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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

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.

What about 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 my future.

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.

Towing the Line

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 disagree.

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 reserved.

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