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Experienced packrafters know it’s hard to find the perfect boat. The concept behind a packraft—that you can strap it to your pack and hike it into the backcountry—means that trip ideas are nearly endless. A packraft is the right craft for everything from floating glassy alpine lakes to tackling remote whitewater. Here’s the rub, though: there’s no one-size fits all packraft. River runners will look towards sturdier boats with more stability and features like spray skirts and straps, while anyone carting a packraft along to float in a lake at camp will prize light weight above all else.
Alpacka’s new Refuge is the closest we’ve come to finding a vessel with the versatility to tackle most trips. It tips the scales at just under six pounds, making it light enough to haul into backcountry lakes. But it also has a spray skirt and internal storage, which are serious upgrades for longer trips and bigger waves. Alpacka describes the Refuge as the “ultimate landscape traverse packraft,” which initially sounded to me like it was designed for the epic voyages in Alaska that first put packrafting on the map. After testing it over the past year, though, I think it’s the best choice for casual packrafters, too. If you consider yourself a hiker first and packrafter second, this is the boat for you.
I tested the Refuge extensively last summer, taking it on a variety of adventures ranging from easy trips on the Boise River to a Class II/III section of the South Fork of the Payette River. Except for a few of the Class III rapids, I found it to be up to the challenge. In the future, for most trips up to Class II, I’d turn to the Refuge again as my boat of choice. Mostly, that’s because of its light weight: It clocks in anywhere from 3-5 pounds less than similar models from Alpacka or Kokopelli. On long trips where the boat is in your pack as often as it is in the water, every ounce counts.
The Refuge keeps the weight down by using 420-denier nylon on the floor of the boat. This is a pretty big reduction in durability (most other Alpacka rafts have an 840-denier floor), and is a dealbreaker for anyone who navigates rocks on a consistent basis. My trips are generally high on lazy river miles and low on action, so I never had any concerns about the thinner floor.
There are a number of other differences between the Refuge and Alpacka’s more whitewater-oriented boats. The Refuge saves more weight by nixing thigh straps, which many boaters use to make their craft more maneuverable, but are most important in Class III water or above. It also comes with a simple inflatable seat and backrest instead of the more supportive padded backrest found on the Wolverine or Gnarwhal boats. That means additional weight-savings for the Refuge at the expense of the form-fitting feeling of the heavier backrest: It was harder to sit upright with the inflatable backrest, which hampered my ability to put power down while paddling. Plus, after a few hours in the boat, my back definitely missed the lumbar support the heavier backrest offers. It’s worth noting that Alpacka often deals in custom orders, and it’s easy to mix-and-match the Refuge with some of the whitewater-capable add-ons. With all the whitewater fixings, the Refuge is still lighter than its competitors.
Just as important as the weight is the packed size, which is very manageable. Packrafts are notoriously hard to pack into a tight roll in the field, but the Refuge’s thinner nylon floor is more pliable and makes packing it significantly easier than with other models. It packs down to the size of a lightweight two-person tent, or about 16-by-8 inches.
Despite the small packed size, it includes many of the same features as the rest of the Alpacka line. One of my favorites is Alpacka’s “temper assist” inflation valve, which is unrivaled when it comes to ease of use. Compared to the inflation hardware that Kokopelli uses, I find it faster to inflate Alpacka rafts, and at a higher pressure. That’s no small thing, because getting full inflation means the boat will be stiffer and perform better, especially in whitewater.
While the Alpacka sounds like a bit of a packraft unicorn, there are a few drawbacks to note. The length of a packraft can have a big impact on comfort and performance, and the Refuge is only available in two sizes. I’m 6’4” with long legs, and the larger size felt fairly cramped. That said, most packrafts feel too small for people my size (one of the only exceptions I’ve found is the Kokopelli Nirvana, which has an interior that’s a full eight inches longer, but also weighs more than twice as much as the Refuge). It’s also not designed to carry much weight. Alpacka recommends a max capacity of 275 pounds, which won’t be enough for everyone.
Beyond the impressive specs, the Refuge just makes packrafting easier. As cool as packrafting is, it can also be the source of packing anxiety. Once you add up the raft, the paddle, safety equipment, and extra clothing like wetsuits or dry tops, you can easily be left wondering if the adventure is worth the trouble. In my own experience, that reality has been enough for me to keep backpacking and packrafting as mostly separate pursuits. The Refuge didn’t instantly changed my mindset, but it certainly helped. It’s hard to overstate just how much less cumbersome this diminutive boat is compared to other options.
Not everyone minds the heavy load, and serious packrafters might shake their heads at the Refuge. If you’re the type to chase committing whitewater, this isn’t the boat for you. Likewise, if you’re only looking for something to relax in on alpine lakes, something lighter and cheaper like the Supai Canyon would probably suffice. For everything in between those two extremes, the Refuge is hard to beat.