The Amphibious Paddler
There IS a Free Launch (Almost)
Trailering Your Boat with a Bike
By Tamia Nelson
November 2, 2004
Think how wonderful it would be to thumb your
nose at every gas pump on the way to your favorite put-in. An impossible
dream? Not entirely. With proper outfitting and the right transport, you
can get a free launch, at least once in a while. And what sort of
transport is right? Your all-rounder
bike, of course.
OK. I'd better come clean. There's really no such thing as a completely
free launch. You pay for your fun in one coin or the other: dollars or sweat.
But sweating can also be fun. If you've already got a bike, and if you've outfitted
it for serious adventure, you're ready to start. Scout your
neighborhood from the saddle first, then map out a bike-friendly route to
your put-in and make sure there's a secure place to lock up when you're on the
water. Now you're ready to go.
Or are you? You still have to find a way to haul your boat, and few firms
make boat trailers for bikes. When one does appear, it usually doesn't stay
around for long. There are good reasons for this. Even a short hardshell is an
awkward load to pull behind a bike.
Not convinced? Then give it a try. Years ago, I experimented with a
homemade boat trailer, and while it did the job, I couldn't call the
experiment an unqualified success. Any route that took me down steep grades,
around hairpin turns, or into heavy traffic was downright scary, and dirt
roads weren't much better. Again and again, my 16-foot fiberglass canoe took
control of my bike, threatening to jackknife each time I braked and trying its
best to tip me over whenever the road surface was less than perfectly smooth.
In the end, I relegated my trailer to short hauls. Perhaps I gave up too
easily. An independent brake on the trailer's wheels would certainly have
helped. Still, it's hard to argue with the laws of physics. A bike will never
be an ideal tow-vehicle for a long, heavy load. Recumbents and tricycles may
fare better, however. A neighbor pulls a large, two-wheeled platform cart
behind his 'bent, and he negotiates heavy traffic with ease, even while
hauling a load of vegetables for the farmer's market. But I've never owned
either a 'bent or a trike, and they're certainly not cheap. I'd rather spend
my money on a boat that's easier to haul. And that means either a folding boat
or an inflatable. In other words,
A Boat in a Bag
My old Sea Eagle Sport gave up the ghost late in the summer. I was sorry to
see it go, but I have no cause to complain. I'd had it for nearly a quarter
century, and it wasn't new when I bought it. True, it spent much of the time
on a shelf, but it got quite a workout in the last couple of years, and I
certainly didn't treat it with the deference to which its great age entitled
it. Weighing less than 20 pounds and rolling into a bundle not much larger
than a sleeping bag, it was ideally suited to amphibious operations. My entire
outfit for a two- or three-day trip tipped the scales at less than 60 pounds
including a nine-foot boat, breakdown paddle, life jacket,
pump, tool kit, food, and camping gear.
Best of all, I could strap everything on my bike.
But that was then. This is now. Never before have there been so many
inflatables and folding boats to choose from, but none seem to match my Sea
Eagle's happy combination of light weight and low bulk. Yes, I'm sure that modern
inflatables are stronger, and prices have certainly come down. (The
Stearns boats are particularly attractive in this respect.) But I've yet to
find a replacement for my Sea Eagle that I'd be willing to take farther from
shore than I could swim, and that I can also lash to my rear rack.
folders? Well, for one thing, they're not cheap. The least expensive are
probably the Folbot line, and they're pretty pricey. The most expensive? They
cost as much as a used car. That's too much for me. And while all folders
fold, the packed size of those I've seen is prohibitive. Too large for my
bike's rear rack, certainly. Weight? Don't ask. Still, I'm not about to give
up using my bike on trips to nearby waterways, and I'm certainly not going to
settle for a float tube or an air-mattress. So I know my next boat-in-a-bag
will be bigger than my last. That's why I'm betting there's another trailer in
Let's look at my options for
Trailing a Load
On a standard bike trailer, that is not a boat trailer adapted for a
bike. There are two genera of haul-alongs available commercially: two-wheeled
carts and single-wheel, in-line trailers. The best-known carts are probably
the ones made by Burley, though they now have a lot of company. This isn't the
case with in-line trailers, however. The only maker I know of is B.O.B..
(Yakima once offered a competing design, but it seems to have fallen victim to
a corporate make-over. Sic transit
.) Here's what they look like.
The two-wheeled carts are popular with the parents of young children, who
like to take baby along for the ride. Many models can even be converted into
strollers. They're sturdy, stable, and easy to load, though they aren't always
at their best away from the highway. By contrast, in-line trailers appeal most
strongly to mountain-bikers and other off-road adventurers, who sometimes ride
where trails are too narrow to accommodate side-by-side wheels, and who
appreciate the fact that an in-line's single wheel follows exactly where their
bike goes. Not for nothing are some bike trails labeled "single-tracks"! The
downside? In-lines aren't as easy to load as their two-wheeled counterparts,
and they can't carry quite as much weight, either. That said, both types of
trailer have attracted legions of enthusiasts, and most will haul at least 70
pounds. This is more than enough for any amphibious paddler. After all, when
it comes to loads, less is definitely more more fun, that is. Every
unnecessary ounce is a burden on the trail.
Now I'm left with the Big Question:
Which One for Me?
It's not an easy choice. I really don't need the off-road capability of an
in-line trailer. I mostly stay on jeep trails or forest roads. (I prefer to
negotiate single-track trails on foot.) Then again, I don't need a stroller,
and I like the idea of a trailer that goes exactly where I go. The
upshot? Unless I find a real bargain on a two-wheeled cart, I think I'll opt
for an in-line model.
Your needs may be different. Just don't forget to take your bike with you
when you go shopping. If you're ordering a trailer sight unseen and not
all of us have a bike shop on our doorstep at least make certain that
the seller will accept returns. This is important. Though manufacturers offer
a wide variety of attachment kits, not all trailers will fit all bikes, and
some trailers don't have clearance for fenders. To my mind, this immediately
relegates a trailer to the toy category, but many experienced cyclists will
Whichever trailer you choose, be sure to take it for a test drive as soon
as possible. Pick a day when the roads are dry and load up with your full kit.
After checking to see that any critically-important small parts cotter
pins, for example are securely locked or tethered, head out for a
couple of hours. Be sure you have a few hills on your route, and at least one
stretch of less than ideal pavement. Take it easy, though. You'll be hauling a
big load. Stay away from heavy traffic, too. It takes practice to handle a
trailer, and you'll be happier if there aren't cars whizzing by you every ten
seconds while you're learning how. You won't be able to avoid cars altogether, of
course, so be prepared. A small pennant makes it easier for drivers to see
you, while a rearview mirror makes it easier for you to see them.
(Folks with wider two-wheeled trailers may find that fitting a second mirror
on their off side is worth doing.)
Sound like a lot of trouble? It is. But it's worth it. You don't want to
wait till your next Big Trip to discover that your new trailer doesn't work
for you. In fact, if you can borrow a couple of different trailers from
friends and try them out before you buy your own, you'll be glad you
did. There's no better way to narrow the field, though if your friends' bikes
aren't the same model as yours, you may have to spend a few bucks on an
attachment kit in order to use their trailers. This will be money well
invested. Get your friends to explain how their trailers attach, too. It's not
intuitively obvious, and you probably won't have the manufacturer's
instructions to guide you.
Is that all? Not quite. There are still a few
Odds and Ends
Trailers have almost as many bits and pieces as bikes, and many items, like
inner tubes and spokes, are not interchangeable. When you leave the beaten
track, be sure you have all the parts and tools you'll need for repairs. This
is particularly important if you've bought a used trailer, especially if the
model is no longer made.
One more thing. Don't think that waterproofing is
only important when you're in your boat. Like paddlers, amphibious cyclists are
always out in the weather, and rain falls on everyone sooner or later. Gear packed
in a trailer won't stay dry for long unless it's properly protected. You'll need
good-quality waterproof packs, as well as something to keep the rain off your
back. I find that a hiked-up cagoule and waterproof pants work fine, even in a
driving autumn downpour. (A hint: climbing gaiters help keep your pants' legs out
of the chain.)
Now you're ready to hit the road.
Hauling a boat behind a bike isn't for the faint of heart. But if you've
got the right stuff and what paddler doesn't? it can work for
you. Get a boat that fits into a bag, and a trailer to haul it. Then head for
the put-in. Who says there's no such thing as a free launch? Not this amphibious
paddler, at any rate.
Copyright © 2004 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights