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  • Writer's pictureCliff Jacobson

SECURITY: To Tie or Not to Tie!

Updated: May 2

by Cliff Jacobson

Renee and Ken Sebranek on a wild Wisconsin river. Reneee is totally blind! Their heart-warming story is in my book, CANOEING WILD RIVERS, 5th Edition.

Question: Should you tie everything into your canoe when you run rapids and big lake waves?  Or, should gear be allowed to float free in a capsize?


If you've ever capsized in a bad rapid with a load of camping gear aboard, you know the value of tying in packs. Tightly secured packs act like a giant life preserver when the canoe dives in currents.  My flagship book, CANOEING WILD RIVERS, 5th Edition details this simple, reliable security system.

PROCEDURE: Drill a series of equally spaced holes through the inwales of the canoe and tie short loops of parachute cord through the holes.  Use the chute-cord loops as anchor points for your tie-down system.  Or screw stainless steel brackets under the inwales if you don't want to drill holes.  Some paddlers cement D-rings to the floor and sidewalls of their canoe.

Straps are best when running powerful rapids. Lower RioGrande River, Texas/Mexican Border. These are SOAR (Somewhere On A River) inflatable canoes.

STRAPS OR CORDS? Straps are more secure than cords and therefore best when running powerful rapids.  But they are heavier and bulkier than ropes - and the buckles can be awkward to release in a capsize.  You must completely free straps to remove your gear.  With cords, one pull releases the tension and the packs float free. Best plan: use straps for long brawny rapids, and cords with quick-release knots for wilderness trips that have frequent portages.  The ends of quick-release knots should be about six inches long so you can grab them easily.   For portaging, remove the gear and lightly secure the cords to their attachment loops on the rails.  Remove straps and secure them in a pack.


In my early years of canoeing wild rivers, I meticulously tied everything into my canoe.  Now, I'm convinced it's not always a good idea.  For example, there's no need to tie in gear if you're traveling in the company of other canoes in a "pool-drop" river--that is, one where rapids are short and there's quiet water below. If you capsize, your packs (which should be water-tight) will float into the pool where friends can rescue them after they've rescued you.  Note that a loaded canoe (with well-secured packs) will almost always turn bottom-up when it capsizes.  Submerged packs that rise much above the gunnels may scrape or hang-up on subsurface obstacles (best keep a low load).  At worst, a loose pack strap could snag an obstacle and cause the canoe to broach and wrap. IMPORTANT: If you “tie-in” (cords or straps), be sure that everything is locked in so tightly that if you invert the canoe nothing can move or dangle out.  Buckling a pack strap around a thwart is a very bad practice.  Why? Because in a capsize, the pack will float out of the canoe, it’s strap still attached to the thwart.  If the pack snags an obstacle as the canoe floats down stream, either the thwart will break and the pack will be lost, or the canoe will stop and “wrap” around the obstacle.   Then, it's a long walk home!

Cliff: Rio Grande River, Northstar Yellowstone Solo Canoe. Two-piece spray cover is rolled and reefed.


TO TIE OR NOT TO TIE: It seems that deep rapids favor a "tie-in" approach, while shallow and pool/drop rapids, encourage a "float free" philosophy.  But exceptions abound, so blind adherence to either system is not a good plan.

Hood River, Nunavut, Canada. Full spray cover. Stern is left open so that stern paddler can exit quickly, if needed.

For example, I don't tie in packs when I use a nylon spray cover on my canoe.  A covered boat that’s loaded with gear always turns bottom-up when it capsizes, and the cover and packs stay with the canoe.  The canoe rides high (and often, surprisingly dry) through the rapid. There is some merit in tying in packs under a splash cover when running heavy (Class II+ - III) rapids.  But it's much easier to salvage your gear if you don't.


Cliff: 14-foot Pakboat (folding canoe). Poreno River, Norway

North Knife River, Manitoba. 17-foot Pakboat. Bow and stern cover sections are rolled and reefed.

FOLDING CANOES  are much tougher than most people think.  They’ll usually survive a bad water capsize if the parts stay connected (Pakboats have locking hardware, Ally’s do not) and the bow doesn’t directly impale a rock and break the important stem piece, which largely holds everything together. Folding canoes are “semi-rigid”—that is, the hull slightly alters its shape (it’s unnoticeable) as you paddle.  The hull develops rocker  (bends upward) when climbing and descending waves.  This feature makes folding canoes much drier in rapids than similar sized hard boats. The boat's bending and twisting motion, and it’s greater susceptibility to abrasion (than hard boats) favors a "no tie-in" approach.  Best plan is to use a full spray cover when running these boats in difficult water.


WHEN NOT TO TIE IN GEAR: There's no need to tie in gear if you're paddling the Boundary Waters and similar lake country. Boundary Waters Lakes are small--half-a-dozen or more portages a day are not uncommon.  It's a hassle to tie and untie packs at every carry, even if doing so offers some security afloat.  If you capsize on a big lake, with "lightly secured/tied-in packs," fellow paddlers will have to remove your gear before they can tow the swamped canoe to shore--a huge hassle in running waves. 


The place to tie in packs is on a big brawny river with rapids that run for miles.  Capsize here and you'll be lucky to rescue your canoe, let alone packs that float out and are lost in the gathering flow.  For example, the lower Clearwater River in Alberta averages around five miles an hour, and some long stretches run twice that speed.  Two canoes in my crew capsized in a long rapid when we paddled this river in 1996.  Both teams lost some expensive gear that wasn't tied in.  Later, we found a lost paddle lodged in some brush 30 miles downstream!


Your skills, the nature of your route, your support team and whether you have a covered canoe should determine whether you do or don’t tie in your gear.  If there's an axiom here it is that when you do tie in packs, secure them so securely that they double as flotation and absolutely, positively cannot dangle out and catch on obstacles in a capsize. I repeat: buckling a pack strap around a thwart is a recipe for disaster!


*My flagship book, CANOEING WILD RIVERS, 5th Edition, contains a wealth of advice on how to safely canoe difficult rivers.

*My book CAMPING'S TOP SECRETS, 2022 revision, details practical camping tips and procedures that only the experts know.  If you know just a few of these tricks, you'll be a hero to your friends! 


*My teen book, JUSTIN CODY'S RACE TO SURVIVAL! mixes a fictional wilderness survival tale with practical outdoor tips everyone should know--a first for books of this type.  Adults love it too!  Now available as an audio book!


*My long out-of-print book, CANOEIST’S Q&A (available as an e-book) contains 25 true scenarios (plus FAQ's) that define the wilderness canoeing and camping experience--a great training tool for those who go beyond the beaten path - now available as an audio book under the new title PADDLER'S GUIDE: WHAT TO DO WHEN THINGS GO SOUR.





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