I'd encourage you to choose a Gnarwhal and learn it's limitations, then stay within them.  Swimming is fun -- or at least fine -- in certain places, but the harder the whitewater the more likely a swim will eventually lead to injury.  The Gnarwhal is a big, wide (and thus stable), capable yet forgiving boat that doesn't require you to be on your toes at all times.  It's not a stretch to say that it will save your ass more times than you can count, or even realize.  This is good in that hey -- we all like to get away with mistakes, especially when learning.  The stability and forgiveness of the Gnarwhal is bad in that it can lull you into thinking that you're a more competent paddler than you are, and for a certain type of person that might mean they push their limits in more challenging whitewater before they're really ready for it.

Putting those skills to use on the LCR.  Rich Rudow photo.

I remain in an Alpackalypse for exactly that reason: If I stay in the boat and paddle well it's because I'm doing things right, not because the boat is saving my ass repeatedly.  I think it's a great tool to keep me honest, to keep me from attempting runs that are over my head.

Knocked over in the crux of Tampax, Bailey.  I rolled up more or less in the lap of the photographer.  Not sure who took this photo -- possibly Austin Woody.

It's difficult to talk about the Alpackalypse -- a packraft meant to run technical, challenging whitewater -- without comparing it to a creekboat or river runner.  And the simple fact is that I just don't have enough time in hard boats to be able to compare them with any level of accuracy.  I should limit my comparison to saying that If you come from a kayak background you'll be both amazed and confused at what the Alpackalypse can do.  It will feel substantially more stable than almost any hardshell kayak, damn near as maneuverable, capable of catching any/every eddy, yet because of its light weight and buoyancy will be more likely to get knocked off line in pushy water.  That light weight also makes it eminently boofable.

Staircase in Dark Canyon.  Greg Luck photo.

There is a certain evolution that needs to take place in your head to step out of your kayak and paddle this boat effectively, and most of it is in how you read water.  Because of the 'lypse's buoyancy you don't draw as much water, and as such need to pay closer attention to the boils, swirls, seams, and foam on the surface than you normally would in your hard boat.  Most kayakers pick up on this immediately and intuitively, others require getting unintentionally surfed a few times to internalize the lesson.

Eyes wide open in Nightmare on the Elwha.  Tom Diegel photo.

Packrafts have come so far in the past few years, much farther than I think most can understand if they haven't been in one.  A few years ago in his seminal class IV packrafting guide, Luc Mehl admonished packrafters interested in class V to "buy a kayak".  Luc wasn't wrong then and he isn't wrong now, because spending time in a kayak is going to improve anyone's skillset.  I think the evolution in boats the past few years makes his blanket statement inaccurate in that the Alpackalypse is certainly capable of class V -- it's the paddler that is now the limiting factor.

Don't hesitate with questions.


  1. Are you taking an alpackalypse on your upcoming Nebesna -> McCarthy trip?

  2. I've been waiting for this post from you and/or Jeff Creamer. Thanks for taking the time Mike.

  3. Nice review Mike. Lots of nice photos. I don't really disagree with anything here, but will also emphasize that for a very skilled paddler the lypse is a much more sporty/fun boat. Like driving a Ferrari vs a hummer.

    1. I agree that the 'lypse is a lot more sporty than pretty much anything else out there.

  4. Thank you for this review. This is exactly what I needed to make my Alpackalypse vs. Gnarwhal buying decision.