Canoe Portaging: What It Means & How to Do It (Full Guide)


Canoe portaging is an essential skill for paddlers that want to venture into new territory and experience nature in its rawest form. New canoeists are often unfamiliar with this practice despite its practical importance, which prompts them to ask what canoe portaging is, along with how it’s done.

Canoe portaging is the means by which paddlers carry their canoe and gear over land from one body of water to the next. This is done to circumvent natural obstacles and fast-moving rapids and reach a point on the water that’s more conducive to paddling. Canoes can be portaged solo or in tandem.

Below, we’ll delve into the nitty-gritty details regarding what canoe portaging is, why it’s done, how it’s done, and when it’s done. We’ll also go over the difficulty level of canoe portaging as well as several alternatives to manually transporting your canoe by land.

A Brief Overview of What Canoe Portaging Is

One of the prevalent issues with canoeing is stumbling into whitewater rapids and strainers. For those of you that do not know, a strainer is a natural obstacle that only permits a finite amount of water to pass through, but not something big, like a canoe or person for example (source). They’re one of the more common types of nuisances you’ll run into as a canoe paddler.

When you come across whitewater rapids or strainers, it’s best not to test your luck and paddle straight into the teeth of this menacing trap. Instead, you should land your canoe on shore and carry your canoe past the point of difficulty to another section on the water. This act of lifting and carrying your canoe by land is commonly referred to as portaging.

Portaging is a frequent practice for serious canoeists that participate in all-day paddling trips. On an all-day expedition, you’re bound to run into some points on a river where paddling is not feasible. Consequently, you’ll have to resort to portaging to continue paddling along safe sections along the river.

It’s important to note that the act of portaging not only involves lifting and carrying the canoe, but the additional gear as well. Often times, paddlers have a negative perception toward portaging because of how physically taxing it can be. Nobody likes the prospect of disrupting their paddling trip just to lug a heavy canoe overhead to another river section.

Although people look down upon canoe portaging, it begs the question, “How hard is it to actually portage a canoe?” We’ll analyze the answer to this question next.

Is Portaging a Canoe Hard to Do?

Portaging is something that the majority of paddlers are well capable of doing. That being said, most people can manage portaging sporadically, but a prolonged canoe portage can be a pain.

Lifting Fifty Pounds Overhead is Manageable, But Not Easy

For one, the average solo canoe weighs 50 pounds (source). Physically lifting and carrying a 50 pound weight overhead definitely complicates matters when traveling overland. The average tandem canoe weighs slightly more, between 55 and 75 pounds (source). However, it’s important to note that two people will likely be shouldering the load as opposed to just one.

And that’s just factoring in the canoe! As aforementioned, canoeists often bring along other gear as well, like campsite footwear, t-shirts, rain gear, and a host of other essentials for long outings. Cramming all of this additional gear into one pack and carrying it in combination with the canoe overhead can be an arduous task.

Portage Trails Have Obstacles that May Cause You to Slip and Stumble

Aside from the added weight on your back, the portaging trail itself offers its own unique set of difficulties. You’ll have to navigate through wet, slick rocks and muddy sludge that can swallow your shoes hole. You’ll encounter swarms of bugs and confusing cross trails.

All of these factors can make for a difficult portaging experience, particularly if you’re not familiar with the trail in the first place.

Portaging with a Partner is Not Always a Positive Experience

Lastly, we cannot overlook the fact that some friction may arise between you and your partner while portaging. If one of you is refusing to share the load, arguments are bound to come up. This is why it’s so important that you and your partner learn how to properly portage with two people from the get-go. That way, you’re less likely to run into issues down the road.

Even with all of these road blocks, however, most people are capable of canoe portaging for moderate distances. Canoe portaging is not a test of strength, but a test of technique more than anything else. If you carry your canoe in the correct manner, it will make a tremendous difference in how long you’ll be able to portage.

How to Properly Portage a Canoe Solo

With all this talk of how crucial portaging technique is, let’s delve into how to actually approach solo portaging a canoe. By following this step-by-step guide, you’ll minimize the risk for personal injury and make the entire portaging process less of a physical effort.

Place the Canoe Sideways onto the Ground

First, you’ll need to position yourself at the centerline of the canoe, right in front of the yoke. As a quick reference, the yoke is the cross beam located at the midline of the canoe that features a rounded depression (for the purpose of comfortably fitting on a canoeist’s neck).

From here, you’ll need to lift the canoe from its centerline so that the canoe is tipped onto its side. In canoeing terminology, the canoe would be positioned so that one of its gunnels is touching the ground. You should tip the canoe laterally so that the opening is facing away from you and the hull is facing towards you.

Grab the Canoe by the Yolk and Place the Canoe On Your Thighs

Next, lean into the canoe’s hull and clutch the yolk with one hand. With your other hand, grab the canoe rail—otherwise known as gunnel—closest to you.

With this grip, lift the canoe up off the ground so that the canoe is resting on your thighs. Leaning back into a half squat will help the canoe to balance more comfortably on your thighs. Bending at the knees also helps to reduce lumbar tension, which minimizes the likelihood of a lower back injury.

Switch Your Hand Grip so that Your Holding the Canoe By Its Gunnels

The goal of this next step is to change your hand grip so that you’re grasping the canoe by each of its rails.

To accomplish this, you first need to take the hand positioned on the rail closest to you and grab the rail the farthest from you, all while holding the yoke with your other hand. Once you have a firm grip on the outside gunnel, your other hand can release its grip on the yolk and hold the inside gunnel.

After this step is all said and done, the canoe should still be resting on your thighs. The only difference is that both of your hands are gripping the canoe by its rails.

Use Hip Thrust to Lift the Canoe Overhead

All of the preceding steps were executed to put you into this loaded position of power. With the canoe comfortably resting on your thighs and your hands firmly positioned on its side rails, you can use the power of a hip thrust to help you lift the canoe overhead so that it’s upside down. In other words, the canoe’s opening will be facing downward, while it’s hull will be facing upward.

You should rock the canoe with your hips a couple times to get the motion down first. On your third or fourth rock, violently thrust your hips forward with maximum force to get the canoe up and moving. If done correctly, the majority of your power should originate from the hips, not your arms.

Many first time paddler make the mistake of skipping this step and relying purely on their upper body to lift the canoe overhead. Not only is this considerably more difficult to do, it also puts you at a higher risk of injury.

Rest the Curved Hollow of the Yoke On Your Neck

Once you have the canoe lifted overhead, locate the yoke and rest its curved hollow directly onto your neck. This curved yoke hollow was exclusively designed for portaging to make it easier on the paddler to carry the canoe overhead. The yoke should come to naturally sit on your neck after the overhead lift.

Follow These Steps in Reverse to Unload the Canoe

To unload the canoe, all you have to do is implement these steps in reverse order:

  • Lift the canoe overhead with both hands on the gunnels.
  • Rest the canoe comfortably onto your thighs.
  • Switch your hand grip so that one hand grabs the yoke and the other hand grips the inside gunnel.
  • Gently lower the canoe to the ground or water.

This is the safest method to keep you and your canoe safe from potential harm. Simply dumping your canoe from an overhead position is extremely risky, even if it seems like the “easier” thing to do.

For a complete visual overview of the steps above, watch the video below to see exactly how the lift and carry technique of portaging should be performed.

How to Properly Portage a Canoe with a Partner

As aforementioned, portaging is not exclusive to solo canoeists. Tandem paddlers have to portage together on long expeditions as well. With two paddlers available, the technical intricacies of portaging vary somewhat, but the general premise remains the same.

Tandem portaging techniques can be broadly classified under two categories: the suitcase carry and the overhead carry.

Suitcase Carry

The suitcase carry is typically used for short portage treks as opposed to long portage treks. Since the distance to travel is so minimal, the payoff of lifting the canoe overhead may not be worth the effort.

With the suitcase carry, both paddlers lift the canoe on opposite ends of the boat (the bow and the stern) by the deck plates. Most modern canoes are equipped with handles on the deck plates, which makes the suitcase carry a far more convenient portaging method.

When implementing the suitcase carry, be sure to bend at the knees rather than the lower back. This way, you drastically reduce the likelihood of lower back strain.

Overhead Carry

The problem with the suitcase carry is that it can place a tremendous amount of strain on the shoulder and wrist joints on longer portage trails. Often times, the grip strength of the two paddlers could be a limiting factor in how far they’re able to make it on the portage trail.

The overhead carry eliminates this issue. Similar to the solo portaging technique discussed earlier, this portaging technique involves lifting the canoe above your head and shoulders in an upside down fashion. This technique also emphasizes the strategies of resting the canoe’s hull on the thighs and generating lifting power through the hips to lift the canoe overhead.

The primary difference is that this movement involves coordination with a partner. Timing is of the essence with this portaging technique. If you or your partner are not in sync, it could lead to disastrous results. Take care to communicate with your partner to precisely match your movements. For example, using a simple count of “1, 2, 3!” will help to clear up any asynchronous lifting mishaps.

Aside from communication, you and your partner need to stagger yourselves so that one person is positioned at the bow seat while the other is positioned at the stern deck.

The person located under the stern deck should lead the charge and be on the lookout for potential obstacles on the portage trail. They’re essentially acting as the eyes for the portaging partner behind them, so it’s critical that they vocalize the presence of any slippery rocks or boot-swallowing mud to their partner.

To review the basics of the suitcase carry and overhead carry, check out the video below summarizing the main points of tandem portaging techniques.

Are There Alternatives to Portaging a Canoe?

Some people just want to paddle on the water, while others want to experience nature to its fullest effect. After seeing the specifics of how portaging a canoe is done, you may be seriously reconsidering the prospect of undertaking this physical endeavor. For this reason, I thought it fitting to discuss whether or not there are any viable alternatives to portaging a canoe.

Shuttle Service

One option that you may want to at least consider is investing into a shuttle service. Shuttle services bring your canoe and gear overland to the put-in. As a quick reference, the put-in is the preferred launching site of your canoeing expedition (source).

This can be an extremely useful resource since you don’t have to deal with the physical stress and navigation woes of portaging on your own. You can hand this problem off to the local canoe outfitters for a small fee. Generally, this fee ranges anywhere from $10 to $15 depending on where you decide to go paddling (source).

So if you have a strong dislike for portaging, a shuttle service might just be worth the additional cost to your paddling trip!

Paddling Both Upstream and Downstream

Another simple, yet overlooked, alternative to portaging is to travel along the same waterway by paddling upstream and downstream. For any of you true paddling novices out there, paddling upstream is certainly within the realm of possibility.

In fact, you can find more information on this topic by reading through Can You Kayak or Canoe Upstream? (All You Need to Know!).

Most beginning paddlers are under the false impression that paddling downstream is the only way to canoe. This is not so. Although paddling upstream certainly takes more effort, it can be done.

So instead of portaging across to different waterways to continually trek downstream, you may want to consider remaining on one singular waterway. This way, you can stay on the water for longer and test your paddling prowess by going upstream.

Plus, you can easily return to your launch site by following this strategy. Portaging between different waterways can grow confusing, especially if you’re not familiar with the area. Sticking with one singular route on one waterway may not be as adventurous, but it’s considerably easier to manage.

The Bottom Line

Every serious canoeist will encounter portaging at some point or another. Whether it be a fallen log or a clump of boulders blocking the way, there will be sections on the water that will not be good for paddling. In order to navigate around these obstacles, you’ll have to resort to portaging techniques to find a more favorable area for canoeing.

Canoe portaging can be tiresome, but you can minimize this exhaustion by practicing the right techniques. And if you want to bypass the burden of portaging altogether, you can always hire a shuttle service!

Sources: 1 2 3

Austin Carmody

I am the owner of HydroPursuit. I enjoy kicking back and getting out on the water as much as I can in my free time.

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