Anatomy of a "Paddle Van" —
How to Take to the Road in Style
By Tamia Nelson
September 11, 2012
It's a fact: The age of the voyageur is over. A hundred and fifty years ago, many sectors of the economy depended on a network of interlinked waterways that crisscrossed the continent. Back then, canoeing was necessarily a two‑way proposition, and boaters expected to travel upstream as well as down. But those days are long gone. Today we go with the flow. Commerce still chugs along a handful of major rivers, of course, but most inland waterways now see only recreational traffic. Which means that almost all paddling trips begin (and end) on the highway.
Yet this overland leg of the journey, important as it is, gets short shrift in the paddling literature. Yes, you can find reams of material on the selection of a roof rack, and strategies for shuttling cars between put‑in and take‑out also come in for a fair bit of attention. But what about the selection and outfitting of the vehicle that carries the load down the highway? There's not very much written about that. I've touched on the subject in the past myself, though mostly in connection with what I call "amphibious paddling," journeys combining cycling with canoeing or kayaking. This is a cheap and rewarding way to explore waterways near home, but it's of interest to — how can I put this? — only a small cadre of like‑minded boaters. And it certainly won't be embraced by folks who want to explore far‑distant waters.
So we come back to the car. European paddlers are entitled to feel smugly superior here. They have a working passenger rail network, and it's still possible for them to repeat the feats of such 19th‑century pioneers as John "Rob Roy" MacGregor, none of which required a car. But America — at least that part of North America south of the 49th parallel — has chosen to consign its former affordable rail passenger service to history. In the States, in other words, the car is king. Which means that Canoe Country paddlers spend many hours behind the wheel. In fact, some weekend warriors on the whitewater circuit spend more time packing and driving than they do paddling. And while Big Trips pose the greatest logistical difficulties overall, it's the shorter jaunts close to home (day trips and weekend getaways, mainly) that usually cause the headaches. Here's what I mean: A day spent organizing gear and loading your car, followed by four days on the road traveling to and from the put‑in (and another day or two cleaning up at the end of the trip), is certainly a big chunk of time in aggregate, yet it's a pretty small price to pay for a month's holiday. But a couple of hours packing and six hours in the car in order to paddle a 10‑mile stretch of river? This is what economists call an unfavorable benefit‑cost ratio.
There are several ways to redress the balance. Amphibious excursions are one response. They may be sweaty, but at least the ride to the put‑in is also part of the adventure. This isn't an approach that will appeal to many paddlers, however. And it's certainly not practical if the put‑in is more than 25 miles or so from your home. No, the best way for the majority of canoeists and kayakers to make the most of their leisure time is easily stated: organization. Easily stated, that is, but not so easily put into practice.
Each of us rises to the challenge as best he (or she) can. That goes without saying. Of course, some of us are better at it than others, and it would be mighty hard to improve on the strategy of In the Same Boat reader Gary Schlunz. You could say he's the very embodiment of …
The Consummate Organization Man
And his is an example well worth emulating. After all, even go‑light minimalists accumulate piles of gear, and keeping track of everything soon gets to be a chore. "A place for everything, and everything in its place" is the advice we're usually given. But how many of us follow this good advice to the letter? Not many, in my experience. Gary does, though. He first described his system in a brief letter that appeared in "Our Readers Write," and here's some of what he had to say:
I do a lot of "saving space" for our trips. I built a raised bed frame out of PVC pipe for my friend Linda's Toyota Sienna van that we use on the road. Underneath the bed frame (which holds a blow-up mattress) we have a Coleman two-burner stove; ice chests to keep food, drinks, and eating supplies; two plastic tubs (one for our camping gear and the other with kayak gear); tent and camp chairs; a backless wheelchair that we use for (un)loading and moving our kayak about at drop-off; and other miscellaneous items we use for our trip. This does not include the bike rack for carrying our two recumbent bicycles on the back of the van, and our kayaks on top. Soon I'll rearrange the top of the van so I can carry a maximum of three kayaks, or two kayaks and a canoe.
I even have found screen netting that we clamp on the frame of the rear hatch to keep bugs out at night and get a good supply of air. This way if we are in a rush to get someplace, we don't have to break out our tent and related paraphernalia, so we can get rested but be on our way sooner rather than later in the morning.
What did I tell you? Gary's approach to organization bears the stamp of genius. Instead of unloading and loading his van at every stop, he lives out of the vehicle. Thanks to his considerable ingenuity, the van doubles as a comfortable, if somewhat spartan, home away from home. In reading his description, I was reminded of writer Robert Traver's "fish car," the go‑almost‑anywhere Jeep that Traver outfitted to carry him to his favorite trout streams on the days when he wasn't sitting as a Michigan Supreme Court justice. But Gary has taken the idea much further.
Needless to say, I wanted to know more. And Gary graciously obliged. What follows, then, is a close look at …
The Anatomy of a Paddle Van
The pictures and many of the descriptions are Gary's. The idea, however, is open‑source, available to any paddler who feels the urge to make more efficient use of his (or her) leisure time. So let's begin by looking at the van before the bed platform is installed and the gear stowed:
There's obviously plenty of space in the Toyota Sienna. But space has to be compartmentalized to be of use. The alternative — piling gear in untidy mounds on the floor — might make sense in your garage, but it won't work on the road. Not on any road with curves and hills, anyway. Gary didn't see this as a problem, though. He saw it as an opportunity. And he began his program of compartmentalization by building the sleeping platform:
The design is as simple as it is elegant. The platform is a sheet of plywood, trimmed to fit the available space, with a framework of PVC pipe affixed to the underside. This framework supports a mattress, distributes the load, and elevates the platform above the van floor.
But be warned: A simple design isn't necessarily simple in execution. A little preplanning is vital. If you're adapting Gary's system to your own van or pickup, you'll need to do some careful measuring — and maybe some canny cutting, as well — paying close attention to any wayward curves in the body or bed of your vehicle. And just how high is high enough where the platform is concerned? Here's what Gary has to say:
The height of the platform will be determined by the height of coolers and tubs you wish to place underneath. For mine, the height from the van floor was 19⅜ inches. All other supplies and equipment will easily slide underneath. It may require some bending at times, but the platform eliminates piles of items mixed together, and eliminates accidental breakage from huge piles. Most importantly, it keeps items out of sight from prying eyes.
Most vans can fit a width of plywood inside without cutting. The only cutting done was for the length of the van from behind the front seats to the back hatch of the van.
The construction of the PVC‑pipe frame deserves some further elaboration. Gary described it like this:
The framing of the stand was made from PVC piping cut to the dimensions. I determined its design and construction to permit support for two people on a blow-up mattress, and for ease of gear placement. Also, note that the pipe framework on the underside of the platform does not extend the full width of the platform at the rear. This is important so you can slide bulky items in from the back hatch without a pipe crossmember getting in the way.
A few fine points: U‑brackets anchor the PVC pipe to the plywood platform, while standard elbows and tees are used at the joins. The keyed photos below give you a close‑up look:
As Gary noted in his description, there's no crossmember at the back to get in the way when loading and unloading gear. Now let's see how the supporting legs are shaped:
Are you wondering why two of the six supports are offset? Gary explains:
The two offset piping legs are used to provide support around contoured sides within the van. The straight legs have caps on the bottom so the platform can be slid when placing it in the van. I crawl underneath to raise and place the offset legs last. Those don't have caps, so they fit into the indentations without carpeting in the van floor and allow the frame to slide easier when loaded.
It's time to look at the bed platform in situ. First, we'll take a peek underneath:
You can't miss the large, unobstructed storage area created by the platform and its supports, can you?
Now here's the view from above:
The sleeping platform is good‑sized, and it completely covers the gear stored below. As Gary has already pointed out, this does much to keep honest men and women honest. And what, exactly, is stowed under the platform? All this:
And here it is tucked neatly away:
What did I say? There's a place for everything, and everything is in its place, with all of it immediately accessible when needed. But why not let Gary describe his stowage plan in his own words?
The picture shows items used for kayak and park tenting. Please note the translucent plastic tub with all the camping gear listed on the outside. This is extremely important because anyone can find the needed tub or a single item without taking someone away from setting up camp or getting ready to kayak. We have one box each for sleeping, camp clothing, campfire, and kayak gear. You can also see the cool bag I use now to keep all the paddles from separating and sliding around.
Gary's meticulous planning even extends to meal stops on the road:
I place the coolers underneath by the side door and on top, secured with bungee cord, for easy access to food and drink while traveling and stopping at roadsides. It's great to have it readily in hand.
Here they are — a moveable feast for the peripatetic boater:
The rest of the space in the van can now be allocated according to need, depending on the length of the trip and the destination. Gary's basic loading plan uses four bins and a Pelican case, separating gear according to its intended use, but more bins can be added if required. And what about the boats? As Gary mentioned in his original letter, the van's roof rack can carry three, either one canoe and two kayaks or three kayaks — and these, too, are taken into account in Gary's plan:
We take out of the van only what we'll need, dependent on weather prediction. We have three sealable bags for carrying equipment to and from the kayaks so we only have to make limited trips. Two are large (duffel-bag size), and the other is a very large tote bag. After packing the kayak(s), we stuff the bags into the hatches to use when we pull out the gear at the campsite.
OK. It's bottom‑line time, and the bottom line is mighty impressive. Using only inexpensive, readily obtainable materials, Gary and Linda have built themselves a roadworthy base camp for paddling excursions. I'm envious, and I'll bet you are, too. But there's nothing stopping us from following Gary's lead, is there? He's done the hard work. All we need to do is copy his proven plan, adapting the platform design to suit our own vehicles. And to help us, Gary's provided this …
Bill of Materials
Along with a list of the tools he used in the construction:
- 4‑foot by 8‑foot sheet of finished ¾‑inch plywood
- 2‑inch PVC pipe (lengths to be determined by vehicle type and size)
- PVC elbows, tees, and caps
- 2‑inch metal pipe hangers
- Circular saw
- Drill and bits
- PVC pipe cutter
- Solvent and brush
- Long straightedge
- Tape measure
That's it. There's nothing on the list you can't find in the nearest big‑box home improvement store. If you just remember the carpenter's axiom — measure twice and cut once — the job should go smoothly. And then you, too, will have a roving base camp for your own paddling excursions. Plus, you'll save hours of time that would otherwise be lost in loading and unloading (and looking for!) your gear. How can you go wrong?
The most wearisome part of many paddling trips is the drive to and from the put‑in and take‑out. And the biggest time‑waster is probably loading and unloading all the gear you pitched haphazardly into the back of your car. But Gary Schlunz has solved both of these problems at a single stroke — and now you know how he did it. So what are you waiting for? Some of the best paddling of the Canoe Country year lies ahead. There's not a moment to be lost. The open road is calling!
Now where did I put my drill?
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