How To Portage Your Canoe (and Gear)

Photo: Ron McBride

The right technique can make all the difference in terms of safety and comfort.

The word portage is French for "to carry." While you might not ever have to haul your craft the 17 miles of Canada’s historic Grand Portage pioneered by explorer Alexander Mackenzie, go on any trip where you have to link lakes together, like Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Wilderness Area, and you’ll likely have to carry your canoe, and your gear, at some point. The right technique can make all the difference in terms of safety and comfort. Following are a few pointers to save your back, marriage and more. 

Know Your Route

Know your route, so you don’t get lost or portage farther than you have to. Plan ahead with maps so you know when and where the portage trail begins (critical if it skirts hazards like rapids or falls), and what type of terrain you’ll be crossing. Have an idea of the length ahead, the characteristics of the trail, its elevation change, if there are any creek crossings or gates, and any other information that might help, from poison oak to private property lines.  

First Steps

Upon hitting shore, unload your canoe completely, making sure nothing is still tied down to the thwarts or loose on the floor. Also bail out any water. Consolidate gear down to the fewest bags possible. Depending how much gear you have, and how many people, divide up the gear to carry; wear any strapped dry bags or backpacks on both your stomach and back. Don’t overdo it and risk injury; you might need to take more than one trip to carry all your gear. If solo, take your packs first as a scouting trip for carrying your canoe. 

Share the Load

Multiple canoe-carrying techniques exist. If you’re just portaging a short way and have a partner, the simplest is to each grab an end of the empty boat, with the person in front calling out obstacles that the stern carrier can’t see. You can carry two canoes using the same technique, one in each hand, which makes walking more balanced (if the trail is wide enough). Note: Don’t drag the canoe as it can cause damage.

A person portages their canoe through the forest Photo: Ben Herndon/TandemStock

Solo Lift and Carry

Standing at the canoe’s middle, grasp the close gunwale with both hands and then lean the canoe so its hull is pressed against your legs. Next, grab the center of the yoke (the curved thwart usually located in the middle of the canoe) to hoist the canoe up onto your thighs. From here, grab the far gunwale with your left hand, just forward of the yoke, and rock the craft back and forth on your thighs. In one motion, flip the canoe over your head while rotating 90 degrees, so the yoke lands on your shoulders (this takes some practice, and a little padding on the yoke can go a long way). Keep your hands positioned on each gunwale as you portage, balancing the canoe on your shoulders. Pace your breath and stay focused on the trail (having a partner walk ahead to point out obstacles can help). At the trail’s end, repeat, using the opposite procedure to carefully lower the canoe onto your thighs, and back onto the ground. 

Two-person Lift

For heavier boats, have your partner stand near the bow while you’re an arm’s length away, between the front seat and yoke. Both grab the opposite gunwale with your left hands and the other gunwale with your right. Flip the canoe over your heads, making sure the stern end doesn't leave the ground. While your partner holds the canoe up, slide backwards until you’re under the yoke. Once you have control, have your partner let go and balance the canoe on your shoulders. To unload, use the opposite procedure, letting the stern down to the ground first. The same technique also works solo. Flip the canoe over at the bow, with the stern on the ground and slide yourself under the yoke. 

Portage Wheels

If you know that the trail’s terrain can accommodate them—and you have the space to carry them—portage wheels can be a game changer. While some smaller cart options mount underneath the canoe’s stern, often with a strap, to pull from the bow, most carts are designed with larger wheels to carry the canoe from the midpoint of the hull. Though more challenging to lift and load an empty boat onto (and requiring some practice to strap into place), these carts balance and take the brunt of the boat weight, allowing you to push or pull from either end.

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.