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Reviews > Water Craft > Packable water craft > Denali Llama Raft > Owner Review by Richard Lyon

Alpacka Raft Denali Llama
Owner Review by Richard Lyon

November 7, 2010

PERSONAL DETAILS and BACKPACKING BACKGROUND
Male, 64 years old
Height: 6' 4" (1.93 m)
Weight: 205 lb (91 kg)
Email address: montana DOT angler AT gmail DOT com
Home: Dallas, Texas USA

I've been backpacking for 45 years and regularly in the Rockies since 1986.  I do at least one week-long trip every summer, and often take three-day trips.  I'm usually camping in alpine terrain, at altitudes 5000 to 10000 ft (1500 - 3000 m).  I prefer base camp backpacking, a long hike in with day trips from camp, but I do forced marches too.  Recently I've been actively reducing my pack weight, though I still usually include my favorite camp conveniences and always sleep in a floored tent.  Summer camping is often planned around fly-fishing opportunities.

WHAT’S A PACKRAFT?

Denali LlamaWikipedia defines packraft as “a small, portable inflatable boat designed for use in large and/or natural bodies of water, including technical whitewater.”  That’s a good start, but in the backpacking community the term usually has two more requirements, that the raft be lightweight enough, and can pack down to a size that can be carried on the boater-hiker’s back, so it can be taken into the backcountry without stock support.  Hikers first used packrafts principally as a navigation aid, analogous to carrying skis to be able to get down a snowy slope or crampons to cross a glacier.  A packraft allows a hiker to traverse still or moving water, making hitherto-impassable routes accessible and difficult fords much less daunting.
 
That’s still a primary backpacking purpose.  These ingenious watercraft are so much fun, however, that they have developed a following among those who plan a trip for the rafting opportunities – running whitewater, fishing, or just a lazy afternoon on the water.  I bought mine to be able to reach the middle of high country lakes, where big fish that have never seen an artificial fly live.

PRODUCT DETAILS

Manufacturer: Alpacka Raft LLC, Mancos, Colorado USA
Website: www.alpackaraft.com

Outside length -  74.5 in/1.89  m (listed), 74.75 in /1.90 m (measured)
Outside width -  38.0 in/0.97 m (listed), 38.25 in/ 0.97 m (measured)   
Inside length -    50.5 in/1.28 m (listed), 50.75 in/1.29 m (measured)
Inside width -    15.5 in/0.39 m (listed),  15.5 in/ 0.39 m (measured)
Listed Weight: Raft, 4 lb 15 oz/2.24 kg; spray deck 8 oz/227 g.  The Cedar Green fabric is listed as slightly heavier.
Measured Weight: Raft, 4 lb 14 oz/2.21 kg before spray deck retrofit; 5 lb 6 oz (2.44 kg) after.
Color: Nautical Blue. Also available in Sierra Red or Cedar Green.
Related Products: Alpacka’s three “all-purpose” (suitable for whitewater) rafts differ only in size.  The Denali Llama is the largest, the Yukon Yak slightly smaller, and the Alpaca the smallest.  See “Design and Set-up” below.
MSRP: Raft, $790 US; spray deck, $200 US.  The spray deck may be ordered with the raft or retrofitted.
Includes: Boat, basic repair kit, stuff sack, inflation bag, removable seat and seat back, two stern grab-loops, four bow grab-loops, and a very informative eight-page Owner’s Manual.  The Manual provides general material on packrafting as well as techniques for inflating, deflating, storing, maintaining, and repairing the Llama.
Year of purchase: Bought used in 2008.  I had Alpacka add a spray deck in 2009.  Note: I have noticed that packraft veterans often refer to Alpacka rafts by model years, in a manner similar to automobiles (e.g., “07 Yak”), as the manufacturer does make design changes from time to time. I bought mine used, and don’t know or don’t remember its year of manufacture.

FIELD USE

My Llama introduced me to packrafting.  I first used it on a week-long backpacking trip in the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area, Montana, in September 2008.  This was a service trip, but on our day off I hiked up to Sunburst Lake for some fishing.  This was a calm, sunny day with temperatures about 65 F (19 C).  My maiden voyage lasted about two hours. 

Yankee Jim CanyonNext backcountry use was on a three-day packrafting course on the Yellowstone River, Montana, in September 2009.  We paddled from Gardiner to Carbella’s through Yankee Jim Canyon twice, and from Tom Miner Basin to Emigrant once, using a shuttle to move to each successive put-in point.  The former stretch of river, especially Yankee Jim, has some moderate whitewater, probably rated Class 3 at the relatively low water levels that late in the summer.  Temperatures on the first two days were in the low 80s F (~27 C), with moderate winds.  A cold front blew through our last night on the river, dropping the high on Sunday to a more typical 60 F (16 C), made to feel colder by a stiff north wind that blew in our faces all day long.   I’m in the blue raft in the photo at left, taken on one of the few non-scenic stretches of the Yankee Jim Canyon section.

This past July I played with the Llama on short stretches on a still-above-normal Boulder River in Montana, paddling amid the boulders for practice and fun.  This occurred on bright sunny days at about 80 F (26 C), with light breezes.  No whitewater, but many boulders, on the Boulder River.

I have rafted with the Llama on Dallas-area lakes perhaps a dozen times, before and after the backcountry trips, usually for a few hours on weekend afternoons when the wind was high, to practice various paddling techniques with waves present.  The coldest such day was 50 F (10 C).   Some of these outings included flyfishing from the raft.

All of my use of the Llama has been with me as the only passenger.  Alpacka claims (and posts pictures to illustrate) that the Llama can be used, in calm water only, for two-man ferrying duty.  I have not yet tried this.

OBSERVATIONS

Design.  Packraft design undoubtedly has military origins. The three models intended for backpacking, including the Denali Llama, look like inflatable landing craft used by the SEALs.  The bow sits slightly higher (listed at 4 in/10 cm) than the stern, and the raft is also slightly wider at the bow.  When inflated the raft’s tube gives about ten inches’ (25 cm) freeboard (height above water) at the bow and seven inches (18 cm) at the stern with me in the boat. 

The Llama is made of “world-class, custom-built urethane fabrics.” Alpacka emphasizes its use of non-PVC coated materials as both a “green” selling point and an aid to durability.  The raft’s single-chamber tube has a twelve-inch (30 cm) diameter when fully inflated. Even when loaded with a pack and my not-inconsiderable bulk the Llama has a very shallow draft, allowing travel in shallow water and facilitating passage over river rocks.

Packraft designThe company recommends choosing a raft based on the rafter’s height, and advertises the Llama for anyone six feet (1.83 m) or taller.   This is more than convenience and comfort; the paddler is an important part of the raft’s design. As shown in the photo at right from Alpacka’s website, the paddler sits in the stern with extended legs making a frame that adds to the boat’s stability.  Alpacka recommends augmenting this frame with a sleeping pad under the seat.

Though I’m at the top of Alpacka’s stated height range for the Llama, the fit is perfect, with my feet up against the tube at the bow with my knees slightly bent and my back against the seat. 

The Llama is paddled kayak-style, with a double-bladed paddle gripped in the middle, and many kayak techniques apply to packrafting. The seat has a back for some additional comfort, but its main purpose is to raise the paddler a few inches/centimeters to provide better paddling leverage. 

Blow-up.  In the backcountry I inflate the raft with the inflation bag, which screws into the raft’s main valve (called the “dump valve” by Alpacka).  First I capture air in the bag and then compress the bag to force the air into the raft’s inflation chamber.  Use of the sack took some practice, but once I got the hang of it I was able to inflate my raft in less than five minutes.  It’s useful to learn how to replace the cap on the valve very quickly after removing the inflation sack, to limit losing air from the chamber.  I have a hand pump that’s compatible with the dump valve, and use that when I can drive to the put-in point.

The Llama has a separate, smaller valve that can be used to blow in air the old-fashioned way, by mouth, ordinarily to top up bag or pump inflation, though a blowhard has been known to inflate his craft entirely without use of the inflation sack.  The seat has a similar small valve for “manual” inflation.  These valves have caps that may be screwed to loosen or tighten but thankfully are not removable. I’d lose one for sure.

My standard inflation procedure is to inflate fully using the sack, blow up the seat by mouth, and then “temper” the raft.  Rivers and lakes in the Rockies tend to be cold (below 50 F/10 C is not uncommon), and when the water is colder than the air, the air inside the tube will contract slightly when the raft first comes in contact with the water.  After inflating with the bag I splash water over the tubes, let the boat sit in the water for a few minutes, and then fill back to capacity using the manual valve.

 The spray deck.  With only a foot (30 cm) of freeboard the Llama can ship water quickly, and I expect to get wet when I am paddling on any river.  As the only group member on the Yellowstone course whose boat didn’t have a spray deck I learned on the job that even when paddling with proper technique an insignificant wave or riffle often means an undue amount of water in the boat from spray and splashes.  The whitewater stretches on the Yellowstone were short enough so that I could eddy out to the bank and dump the accumulation, but that is not something I shall always be able to count on.  This adventure prompted me to have my raft retrofitted with a deck. Alpacka doesn’t sell a retrofit kit; rather it requires a customer who didn’t order a deck with his raft to send the boat to the factory in Colorado for its addition.

The spray deck is black fabric, thinner than the boat’s inflation tube, and is welded on and therefore not removable. The deck can be rolled up and cached along the inside of the bow when not needed, or unrolled and attached using mating hook-and-loop strips along the tube and the deck’s edges.

The spray deck’s function differs from that of a skirt on a kayak, as the deck does not seal around the paddler. It’s there to deflect water, and it does not eliminate the need for lower body insulation.  Without a watertight seal it’s not perfect at keeping water out, but it does reduce dramatically the need for bailing or dumping water. 

Tent and raftPackability.  The Llama really does pack down to the size of a two-man tent, as Alpacka claims. The photo at left shows the packed Llama next to a packed Stephenson’s Warmlite 2R tent (separately reviewed on this site). For me that means packing the equivalent of two tents, which usually means a larger pack. For any reader who’s considering packrafting for backcountry transport, though, take note of additional gear required under the Packrafting accessories section below. 

A packraft may be able to do double duty.  Though none of my course instructors, hard-core ultralighters all, did this, I have seen an inflated packraft used in place of a tarp, with its paddle used to lift one end.  I’d only do this when rain, cold wind, and bugs were extremely unlikely.  On its website Alpacka describes and illustrates several other methods of using a raft, either inflated or deflated, as shelter.

With a packLoading.  The Llama is designed to carry cargo, and a backpack in particular.  Like the man shown in the attached photo from Alpacka’s web site, I lash mine to the bow using two pieces of six-foot (1.8 m) cord attached to the tie-downs atop the bow.  By threading the cord through straps and loops on the pack and loops on the bow of the raft and then securing with a pair of well-tied bowline knots, my pack stays attached after a flip-over yet can be undone quickly with a strategic tug on each tag end.  Alpacka sells ($15 US) as an accessory a “Pachtach” system that allows storage by means of stretchable cord that’s attached to the bow’s grab loops.  Needless to say, with either method a dry bag or waterproof pack is advisable.

Seaworthiness.  The Llama is incredibly buoyant and easy to maneuver.  Sometimes it seems too easy, as even a slight inadvertent paddle stroke can turn the bow quickly and set the raft broadside to a wave or rock.  The raft is so stable that it’s difficult to capsize the Llama on still water, except when trying to re-enter the boat after a voluntary or involuntary swim.  After half a day’s practice I fell out of my Llama only once on the Yellowstone runs, and not at all on the serious rapids.  I got careless and missed seeing a big rock that I could easily have avoided. 

I have not noticed any navigation advantage from using a sleeping pad under the seat.  An inflated pad, three-quarter length, does make my gluteus maximus a bit more comfortable and provides some insulation from cold water that’s collected in the boat.

The only issue I’ve had with the Llama’s design is the placement of the auxiliary (manual) inflation valve.  It’s located on the left side near the stern, and twice I have inadvertently brushed it slightly open when paddling, allowing air to trickle out.  This first happened when coursing through a rapid on the Yellowstone, when my attention was focused entirely on the rocks and whitewater ahead.  On reaching calmer water the Llama had accumulated several inches/centimeters of water inside, making paddling an only partially inflated craft dangerously unwieldy and requiring an immediate eddy-out to dump the water, restore full inflation, and screw the valve cap down securely.  Since this mishap I have been more conscious than usual of tightening the valve after tempering or topping up, but I have had one other instance of seepage from this valve. 

Durability. My experience bears out Alpacka’s claim that its rafts are “low maintenance watercraft. We design them for people who are HARD on gear.”  I’ve dragged my Llama over rocks, sand, and brush when on land, and grazed more than a few underwater boulders on the river, so far without a puncture or slow leak.  Stout design and good luck have avoided my needing the repair kit.  Even more than light weight and small pack-down size, the strength and durability of its rafts are what set Alpacka apart from many other suppliers of watercraft marketed for use by hikers and hunters.  The high-grade fabric and careful construction which account for that undoubtedly contribute to the Llama’s hefty price tag.
 
AccessoriesPackrafting accessories.  And the check for the raft was only the first I had to write.  My complete packrafting kit required an investment well above the cost of the boat.  A paddle is needed, of course; four-piece paddles are easier to pack and carry.  A personal flotation device (PFD) is advisable anytime and in some states required by law. (These laws are sometimes enforced deep in the backcountry, as I discovered recently on the South Fork of the Flathead River, twenty miles/thirty km from the trailhead.  But that’s another story.)  I (and Alpacka) consider a helmet necessary for any itinerary that includes whitewater.  Neoprene gloves help avoid blisters and frigid hands.  The photo at left shows the minimum extra gear I include just for packrafting in the backcountry. Even with accessories designed with backpacking in mind, like the four-piece paddle in the photo, the bare minimum means much more bulk and pack space than just a second tent.
 
A wetsuit or dry top or some combination of the two is the best protection from hypothermia when air or water or both are cold.  Either of these tends to be bulky and heavy even by my less-than-ultralight backpacking standards, and takes up even more pack space. 

Side note: Some outfitters in the Rockies now rent rafts and related packrafting gear, so it is possible to test the waters before making a big financial commitment.

Care. I clean my Llama with tap water (from a garden hose) after every trip, then wipe with UV Tech, a McNett product designed to protect the fabric’s UV resistance.  I do this both for preventive maintenance and to remove any waterborne parasites that I don’t want to transport from one waterway to another.  (This latter purpose is a habit from fly-fishing.)  Following the manufacturer’s recommendation, after my last winter float I stored the Llama loosely folded in the cedar closet in my attic.  As noted I haven’t yet had to patch the Llama.

WHAT I LIKE

Packrafting! Is it ever fun, and not just to get to the big trout.  I’m looking forward to future expeditions that truly combine backpacking and packrafting, especially as one of my favorite backcountry venues, the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area in northwest Montana, has ample water for floating and paddling.

As for the Llama, I especially like its durability and how easy it is to maneuver.
 
Alpacka provides exemplary customer service.  This small Colorado-based company contacted me with questions about my spray deck and attaching the extra grab loops before starting work, to be sure it was done precisely as I wished.  The turnaround time on the spray deck retrofit was about two weeks, which I thought was great.

POSSIBLE IMPROVEMENT

Alpacka’s original stuff sack was small and I had to work to press out all air and make clean folds to be able to get the raft back inside without difficulty.  When I had the raft retrofitted Alpacka sent it back with a larger stuff sack (probably to take account of the spray deck), so this problem is solved.

The raft’s great buoyancy creates a drawback.  When a pack is lashed across the bow and water in the boat has to be dumped it’s difficult to flip the Llama over for a quick bail; I couldn’t get much purchase on the large tube.  I’ve added three grab loops to those supplied with the boat.  These facilitate other actions when portaging or beaching my raft, especially when my pack is attached.  I wouldn’t make this standard equipment, though, as need and placement will vary with the owner’s planned use and weight preferences.



Read more reviews of Alpacka Raft gear
Read more gear reviews by Richard Lyon

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