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Take a Stow Boat to... Anywhere

by Tamia Nelson

Not so very long ago, folding kayaks and inflatable canoes were the paddling world's unloved stepchildren, widely seen as pool toys or the playthings of eccentric adventurers. But the times they are a-changing. Today's "stow boats" are eminently practical, do-anything, go-anywhere craft. And that's why Tamia keeps a couple of them on a closet shelf.

April 4, 2017

Article by Tamia NelsonDon't get me wrong. I like my little Old Town Pack canoe. A lot. And I'd feel the same way even if she weren't one of the last surviving members of a dying breed now that Royalex is no more. Yet good as she is, the Pack has one glaring deficiency: she's 12 feet long. Of course, 12 feet isn't very long as canoes go. My Old Town XL Tripper stretched all the way out to 20 feet. But if you're hoping to take a bus to your next paddling destination, or grab a cabin on a slow boat to what used to be called Cochinchina, or tow your boat behind a bike … Well, then, 12 feet is something like nine feet too many.

The bottom line? Bigger isn't always better. And there are times when even hardcore hardshell boaters will find that it makes sense to …


OK. You won't find "stow boat" in any paddling glossary. I've just coined the tag (I think). But it emphasizes the thing that makes inflatable and folding boats stand out from the crowd — their stowability. From coracles to Ultra Large Crude Carriers, every vessel is the product of countless design compromises. Boaties — they're the maritime counterpart to foodies — like to put it this way: "Light, strong, cheap. You only get to pick two out of three." And this is true, as far as it goes. But there are other criteria besides weight, strength, and cost. Stowability is one example. Conventional canoes and kayaks don't score high here. But folding and inflatable craft do.

Inflatables have a rich history. The ancient Assyrians used inflatable bladders to ferry their armies across unbridged rivers, and nearly three millennia later, the physician and explorer John Rae took a Halkett "air boat" with him to the Arctic. Folding kayaks have a much shorter pedigree. Though collapsible canvas canoes made their appearance in the 19th century — Rae had one of these, too — Johannes Klepper didn't sell his first Faltboot till 1907, by which time John Rae had been dead for 14 years. Notwithstanding Klepper's late entry into the stow boat stakes, however, his folding kayaks — and their many imitators — captured the public eye for fifty years or so, until universal car ownership made the folder's easy portability less important to recreational paddlers. Luckily, a corporal's guard of diehard fans kept the flame alive during the second half of the 20th century, and if (when) the private car goes the way of the Conestoga wagon, folders will once again be in the ascendant.

That may take a while. But you can count me among the corporal's guard of fans. I've never had any doubts about the utility and capabilities of stow boats. Farwell and I used to run bony stretches of Class III-IV whitewater with a like-minded couple whose chosen craft was a rather battered tandem Folbot. (If you're over 50, you can probably remember seeing the Folbot ads — "fits in every home or car" — on the pages of Popular Mechanics. Sadly, Folbot is no more.) Still, I'll be the first to admit that stow boats are an acquired taste. Is there one in your future? There just might be. Consider these pluses:

You can find a place for a folder or inflatable in the smallest apartment. Try that with a hardshell boat. Even my little Pack is a tight squeeze when brought into the living room. (I know this because I used her for a coffee table one winter.) And I blanch at the prospect of toting her up several flights of stairs, let alone trying to get her into an elevator. But my inflatable canoe and folding kayak fit neatly on a closet shelf.

Stowed Boats - Tamia Nelson Photo

Stow boats go the distance. Are you hoping to bring your hardshell canoe or kayak with you on a commercial flight, or persuade Amtrak to accept it as accompanied baggage? Good luck. And don't even think about taking it on a cross-country bus trip. A hardshell will prove a mighty hard sell when you're trying to convince a driver to stow it in the luggage bay of his bus. (There's one possible alternative if you're heading south, however: See if you can hitch a ride on Air Force One. I hear it makes regularly scheduled flights to Florida, and once the press corps have been sent packing, there'll probably be room to spare for your XL Tripper. Don't be shy about asking. After all, if you hold a US passport you're already paying for the air miles. You might as well get something for your money.)

Happy trailering!  Yes. All right. You say that the idea of taking the Mar-a-Lago Weekend Express doesn't appeal. I understand. Truth be told, it doesn't appeal to me, either. But maybe you're crazy enough to want to cycle to a put-in that's nearer your home. (Don't worry. You've got company, though I'll admit there aren't many of us.) If that's the case, you'll find it's much easier to tow a boat in a bag in a conventional bicycle trailer than it is to drag a 10- to 20-foot-long tail behind you, especially on winding, windy mountain roads.

All cars are not created equal.  Not into cycling? Rather use the family car? You've got a lot of company, then. But now that rain gutters and metal bumpers have gone the way of spats, celluloid collars, and bicycle clips, car-topping a small boat has become something of a dark art. There are spells and incantations to overcome the difficulties, to be sure—an entire industry has grown up around bespoke roof racks and their many appurtenances—but this legerdemain is rather pricey. And racks leave your boat exposed and vulnerable. Stow boats, on the other hand, fit neatly inside your car, and they travel incognito.

Rental car restrictions? Laugh at 'em!  Or maybe you'd rather rent a car for your next trip. This can be problematic. Many rent-a-car agencies don't allow you to tow a trailer or fit a roof-top rack, but they won't care if you carry a bagged boat in the trunk of your rental. It's just luggage. A hint: Put a plastic sheet down on the trunk floor to protect the carpeting from water, mud, and sand.

The bottom line (almost).  With a stow boat, the world is yours to explore. Whether you drive your own car or a rental, cycle, or walk to the put-in, your inflatable or folder is with you all the way, all the time. That's why it's also a great choice for amphibious treks—journeys that mix and match cycling or hillwalking with paddling.

Not convinced? Does all this sound too good to be true? Well, you're right. It is. Because stow boats have their share of shortcomings. Here are a few:

Both inflatables and folders have fabric skins, and fabric is, er, fabric.  If you've gotten into the habit of scraping your canoe over granite ledges, slamming it into the riverbank when landing, or dragging it onto the shingle while it's still fully loaded, you'll need to learn new habits. Or to put it another way, you'll need to relearn some old habits. You have to treat your stow boat like your grandfather treated his treasured wood-canvas Prospector. Modern fabrics are surprisingly strong—the world's special forces use folding canoes and inflatables in hostile operational environments, after all—but they're not Royalex. That said, Royalex hasn't exactly gone the distance, has it? Don't get me wrong. You don't need to baby stow boats. You just need to recognize that they're not indestructible. But then, you're not indestructible, either, are you? Why would you expect your boat to be any different?

And stow boats aren't instant boats. This drawback isn't often considered by prospective owners, but it should be. Getting a hardshell canoe or kayak ready for the water can be almost as simple as removing it from the roof rack or trailer. Folders and inflatables take longer. The names give the game away. Folders have to be assembled — unfolded, if you will. Inflatables have to be … wait for it … inflated. Both jobs take a little time — sometimes half an hour or more — and you'll probably have to sweat a bit, into the bargain. A couple of pieces of advice: If you're usually the last person in your group to arrive at the put-in, set your watch ahead by an hour the night before every trip. And if you've got a brand-new stow boat, practice making it ready for the water at home before you take it on the road. Practice makes perfect, in this as in all else.

Of course, once you get to the take-out, you'll have to reverse the process, and when you get home you'll want to clean and dry the boat before stowing it. Shoving a wet boat into a bag and then thrusting it into an airless closet isn't exactly a recipe for trouble-free ownership. But it's important to keep things in perspective. Hardshell boats also need care. They have to be securely lashed when you're on the road, protected from sun and snow when they're stored outside, and periodically wiped down. You'll also have to revarnish any wooden thwarts, rails, or seats from time to time. Hardshell or stow boat — it makes no difference. There's no such thing as a free launch.

Want a boat to call your own? But you can't find a place for a hardshell canoe or kayak in your new apartment? Take heart. And then take a stow boat to…well, just about anywhere you want to go. Bon voyage!

Questions? Comments? Got something to add? Just e-mail Tamia.

In case you're wondering: In the Same Boat never accepts payment for product endorsements, nor do we accept product samples from manufacturers or their representatives. We write about gear and books we've purchased, rented, or borrowed (from friends, family, or the public library), though on rare occasions we'll write a product analysis of something we don't own and have never used, based solely on manufacturer's claims, published specifications, or the experience of friends. But whenever we do that, we'll tell you.

Copyright © 2017 by Verloren Hoop. The moral rights of the author have been asserted.

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