A canoe is an incredible vessel that can take you places you never thought possible. But when your journey takes you beyond the reach of the water, you’ll need to know how to portage your canoe.
What does it mean to “portage” a canoe?
Portaging is the act of carrying your canoe overland from one body or stretch of water to another.
The overall idea is pretty simple: Pick up the canoe, flip it over your head, balance the yoke on your shoulders, and start walking.
Why do people portage?
People portage their canoes because it’s the safest and sometimes only possible way to get around an obstacle.
It isn’t our first choice—as canoeists, we’d rather be paddling—but if we want to get to where we’re going, sometimes we have to be will to get out of our canoes and carry them to the next section of water.
For instance, you may need to portage your canoe:
- Around waterfalls or river rapids that are too steep, rocky, dangerous, or technical for your skill level
- Between two lakes that aren’t naturally connected (or are connected by a small stream that’s too small or shallow to paddle through)
- Around a beaver dam or a man-made dam along rivers
- Around log jams or fallen down trees that block rivers
Is carrying a canoe hard?
If you’ve never portaged a canoe before, then you should expect it to be somewhat difficult. But the difficulty depends on a lot of factors including:
- How heavy your canoe is
- Whether your canoe is outfitted properly for portaging
- You fitness level (strength and endurance)
- The length of the portage
- The terrain of the portage (rocky, slippery, swampy, steep, etc.)
- How hot and humid the weather is
- Whether you’re carrying any extra gear with you (like a backpack or canoe pack)
You can bet that a 2-kilometre portage mostly uphill in the middle of a July heatwave with an 85-lb canoe is going to be way harder than a 30-metre portage across a flat trail in September with a 40-lb canoe.
But even short portages can be tough, especially if you’re not used to carrying a lot of weight—which is why we recommend starting with shorter portages until you get a feel for how much your body can handle.
What’s the best canoe for portaging?
The best canoe for portaging is one that’s lightweight. Canoes made of kevlar are your best option. Solo canoes made of kevlar are as light as 20 lbs whereas tandem canoes are around 40 lbs, which is still considered very lightweight.
Our current T-Formex (plastic) tandem canoe is a 17-footer, weighing in at around 85 to 90 lbs or more with our ropes, knee pads, and other accessories attached to it. Don’t try portaging with something like this as a beginner!
Caution: DO NOT attempt to portage a canoe if you have back or neck problems, knee or shoulder injuries, are not physically fit, or have a health condition that might limit you in any way. Consult a doctor before attempting to portage a canoe if you have any concerns about your ability to do so safely.
Now that we’ve got the disclaimer out of the way, let’s get into how to portage a canoe!
How to flip a canoe for portaging
Flipping your canoe over your head safely is honestly the hardest part of portaging. Once you have it over your head, balancing it is pretty intuitive, and then you can start making your way down the portage.
Step 1: Make sure your canoe is outfitted for portaging
Hopefully your canoe is outfitted with a proper yoke on the cross beam in the centre of the canoe. Instead of a straight piece of wood, it should have a slight curve to it to make room for your next and sit on your shoulders.
To make it even more comfortable, we recommend getting a yoke pad, which is basically a padded pillow that you can strap to the yoke with velcro.
It isn’t necessary, but it makes a big difference in how much your shoulders are able to take—especially if you’re portaging long distances.
Step 2: Pick a side of the canoe to flip that suits your preference
Look at where the curve of the yoke is. It’s always curved toward the bow (front) of the canoe. This means that when carrying the canoe, the bow should be in front of you.
If you’re standing beside the canoe and the yoke is curved toward the right—a “)” shape—his means the bow is to the left and you’ll be flipping it using the strength of your right side body. If you’re standing next to it and the yoke is curved to the left—in a “(” shape—then the bow is to the right and you need to flip it using the strength of your left side body.
That might sound confusing. Here I am standing next to our canoe where the yoke is curved toward my right. This means that the bow is to my left and I’ll be using my right side body to lift this thing.
If you’re right-handed, it’s probably best to flip using the strength of your right side (and vice versa if you’re left-handed), however this ultimately comes down to personal preference and what feels most comfortable to you.
Step 3: Position your feet shoulder width apart
Just like when lifting anything that’s substantially heavy, you want to make sure you’re using your legs—not your back, to do the lifting.
Standing where the yoke is, position your feet shoulder width apart and bend your knees a little to activate your leg muscles. You might even want to keep a little bit of a soft knee so that you can really use the strength of your legs when flipping the canoe over your head.
Step 4: Bend your knees and place your hands on the canoe in preparation for the flip
Place your hands on either side of the canoe just behind the yoke—one hand on each gunwale (side). You can also place one hand in front of the yoke for extra stability if you need it.
Again, because we’re using our legs to flip the canoe and not our back, we want to keep a soft bend in our knees as we bring the canoe up.
Step 5: Pull the canoe up off the ground and balance it on top of your thighs
Using your bodyweight as leverage, push down with your legs—legs still slightly bent—to pull the canoe up and balance it on top of your thighs. You might have to waddle your feet a little bit to keep it balanced.
The hull of the canoe should now be off the ground and resting on your thighs in a sort of sideways position, with the inside facing away from your body.
Step 6: Use your hands to reposition the inside so it’s facing toward your body
To prepare for the flip, you need to be able to grab the other side of the yoke. From a right-handed stance, I’d continue to hold either the gunwhales or far left side of the yoke with my left hand, and then stretch out my right hand to grab as far as I could along the yoke.
This might be anywhere from the center to the far side of the yoke. When I do this, the position of the canoe naturally shifts so that the inside is now facing toward me.
Tip: If you have trouble doing this with your hands alone, you can try lifting one leg to help shift the position of the canoe and grab a section that’s farther along the yoke.
Step 7: Use momentum to flip the canoe OR lower the bow to the ground for leverage
This is one of the trickiest parts, and it depends a lot on how heavy your canoe is.
If your canoe is on the lighter side—say, 40 lbs—you’re basically just going to do a very quick and dirty burst using the power of your legs to lift the canoe upwards and over your head.
You also need to use your hands, arms, and upper body to control the canoe as it comes down.
While you’re doing this, you need to make sure you’re aware of the curve of the yoke so when you do the flip, it goes up and then comes down gently in position over your shoulders. This can take some practice.
Now, if you’re flipping a heavier canoe—say, 65 lbs or heavier—using momentum to flip it is a lot harder and potentially more dangerous.
What I do instead is lower the bow of the canoe to the ground and balance it there, then push the stern (back) up so I can get under it safely.
Once I’m under the canoe and the yoke is positioned on my shoulders, I just slowly shift the weight distribution of the canoe to bring the bow off the ground and into a portage position.
Step 8: Balance the canoe on your shoulders
Using your hands on the gunwhales of the canoe, you can make subtle shifts to help keep the canoe balanced.
You’ll probably want to have the bow positioned slightly higher than the stern so that you can see what’s in front of you as you walk along the portage.
When you get really good at this, you may be able to balance the canoe with just one hand on the gunwhales—freeing up your other hand to potentially carry something else, like your paddles.
Some canoeists also tie a rope to the bow of the boat and then hold it while portaging, which allows them to pull on it if the canoe starts to tip too far backward. I’ve never had much luck with this technique and find it more of a hassle than a help, but it’s definitely an option.
Step 9: Walk slowly and be sure to take breaks if you’re feeling it
Now you’re ready to portage your canoe. Make sure to walk slowly, watch your step, and maintain the balance of the canoe so it doesn’t fall too far forward or too far backward.
Don’t try to be a hero by pushing yourself to complete the entire portage in one go. If you do, you might drop your canoe or trip and injure yourself.
Instead, take short breaks to catch your breath and stretch out your muscles. To do this, you don’t have to put the canoe all the way down and flip it over again from scratch.
If you’re on a solo trip, keep on the lookout for a sturdy looking branch on the edge of the portage that’s as horizontal as possible.
You can simply tilt the bow of your canoe upward slightly so that the it rests on the branch while the stern rests on the ground.
If you’ve got a canoe partner, you can tilt the bow downward so that it rests on the ground with the stern upward. Then, your canoe partner can come in behind you, get under the boat, and reach up to hold it in position while you take a break. This is the method that Elise and I use all the time.
Step 10: Lower the canoe by repeating step six in reverse
Getting out of the portage position is similar to getting in it.
With a light canoe, you can simply use your legs and arms to do a quick burst to lift the canoe off your shoulders, flip it over on your preferred side, and then gently guide it down to the ground or the water.
Again, doing it with a heavier canoe is trickier. You may have to do the reverse of step six by lowering the bow to the ground first, then using your legs and upper body strength to bring it down to one side (inside facing toward your body), and repositioning your hands on the yoke to hold the side closest to your body. This will flatten out the position of the canoe so the hull is facing toward the ground.
From there, you can simply guide the canoe down to the ground or into the wanter, bending your knees and repositioning your hands as necessary.
Step 11: Take a breather and give yourself a pat on the back
Portaging is no joke. It takes strength, balance, endurance, coordination, awareness of your surroundings, and an ego check to be able to do it properly.
How to portage a canoe with gear
Portaging a canoe for a day trip is pretty straightforward. You might just have a day pack with snacks, water, a first aid kit, and a few other supplies to get you through the day.
But for a multi-day canoe camping trip, you might have anywhere from 50 to 200+ lbs of gear and food. In addition to your canoe, you have to portage all of that stuff with you.
We’ve done river trips up to 10 days in length, so we know the drill. You basically have three different ways to portage:
Single portaging means carrying your canoe and all of your gear in one go from one end of the portage to the other.
This is usually easier if you’re traveling with at least one another person and as few canoes as possible (such as a tandem canoe as opposed to two solo canoes) because one person can portage the canoe while the other can portage the gear.
It isn’t impossible to do it on a solo trip, but it’s much harder. Either way, single portaging has its benefits and drawbacks.
Although you get to the end up the portage faster and don’t have to waste time going back, it requires lightweight gear that packs down small.
You may have to sacrifice bringing certain luxury gear items and still find that your pack weighs a ton. If you plan on carrying a 50-lb or heavier pack on your back with a canoe, you better make sure your canoe is lightweight.
Double portaging means doing two trips on the portage. It usually involves carrying your canoe and your gear separately.
So, for instance, you might portage your canoe, PFD, and paddles to the end of the portage first, then go back and get all of your gear.
You can bring more stuff this way, but the downside is that it will take you twice as long to complete the portage.
One and a half portaging
This isn’t as popular as the previous two options, but some canoeists find it to be a good compromise. It basically involves portaging everything halfway along the portage, then dropping either your canoe or gear to finish portaging the rest of the way with just one of those things.
Once you’d get to the end, you’d go back to get what you dropped off in the middle. The benefit is that you wouldn’t have to go all the way to the end.
Unfortunately the one and a half portage isn’t very practical because let’s face it—it’s easier to plan to go ultra lightweight and do it in one go, or just bring everything you want and double portage it.
However you plan on portaging, we always follow these rules to make it as easy as possible to transport our gear:
- Pack everything into a canoe pack, backpack, or canoe barrel. Loose items are more likely to get lost. (We learned this the hard way.)
- Choose brightly coloured packs (as opposed to green, brown, or black) so they stand out more. They’re less likely to be forgotten at the portage.
- Upgrade your gear to be lightweight or ultra lightweight. Expensive, but worth it if you plan on taking more canoe trips that require portaging.
- Dehydrate as much of your food as possible. Removing the water content takes out a lot of the weight and bulk without sacrificing nutritional value.
- Use carabiners to strap awkward items to your packs. We use them to strap our map case, Nalgene water bottles, and SPOT GPS location tracker to our packs.
- Distribute the weight in your pack as evenly as possible. Put heavy items at the bottom and if you’re bringing more than one pack, make sure one isn’t heavier than the other (unless the person carrying the canoe requires a lighter pack).
- Make sure the straps of your packs are adjusted properly so that they fit snuggly and there is no excess slack. This will help distribute the weight better and make it easier to carry.
- Before you leave a portage, do one final look around to make sure you didn’t forget anything.
Portaging safety tips
There are serious risks that come with portaging—even for the strongest and fittest canoeists.
Dropping a canoe on yourself is one of the most dangerous things that can happen. In addition to injuring you, it can also damage your canoe—potentially leaving you stranded in the bush.
Here’s what we recommend to stay safe while portaging:
Know how to properly drop a canoe if you need to. Tripping on a tree root or a rock, or even just feeling the effects of exhaustion, can cause you to lose your balance and require you to think fast and drop the canoe.
If you’ve really lost your balance, you need to prioritize your own safety over the canoe’s. Let the canoe fall to the side and make sure you get out of the way.
If you still have some control, however, you can try to quickly flip and land the canoe in a soft spot—such as in some shrubs as opposed to a rocky area.
Plan your trips along well-known and established canoe routes. Canoe routes in provincial, state, and national parks, for example, are more likely to be maintained by park staff or volunteer groups—which naturally means they’ll be safer.
Lesser known routes on public or Crown land, however, may be extremely grown in and very treacherous due to lack of use and maintenance.
Get proper footwear for portaging. Portaging is basically hiking with a boat over your head.
You need footwear with good traction and ideally a lot of ankle support. We like to wear what’s called “jungle boots,” which are basically hiking boots with drainage holes so you can get in the water with them without having them fill up with water.
Wear comfortable, loose fitting, long-sleeved clothing. You want to avoid anything that’s going to make you too hot and sweaty. But at the same time, you also want long sleeves to protect your skin from irritating plants and biting insects.
If it’s bug season, consider wearing a bug net or bug suit before you start portaging. You could end up getting distracted and try to rush through it too quickly if you’re getting eaten alive, which could increase your chance of tripping and falling.
Remember to take breaks if you’re feeling beat. Go back to step eight on this one to find out how to take a break while portaging.
If you don’t take enough breaks, you could over exert yourself or lose focus on your surroundings from fatigue, causing you to drop the canoe or injuring yourself in some other way.
Go slow. Seriously. If the terrain is tough, you need to be extra careful of every root, every rock, every muddy spot, and every branch that may be in your way.
Going slow will make it easier to recover if you do trip or lose your balance. It also gives you more time to react if you see something in your path that could be hazardous.
Bring a canoe repair kit. If you do end up dropping your canoe on a portage, or simply putting it down on some jagged rocks, you could end up puncturing or cracking it.
Check out our guide to repairing canoes, which has some advice on how temporarily patch a canoe while out on a trip.
How to spend less time portaging and more time paddling on your trip
Portaging is often necessary, but let’s be real—most of us would rather be paddling. In that case, it’s important to plan your trip in a way that minimizes portaging and maximizes time on the water.
Here’s what we recommend for doing just that:
Invest in a canoe tripping map for the area you plan to travel. The proper canoe tripping map will help you plan a route involving unnecessary portages. For portages you do have to take, the map should show you their exact location and length.
Plan to paddle mostly flat water. Lakes and rivers with no fast water mean little to no portaging.
If traveling along rivers, beware of fast moving water. Rivers are super fun to paddle, but if you’re a novice paddler traveling along a river that has many stretches of technical rapids, then you’re going to have to portage around them.
If traveling along rivers, go when water levels are medium to high. In the spring or after a lot of rain, river levels will be higher, meaning you may be able to paddle through areas that are typically too shallow or rocky when the water is lower.
Plan your river trips along established canoe routes. They may be busier, but at least you’ll know they’re less likely to be blocked by obstacles like log jams and fallen trees. Algonquin Park in Ontario, Canada is a great place to start.
Even though it can be physically demanding, portaging doesn’t have to be such a drag. We actually find that getting out of the canoe at a portage is a great opportunity to stretch our legs and shake things up along the route.
It’s all just part of the journey. After all, there’s nothing quite like getting through a challenging portage only to be rewarded with a brand new stretch of wilderness to explore in our canoe.
Happy canoe tripping!
Ross is an experienced backcountry canoe tripper and winter camper from Ontario, Canada. He loves looking at maps, planning new routes, sport fishing, and developing his nature photography skills. He’s also certified in Whitewater Rescue (WWR) I & II and Wilderness First Aid (WFA).