Getting There—A Boat-Hauling Omnibus
By Tamia Nelson
August 5, 2008
Not too many of us have a river running right by our house, and buying that place on the lake we all dream about would bust a lot of paddlers’ budgets. (In addition to cluttering up the scenery.) The upshot? You’ll probably have to take your boat on the road before you can dip your blade in the water. In fact, even if you’re lucky enough to be able to portage to a put-in from your front door, sooner or later you’ll want to see what lies over the horizon. And that means heading down the highway. Yet this vital subject usually gets short shrift in the paddling press. That’s too bad. In my experience, quite a few trips founder on dry land, long before the eager boaters reach the put-in. A loose line, a missed turn, an overloaded rack… Any one of these things can stop the fun before it begins. So I’ve done my best over the years to fill the information gap, with articles on car-topping, trailering, and knot-tying. I’ve even written about no-octane “amphibious” trips that marry bikes and boats, while leaving the family car in the garage.
Now I’m going to try to put it all together. It’s not always easy to navigate the In the Same Boat archives, and every once in a while we’ll get a letter that drives the point home. (For example, see “Car-Topping, Safely and With Style” in the latest edition of “Our Readers Write.”) In any case, hauling boats over the road is a complicated subject. There are all sorts of vehicles to consider, from pickup trucks and SUVs to Smart Cars and, yes, even bicycles. Paddlers can haul their boats on a roof rack or pull them on a trailer, and if this weren’t enough, there’s a bewildering profusion of rack types. Then there’s the problem of lifting an awkwardly proportioned, heavy—and sometimes slippery—boat over your head to get it on (or off) the rack. And the job isn’t done even when the boat is in the cradle. You also need to lash it down so it stays put at highway speeds.
Clearly, it’s time I stepped back and painted the Big Picture. So, let’s begin at the beginning, with
If you’re buying your first canoe, kayak, or sit-on-top (SOT, for short), chances are pretty good that its maiden voyage will be a road trip. After all, you have to get it home, don’t you? When I first started paddling, this didn’t present many problems. Every car had robust rain gutters, something which simplified matters enormously. You could buy cheap roof racks that clamped right onto the gutters, and it was an easy job to heave the canoe or kayak up onto the crossbars—there weren’t any SUVs back then, and cars were pretty low-slung. Most folks had some experience lashing stuff down, too. Pickup trucks weren’t as common as they are today, and family sedans often had to do double duty. The job was made even easier by the heavy metal bumpers that were just about ubiquitous, even on compact cars. Good tie-down points weren’t hard to find.
But times have changed. Rain gutters are gone, probably for good, and fitting a roof rack to a car is now a job requiring specialist advice, as well as a bit of forward planning. You’ll find a fuller discussion of this complication in “Taking Your Boat on the Road.” And then there’s the matter of height. Vans, SUVs, and pickups are TALL, and not all paddlers measure up to the job of lifting a boat so high in the air. Luckily, though, it isn’t hard to get on top of the problem. I outlined several solutions in “SUV-topping Tricks.” Not all of my suggestions were well-received, however. One in particular—my dubious stunt of using an inverted pickle bucket as a step stool—provoked a good deal of informed criticism, and many readers wrote to suggest safer (and better) alternatives. Go to the October 30, 2007, “Our Readers Write,” scroll down to Randall M. Adams’ letter, “A Prescription for Injury,” and read on. You’ll find a wealth of Better Ideas there and in the other letters that follow. Not for the first time, In the Same Boat’s readers deserve the last word!
Of course, getting your boat onto the roof rack or trailer—or even into the bed of your pickup (see “Keep on Truckin’!” in “Our Readers Write”)—is just the beginning. Once it’s there you’ve got to…
Know How to Tie One On
Don’t be like the driver of the truck in the photo. It takes more than good intentions to keep your boat from going ballistic. If you’re new to car-topping, begin by reading both “A Car-Topping Primer” and the companion piece, “More About Car-Topping.” Not sure of your knots? No problem. The following articles will get you started in no time:
Want more? Maybe you’re curious about splicing and whipping. Good! These skills belong in every paddler’s ditty bag. Check out:
Or maybe you just don’t want to bother with any knots. OK. You’ll find webbing straps with camlock buckles on most outfitters’ shelves. No knots needed. I’ve used them, and they work. Still, I’d strongly recommend learning to tie at least the “Five Essentials”: reef knot, bowline, figure-eight knot, trucker’s hitch, and fisherman’s knot. They’re all described in “Knots to Know,” and you’ll find many uses for them, both on and off the water. Technology is wonderful, but even if you’re only a part-time waterman, there’s really no substitute for learning the ropes.
Safety concerns don’t end when you park your car, either. Boats are attractive targets for thieves, both opportunistic amateurs and calculating professionals. Don’t make their job easier. Cover your assets. “There be Pirates” has some hints.
No discussion of car-topping can avoid acknowledging that the recreational landscape is changing. As the cost of driving increases, our world has grown larger. The barriers of time and distance mount ever higher with each upward lurch in the price of gas. Trips that we used to take without hesitation now require a meticulous weighing of benefits and costs. And sometimes the car stays in the garage. This doesn’t mean you can’t go paddling, though. A few adventurous folks are becoming
In other words, we’re hauling our boats with bicycles. And I’ll bet that even more will join our ranks soon. Paddling and cycling are a natural pairing. Not convinced? Then consider the facts. Cycling moms and dads have been towing their kids in two-wheeled trailers for a long time, and one young adventurer even cycled from Sweden all the way to Kathmandu, hauling the gear for a solo Everest climb behind him, along with the food he’d need for his final assault on the summit. It came to something like 160 pounds altogether. A folding kayak or inflatable is a mighty small load by comparison. Of course, you’ll also need a PFD, a break-down paddle, and the Ten Essentials, as well as some tools for the bike, but these won’t add much to your burden. The initial investment is small, too: a boat (inflatables can be had for less than US$300), a bike (ditto, for a serviceable “comfort” bike), a trailer (ours cost us only US$90) and a reasonably fit and practiced body. If the idea appeals, the articles listed below will soon have you pedaling down the road to the put-in. The Good News? You won’t need to stop along the way to buy gas!
Two-wheeled travel can make sense away from the highway, too. If your boat seems to have gained weight over the years, or if your back is acting up, you might want to consider getting a portage cart. Read “Rediscovering the Wheel” to learn more about these handy gadgets. (WARNING! Portage carts are banned in some places. Find out before you wheel off down the trail.)
No trip lasts forever. Sooner or later, you come back to…
Home, Sweet Home
But that doesn’t mean that all the hard work of hauling is over. You’ll want to store your boat and gear someplace that’s both safe and secure. “Home Port” has a few tips to make this job easier. It’s worth taking a little extra time here, no matter how eager you are to hit the shower and eat a home-cooked meal. Then your boat (and gear) will be all ready to go the next time you want to light out for the Territory, even if it’s only for a spur-of-the-moment weekend getaway. ’Nuff said?
Most paddling trips start and end on the road, and most boats put a lot more miles under their keels rolling down the highway than floating in the water. This is a Fact of Life. But it needn’t be a cause for dismay. After all, why shouldn’t getting there be half the fun? Well, with gas prices inching upward, maybe that is too much to expect. Still, there’s no reason why the drive to the put-in can’t at least be trouble-free. It only takes a little planning and some attention to detail. That’s all.
See you on the road!
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