I have finally spent enough time in my 2011 Alpacka Llama to provide a review of what I do and do not like about the new boats. For reference, I have been packrafting for about 10 years, am 6’2” and 180 lbs and 51 years old, and consider myself a Class IV boater on most days. I also have a 2007 Yak and a 2008 Llama, both decked and the latter is equipped with thigh straps as is my 2011 Llama. Most of my boating is in Alaska on creeks and rivers in the Class III-IV range, on roadside runs, minimalist overnighters, and longer trips up to 3 weeks. My favorite type of boating is on multi-day exploratory trips on remote creeks and rivers.
What I Like
Performance: The radically-redesigned 2011 boat performs very differently from the older models. The new boat is faster, carves and turns more precisely, punches through holes cleanly, cuts across eddy lines well and surfs waves nicely. You have more control of your line and your location on the river. On flat water the new boat is noticeably faster, and paddles easily, with seemingly less hull suck and drag. The new boat tracks nicely in a straight line with little of the “weather vaning” that is common in the older models, saving energy and arm strength over the course of a day of paddling. Because of the monstrous butt on the 2011 it is much more stable front to back, and the frequency of "bandersnatching" is greatly reduced.
Features: One of my favorite improvements is locating the mouth valve on the stern of the boat. No longer do I worry about accidently opening the valve as I get into the boat, which is a frequent problem on older models. Alpacka made this change in 2010 but this is my first boat with this feature and I like it.
The 2011 boat allows you to adjust the seat position with simple lacing holes. I moved my seat forward 4 holes (about 4”) to allow for a stronger paddling position and better fit of the thigh straps.
Alpacka seems to have resolved the problem of leaking seats, backrests and codpieces. So far I have not had to spend time fixing these items as was all too common in the past.
What I Don’t Like
Performance: The enhanced performance of the 2011 boat has a downside: this boat is less-forgiving and requires you to be a better boater. The aggressive hull design of the 2011 is significantly less stable laterally than older models and is more prone to flipping when crossing eddylines, getting hit by lateral waves or unexpected boils. The boat does really well if you hit these features straight on with power, but if you drift across them sideways, you will dump over faster than you can believe if you don't throw a good brace.
The instability of the 2011 is made worse with a load on the front of the boat. I recently ran a remote Class IV river with a 15 lb load on the front of the boat and found myself tipping over repeatedly in places that I would normally bounce over in my older boats. I find that a pack on the front of my old boats makes them more stable, not less. The 2011 sits lower in the water than the older models, especially with a load on the front of the boat. I was able to reduce the tippiness somewhat by strapping my pack on lengthwise, as opposed to crosswise, on the front of the boat.
Features: The single biggest problem with Alpacka boats is the spraydeck. Nearly every boater that I have ever paddled with complains about their spraydeck, and spends too much time on the river fiddling with the deck, trying to get it to close properly or stopping to dump water out of the boat. The Alpacka boats with spraydecks are a huge improvement over the original open boats, and clearly keep a lot of water out of the boat. But there is still a lot of room for improvement, and the ultra-dry deck on Roman Dial’s boat suggests that it is a solvable problem. We all want a simple, durable and reliable spraydeck that keeps most of the water out, and would love to see Alpacka focus on this issue. There have been some murmurings that Alpacka is working on a self-bailing floor, which could help resolve the spraydeck issue.
I started out the 2011 boating season with one of the supposed "beefy" spraydecks but I was disappointed in it. The only thing different about the "beefy" version is the side closure on the deck. I found the closure impossible to manage one-handed, which is crucial for many on-river situations where you are hanging on to the river bank with one hand and trying to close the deck with the other. Even with two hands it is awkward to fit the tabs in the slots and press the velcro together and I often found I was mushing the tabs into the slots and hoping the velcro made contact. The velcro is on the wrong sides of the tabs and slots to make proper contact when you close your hand.
The 2011 comes with a zippered spraydeck that can be removed, a nice feature if you are planning a tropical mid-winter getaway. But for Alaska’s cold rivers the zipper is a point of weakness with little benefit. The deck tore off my new boat when the fabric started to separate along the inflatable “codpiece” and then ripped all the way to the front of the boat along the zipper stiching. Alpacka replaced the deck, but it was the second time in a too-short season when my new boat was sidelined.
The Velcro closures on the 2011 boat remain inadequate, being too narrow and of seemingly poor quality, especially the loop side, which ends up fuzzy, frayed and curling within a matter of days. I replaced the Velcro on my Yak three years ago with wider and better-quality Velcro that has held up better than that found on my 2011 boat. If Alpacka used 2” or 3” of Velcro rather than 1.5” Velcro, the decks would be much tighter and keep water out more reliably.
The side closure along the torso is particularly problematic, as the fabric is too taut to seal properly. I have added a snap button to the top of the skirt to reduce the frequency of the seam popping open. Usually I am only able to get an inch of Velcro contact on the torso seam, which invariably pops open with any paddling or twisting.
The first problem that I encountered with my 2011 boat was a shredded floor on the second day of use. Alpacka has switched to a new floor fabric for 2011 because of a supply problem with the material used in older boats. Many of us were worried that this new fabric was not up to the abuse of Alaska packrafting. Alpacka determined that my floor was defective and so far the floor of my replacement boat has held up well.
The 2011 comes with a single horseshoe seat and a small inflatable backrest. I find the backrest to be inadequate for comfortable back support and for holding up the back of the spraydeck. I stitched another horseshoe seat in as an additional backrest and to keep the spraydeck from sagging.
The torso of the 2011 spraydeck is too short to work well. Ideally the spraydeck would come up to the chest of a sitting boater. And if the spraydeck were pleated it would fit a wider variety of boaters and PFD’s.
Alpacka says that the central issue guiding spraydeck design is liability. I would argue that having water in the boat is its own liability, and that a boater with a drier boat can better focus on the challenges of the river. Stopping to dump the boat and fiddle with the deck is very distracting and consumes time and energy that should be devoted to the river.
The 2011 Alpacka is a huge step forward in packraft design. Advanced boaters and kayakers will love the technical performance of this boat. After seeing these new boats, I have heard kayakers say things like “Hey, I would be willing to boat with a packrafter in one of those boats” and “Wow, you guys can really make those boats go where you want them to go.” Whatever.
While boaters with good bracing and paddling skills will get the most from the 2011 models, everybody will appreciate the speed and tracking of the new boats. On long stretches of flat water and for ocean paddling the new boats will save you time and energy.
The new boat design may be challenging for novice and intermediate boaters looking to get into more technical whitewater. Jim Gonski reports that students in his classes who have the 2011 boats tip over and swim far more often than owners of the older boats. More swims mean more lost boats, more lost gear and more chances for injury.
If you are thinking about trading in your old boat for a new one, you might think twice. If you are a good paddler with good bracing skills it is probably a smart move. But if your skills are not so solid, or if you plan to run whitewater with any kind of load, you might want to hang on to your old stable boat. I predict there will be a strong Craigslist market for these older boats, and they will become hard to find in the future. I would like to see Alpacka bring the older models back into their line of boats while keeping the 2011 model as their advanced whitewater boat.