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45 Degrees North: On Hauling Stuff

Jan 12, 2024Jan 12, 2024

"That's not going anywhere." I would bet those are the words my dad spoke before the trip where a spindle-back chair made a kamikaze leap from the pickup bed to the ditch along I-65 in northern Indiana. My dad wasn't the first and won't be the last to misjudge the physics of gravity versus potholes multiplied by speed and wind. Rural ditches are littered with parts of the equation.

Back when my husband and I sold canoes and kayaks, we heard all the standard lines used by people hauling stuff: My favorite is I’m not going far, followed closely by I’ll keep it under 100. So we taught lots of impromptu lessons on how to tie down a load. And most people were grateful. We learned some lessons, too – like to back away slowly when you hear I thought YOU checked it. That marriage ended in our parking lot.

This was all long before YouTube, where in theory you can learn anything worth knowing. I trolled through videos recently, looking for one I could recommend to a friend. This one is pretty good, if very general. A lot of videos show how to use ratchet straps (great if you have them, and enough, and the right lengths, and good anchors in the right places). Others show how to make useful knots in a rope, but not necessarily how to place those ropes and knots to the best effect. And none would be much use where there's no cell service to stream data while you search for answers to a problem – like the shoulder of a two-lane rural road. That's where a lot of folks practice re-securing a load after it loosens in a crosswind or shifts from the gusts off semi trucks traveling at highway speeds in the oncoming lane.

Securing a load is a life skill worth practicing before you get the test. It's so important that I figured there would be country songs written about it. I couldn't find any, though, so I decided to write one. Here's the refrain:

Son, if you want keep that girl in your lifeYou better make that girl your wife.She ain't gonna settle for someone who Can't tie down lumber and a kayak or two.Fancy ratchet straps won't impress her, nope.Learn to tie down your gear with old-fashioned rope.So if you’ve got some woo to pitchShow that gal you can tie A trucker's hitch.

Here's some more helpful advice.

Trucker's hitch. This is a knot that gives you some mechanical advantage when pulling the slack out of a rope. This video shows pretty clearly how to make the hitch so it doesn't become permanently frozen in the rope, where to pinch while securing the tensioned rope, and how to release it all. My husband and I have transported hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of kayaks, canoes, lumber, appliances, and more using rope tensioned with a trucker's hitch. A 50-foot hank of quarter-inch braided nylon rope is a small investment compared to what you’re hauling. Cut it with a hot knife to seal the ends: Two 15-foot lengths and two 10-foot lengths will serve you well for a fraction of the cost of tie-down straps.

Tie-down straps. Cam straps are easy to use when you don't need the mechanical advantage of a trucker's hitch. When you do, you want ratchet straps. This video explains when to choose cam straps versus ratchet straps. What it doesn't address is where to position the hardware part of a strap in relation to what you’re hauling, and to place padding between the buckle and your load. We’ve seen unpadded cam buckles rub a hole right through the hull of a canoe. Also, if the noise from a strap is driving you nuts, put a twist or two in it before threading it through the buckle to keep it from whistling in the wind.

Anchors. For them to secure a load, ropes and straps alike need to run through secure anchors. Pickup trucks generally have at least four good anchor points near the corners of the bed. Flat-bed trailers may have anchor points along the rails and recessed in the floor. Cars are trickier. This video shows how to tie lumber to the roof of a car using door hinges and rear door shackles. The absence of bumper struts on many cars makes it challenging to secure long loads that really need bow and stern (or front and back) ties as well as a pair across the cabin roof. This link shows how to make anchor loops from nylon webbing that secure under the hood or back hatch door. Well-anchored end lines are worth their weight in gold in a crosswind or when you hit the brakes to avoid hitting wildlife on a rural road.

Angles. Ideally, a strap or rope would travel from one anchor straight up the side of an item (90 degrees), across it, and straight down (90 degrees) to a second anchor. An angle less than 90 degrees adds wiggle room. You may need to block, chock, wedge or cradle the item to prevent shifting and/or increase the number of tie-down ropes or straps.

Plan for adjustment. Fifteen or 20 minutes into a trip, pull over someplace safe to make sure your tie-downs are still secure. But juuuust in case you have to adjust things on the shoulder of the road, set yourself up to do that as safely as possible: Put your fixed anchor points on the driver's side, and position your buckles or hitches on the passenger side.

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Overtightening. With both ratchet straps and rope plus a trucker's hitch, it's possible to cinch tight enough to break some items, like plastic garbage bins. You can deform the hull of a plastic kayak by leaving it overtightened under a hot sun. I bet you could bow lumber with enough tension on end straps, although we’ve never tested that theory. Just because you can get it tighter doesn't mean you should.

Air flow. Ideally, all cargo should fit below the airstream flowing over the cab of a truck or the vehicle towing a trailer. We’ve all seen the mattress tied on top of a car folded in half by the wind. We’ve also seen plenty of canoes and jon boats loaded onto short-bed pickups with the end resting on the cab, sticking up and cupped to present maximum surface area for catching the wind. Not ideal. For less than the cost of an insurance claim against you, if that boat flies into another motorist, you could buy a truck bed extender.

Roof racks. Fuel-efficient cars make good sense when you live where there are no short trips. So it makes sense to figure out how to haul stuff with them – even if a roof rack reduces your miles-per-gallon. The roof itself is not intended to support much extra weight. Factory roof racks have load limits that are probably less than you think, so be sure to check your owner's manual. After-market hitch and roof racks and cargo systems are pricey but a good investment when you regularly haul expensive recreational equipment or need room for passengers and their luggage, musical instruments, walkers, strollers, and other bulky items. Back in the day when most cars had rain gutters, it was simple to clip a set of roof rack towers in place. Today's more streamlined roof profiles make it harder to predict if you’ll still be able to use a particular rack system's components on your next car. To get around that, you can install artificial rain gutter plates on the roof.

Points of contact. I learned the Cousin Coefficient hauling an airplane tire innertube from the air compressor at the gas station to the lake on top of a Volkswagen bug (a very long time ago): In lieu of ropes, we required one outstretched arm from each window plus one person standing up through the sunroof to hold that tube on the roof. For loads that need to travel farther or faster and/or with greater wind profiles, you need the rope or strap equivalent of more cousins as evenly spaced as you can get.

Load-specific choices. While you’re where you have WiFi, do some load-specific surfing on YouTube. You’ll glean some good tips on how to secure everything from boxes and bikes to golf carts, grills, inflatables, ladders, lumber, propane tanks, and much more. Add that information to the general principles of rope/strap, anchors, and angles.

Separate ties. For the greatest peace of mind, tie-down items separately. A great example of why comes from a motor vehicle accident I responded to with my volunteer fire department. When one pickup truck hauling a trailer braked suddenly for wild turkeys in the road, the truck behind him also had to slam on his brakes. The flatbed trailer he was hauling kept going and landed at the bottom of a steep embankment. It took a heavy-duty wrecker called a rotator to haul it back up and over the guardrail. The operator managed that without unloading the contents, which included a small tracked excavator, a lawnmower, coolers, and miscellaneous other items. That's because all of those items were so well secured. None of his ties failed on the way down or coming back up. Time may have burnished that memory a tiny bit but everyone working that scene left with mad respect for the guy who loaded that trailer.

Don't forget. The most expensive roof racks or ratchet straps in the world won't protect your load if you don't remember to use them. You might be surprised at how often that happens. Just last summer a friend contacted me hoping I might help track down a canoe that should have been on a university trailer when it returned from a trip, but wasn't. I asked my community on Facebook. Sure enough, several people had spotted it in a ditch, and one of them picked it up and took it home for safekeeping until he could find the owner. Eventually, a grateful trip leader picked up the canoe. I assume they double-checked the tie-downs before leaving with it. I assume they will always double-check tie-downs for the rest of their life.

Last words. Never trust anything you care about to bungee cord or rubber rope. A good gust of wind should convince you to do better, and you can put an eye out with the hooks on those things. I’m not even sure those things belong in a country song, let alone on a country road.

Donna Kallner writes from Langlade County in rural northern Wisconsin.

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by Donna Kallner, The Daily Yonder June 9, 2023

Trucker's hitch. Tie-down straps. Anchors. Angles. Plan for adjustment. Like this story? Get the latest from the Daily Yonder directly in your inbox, twice each week. Overtightening Air flow. Roof racks. Points of contact. Load-specific choices. Separate ties. Don't forget. Last words