If you’re reading this, there’s a pretty good chance you’re into rivers. Or lakes. Or the ocean. Doesn’t really matter. I’m a river guy these days, mostly based on geography–I live in Missoula, Montana. It’s pretty far from the ocean, and three fantastic rivers converge within a few miles of its quaint downtown, making rivers the logical choice. I also think it’s super fun to float down a river, whisked by gravity along an aquatic conveyer belt past diverse wildlife, multi-colored rocks, and verdant riparian forests.
The only thing I don’t like about rivers is that they require a shuttle. It’s especially silly when only two people are paddling, like when it’s just my wife, Chrissy, and me. Taking two cars always seemed wasteful and reduced the precious quality time that river trips (and adventures in general) deliver. Yeah, you can hitch, but that was iffy before the Coronavirus pandemic and pretty much impossible now. Fortunately, there’s an easy and fun alternative to the dreaded two-car shuttle dance: the humble bicycle.
My in-laws gave us a canoe as a wedding present and in the 15 years we’ve owned it, more of our river trips have included a bike shuttle than not. But bike shuttling isn’t just for rivers. Oceans have tides and wind, and most lakes I’ve been on serve up plenty of wind as well. Setting a shuttle for a downwinder or a “downtider” seems extravagant at best and annoying at worst, so ocean and lake paddlers end up battling wind or tides to return to their launch point. Bikes can broaden your access to ocean and lake paddling, allowing you to explore new areas and experiment with new routes. Plus, riding a bike is almost as fun as paddling a boat, so you get two adventures for the price of one!
Most rivers parallel a road—maintained or not—and those roads typically follow the river’s gradient for the most part. That makes bike shuttling pretty convenient and often fairly painless. That being said, if you haven’t been in a bike saddle for years, starting off with a 20-mile bike shuttle may not be the best move. Fully loaded trailers definitely make pedaling a bit harder, so it’s a good idea to get a little bit of saddle time before you embark on a big adventure.
Over the years, I’ve (mostly) traded my canoe paddle for a SUP paddle, and I’ve learned a few tricks that can make bike-shuttling less challenging and more fun. These tips are specific to bike-SUP shuttling, but they can be applied to pretty much any type of float trip.
Scout your route.
You don’t necessarily have to drive the route you want to bike in advance, though you’ll likely end up doing that anyway as you set up the shuttle. At the least, check out Google Maps, Google Earth, or some other online mapping platform to virtually scout the route and make sure it’s a go. Sometimes, you’ll find an alternative route on a less busy road that makes for more pleasant (and safer) biking. I’ve ridden along some pretty busy and narrow highways that were frankly a bit terrifying. Finding routes with quiet country or logging roads is definitely preferable, but sometimes it’s just not possible. A bit of online research may help you ID alternative routes that are more fun and safer.
Be sure to wear brightly colored clothing and use bike lights if you’re riding at dawn or dusk so that cars can see you. Always be safety focused.
Sort the logistics.
This goes hand-in-hand with “Scout your route,” but it’s worth mentioning specifically. Some trips are better for biking first and paddling second. Some are the reverse. Knowing which direction the river flows and how that jives with your driving route is key to efficiently setting up your bike shuttle. In general, you’ll have to stash either your boat(s) or your bike(s) at one end of the route.
Depending on the trip specifics, you may have to double back and pick up one or the other when you’re done. Example: you drive to the put-in, drop off your board and paddling gear, drive back to the takeout with your bike, bike back to the put-in, paddle to the takeout, and then drive back to the put-in to get your bike. Alternatively, you drive to the takeout first, drop off your bike, then continue to the put-in with your board, paddle back to your bike, bike back to the car, and then grab your board on the way home. If you map this all out in advance, you’ll be able to plan the most efficient shuttle.
Mind your gear.
I’ve had locks refuse to open. I’ve forgotten a laundry list of necessary gear: bike lock keys, shoes for pedaling, shoes for paddling, dry clothes, bike gloves, fins for the board…you get the picture. When you’re combining two sports, you’re doubling down on gear. Being organized and methodical upfront helps you ensure you’ll have the gear you need when you need it.
Depending on your comfort level with stashing gear, you can leave your bike or paddling gear with your bike or boat, so you don’t have to bring it all with you. Or you can load up a dry bag with all your gear and a small backpack and bring everything onto the board, then transfer that gear into a backpack for the bike ride.
When I stash my gear (boards or bikes, packs, the occasional cooler), I use a six-foot-long, plastic-coated steel cable with a burly Masterlock to lock it up. I like to find a spot in the woods where they’re less likely to be seen and where there’s a big tree I can wrap the cable around. I prefer combination locks so I don’t have to remember a key.
Be sure to run through a gear checklist before you head off on the bike or your board: fins, releasable leashes, food, water, sunscreen, a hat, extra socks, bike gloves, tools, extra tubes, cam straps…they’re all easy to leave behind by accident.
Get the right gear.
You don’t need to go out and spend thousands of dollars on a fancy bike and Bob Trailer to start bike shuttling, but you should have some basic gear to get started. First off, be sure your bike is in good working condition before you head to the water. At the very least make sure the chain is lubed and the brakes are in good order.
For years I used an old kid trailer some relatives had given us. It was heavy and bulky, but it worked fine. You can probably score one on Craigslist or Facebook Marketplace for pretty cheap. If you don’t have a way to mount it to your bike, there are loads of after-market attachments. Check out the Robert Axle Project or Amazon for options. I’ve since upgraded to a Bob Trailer, which is more efficient and better for bumpy dirt roads. I even did a bike-sup trip without a trailer at all, instead, I put the board into a backpacking pack and carrying it that way. It worked, but it wasn’t as comfortable as using a trailer.
The right rack set up is also helpful. Inflatable boards are easy to store in a trunk, but bikes and trailers are hard to get inside a car. Hitch racks are great if you have a hitch, but they can be expensive. Most cars can accommodate a bike rack on top while still providing enough room to strap a board as well. The trunk-mounted racks are pretty slick (and often fairly cheap). Scour used marketplaces for racks if you don’t have one already.
I often use my bike helmet as my paddling helmet, which helps save some space and weight. Paddling shoes like the Astral Brewer are perfect for both paddling and pedaling. I just bring an extra pair of socks so my feet are drier on the ride.
A small, collapsible backpack is a nice thing to have; you can put it in the dry bag for the paddle and then swap for the bike ride. Some dry bags have shoulder straps as well which is a good option too.
Three-piece paddles stow nicely but aren’t necessary. I used a fixed-length paddle for years and (almost) never had a problem. I either strapped it onto the trailer or stuck it into my backpack depending on the specific situation.
My first-generation Earl came with a K-Pump 100 and it’s a great size for bike shuttling. You may not need a pump at all, depending on your trip, but a small pump can open up some fun options (see Get Creative tip below).
Finally, consider bringing a couple of spare parts for your bike, especially if you’re heading out for a bigger trip or riding on rough roads. I had the piece that attaches my Bob Trailer to my bike sheer off on a big trip while I was deep in the woods. Fortunately, I had some paracord and was able to do a field fix that got me through.
Now I carry an extra attachment piece. Spare bike tubes (and a patch kit), a chain tool, and even an extra derailleur hanger can be worth their weight if you break down far from civilization. At the least, bring along materials that can help you repair something like paracord, duct tape, or even some JB weld or fast-acting epoxy.
Typically, I try to paddle first and bike second. That allows me to deflate my board, load it onto the trailer and ride back to the car with all my gear after the paddle portion of the trip. This tip assumes that’s your strategy too. However you arrange your trip, be strategic and mindful when you pack a trailer with your board and other gear. I’ve made some mistakes here too: On a fast downhill, my board slid forward and rubbed against the rear tire of my bike. I realized it almost immediately, but not before the wheel rubbed off the PVC coating on the board, creating a small, fixable, leak. I’ve also had a paddle fall off the trailer in traffic which was stressful (and not great for the paddle).
Use a short cam strap to keep the board tightly rolled and a couple of longer straps to firmly fix the board to the trailer. Watch for rub points and other potential issues. I like to pack my lifejacket and other gear I don’t need below the board making sure to fasten the buckles and keep an eye out for loose straps or buckles that could drag along the ground and break or get caught in the trailer wheels. I’m often riding on dirt roads, which are always bumpy, so I usually ride for five or ten minutes and then dismount to tighten straps and check that everything is where it should be.
It’s also helpful to use a tree, fence, boulder, or another large object to lean the bike and trailer against when you pack up. Balancing a bike with a trailer while you’re loading it with 30 pounds of gear is basically impossible.
Remember to keep snacks, water, sunscreen and other essentials handy so you don’t have to unstrap the board and dig for your candy bar. Always take a moment and visually confirm you have all your gear before you head off.
It’s also important to load your board correctly. Too much weight in the back half of the board will cause it to spin downstream. Too much weight in the front will make it harder to steer. Try to balance your gear front-to-back. Also, be aware that heavy loads will affect the board’s balance. It will be top-heavy, which makes it easier to flip (and harder to right if you do flip, trust me…). If you’re looking to do a multi-day trip, pack as lightly as you can while being safe.
Using a bike as your shuttle opens up a whole world of opportunity. Difficult-to-execute solo paddles become completely doable dual-sport adventures. Well-known local runs get a fun reboot.
In addition to using a bike for a typical day paddle, I’ve crafted some fun and unique multi-day trips that completely eliminate the need for a car at all. One October, my paddling partner and I left the house with our boards and camping gear loaded in Bob Trailers and day packs. We rode logging roads up through the mountains south of town to a saddle where we dropped east and made our way down to the Clark Fork River that flows back to town.
Using the K-100 pump, we inflated our boards and broke down our bikes, removing the pedals and wheels. We then wrapped the bike and its parts up in Tyvek and strapped the “package” to the front of our boards. On the back of the boards, we loaded up a dry bag with our gear and strapped our trailers on top of that, but upside down. Then we paddled back home. We camped one night on the bike ride and one night on the river. When we got back to town, we deflated the boards, put our bikes back together and rode that final few blocks home.
It was an awesome three-day adventure and completely car-free. Granted, Missoula boasts pretty incredible access to trips like this, but I’d bet you could find something similar near enough to your home.
Final thoughts and tip-bits.
Inflatable SUPs are perfect for bike shuttling because they’re so easy to transport. But substituting a bike for a car isn’t restricted only to standup paddlers. For years, we locked our canoe to a tree, stored our paddles and a cooler underneath it, and used bikes to shuttle. Sometimes we loaded the bikes onto the canoe, other times, we fetched them at the end of the day. Families, kayakers, heck even tubers, can easily bike shuttle if they have a good bike lock and a willingness to try. Preparation is key for successful bike-n-boats, so do a little homework (and a little riding), sort and prep your kit, and bring the right safety gear.