After a couple of years of mostly sitting in the storage, I finally managed to take my Kokopelli Nirvana self bailing packraft out for a couple of days of whitewater fun in June and July. I got the settings tuned to my liking and managed to get a proper feel for the boat. As such, here follows a quick review of the boat based on two days worth of rafting, with the self bailing Alpacaraft Gnarwhal of a friend serving as a comparison.
The first day, I refreshed my packrafting skills by participating in a one day packrafting course that focused on practicing basic skills with some class I runs at the end. During this time, I could get a clear picture of how the raft handled compared to MRS Microraft and different Alpackarafts. The second day I was rafting in the same rapids with a friend of mine.
We started the second day of rafting by scouting the rapids we were playing in from the river’s side. After that, we took a few rides through the class I rapids of Ahvionkoski with some big, fun waves. Then we moved to the other side of the river to practice in Kotokoski, which less flow and more technical spots to play in.
During the two days, I mostly rafted with my Kokopelli Nirvana, but did take the Alpackaraft Gnarwhal Selfbailer my friend had for a test drive. It further confirmed my initial hunch about how the selfbailing Nirvana handles. So without further ado, here are my findings.
A speed monster the Kokopelli Nirvana is not
I will start with what I was not so happy with in the Kokopelli Nirvana during the first day of rafting, at the packrafting course. It was the slowness of the raft. When we were ferrying and moving around, I was constantly having to work to keep up with the other course participants. On the second day, it was obvious that my friend had a lot easier time in going against the flow of the river with the Gnarwhal.
This is in part due to the shape of the raft, in part due to the salf bailing nature. When there are holes in the bottom of the raft, through which the water can flow, it will not be as efficient as paddling with a raft without the holes. But even the configuration of the holes matters. In Nirvana, they seemed to be such that the drag was heavier than on my friends’ Gnarwhal.
Is it a huge problem? No. The packraft has other benefits that more than outweight the downsides, but it is something to be aware of. If you are looking for an efficient travel packraft, the selfbailing Nirvana may not be for you.
Instead, it is an agile whitewater beast
First and foremost, I loved the agility of the boat.
Once I had the thigh straps set up to fit me, I found the Nirvana self bailer (no doubt same goes for the spraydeck version) to be exceedingly agile whitewater packraft. It was easy (almost second nature) to lean into the flow. The raft made using your body intuitive in a way that for example an MRS Microraft never felt like. As you sit quite high and snug (with the thighstraps in place) , it is easy to lean one way or another. But at the same time, it feels solid and stable. The raft is an extension of your body, and you can maneuver tight spots with ease.
The Nirvana was nice and firm. It took big waves with stride where I was feeling the boat start to bend on my friends’ Gnarwhal. Paddlers more capable than me confirmed this hunch: it was possible to put the raft almost on it’s side (in a 90 degree angle) without capsizing it.
I did manage to tip it over, quite a few times in fact. Each time it was an operator error: I attempted to come from an eddy to the main flow for some surfing. Where the eddy and main flow meet, I misplaced my weight and the main flow flooded over my bow, making the raft tip. It was in near the end of the second day, I was already tired. But I do feel that having a bit more hull speed would have helped in crossing the eddy – main flow line.
With some reservations, I loved the thigh straps. My model has the older four point thigh strap set. They are quite complicated and somewhat of a pain to set up. Also, they are quite bare webbing and could maybe use some padding. But after you have them dialed in, you have an unbeatable connection with the raft. If you topple, you are still fully connected with the boat. When you decide you need to release, a flick of your thighs will set you free from the raft without fear of being trapped. Skilled paddlers can do an eskimo roll and the rest of us can at least try it.
Compared to the Kokopelli four point thigh straps, the Alpacaraft Gnarwhal had a far more comfortable and easier to set up three point system. At their best, the four point straps beat the Alpaca straps. On average, I think the Gnarwhal thigh straps will serve better. They provided adequate to good control, but the raft – body connection just wasn’t there.
On newer rafts, Kokopelli has moved to a similiar three point thigh strap system. I would love to try it and do a comparison. I suspect that for the ultimate control, four point system may be better, but would love to isolate the effect of the straps from the effect of the raft.
The Kokopelli Nirvana is tool for a particular purpose: white water rafting- For a long trek, I would choose the Alpacaraft Gnarwhal over it every time. For a fun day on the whitewater, I would choose the Nirvana over the Gnarwhal. I suspect the same goes for rafting trips that traverse highly demanding rapids.
I would not hesitate to recommend the Nirvana for anyone mostly using it for fun days on the white water, but wanting a raft for general purpose rafting (hiking + rafting, bikerafting or just exploring).
If your main use of a packraft is driving to a river, unpacking the raft, rafting for a day and driving back home, then the Kokopelli Recon might be even better than a Nirvana.