The author’s son gives the Alpacka Ultralight Paddle a fair shake while playing bowman in the two-person Alpacka Double Duck packraft on the Jefferson River in June 2009.
Ryan’s River Journal (June 2009): As I teach and watch my eleven-year-old son, Chase, to packraft, I can’t help but think that the Alpacka Ultralight Paddle is a godsend. He’s not yet grown into the full sized kayak paddles, and the little Ultralight gives him confidence on the water.
A packrafting paddle is not a particularly special thing. It’s simply a kayak paddle, capable of being broken down into two or four pieces for easy stowage while inside or attached to a pack.
I usually look at three key factors (other than length) when selecting a paddle: weight, durability, and blade surface area.
The weight of an average four-piece fiberglass packrafting paddle is about 40 ounces (e.g. the Aqua Bound Shred FG), although hybrid paddles with carbon fiber shafts can weigh in the range of 34 to 36 ounces (e.g. the Aqua Bound Splat Hybrid). Full carbon paddles are typically 28 to 32 ounces (e.g. the Sawyer Packraft Paddle). All things being equal, lighter is better, of course, and if you haven’t figured that out by now, then maybe you stumbled onto this website by accident. In that case, trust me when I tell you that yes, lighter really is better (with caveats of course). For the packrafter, a lighter paddle makes both raftpacking easier (less energy is required to haul the pack) and packrafting easier (less energy is required to lift and swing the paddle).
Durability is impacted primarily by the material used to construct the shaft and the blade. The most common materials are carbon and fiberglass. Paddles with fiberglass shafts and/or blades are generally considered to be more durable than carbon ones, but heavier and cheaper.
Durability is of some importance to me while packrafting (especially in the backcountry where paddles are hard to repair and sort of important for transportation). I use my paddle for all sorts of manufacturer-prohibited activities, including pushing off shorelines and rocks, slapping branches out of the way as I paddle brushy creeks, and pitching my tarp shelter. I have used my paddle as weapon against a grizzly bear (all for show, of course, but I wouldn’t hesitate to whack-a-bear right in the kisser if needed), a snow digging tool, a plate, and a packraft polo stick (using an inflated Aloksak with a little water inside as the ball) on a high mountain lake.
Blade Surface Area
The surface area of the blade is also important. Blades with a higher surface area can push more water, and make paddling stillwater more efficient, and make you more maneuverable on whitewater. The surface area of a kayak paddle blade generally falls into the range of 80 to 100 square inches (for touring paddles used on flatwater) or 110 to 125 square inches (for whitewater paddles). Most packrafters will realize the benefits afforded by a big-bladed whitewater paddle. The added surface area allows for a little forgiveness in bad technique. Since most packrafters come from a trekking background, and haven’t been schooled in efficient paddling techniques, big blade paddles are probably a good thing.
But, as you might suspect, more surface area equals more weight.
The Alpacka Ultralight Paddle
Sometimes, a less durable paddle, and/or one with a smaller blade surface area, may be OK for some types of packrafting. Of course, we’re not really after less durability or a smaller blade surface, we just want a lighter paddle and may be willing to make a few compromises.
And that’s where the Alpacka Ultralight Paddle comes in: a 23-ounce paddle for packrafters. Thus, the purpose of this review, is to let you know what my experiences with the AULP have been over the past several months of paddling, packing, and polo-ing.
FEATURES AND SPECIFICATIONS
A number of characteristics makes the Alpacka Ultralight Paddle unique relative to the packrafting paddles mentioned above. It has what I consider a “small-diameter” shaft (1.0 inch, vs. 1.25 inches for the Aqua Bound Splat), the shaft is made of aluminum, it’s a three-piece instead of a four-piece paddle, the blade surface area is quite small, and the length is pretty short. Whenever I pick it up, I can’t help but think that it’s a miniaturized paddle and not a serious packrafting tool. More on that later.
|Alpacka Raft LLC (http://www.alpackaraft.com/)|
|74.5 in (190 cm)|
Blade Surface Area:
|83 sq. in.|
For this review, I will present my findings with the Alpacka Ultralight Paddle in the context of both RAFTPACKING (carrying packrafting gear on your back) and PACKRAFTING (carrying trekking gear on your packraft).
The raftpacker is most concerned about how the paddle stows on the outside of the pack. Now, when I say “most concerned,” I only mean that it’s the most concerning thing about carrying the paddle. The real level of concern here is rather low: paddles stow easily on most packs. How easily it stows is almost never part of my decision-making framework when selecting a paddle.
There are a few situations in which I select a “more” stowable paddle versus a “less” stowable paddle. One of them is when I packraft the creeks of the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness adjacent to the northern boundary of Yellowstone National Park. When I’m traveling through the Red Zone (the NP proper, where river paddling is expressly forbidden by law!) to access a non-Red Zone creek, I like to carry my paddles inside my pack. Meeting up with Park Rangers on a trail with two blades sticking up high is cause for serious job distress for them, and it’s worth simply avoiding any confrontations that may ensue – my experience with them suggests that any paddler inside the park (especially one carrying paddles!) is assumed guilty until time, storytelling, and perhaps a shared beer justifies innocence. Regardless, if you travel through the Park with kayak blades sticking out of your pack, you risk losing an hour or more if a ranger is encountered.
Ryan’s River Journal (June 2007): I’m finding it increasingly unwise to attempt to packraft rivers and creeks that flow across the borders of Yellowstone National Park (which is closed to river boating), not because of my lack of respect for the boundary or the rules, but because it takes such a darn long time to explain to a ranger what’s going on with the kayak paddles sticking out of my backpack. Today, we spent two hours explaining our story and showing digital photos of our descents of Slough, Buffalo, and Hellroaring Creeks from their headwaters to the Park boundary. I guess it didn’t help that we were now heading down to Gardiner, Montana, via the Black Canyon of the Yellowstone, well-known for its underground kayak descents by rogue boaters…
The other time I want a more stowable paddle is when I travel. I want the paddle blades and shaft protected deep inside my pack while the gorillas in air cargo toss it around.
The Alpacka Ultralight Paddle breaks down into only three pieces, instead of four, and its collapsed length is 26.5 inches, which is a few inches longer than typical four- and five-piece packrafting/kayak paddles (which have collapsed lengths ranging from 22 to 24 inches). However, the thinner shaft diameter, fewer number of pieces, and smaller blades actually makes the Alpacka Ultralight Paddle marginally easier to stow both inside, and outside, the pack. Unfortunately, its longer collapsed length (compared to my Sawyer Packraft Paddle, which breaks down into five pieces to a collapsed length of 22 inches) means that it won’t fit into my smaller (shorter) day and overnight packs.
The relatively compact size, low packed volume, and light weight of the Alpacka Ultralight Paddle make it a good raftpacking paddle and one that deserves a hard look when the packraft spends most of its time on your back rather than in the water.
Two characteristics I consider when selecting a paddle for flatwater paddling are paddle length and blade surface area.
I prefer longer paddles (> 220 cm) for flatwater paddling. A longer paddle allows for a wider stroke radius that makes it easier to keep the packraft tracking straight.
Packrafting philosophers like to espouse the smaller surface area of touring blades (which are sort of long and skinny, in contrast to the shorter and wider blades of whitewater paddles). As the packraft is tracking, they say that the little blades are easier to paddle and it seems to take less effort to keep the packraft going. However, this is probably a questionable benefit, since packrafts don’t really track straight. The efficiency differences between using a touring paddle and a whitewater paddle for flatwater packrafting are probably meaningless unless you are an extremely efficient paddler who is adept at keeping a packraft straight and have a lot of time for philosophizing.
For flatwater paddling on still water, because some efficiency is lost in poor tracking, the Alpacka Ultralight Paddle’s little blades are a liability relative to paddles with larger blades, and you’ll expend more energy propelling your boat.
Ryan’s River Journal (May 2009). I can’t compete today. I’m getting my butt kicked playing packraft polo and running the packraft races on the pond because I brought the little Alpacka Ultralight Paddle with me. What was I thinking? Of saving 8 ounces of weight on the long walk from the car to the beach? Sheesh.
However, for flatwater paddling on moving water, where propulsion is less important than ferrying and steering, the Alpacka Ultralight Paddle shines. I think this is the Alpacka Ultralight Paddle’s element, and the type of water that it was created for. I thus heartily recommend the Alpacka Ultralight Paddle on moving water where powerful ferrying is not needed. For a packraft, that typically means Class I and low Class II water (PR1 – PR2).
Ryan’s River Journal (July 2008). I was a little worried about toting this little paddle with me for such a long way, but for this big, flat, remote river (Thorofare River), I’m appreciating its weight while raftpacking and packrafting.
For whitewater paddling (high Class II and above), the Alpacka Ultralight Paddle is an inadequate tool. Short shaft length, small blades, and too much shaft flexibility means that the powerful strokes and ferrying required to avoid obstacles and hit the right current lines are going to be compromised.
Ryan’s River Journal (May 2009). What an idiot. I can’t believe I attempted to descend this river (Madison River, Beartrap Canyon) with this little paddle. I’m walking back to the car. Great little paddle, big honkin’ frothin’ river. I’m cold and wet and all swum out. Major user error.
In conclusion, the Alpacka Ultralight Paddle outperforms other paddles in a pretty narrow window – Class I/II- moving water where the risk of hitting obstacles and dangerous current lines is low. Its light weight and reasonably short collapsed length make it a solid raftpacking paddle, a suitable backup or spare for long group expeditions, and an excellent choice for young kids learning to packraft. However, its shaft flexibility, low blade surface area, and short overall length make it a poor choice for paddling both stillwater and Class II+ and higher whitewater.
Comments from two fellow packrafters and Backpacking Light staff reflect this conclusion:
"I prefer it to a set of Ping Pong paddles on flat water, but I’d rather spend another eight ounces for a more durable paddle with more surface area on Class II or above." — Mike Martin.
"The Ultralight Paddle from Alpacka is just that – ultralight. Having used it to paddle the Scout packraft on calm water, I would recommend it for similar pursuits. Not having paddled it in whitewater, but imagining the potential for breakage, I would not recommend it for this in any event other than an emergency." — Sam Haraldson.
I think it’s telling from both comments that the issue of durability was raised. I too, get pretty nervous when paddling the Alpacka Ultralight Paddle with any sort of power, or using it to keep my boat from bouncing against a canyon wall, or jamming its blade into the rocks to shove off from shore. I’ve not yet broken mine (I have that ultralighter’s disease whereby my gear gets abused right to the breaking point, but I don’t often exceed it) after many days of hard use, so maybe our lack-of-durability fears are a little inflated.
Finally, a caveat and note for packrafters with exceptional skills and experience. If your paddling technique is solid, you know how to handle a packraft in whitewater, and your boat weight is low (e.g., unloaded), you might consider the Alpacka Ultralight Paddle for remote expeditions where sustained Class II whitewater is possible. Still, even most experienced packrafters will be wishing for larger paddle plades and a stiffer paddle in Class III whitewater and above.
Chris Robertson, one of the winners of the 2009 Alaskan Mountain Wilderness Classic, said this about the Alpacka Ultralight Paddle:
"I think Sheri [Tingey, the founder of Alpacka Raft LLC] has done it again with this paddle. She continues to strive and challenge herself to make lighter weight packrafting gear. However, this paddle, like the Scout [a smaller version of the full-sized Alpacka rafts], is not designed for sustained whitewater. We took both this paddle and the Scout well beyond the lunatic fringe of Alpacka’s intended use [in the Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic in 2009]. Doing so, we earned a few funny stories, but in next year’s race I will have my old standby Alpacka and [Aqua Bound] Splat paddle in my race pack."
With all the caveats, however, I still find myself tempted to grab the Alpacka Ultralight Paddle on more occasions than warrant its niche use. I really like its small size and weight, and that alone makes it a thoroughly enjoyable paddle for lazy days of packrafting down the Big Hole, Jefferson, Madison, Yellowstone, and Missouri Rivers near my home, as well as my two favorite "remote but easy rivers" – the Thorofare and South Fork Flathead.