Portaging Your 'Yak —
David LeBlanc's Better Idea
By Tamia Nelson
August 14, 2012
As a friend to the children commend me the Yak.
You will find it exactly the thing:
It will carry and fetch, you can ride on its back,
Or lead it about with a string.
— From "The Yak," by Hilaire Belloc
Back when we first started kayaking on inland waterways, whole days passed without our meeting other kayakers. Hard‑shell kayaks were becoming a common sight on whitewater rivers and along the Atlantic coast, but they were rare visitors to the beaver ponds and mountain lakes we frequented. All this has changed today, of course. Even on Golden Pond the kayaks now outnumber the canoes. And it's easy to see why. Kayaks are uniquely responsive craft. You don't just sit in a kayak and paddle it, as you do a canoe. You slip into it, instead, and from that moment on, you and your boat are one, leaving you feeling more like a naiad than a navigator.
But nothing lasts forever, and the happy partnership of boat and paddler is dissolved just as soon as you step ashore. Portaging a kayak is an awkward job at best, and getting your boat and gear across a carry can be a true test of fortitude. It's not the weight. While there are obvious exceptions, most kayaks are lighter than most canoes. What's the problem, then? Easy. It's the bloody‑minded contrariness of the kayak, with its small cockpit and restrictive decks. Loading and unloading become chores in their own right, and carrying both boat and gear at once — a simple, if necessarily sweaty, operation for canoeists — poses withering difficulties for the kayaker.
Which is why, many years ago, Farwell and I rigged up crude packframe carriers for our kayaks. They weren't elegant. Far from it. But they did allow us to get our boats and a reasonable amount of baggage across a portage in a single trip. And the process was pretty much pain‑free. That made quite a contrast to portages under our stalwart Old Town Tripper, whose 80‑odd pounds made a never‑to‑be‑forgotten impression on our neck and shoulder muscles, especially when we added a Duluth pack with a hundredweight of gear to the load.
Here's a photo of our packframe carrier in action:
I copied it from a slide, and the quality isn't the greatest, but it does a good job of illustrating the carriers' limitations. Our kayaks rode high on our packframes' extensions. In fact, they rode so high that they bobbed up and down with each step we took — we kept this porpoising under control with a pair of fore‑and‑aft tethers — but the boats' elevated perch still wasn't high enough to give us an unobstructed view of the trail ahead. So we had to lift the bows of our boats as we walked, and that meant we snagged every low‑hanging branch we came to, while the boats' stern peaks slammed into the ground whenever the trail dipped suddenly. These were only minor nuisances, to be sure, but they certainly didn't do much to make portaging pleasurable.
That said, we were happy with our improvised rigs, and we continued to use them as long as we owned hard‑shell kayaks. But we knew there had to be a better way. And now there is, thanks to the fertile imagination and remarkable ingenuity of In the Same Boat reader David LeBlanc, whose …
Better Kayak‑Carrier …
Makes our crude improvisations look like … well … the crude improvisations they were. Here's how David describes his system:
I did a tour through the Boundary Waters with a kayak and was interested to see your picture of a kayak on top of a packframe. I have a similar rig but with a few differences from your system. I strapped a portage bag to the bare packframe which allowed me to use smaller dry bags that fit better in the kayak, and I affixed a wooden crossbeam with small uprights on the ends to the top of the packframe to put the weight of the 'yak on my shoulder straps and hip belt, and to keep the 'yak above my eyes. I did a lot of looking for a commercial product that would do this, but ended up just making this with some stray wood from the garage. One other lesson I learned on a half‑mile portage is that you should always put some small object in the rear compartment so that the yak tilts slightly back. It is much easier to pull down lightly on the front of the kayak to keep it balanced than it is to push up.
We, too, discovered the value of a small trimming weight in the stern of a portaged boat, but that's all the credit we can claim. As the photo below illustrates, David's design gives the portaging paddler a much better view down the trail than ours did:
Looks good, doesn't it? And as David's letter makes perfectly clear, the rig's beauty is more than skin deep:
The packframe was from an old Kelty backpack with the nylon bag removed. The cross struts of the frame at the top curved to make room for my head. This created a bit of a "shelf" on top of which I could set the wooden crossbeam. I then just tied the beam to the frame with nylon rope. I'm sure there are more elegant ways to do this, but that's what I did. To grip the kayak coaming, I screwed two small pieces of wood to the ends that protruded above the top surface of the wood beam to prevent the 'yak from slipping off to the sides. I cut the length of the crossbeam to be just a bit wider than the 'yak at its center of gravity, then glued some thin foam pads to the top to inhibit slippage fore or aft, but the foam I used wasn't up to the task and it was quickly destroyed. [It turns out that this didn't matter, however.] With the weight of the 'yak on the bare wood there was sufficient friction that I didn't have much trouble with slippage.
What did I tell you? David's DIY rig is both simple and good. And there's no higher praise. I can only think of one point on which I'd differ with him. He may regard lashings as less than elegant, but I don't. In fact, they're often the best way to join two objects, combining great strength with just enough give to eliminate destructive stress risers. And they minimize the number of holes you have to drill in structural members, too.
But I digress. If you're as intrigued by David's packframe kayak carrier as I am, you'll want to see some close‑up photos, and David has graciously obliged. The first two show the carrier in action, so to speak, …
While the third lets us see every detail:
It's just as I said: simple and good. (If you're worried that the crossbeam will chafe your kayak's coaming, or if you have trouble with the boat slipping forward or aft as you walk, a couple of pieces cut from a heavy‑duty rubber floormat or an old kitchen drainboard ought to remedy the problem. These should also prove more durable than David's foam.)
What's left to say? Well, I suppose it wouldn't hurt to add a few words about …
The Art of Using a Kayak Carrier
And once again, I'll cede the floor to David:
There were two problems I encountered: (1) I needed help getting the 'yak up on top of the carrier (weight total with gear and 'yak was about 110 pounds), and (2) I fell down once on a rough, rocky portage, and [found myself in a position] a bit like a turtle on its back — I needed help to get up. However, it was nice to only have to walk that half‑mile portage just once, and just one way. I must say that discretion got the better part of valor when it came to portaging on steep slopes, though. I've never tried to use this system on that kind of terrain. We did the two‑person fore‑and‑aft‑carry procedure in those conditions because the potential for serious injury seemed too great. Having a 56‑pound kayak slide and hit my unprotected neck in the backcountry was not a risk I was willing to take.
Here's where our own experience diverges from David's. The differences are small, however. We managed to "saddle up" single‑handed most of the time, though the fact that our Kevlar‑and‑'glass boats weighed only 30‑odd pounds probably accounts for this. We'd shoulder the packframe and gear first (I'd guess the load on the packframe usually came to something between 40 and 70 pounds), cinch the hip belt tight, then muscle the boat up and lower it gingerly over the frame extension. It took a bit of practice to get the moves right, of course. I doubt we'd have found it possible with a boat weighing nearly twice as much.
Steep slopes? I can't say for sure, but I think the steepest slopes we had to contend with were around a 1 in 2 grade (that's about 27°, and a pretty hard climb it is, too). These didn't pose any problems, but then our rig — in which the packframe extension rested between chocks on the keelson of the kayak, just forward of the seat — made it nearly impossible for the boat to slide fore or aft. There was a price to be paid for this, however. As I've already noted, since the boat sat lower on the frame, the cockpit coaming limited forward vision. The bottom line? I prefer David's rig to ours. And in any case, his larger point is dead on: Portaging can be a dangerous business, especially when a stony (or rain‑slick) trail heads up or down a steep slope. The human neck is a slender isthmus, as vulnerable as it is vital, easily damaged and hard to repair. So when your neck is on the line, discretion is always the better part of valor.
What about it? Do you like the idea of getting both kayak and gear across the portage in a single trip? I'll bet you do. And David LeBlanc has shown us just how to do it, swiftly and with style.
Kayaks are sleek sea creatures, wonderfully agile and incredibly buoyant. They're equally at home in fresh water, of course, but they turn into awkward, inert lumps on land, especially when there's a long portage ahead and you're also burdened with camping gear. Is there a solution to this problem? Yes, there is, and all it takes is a packframe, a bit of scrap lumber, and a little ingenuity. Now kayak‑camper and In the Same Boat reader David LeBlanc has supplied the ingenuity. The rest, as they say, is up to you.
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