20 Years and Counting: A Q&A with Alpacka Pack Rafts CEO Thor Tingey

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Alpacka pioneered the pack raft industry when president Thor Tingey’s mother, Sheri, helped him invent the craft for her son’s multisport racing exploits in Alaska. Now celebrating its upcoming 20th year and based in Mancos, CO, with the lightweight float craft category booming, the company is launching several new models as it continues to redefine a paddling category opening up backcountry waterways to unprecedented exploration. Paddling Life catches up with president Thor Tingey for his take on the market, two decades in business, and the boom in paddling during the pandemic.

Alpacka president Thor TingeyPaddling Life: Let’s start with this booming demand…how are Alpacka Raft inventory levels doing?

We’re doing well, but not without some challenges. We build to order, so we don’t keep any inventory of finished boats. So we’re more focused on our raw materials inventory and sourcing. Over 95% of our materials and components are sourced in the US, so we haven’t had to deal with shipping delays like companies that manufacture overseas. Most of our materials were pretty easy to source in 2020, particularly our fabrics. That’s changed significantly in 2021 as demand for fabrics and other parts has increased. We normally plan and purchase our materials about three to four months ahead of time; now we’re working out six to nine months.

But even though we’ve been able to keep a good handle on our materials, our own build-to-order lead times have grown significantly this year from sales growth. On a normal year, we have about a seven-week lead time during peak season. This year we are running three to four months for lead times. That definitely slowed sales in May as we can’t deliver until the end of summer. We haven’t been able to increase production to meet demand because we’re limited by space, staffing and the time it takes to train new employees. But since we control manufacturing from start to finish, we’re at least able to provide realistic lead times even if they are a few months long. Many brands that rely on third party manufacturing can’t even promise when they might have new stock.

How is Alpacka Raft looking heading into 2022? 

We feel good about next season. We’ll probably be able to increase production slightly as we hire more staff. And we’re in good shape for bringing in materials. But lead times will probably remain fairly long for the foreseeable future. As for our third-party products like paddles, PFDs, and dry suits, we only have enough inventory in stock to fulfill current orders. We’ve been limited to preseason orders by almost all of our vendors, which requires much longer range planning and forecasting. Some vendors have been very good at meeting their preseason commitments and others have had much longer delays. It seems to be the nature of the industry right now. We expect those issues to continue well into 2022 and they might even get worse because companies will try to order even more on their preseasons.

Alpacka
Tingey, scratching his head over another invention.

Your 20thanniversary is coming up…did you ever think the demand would this strong for pack rafts after two decades? We’re thrilled at the level of demand for packrafting, which is popular but without the crazy spike in growth like SUPs. Sales growth has been steady throughout our 20 years, with a few notable big growth spurts. That has really allowed our brand and manufacturing to grow organically and respond to demand without having to take giant leaps in manufacturing. It’s great to see the sport being more widely accepted as a fun way to enjoy paddlesports.

How were sales this past year? 

The global demand for outdoor recreation products hit packrafting hard. We saw about a 75% decline in sales in March/April of 2020 when the pandemic first hit. But once people learned that the safest thing they could do was to get outside, sales doubled in May of 2020 and didn’t slow down for a full year. They’ve finally eased off this May but only because our lead times have grown to three-plus months.

Why such growth? 

People really want to be outside in the pandemic and that shows with the heavy demand for all outdoor products. The stimulus probably made a big impact as well, but we didn’t see a notable jump in sales when stimulus checks hit bank accounts.

Any supply side or other manufacturing/shipping issues?  

We’ve been fortunate in that the vast majority of our materials are domestically sourced and we manufacture all our boats in house. So we haven’t had as many challenges with trying to deal with an overseas factory or shipping. However, we’ve had to be much more on top of ordering raw materials and supplies because the lead times have doubled for almost all of our suppliers. That means if we forget to reorder a critical part, we might be unable to make boats.

What are some of the latest trends in pack raft design? 

Our designs are a constant evolution. We have some traditional designs like the Classic which is the benchmark for pretty much every packraft on the market these days. It’s a tried-and-true design that is light, compact, and paddles well. We spent 15 years developing it and it’s still the staple of our lineup.

We also have some newer more innovative hull designs that offer better whitewater performance and better gear carrying capacity. Those are featured on our whitewater boats like the Gnarwhal and Wolverine as well as our two-person boats like the Forager and Oryx. Our whitewater boats also feature patented four-point thigh straps, which offer incredible control over edging and even rolling.

Alpacka Gnarwhal
Alpacka’s Gnarwhal

We’re also working on some throwback designs to go back to an ultralightweight (5-lb. range), fully featured boat with a spray deck and cargo fly zipper. And we have a bunch of new ideas for all kinds of different packraft designs that are in various states of prototyping. Very few of these will ever see production, but it’s that design process that leads to new boats or new features.

So we’re always working on new ideas. In fact, we just developed a new whitewater hull design in 2020 that we just released a few preorders for in the spring of 2021.

That’s the new Valkyrie…what makes it so unique? 

The Valkyrie is the closest thing to a true inflatable whitewater kayak ever made. First off, it features a new hull design that has a long, rockered stern and bow that’s very close to a modern creek boat. In fact, if you put it next to one of the modern sub-9-foot kayaks, the rockers are almost identical. Second, it features our patented four-point thigh straps which make it rollable. Third, it features a special floor design that provides kayak-like secondary stability for edging, carving and catching eddies. Finally, it utilizes a heavy-duty , 420d nylon fabric that can be inflated to about 2.5-3.0 psi which makes it much more rigid.

We’ve been working on the design for a couple of years and it’s pretty amazing in the water. While it’s been tested in lots of Class V, we really see it as the ideal backcountry Class IV boat which has a lot more appeal. Because it feels more like a kayak, it’s the ideal boat for paddlers with a kayaking background or packrafters that have developed skills and want a more high-performance boat.

The only problem is that it’s difficult to make. It has more than double the manufacturing time of any other boat. As a result, its likely to be an annual limited release boat only rather than a regular offering.

What new technologies are surfacing in the market? 

Three things make our packrafts the industry leader: design, manufacturing and materials. Design is something that we can control and we put most of our resources into new designs, rather than marketing. Manufacturing is something we partially control, which is why build our boats to order in Colorado. We don’t control the equipment we use to manufacture, but we are constantly looking at the latest equipment that could help us build better boats. For example, we use multiple forms of fabric welding equipment including RF welders, hot air welders, and ultrasonic welders. We also invested in CNC and laser cutting machines to get more accurate cuts of our boats.

One of the main areas for new technology in packrafts is through materials. We’re fortunate to have great relationships with our material suppliers and most of our materials are built custom for our boats. The materials make a huge difference in being able to build a boat that is both light and durable.

Are the zippered tubes a game-changer?

Yes, the Cargo Fly zippers are the single biggest element that makes packrafts work for traditional trips. Without a Cargo Fly, your pack has to be mounted to the front of your boat. That works great for a backcountry trip, but it’s much more cumbersome and limiting for a traditional river trip. With a Cargo Fly, you can easily do self-support trips on all of the major multi-week traditional river trips like the Grand Canyon, Salmon and Yampa.

Think that technology will ever come to the bigger raft market? 

Never say never, but it’s unlikely in their current form. The Ti-Zips are incredible in what they can do, but they require a lot of maintenance and even then they need to be replaced every few years (much like a bike chain). The maintenance hassle is a worthy trade-off in a packraft because the zippers are essential for traditional river trips and whitewater handling. But larger rafts don’t “need” zippers to perform well and aren’t worth the maintenance. But if someone could design an airtight zipper that didn’t have the same maintenance challenges as the Ti-Zip, I think it would be quickly adopted in segments of the larger raft market.

Any efforts on the sustainability front?

Good question. It’s difficult with a business of our size to do big sustainability projects, with the corresponding fancy label or acronym, that are easy to market. But there are still a lot of meaningful things small businesses like ours can do and we’re trying hard in those areas.

These include: Packaging: I am personally obsessed with minimizing packaging. I can’t stand the volume of throwaway packaging that I receive. Our goal is that when you order an Alpacka Raft, you should receive only the stuff you need and the box. You can get all of your instructions and product information from our website. It’s definitely not the heavily merchandized experience that most consumers expect, but we think it’s a huge step towards minimizing waste.

Energy Use: We’re fortunate to be based in Southwest Colorado, where we have a ton of sunshine. We’re in the process of installing 55KW of solar at our factory, which will power all of our operations. Since we manufacture during the day, this also means that our solar will directly power the factory rather than feeding solar to the grid and then relying on traditional power for our operations.

Durability: It doesn’t matter how sustainable a product is made if it isn’t built to last. Our boats are built for a minimum 10 year lifespan and there are many packrafts still going strong from our very first years. We also have a lifetime warranty on materials and workmanship and a full-service repair department. That keeps our boats on the water and out of the landfill.

Any big adventures planned for the summer?  

We have a few fun trips planned. In June we did a week of paddling on the Cal Salmon which was great. They’re in drought like most of the West and water levels are lower than normal, but the paddling was still fantastic and it was great to see some good friends after a year of COVID isolation. Sarah and I are also planning a trip to the Arctic Refuge with our 15 month old son and another family with a toddler i. It should be a great week to relax and get away.

Visit alpackaraft.com for more info.

 

 

 

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