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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

The Amphibious Paddler

Bag It! A Boat to Fit Your Bike — And More

By Tamia Nelson

January 4, 2005

More years ago than I care to remember, I traveled by bus across the rooftop of the United States in order to spend a month climbing and camping in the Cascades. It was a great trip, and the adventure began long before I reached Washington state's snow-covered peaks and alpine valleys. Since Greyhound was doing the driving, I was free to spend time watching the scenery scroll past my window. And of all the things I saw on the road, I remember the waterscapes most vividly.

As the bus rumbled down the highway, one liquid vista followed another. The inland seas of the Great Lakes stretched away to the horizon. A dispirited and befouled Mississippi oozed down a concrete sluiceway between Minneapolis and St. Paul. Pothole lakes teeming with waterfowl dotted the last remnants of the once limitless prairie grasslands. The wide Missouri and swift Yellowstone sliced across the northern plains. Foaming cataracts poured through sheer-walled Rocky Mountain canyons in a pell-mell rush toward the sea. And at the end of the journey, Puget Sound welcomed me with whistles and gongs, as ferries jostled alongside cabin cruisers within sight of Seattle skyscrapers.

Of course, taking the bus also had its drawbacks. All too often, I saw a remote beaver pond or mountain stream that I'd have loved to explore, but my canoe was back in New York. Even the smallest kayak would have been too large to bring with me on the bus. Or so I thought at the time. Later, however, I learned just how wrong I was.

Good Things Come in Small Packages

The answer to my dilemma, I discovered, was as simple as bringing along a boat in a bag — an inflatable or a folder. Think of the advantages:

  • Portability. The Sea Eagle Sport Canoe that I got shortly after my bus trip and used for nearly 20 years could be rolled up into a bundle not much larger than a winter sleeping bag, small enough to carry in to a remote mountain pond along with all my other gear. It was relatively fragile, though. More modern inflatables are both sturdier and bulkier, and folding kayaks are bigger yet. Still, even the largest is easier to pack than the smallest hardshell. How many kayaks can you put in a closet, after all? The biggest folders aren't too big to fit in a cramped studio apartment or tiny compact car. And that's pretty small.

  • Light Weight. Here the advantage is less obvious. In fact, while the lightest inflatables are light indeed — my Sea Eagle weighed in at under 20 pounds! — modern inflatables run a little heavier, and many folders often weigh more than their hard-shell counterparts. But the heaviest folder is still light enough to haul behind a bicycle. That's light enough for most of us.

  • Economy. Surprised? I can understand why. Some folding kayaks cost more than many used cars, and the pricier inflatables will set you back as much as a high-tech hardshell. But others are far cheaper, and occasionally you get more than you pay for. A few standouts among the inflatables — the Stearns line comes to mind here — offer an almost unequaled price-to-performance ratio. And there's more to economy than the price tag on the boat. Even the most expensive folder can save you money in unexpected ways. For one thing, you won't need a roof rack or trailer for your car, and neither of those comes cheap. Your gas mileage will improve when you bring your boat "inside," too. You're also less likely to lose your boat to a thief. Stealing a boat from a roof rack or backyard storage cradle is easier than breaking into a car trunk or home closet, and a boat that can be stored and transported out of sight won't tempt a passing pirate.

These are all good things, obviously, but they're not enough. It doesn't matter if a boat is compact, light, and cheap if it's going to let you down in the middle of a trip. The most important question of all, then, is…

Are These REAL Boats?

The short answer? Yes. While a few inflatables, like the diminutive six-pound "pack boats" used by some backcountry fishermen, don't belong on any body of water larger than a beaver pond or livelier than a canal, most are at home in easy-to-moderate (Class I-III) rapids, and skilled paddlers won't hesitate to push the envelope further. Don't dismiss inflatables for coastal touring, either. Audrey Sutherland's been exploring seacoasts from Hawaii to Alaska for nearly four decades now in inflatables, and she hasn't found any reason to change her mind.

Folding kayaks also have a long and distinguished track record. They were among the first "sport canoes," and there aren't many places where folders haven't gone. A few have even crossed oceans. Still need convincing that folders have what it takes? Britain's Special Boat Section used folding kayaks in the Mediterranean campaign during World War II, and elite forces around the world continue to employ them for special operations in coastal waters. Folding canoes are often used by fly-in outfitters in Alaska and the Canadian arctic, too. Wimps needn't apply for either job. Folders can take it.

It's true, of course, that inflatables and folders don't have the sleek lines of 'glass or Kevlar® hardshells, but there's no doubt that they're real boats, quite capable of taking any competent paddler almost anywhere she'd want to go. And that brings us to the next Big Question —

Which Folder or Inflatable is Right for Me?

To answer it, ask yourself a few more questions:

  • Where will I use my new boat?
  • How will I get it there?
  • How much can I spend?

Once you've answered all three, you're ready to begin drawing up a short list of candidates. Get some catalogs (or visit the manufacturers' websites). Stop by your local outfitter. Talk to other boaters. Be sure to check out's canoe and kayak reviews, too. If you've shopped for a boat before — any boat — this is nothing new. It's a lot like choosing a hard-shell canoe or kayak, in fact, though inflatables and folders are different from hardshells, and the differences are important. All inflatables rely on air-filled chambers for shape and rigidity, but the fabric from which these chambers are made can be anything from unreinforced vinyl (don't bother!) to the same Hypalon®-coated polyester used in whitewater rafts. Some inflatables even have encapsulated, replaceable bladders. In most cases, greater strength means greater weight, but few inflatables are heavyweights, and even relatively flimsy boats can give good service. My Sea Eagle was put together from "supported" (i.e., reinforced) vinyl. It was a far cry from today's high-end materials, but it lasted almost 20 years anyway. And when it died it was the seams that went, not the fabric.

Lacking air chambers, folders use a skeleton frame of wood or aluminum tubing to give them shape. Fabric is stretched taut over this skeleton to keep the water where it belongs. (In some boats, small air bladders smooth out any remaining wrinkles.) The fabric and frame members suffer multifold insults from sand and sharp rocks, to be sure, not to mention the occasional traumatic injury, but this needn't be a cause for concern. Repairs are usually pretty straightforward. If not, replacing the damaged parts is always an option. Old folders need never die — so long as the manufacturer keeps the parts in stock, that is.

Are there quality differences between different brands of inflatable and folder? Sure. Even a quick flip through the catalogs will confirm that they exist. In every case, however, specification-sheet claims are far less important than real-world experience, particularly when evaluating durability and fitness for purpose. That's where independent product reviews come into their own, especially when the reviews are written by people who've owned (and used) a boat for years, in a wide variety of conditions. Don't neglect this important resource. And since portability is a virtue, pay close attention to packed size. Many folders require two bags — one for the frame components and the other for the fabric skin. If the frame sections are too long, hauling the boat by bike or taking it on public transport will be awkward at best, impossible at worst.

Price? From dirt cheap to definitely dear, and quality usually doesn't come cheap. Don't confuse the two, though. It's more complicated than that. A Jaguar XJ8 is undoubtedly a very fine car, but I don't imagine it's any better than a Honda Element for making the trip into town to pick up a week's groceries. In fact, I'd rather take the Honda. Happy exceptions aside, you usually get what you pay for, but you don't always need what you get when you pay a lot. That's as true for boats as it is for cars. So be guided by your needs when you shop for a boat, not by some catalog copywriter's high-octane prose. Is your budget really tight? Then look for a used boat. Used inflatables are comparatively rare, but there are lot of used folders around.

By the way, when you're counting costs, don't forget that a boat isn't complete in itself. You'll need a life jacket (inflatable PFDs are super portable, though they're not a great idea on whitewater rivers) and a break-down paddle, and maybe a helmet, as well. A spare paddle wouldn't be such a bad idea, either. It's no fun being up the creek without one. And that's not all. An inflatable is one big float bag, but you'll want supplementary flotation in a folder. Folding kayaks also benefit from spray decks and spray skirts, just like hardshells. Inflatables have special needs, too. You can't get air into the tubes by huffing and puffing. You'll need an air pump — and a patch kit. Once you've sweated to get the air in, you'll want to be sure it stays where you put it.

This brings us to the fine art of…

Making Your Boat Last (Almost) Forever

All boats need a little TLC from time to time. Inflatables and folders are no exception. Don't splash gasoline or motor oil on your boat's fabric, and keep campfires and cook stoves at a safe distance. (Don't store a boat next to a heater or leave it in a car trunk between trips, either.) Avoid dragging loaded boats across the beach, and never bridge a loaded folder between two rocks. Moreover, always remember that sand is your enemy. It doesn't discriminate. It chafes fabric, destroys seams in inflatables, and jams the critical couplings in folders' frames. Keep it out of your boat at all costs, even if this means paddling with wet feet.

Good housekeeping is your last (and best) line of defense:

  • Clean It Up. Salt water attacks aluminum frame tubes and the metal fittings on both frames and break-down paddles. Rinse these in fresh water after any ocean outing, and flush sand out of every nook and cranny. Use mild detergent to clean soiled fabric.

  • Dry It Out. Never store a damp inflatable or folder. Period. And don't try to hurry the process along with a heater. A fan helps, though.

  • Check It Over. Eternal vigilance is the price of freedom (from slow leaks). Inspect your boat after every trip — at the end of every day on long trips.

  • Fix It. Right now. No problem gets better when it's ignored. With the exception of blown seams on inflatables, most repairs are easy. Follow the manufacturer's instructions.

  • Store It Safe. Keep it cool (but not cold). Keep it dry. And keep it out of the sun. It'll last almost forever.

Piece of cake, right? And more than worth the trouble it takes. After all, no waterway is out of reach if your boat's in a bag, whether you travel to the put-in by bush plane, bus, bike, or shanks' pony.

Good things do come in small packages, and that goes for boats, too. We live on a blue planet, and the earth's remote waterways invite exploration. Getting to some of them is mighty difficult, however, and bringing a boat along with you can be harder still. But amphibious paddlers and other peripatetic boaters are in luck. All they have to do is bag their boats and go!

Copyright 2005 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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