Wednesday, February 17, 2010

My Pimped-out Ride is Sweet!

Before heading south to NZ last month I tricked out my main boat. My main boat is now a big, old Llama, after nearly a decade of mostly middle-sized Yak paddling.

Before you read any farther, I warn you: this post is not about a packraft for running the occasional Class IV. If that's all you are interested in is Class III, maybe the occasional Class IV, then this stuff below likely doesn't really apply. The stock Alpacka boats are pretty much all you need.

But if you've got the adenaline on! These mods are the best I've used.

Earlier descriptions provide details on my boat mods as motivated by Tim Johnson, with help from Epic Eric Parsons and Tracy Harmon at Alaska Raft and Kayak. Here I'll briefly describe how the mods performed on my trip to New Zealand and Fiji last month.

Besides me in the black-decked Llama, six other people paddled three other packrafts, each with thigh straps. One boat was my old red Yak with its side-opening, '08 deck and another was an orange-deck, center-opening yellow Llama. All three of the boats I brought had thigh-straps and seats moved forward. Five different people, including Erik Tomsen, who might have some pertinent comments (Erik?) paddled these three boats. The last boat, a blue Yak, had its seat in the stock position and thigh straps (one person -- Tim Johnson -- comments Tim?).

My personal stats using these mods from Jan 6 -- Feb 3 in Fiji (briefly) and NZ (longer) are these:

15 runs = 2 class II runs + 6 class III runs + 7 class IV runs

2 first descents (Sabine and Upper S. Fork Mokihinui)

5 roadside runs, 1 helo run, 9 walk-in runs

~70 hours on water packrafting (but not always “pack rafting” -- packrafting is a style of boating; pack rafting is carrying your pack on a raft)

~65 hours raft packing (walking-in)

6 non-motorized boat trips = 5-day hike and raft trip (Landsborough) + 4-day hike and raft trip (Nelson Lakes NP) + 3-day hike and raft trip (Mokihinui) + 2 over-night hike and raft trips (Arahura, Taipo) + 1 day-long hike and raft trip (Oparara)

7 motorized boat trips (1 river boat, 1 helicopter, 5 automobile)

8 You-Tube videos

To begin with, the bigger boat is much more stable in bigger water as well as in radical, low-volume rapids than the smaller Yak is -- but without the mods this Super-Llama has, I'd be slopping around in the boat and/or hitting my bum on rocks, and/or bander-snatching like crazy. A Llama, for me, without something to keep me in place, is stable but harder to control. Thigh straps and the moved seat make the big boat super maneuverable.

Here are the mods:

First are the thigh straps.

These pull me forward off the stock placement of the seat, so I fixed that seat problem with Epic Eric's sewing and solved some other problems.

Tim Johnson, too, gets pulled off his seat, but hasn't fixed the problem. Consequently, Tim hit his butt so hard that he walked a bunch of rapids on the Arahura, rapids that wonky ole' me RAN, not 'cause I was more skilled, but just 'cause I was un-bruised.

It's probable that putting in thigh straps is going to be a big point of inertia for most Alpacka users and a still smaller subset will actually cut their seat out and move it forward -- which is really too bad.

Fat thigh straps and a more centered seat pretty much end bandersnatching dismounts. Watch some of the NZ videos on YouTube (Arahura where Tim has thighstraps but has not moved seat and Landsborough, Taipo, Oparara, Nelson Lakes, and Mokinihui where seats are moved in all boats and all boats have thigh straps) and see how many flip over backwards. Very rare now, with sideways upsets now being more common. That's because of thighstraps.

BTW, the thigh straps in three boats I used as demos in NZ (used by five people on many different rivers and trips of hours to days) all wound up with substantial wear in the FEET AREA. Holes developed there because the hard hiking-shoe soles hit rocks and the feet wearing the shoes are forced more downward onto the floor of the boat by the thigh straps. I got more wear there at the feet in each of the three boats in a month of paddling than in the butt sections over the multi-year life of the three boats.

Second most important mod was the seat cut free and now velcroed in. Yes I glued 2-inch wide velcro to the seat and to the boat and now the seat moves and comes out. Makes it better for drying when it comes out and for repairs.

Third, I have a big, beefy back rest, also with velcro holding it in place. I reckon that my backrest is the same size and dimensions as an Explorer seat. The boat is now supremely comfy. No numb legs, super back support, and super control and stability. Sometimes when I look at it it looks as inviting as a sofa-lounge chair.

Fourth, I glued some "strap plates" onto the bottom of the boat about between my knees and strap the BEST SIZED DRY BAG (15 L) right there with a strap. Oh my, does that make the boat feel like a dreamy, fantasy rock shoe (snug and fitting with control and no pain)! With thigh straps and that drybag full of overnight gear I am set for backcountry Class IV. The boat is much more nimble than with weight on the bow. The weight is centered by the center of gravity. SWEET!

Fifth is for FIVE INCHES of VELCRO on a center opening spray deck. I get out fine (thank you) when upside down underwater with thigh straps, the mondo-velcro and the drybag. This is the second secret to a dry boat (the first is be smart about where and how you paddle in whitewater); the third secret is listed below.

Sixth is the bi-modal "fun-rail". More experienced boaters than I had commented/warned on the danger of foot entrapment on the full fun-rail. So, even though I had glued on a total of ten tie downs, I cut two off (the ones where my hands paddle) and now just use the four in front and the four in the back for 1/4 inch polypro line that doesn't go around the mid section of the boat (just the bow and stern -- four patches in both places -- check the photos). I find this really useful to grab onto so I don't get flushed away from my boat and have now, in real combat situations, towed swimmers with the rear rail. I thought I'd miss the mid-line rail, but do not miss it at all; however, having chicken line on bow and stern seems necessary to me now.

Seventh is the third secret to a really dry boat: two sleeves/pockets with velcro closures on either side of the center closing velcro at the top of the skirt. Each pocket holds a partially inflated 2 L Platypus bag, although any plastic stiffener would likely work. This is simply awesome. Oh what's that I hear? the water dam on your spray deck is dependent on the PFD you use? Yes, that's true, so...

....while not boat mods, if you are wanting to stay dry in whitewater consider a "two piece" whitewater LJ (i.e. life jacket), the kind with front and back foam but connected without side foam. Then wear it so the front foam is high and you will have an amazingly dry boat. Also, if you want to paddle white water Class IV, then get a stiff kayak paddle. People I have paddled with who have a 4-piece "packraft paddle" (like Aqua-bound) and a ONE-PIECE Werner (or other glass/carbon fiber) kayak paddle find that the "real" kayak paddle so much better that they are willing to carry in the one piece instead. Let me reiterate that: they have the choice of paddles and even for a multi-day trip of walking they bring the real paddle after using the Aqubound paddle in whitewater.

Again, if you are just paddling Class III and the occasional IV and are a basher and a smasher, stick with the Aqua-bound; if you are easy on stuff and paddling Class II/III, go with the Sawyer. But if you want to get hooked on the white stuff get a real paddle (4 piece, short one), a real whitewater helmet (not a bike or adventure racing helmet), some elbow pads, some swiftwater rescue training, then paddle with tolerant kayakers and get after it.

Be careful. The addiction is hard to kick.


  1. Roman,

    Thanks for the specifics on all the interesting mods! I'd been considering a "noodle" pool tie as a possibility for a water damn around the waist, but I like your solution better. Allows for lower weight and less space issues on backcountry excursions.

    I have a few questions about a couple of the mods you mention:

    1. How did you construct the back rest and what is it made out of? Did you try using dry bags behind your seat in place of the backrest?

    2. Are there only 2 platapi (plural of platypus?) in your water damn pockets around your waist, or are there more? The picture of it makes it looks like there are a total of four.

    My thigh straps arrive in SLC today... Can't wait to get out and try them once the glue dries in 3 days...


  2. Hi Nate!

    1) The backrest is an old seat from the early prototype boats, before seats were attached (like 2002). It's made of urethane coated nylon, like the boats. It is 6-sided The dimensions uninflated are 11" x 9" x 9" x 11"x 9" x 9" It might be worth asking Alpacka on the Forums there what the dimensions of an Explorer seat are....

    2) Yes, only two platypi. Looks like more because the old center opening boats had a shortish inflatable collar under the back of the skirt to hold it up -- this was before backrests, but it works really well as you can see. The platypi just complete the concept using "inner bladder technology".

    You know that Scott Solle of swiftwater-rescue-training-with-a-packraft ( lives in/near SLC, right? He's got a boat and is super excited about packrafting and is very skilled in the water. I bet the two of you could do some great adventures down there.

  3. I'm actually already signed up for his packrafting WRT course at the end of July, so hopefully, that'll be a great chance to get to know him and start planning some adventures. I'm already planning for an Escalante trip and a Gates of Lodor Trip this spring and summer and then the Tatshinshini next summer off of a friend's permit... I'm super excited.

    Thanks for all the helpful posts over the last couple of months. I'm looking forward to seeing my paddling evolve over the next couple of years and your detailed, instructional posts have skyrocketed my trajectory. Keep up the great work!

  4. Ok, bear with me here, but just for the sake of campfire BSing....
    This really reminds me of the mid and late '80s.
    Going to the ski hill in old Asolo Extremes on Karhu XCD GTs, or going to Ski Boot Hill in Fbanks on Koflachs and Ramers, thrashing about whilst under the sometimes dissaproving stare of the alpine crowd, and then transferring those skills to the backcountry. I remember riveting on alpine boot cuffs to leather boots to up the downhill performance... But i digress.
    There seems, hell, there is that same sort of spirit of pushing the boundaries going on here.
    Now, just for the sake of debate, how much further can the standard packraft design be taken before, well, before it makes sense to take a hard shell boat instead? Sounds like you are already experiencing durability issues. And really there should not be any surprise there considering what you have been up to recently.
    It seems to me that Alpacka is going to have to add another model just for this sort of use (the RD Hokitika model??)
    Anyway, i'm curious how your paddling partner, (who is, as you have mentioned, a very solid kayaker), found the packrafting on a NZ "testpiece" like the Hokitika, and how much harder could an experienced packrafter with a solid whitewater kayaking background expect to paddle a PR?
    At some point, mandatory rolling is going to be required, and it seems still a 50/50 maneuver for even the gifted.
    Roman, how did you feel after the last trip? How much harder could you see pushing the present design, or indeed the soft shell? Is the packraft destined to become like the telemark boot? That is, what was once essentially a piece of touring gear, with acceptable downhill performance, has now basically mimicked a full on alpine boot? Will the packraft continue to evolve into a class V (VI?) capable boat?
    Ok, please excuse the rambling. Just got me thinking, thats all. I'm still a total packraft neophyte, but its got me super jazzed. I gave up kayaking after dislocating my shoulder in my boat years ago. I remeber getting my first kayak from Andy E in Valdez. It was the dreaded (feared/infamous) GDB, or German Death Boat as Andy called it, that he had salvaged out of the Devils Canyon on the Su, but thats another story. Driving back from Valdez down the Alcan, with the GDB duct taped onto the roof of the Soob at -50, was an interesting experience.
    Thanks for the great info!

  5. Here is my 2 cents on the packrafting mods that Roman has made and I tried out here in New Zealand.

    1) The thigh braces work wonders! Not only are you more secure in the boat, but you are also more maneuverable. I felt that I could "throw" my weight around more and use this to guide the boat, just like in kayaking. This is particularly important on heavy whitewater. With the thigh braces flipping is much less likely as bracing becomes easier and the weight shift (from moving the seat) also comes into play. There were a hand full of instances where I felt that without the thigh straps I would have been swimming, yet by shifting my body weight and pushing against the thigh braces I was able to stay upright. Having the ability to roll the packraft thanks to thigh straps could also be a life-saver. The less swimming you do, even though it might be safe, the safer you are.

    2) Moving the seat forward also moves your center of gravity forward and makes the boat less "tippy" ie more fun to paddle.

    3) Having the large back rest at the back was extremely comfortable and it held in place better than my single-piece backrest.

    4) I was jealous that Roman could attach his back to the inside of his boat. This must have made for a better fit and would increase your field of vision.

    5) The extra velcro was nice. This is a major problem I have with my packraft: that the opening comes undone in whitewater and your boat gets wet. Not the case when you put on more velcro.

    6) I wear a Astral Greenjacket PFD made for kayaking. It is pretty bulky, but has lots of pockets and buoyancy. I also got the spray skirt to fit over top of it and set the draw chord behind the lateral straps, which made for a nice, tight, nearly waterproof fit. The small life jackets look nice, but mine worked alright for me, just make sure you pull your spray skirt up as much as you can.

    7) Bring a good paddle! Roman hit this one on the money. I have an Aquabound paddle and find it much to flexible/flimsy in whitewater. This reduces the amount of power you get out of your strokes and makes maneuvering more difficult. I chose to carry my one piece fiberglass paddle over the Southern Alps, because I knew it would handle better and don't regret it. The paddle can also be used as a support on really tricky hiking spots, though this probably wears a bit on the paddle.

    I hope these comments help and I look forward to making the necessary modifications to my packraft here in the near future. I'll be back in Alaska a bit this summer and am looking forward to some more adventure paddling then.

  6. Tall Paul and Erik -- Thanks for the stories that bring back memories of the golden age of Valdez, Embick and Comstock....that's a good analogy with early Rondene gear (before it had a name) and how it was viewed...and Erik thanks for the comments on the boat mods you experienced. It's good to have another voice and different perspective.

  7. Paul, To answer some of your questions about how much farther and how much harder to take the packraft let me preface it with I am likely too old to take it to its limit. I turn 50 this year, and I get scared pretty easily.

    In other words the limit is not the boat but the boater. Kayaks have had a long and continuing evolution -- hence the proliferation of styles and applications. The latest packraft design is fairly static. Our mods are little more than window dressing; nevertheless, the current design can and will drop bigger, higher volume drops with more consequences and with more moves to enter, more moves to make, more moves to exit.

    Can and will packrafts run classic, solid Class V creeks and rivers? I think that's what you're asking. And the answer is very likely yes. Will I be the one doing it? Probably not! People will soon have solid, 100% rolls in packrafts. We are only in version 2.0 of thigh-strapped packrafts. There were pioneers like Stephan and Tucker and Thai who put thigh straps in but they were not fully functional. We now have functional thigh straps but we need to tinker and move stuff around.

    It would be helpful if Apacka was on board for this, but they sem to be holding it at arm's length.

    BTW, it's sort of a bummer that high quality, three pin TOURING boots are hard to find today! Replaced by plastic boots for turning instead.

    Let's hope that the heart, soul, and original spirit of packrafting -- the open boat paddled by an intrepid, solo adventure using maybe her shoes tied to a stick as her paddle, sitting on a foam pad with her pack in the boat, far from civilization, between mountains unclimbed -- let's hope that remains intact, even as the last of the steep, remote creeks get run in a ten pound, rollable packraft with a soft-shell bottom and "inner-bladder technology" for the main tubes.

    There will be room for both styles of boating as long as wildness remains.

  8. Interesting to here your thoughts on this. Sometimes I just start thinking too deeply and get bogged down in the irrelevant.
    I'm looking foreward (I think) to taking mine down the upper canyon run on the Tatshenshini this summer. Haven't been down that since my kayaking days, so maybe I'll start at low water in the fall!
    However, the prime use I'll be putting it to is classic backcountry adventures with some Sheep hunting thrown in. I'll leave the hardcore whitewater to the young guns.
    Thanks for compiling all this info along with your thoughts on the mods, design shortcomings etc. This stuff is Golden!

  9. Roman and others, I noticed that Alpaca has come out with new versions of its boats with an extended rear. Given this extra rear floatation, do you still think it will be necessary to move the seat forward?

  10. The extended stern is wonderful. I still like a big, Llama sized boat for its stability and flotation. so I move my seat forward and put in a foam block at my feet to fill space, but moving the seat forward is not necessary as it was in the old boats.

  11. Roman, thanks for the quick response. One more question, I was checking out some of your videos where you and some of your friends were rolling the packrafts. Do you find that the Llama size boat is harder to roll. Or is it, that even if it is harder to roll, the additional stability reduces the need to roll?

  12. The stability for me is more important. It might be a bit harder to roll, but I have made several key combat rolls in that big Llama and I am only 5' 11" with a 32" inseam.

    MC at lacemine29 can roll is little 10 inch tube Yak like a greased hot dog in wax paper.


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