News and Events

Learn: To Tie or Not to Tie

May 04, 2012

Usually, when an “expert” writes on a topic, there's an assumption that he or she has the answer or at least a very strong opinion or a pronounced lean in one direction or another. That's not the case this time with this subject. I don't think there's a simple right or wrong to this one, see what you think.

The topic at hand is whether or not you should lash all your gear into your canoe when heading out to do some tripping or even some day paddling. There seem to be two persistent streams of thought on this: one that argues to lash it in tight, and the other who tells us to do just the opposite, leave it loose and unencumbered.
The “lash-it-in” school of devotees argue that by tying your gear into your canoe you achieve two objectives: All your gear remains in one place and you are also set up for an easier recovery of your canoe as the gear displaces significant amounts of water that might come on board should the canoe flip and you and boat go separate ways.
The “let it float” free advocates feel that it is preferable to have your gear flush out of the canoe in keeping with the not-putting-all-your-eggs-in-one-basket school of thought. Their theory is it's better to have to chase down multiple errant dry bags than to try to rescue a fully laden canoe that may be broached in mid-stream or, heaven forbid, may have disappeared entirely, taking stove, bedding, food, shelter, etc. along with it.

Wait a minute, time to take a step back……………………..
Before we can begin to discuss the merits and demerits of either approach, what is most important is packing your gear properly so that you can execute whichever discipline you opt for. Regardless of approach, properly packing and protecting your gear is an absolutely critical prerequisite.

What we're talking about here relates more to the interior packaging than the exterior. By that I mean, not whether you're using a Duluth pack or an internal frame back-pack or a duffel or suitcase, for that matter. In terms of our concern at hand, what you put your gear in makes little difference. We're not concerned with portaging or carrying all the stuff but how to get it safely and drily down the river or across the lake safely.
The heart of any packing system has to be reliable dry bags of appropriate size, gauge, and integrity. The dry bags should be slightly larger than the outer pack if you're using one dry bag per pack. This prevents the seams of a dry bag from being stressed if you have a dry bag that's sized smaller than your pack and you can't help but try to use all available space. Besides the closure, the seams are the weakest part of any dry bag. It's far better to have a bag with some slack to it than one stuffed to the gills, particularly when the contents include hard things with sharp or defined edges or sides.

Personally, my preference is for at least two dry bags per pack. This aids organization and gear retrieval and minimizes having to root through and unpack everything to get to something that's inevitably found its way to the bottom of the bag.

The term “gauge” is actually somewhat misleading. What I'm referring to is the quality of the fabric and the coating used in a dry bag. PVC dry bags tend to be heavy and like to stick to one another, making packing a bit of a chore but they are very resistant to puncture or abrasion. Though lighter, urethane coated nylon or polyester dry bags are often just as tough and durable as their heavier gauge cousins. For me, the ease of packing a lightweight slippery urethane coated bag into a pack wins the day. If my choice was limited to a mother outer dry bag that held it all, I'd probably opt for the PVC/vinyl big bags as they are so well proven in terms of durability and puncture resistance. However, given the option, I'll go with internal dry bags inside an internal frame pack. I like the adjustment and sophistication of a well-executed harness system to ease my way over the portage trail.

The last criteria mentioned, integrity, refers to the overall workmanship and particularly, the closure. Most dry bags are radio-frequency (RF) sealed, some are taped seam construction. I've had a better history with RF'd bags and always do a quick seam inspection when I buy a bag, making sure the seams are consistent and the material is not overly stretched or stressed. When you try to jam in that one extra candy bar or pack of batteries, it is the seams of the bag that take the stress. Chemically, urethane provides a stronger bond than does PVC, another point in its' favor. Conversely, PVC has a bit more stretch to maybe accommodate that one extra item a little easier.

Probably the most important part of the dry bag is the closure. The designer's dilemma is finding the balance between ease of access and water tightness. You can easily make a closure that's easy to open or close or to make one that seals extremely dry but the trick is to make a closure that is dry yet reasonable to operate. Closures can vary from roll-top or fold-over closures to waterproof zippers.

When executed with care, roll-top closures are pretty effective. Problem being is out in the field circumstances may be such that you can't give the precise effort to guarantee a good seal. Perhaps it's raining or waves have kicked up and you're in a hurry or have to be in hurry to grab your rain gear while making sure the boat stays upright. This is not the best scenario for a proper roll-down closure and the greater irony is, these are the exact conditions when you want that closure to be nailed. I use roll-top dry bags for those items that can tolerate getting damp without serious repercussions to the gear or to the trip; items such as clothes, select foods, tent, cookware, etc.

For items that must stay dry, I opt for zippered dry bags or models with a interlocking closure backed up by a roll-top seal. They're pricier but so are the potential consequences of a wet sleeping bag or a stove that can't be lit or a camera or GPS that's taken a bath.

Besides protecting your gear, the other key purpose of a dry bag is to displace water that can collect in a canoe. Even when packed with gear, dry bags act as flotation bags in that they deny the space that water would happily fill up given the opportunity, and even a dry bag packed full of clothes weighs less than the same bag filled with water. Same goes for a food barrel stuffed with consumables.

Space that water cannot enter translates to added buoyancy in a flooded canoe. This in turn could mean anything from a canoe that retains some maneuverability with paddlers still on board to one that floats higher and is easier to recover from the river.

So, before you can even begin to consider whether you should lash your gear to the canoe or not, you have to realize that the reputed advantages of either approach are not available unless you secure said gear in watertight packaging. Just as watertight packs help float the boat, loose gear in watertight packs will also float, so you can see it and chase it down. Gear packed in non-watertight packs will sink sooner rather than later, regardless of whether it's lashed to a canoe or floating on its own.

Now, assuming you've covered that base and your gear is fully wrapped and protective, does that get us any closer to reconciling the original dispute? The simple truth is NO because from where I sit there's no simple answer. I just don't see where either approach is universal enough in advantage to outweigh the other.

I favor the pragmatic approach over being slaved to one system or the other. Hear me out: To me, the biggest factor is the kind of water being paddled. If we're on open, high flow stuff I'll usually opt to lash everything in out of fear that should an upset occur, free gear can be carried off in a lot of different directions before there's any hope of recovering it piece by piece. Given that our first option in such an upset is to stay with the canoe, it follows that keeping the gear with the canoe makes equal sense.

If on the other hand, we're on small, tight, twisty, constricted water with lots of obstacles and eddies, I may opt to leave the gear unlashed, figuring that a lot of our stuff will eddy out or get caught or snagged where it can be retrieved. The advantage comes when it comes to the canoe. A canoe without gear will be easier to recover from a broach and is less likely to broach unless it is fully filled with water.

Basically, I opt for the process best suited for the situation. We do make it a habit of tying in gear most of the time simply to reduce the likelihood of an inadvertent loss of something critical. What's tethered might get wet but it can't float away.

Do it Right or Don't Do it At All
It is critical as well that should you opt to lash your gear in that you do it properly. One approach that must be avoided and is potentially lethal is to tie packs in with a length of cord like a leash. The absolute last situation you want to find yourself in is floating downstream next a canoe and a bunch of packs floating loose beside the boat except for those cord “leashes.” Those leashes pose a very high entrapment hazard that can tangle your legs, your arms, whatever, and prevent your ability to get away from the canoe or your very ability to swim and stay afloat. In this situation, there is no acceptable compromise between lashing in of floating free. Go with one or the other, no middle ground.

If you opt to lash, lash it down tight. Approach it like you see a whitewater canoeist outfitting his boat for flotation bags. There's nothing so willing to float free than an airbag; they need to be restrained to stay in place; so does your gear. Ideally, your packs will be cinched down by your tie in system so that they do not lift or shift when immersed. It is important to keep you load below the gunwales whenever possible to avoid offering a river boulder something easy to snag as the canoe floats by.

Start with figuring out your lash points on the canoe. Kits are available that provide fasteners and deck loops that screw or rivet into the gunwales and enable you to run a “net” of cord back and forth over top of your gear, much like lacing a shoe. Some wood railed canoes come with slots milled into the gunwales that provide handy tie-ins. D-rings glued to the hull are an option as well and offer two advantages; one, they make it easy to cinch gear down really tight to the hull and two, they can eliminate or reduce the cord net on top of the gear which has the potential to be snagged or caught on obstacles. As we live in an imperfect world, the down sides are it can be more complex to secure and release gear by having to “dig” under the gear to feed the rope or strap through the D-rings. This can be a serious issue if you've got a broached canoe and are trying to release the gear to make the swamped hull more manageable.

I've seen folks simply drill holes through their hulls just below the gunwales and use those as lash points for weaving tie in line. I'm not a proponent of this approach. It just goes against my grain to drill any unnecessary holes in a canoe hull. This is an approach only to be considered with Royalex© or polyethylene hulls, not composites. Composite hull construction results in a lot of sharp edges and these in turn are inclined to cut any cords running through the hull. There is also the possibility that the cord could effectively saw through the hull laminate over time. It's just not worth the risk.

Just like it's a challenge to find the perfect balance between access and protection in a dry bag closure, same challenge goes in this situation. Weaving a spider's web of cord over your gear may go a long way in keeping it secure and in place but it can make is a serious chore to access that gear when needed and be a downright pain to reweave while afloat or when conditions aren't perfect.

One thing that should also be made clear is I keep referring to “cord” and by this I mean a static cord, not a bungee cord. Bungee will stretch and distort and allow gear to shift, avoid the stuff for this application.
One effective way to conveniently lash gear is to use two runs of cord or rope long enough to match the length of the belly of your canoe and long enough to reach to center from one gunwale 3 or 4 times. For a 16' canoe with a 36” beam I'd estimate 2 about 12' lengths of cord. Install at least 4 lash points on each gunwale, evenly spaced from behind the bow seat to approximately 30” in front of the stern seat. Tie a stopper knot in one end of each cord large enough to prevent it from pulling through a deck loop or lash point. Thread one run of cord down one gunwale and repeat on other side with other cord. Acquire 3 or 4 stainless steel or aluminum mini carabiners. Clip one to one cord between each lash point. Pull cord towards center at each carabiner and clip into cord from other side that has also been pulled to center. Go to end of cord and pull each cord taut with carabiners still positioned along center of hull. Tie stopper knot in cord to maintain tension.

This system allows you to open the lash system by opening the carabiners and releasing the opposing cord. It basically opens kind of like a suitcase with a run of cord off to each side and is fast and easy to re-secure; no need to thread or unthread line through tie down points, more a matter of clip/unclip and go, especially in mild conditions.

If conditions are more demanding, we will also clip our packs and barrels onto the lash line to prevent any possibility of them washing out from underneath the line. Sometimes that's a simple matter of unclipping a flap and placing it over the lash line and reclipping it to the pack or using another small ‘biner to clip a haul loop into the cord. We will also clip pack to pack if necessary to keep everything in its' assigned place. Most of the time this isn't necessary but it's good to be ready and prepared for the worst.

A word of caution, when paddling unladened, remove any lash system dangling in place. Any extended length of rope or cord loose in a canoe presents an unacceptable entrapment hazard. There's no gain in leaving it in place only the potential of a staggering and unnecessary tragedy. One safe way to provide a series of tie-in points for lighter loads is to run a taut line of cord below the gunwale along the belly of the canoe. You'd want to install as many lash points as possible to prevent any drape of the cord away from the gunwale and pull the cord tight when tying it off but even so, there'll be enough “give” in the cord to make it easy to clip the haul loop of a day pack to the cord via a mini biner, Such cords can be handy as well for securing water bottles, dry bags (clip your roll-down closure directly around the cord) and will not interfere with setting up a complete lash system as described earlier. You might very well be able to use the same lash points you use for the complete system, especially if you use smaller cord for this part of the system.

Just make sure that the line along the gunwale is drawn very taut, enough so that it is very tough or impossible to slip a foot or hand in between cord and gunwale. For this reason, I have installed deck loops or cable clamps on the underside of my gunwales for this use and loops on the inside face of the gunwales for the more extensive lash system. Remember, the canoe is arguably the most versatile of watercraft. It makes no sense not to take full advantage of it and install some customized outfitting. Just think it through and envision those dreaded worse case scenarios and how your possible outfitting can improve your odds or diminish them. Always err on the side of safety over convenience. Hopefully, the environs you'll be using your outfitting in are such that most times that sense of urgency is reduced or eliminated. Things move at a lot different pace on the lake or river than they do on the interstate. Adjust accordingly, therein lies part of the magic.

Paddle Well, Paddle Safe.