How to Choose the Best Canoe Pack

Photo: Alex Messenger/Tandemstock

When portaging is on the itinerary, carry it all comfortably with the right canoe pack.

Canoe packs, also known as portage packs, are a specially designed type of backpack used on canoe trips that require portaging (carrying your gear over land to access the next waterway). Some of the best canoe trips in North America require portaging, often multiple times, so a purpose-made pack is essential. Here’s how to get the right one. 

Backpacks vs. Canoe Packs

If you’re going to be spending a fair amount of time canoeing, get a canoe pack instead of a backpack. Backpacks are taller and often have rigid frames, making them sit tall and raising the center of gravity, which makes the canoe less stable and susceptible to wind. They also don’t nest well into the contours of a canoe, they’re hard to waterproof, and their exterior straps, pockets, and webbing loops often snag on your canoe or fishing gear. Canoe packs are much simpler, often with just one large compartment that’s either waterproof or can be lined with a heavy-duty plastic bag. They also fit well inside canoes (and can be squished under thwarts) and ride low on your back so you can wear one while carrying a canoe.  


Some canoe packs are minimalist—simply a large pouch with shoulder straps—and others have such features as compression straps, side handles, interior foam pockets, and extension collars with drawstrings to increase load capacity. There are even ones designed specifically for carrying kitchen supplies. Some are made with waterproof material while others are treated canvas, best lined with a plastic bag or using dry sacks inside. Traditionalists often side with waxed cotton canvas, which is water repellent and offers great abrasion resistance, while others prefer waterproof material (like hypalon or PVC). 

Classic canoe packs and gear at a campsite on Bat Lake in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Photo: Alex Messenger/Tandemstock


Since the days of the original Duluth Pack, which came out more than a century ago, canoe packs have been identified with numbers 1 to 4, indicating increased load capacity. A #4 pack is huge (around 5,000 to 7,500 cubic inches), while a #1 pack is smaller for overnight outings. Beware: The system isn’t exact; one company's #3 might be another's #2. Most manufacturers list cubic inches as well as a pack number, so check both to ensure you get the right size for your journey. Tip: Err on the big size, getting a pack that works for your longest and most gear-intensive trips.


Canoe packs are designed to ride well in canoes and carry well on portages. For the latter, most come with shoulder straps, sternum straps, waist belts, and even tumplines. Depending on how many bells and whistles you want, other amenities include items like compression straps, side handles, pockets and more. 

Waist Belts and Tumplines

Waist belts help transfer the load to your hips. Make sure it’s adjustable, and snug it firmly when carrying. A tumpline is a strap that extends from the sides of the pack around the top of your head for additional weight distribution, getting the weight off your shoulders. Caution: Don't put a tumpline on your forehead; it should go on top of your head, just behind the forehead, and slide easily on and off.

Loading A Canoe Pack

Place the heaviest items on bottom and lightest on top; you want a low center of gravity both when paddling and portaging. (Think you have a big load? During the North American fur trade era, a typical canoe pack weight while portaging was 160–200 pounds.)

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.