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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

SUVtopping Tricks

Of Bucket Loaders, High Rollers, and Hullavators

By Tamia Nelson

July 10, 2007

Sport utility vehicles (SUVs) are now the people's choice, having replaced the station wagon as the family workhorse. But unlike the low-slung station wagon, SUVs stand tall. Mighty tall. Most of the time, this extra headroom is great. Like when you need to load a pile of overstuffed packs or dry bags for a weekend adventure. Or truck a couple of bikes to the trailhead at the start of an amphibious jaunt. Or haul food for six for a month-long Big Trip. But there's no such thing as a free launch, is there? When it's time to load the boats on the family SUV, even some tall paddlers discover that the job stretches them to the limit. Canoes, kayaks, and SOTs may be lively craft in the water, but they're just dead weight on terra firma, and if you're standing on tiptoe and holding seventy pounds of boat over your head, it's not hard for things to go wrong in a hurry. The upshot? More than a few paddling holidays have ended before they began, with a trip to the ER standing in for the drive to the put-in. Take it from me: an x-ray of your cervical spine is a poor substitute for a snapshot of the sunset over Lonely Lake. And even if you're undaunted after the first attempt to load your boat miscarries, your canoe (or your SUV) may now sport a dent where the designer never intended one. This can get costly.

What's the remedy? Should you trade in your high-clearance vehicle for something a little less lofty? Well, maybe. But probably not. Not until the next upward lurch of gas prices, anyway. SUVs are just too handy. And your doc probably won't let you talk her into prescribing a course of human growth hormone, either. Fortunately, there are cheaper and easier solutions, beginning with the humble …

Bucket Loader

No, I'm not suggesting that you head down to the nearest construction site. "Bucket loader" is just my tongue-in-cheek name for the ubiquitous white plastic 5-gallon pail. You know the kind I mean. They hold everything from sliced pickles to spackling paste, and you can often get one for free from your local burger barn. If this source of supply has dried up, however, or if you don't fancy scrubbing leftover Secret Sauce out of a recycled bucket, you can buy a brand-new pail at many big-box stores for less than the price of a burger. And how do you use it? Simple. Turn it upside down next to your SUV and climb aboard. If you've come up short while trying to load your boat, the bucket loader is probably all the help you'll need to get a leg up on the job. Better yet, get two buckets — your partner may also need a little boost. Cautions and caveats? A few. Step in the center, and not on the edge. Test your bucket with the full working load before you try climbing up with a boat balanced over your head. Always make sure the bucket is securely placed, and never stand on the lid. (It's likely to let you down — hard.) And be sure to inspect your bucket for cracks before each use. A bad fall never adds to the fun of a trip!

Not convinced? Don't be too quick to condemn this low-tech solution. Consider the pluses: Plastic pails are about as cheap as anything gets these days. And they're mighty versatile. When you're not using your pail to load boats, you can store gear in it. Belly straps, bow and stern tie-downs, foam-block carriers, bailers, and sponges — they'll all fit in nicely. You can even use your bucket to haul trash, like the wads of monofilament you pulled out of the trees on your last trip. The bucket also makes a good pail. (That's not a surprise, is it?) Back home, you can use it when you clean your boat before putting it up on its storage rack. Or grab the bucket to wash the dirt off your SUV.

Still have doubts? No problem. Bucket-loading isn't for everyone. Bad knees or balance problems can make climbing on an inverted pail with a heavy boat in your hands an unnecessarily risky business. That's when it might be worth …

Betting on High Rollers

Many firms now market ingenious devices for getting boats onto high-topped vehicles, and they certainly make the job easier. Rack rollers are a favorite with kayakers, and you'll find plenty to choose from. In fact, you can add rollers to either crossbars or cradles, though if you're upgrading an old rack you'll want to check the fit before you part with your money. No luck? Don't worry. You can also buy rollers that clamp temporarily to your SUV's roof or frame. (Oak Orchard sells no fewer than three different kinds, for example.) There's almost too much choice, I suppose. Whatever type of roller you end up with, however, they're all dead simple to use. Just place one end of your kayak on the roller and push till the boat is centered. Then tie it down and go.

Need more help than rollers alone provide? Thule markets the Hullavator, an ingenious cross between a freight elevator and a kayak cradle that attaches to your Thule or Yakima roof rack and does much of the heavy lifting for you, with the assistance of a gas-filled strut. I've never used one, I'm afraid, but some paddlers sing the Hullavator's praises. It doesn't come cheap, though, and reviews are mixed. If possible, try before you buy.

OK. Rollers (and the Hullavator) work well with kayaks and SOTs — they're typically carried right side up, after all — but canoes are another story. Luckily, there are …

Other Ways to Rack 'em Up

Yakima sells a telescoping extension bar for its racks, marketing it under the BoatLoader name. This add-on makes getting a canoe aboard a SUV about as easy as using a rest on a portage trail. Just place the bow of your canoe on the extension while you pivot the stern onto the rack. Then, once you've squared your boat away and tied it down, you can retract the extension and head off along the highway. Couldn't be simpler, eh? Handy paddlers might even be able to adapt the idea to their own racks.


We've come a long way from the bucket loader, haven't we? Yet the fundamentals of racking your boat remain the same, whatever your chosen helpmeet. And the most important considerations are …

Balance and Control

The rules are straightforward: Move slowly and deliberately whenever you load or unload a boat. Keep a weather eye on the wind, too. The Old Woman loves to have a laugh at paddlers' expense. And don't be too proud to ask your partner for help if you need it. Want still more options? You say you're not keen on balancing a boat that weighs as much as a large dog high over your head, even with a mechanical assist? Or maybe you seldom paddle with a partner. If that's the case, it might be time to …

Consider a Trailer

Trailering your canoe or kayak has a lot going for it. It eliminates most of the heavy lifting, for one thing, and you're less likely to strain your back as a result. You won't need to worry about raising your SUV's already high center of gravity when you carry two or more boats, either. There's a downside, of course. Trailers are costly to buy, register, and insure, and pulling one down the highway won't do much for your gas mileage. Still, for many paddlers the added convenience of a trailer is more than worth the extra cost. After all, cartopped boats hurt a vehicle's fuel efficiency, too. If you're really hoping for a free launch, tapping the earth's reserves of fossil sunlight just isn't an option. You'll have to look elsewhere. You'd best be prepared to sweat a bit, too.

What's that? You're not ready to leave your SUV parked in the garage? And you often carry a couple of boats (or more)? Then there could be a trailer in your future. Sometimes the tail does wag the dog!

Sport utility vehicles can do a lot more than take the kids to soccer practice and haul groceries from the HyperMart. Their versatility comes at a price, however, and loading a heavy boat on some SUVs can be a tall order indeed. The good news? You don't have to struggle alone. From bucket loaders to high rollers, and Hullavators to trailers, help is at hand. All you have to do is choose.

Copyright 2007 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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