How to Portage a Canoe + 12 Expert Tips to Make it Easier

Sign at Thunderhouse Falls

Oh hey there! So you’d like to learn how to portage a canoe? Well, you’ve come to the right place. In this post, I’ll explain how to get a canoe on your shoulders, but in addition, I’ll also give you a ton of tips for how to make portaging a more enjoyable experience, because, admittedly, I don’t love portaging.

In the decade since I first learned to portage, I’ve developed strategies to make portaging as painless as possible. So if you’re reading this hoping to learn how to portage a canoe, know that I am sharing guidance and tips to give you the best portaging experience possible. Let’s get portaging!

Red canoe on the ground beside a yellow portage sign

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Quick anecdote before we get portaging: So back in October I was on a canoe trip on the Coulonge River, paddling with a group of people I’d never met before. We were halfway through the trip, paddling a stretch of flatwater when I casually mentioned to my boat and the one next to us “I don’t really like portaging.”

I had thought this was a statement of fact – does anyone truly enjoy carrying a 60-pound canoe on their shoulders over uneven terrain? One man turned around, looking almost offended, and replied “How can a canoe tripper NOT love portages? That’s half the job!”

Touché. For someone who doesn’t love portages, I do a heck of a lot of them. I’m also really good at it if I do say so myself. But that still doesn’t mean I relish the experience. If I wanted to spend my trip walking, I’d ditch the canoe and do a hike.

How to Portage a Canoe

There are two parts to portaging. One is actually carrying the canoe on your shoulders and walking in between two bodies of water. I’m sure you’re interested in this part and that’s how you ended up on this blog post.

The second part isn’t as cool so a lot of people ignore it, but I’d argue it’s even more important than just carrying a canoe. This part is how you organize your group and your gear so you have to take as few trips as possible, no one gets lost or injured and no gear is forgotten. Seems important, right? Okay, I’ve delayed us long enough. Let’s get to the good stuff first.

How to Lift a Canoe onto Your Shoulders

Honestly, the easiest way to understand how to lift a portage onto your shoulders is to just watch this video. Go ahead, click on the Play button. I’ll wait.

I do the first method he demonstrates. Actually, I do it slightly modified, but the way he has demonstrated is what a lot of people do. Here is how I modify it:

  • Once I have the canoe resting on my knees, I grab the far gunwale with one hand (just as he does) but I don’t grab the close gunwale with the other hand.
  • Instead, I put my hand on the bottom of the canoe so the canoe is resting along my forearm and the side of the canoe / gunwale is touching my bicep.
  • I do three big rocking motions like in the video
  • Then I flip the canoe over my head; the arm that had been supporting the canoe is now pointing upwards with my elbow bent at 90 degrees and the gunwale resting on top of my bicep
  • Finally I scooch my way under the yoke.

If that all sounded confusing, just follow what he does in the video. On my next trip, I’ll film myself doing a few different methods of lifting a canoe and add it to the post.

(If you enter your email address in the form at the bottom of this post, I’ll send you a link to the video once it’s done!) I recommend practicing with a light canoe (like a Kevlar canoe you would rent in Killarney or Algonquin) before ever trying with a heavy, whitewater boat.

Girl portaging a canoe on rocks

12 Tips to Make Your Portage as Painless as Possible

Most people only care about getting the canoe onto their shoulders. The rest is just walking and eventually taking it off your shoulders in the reverse way you got lifted.

But there are a ton of strategies I’ve found over the years to make portaging – the entire experience of portaging – much easier.

Eliminate the FRO

While paddling, people tend to keep a lot of loose items in the canoe. Water bottles, sunscreen bottles, rain jackets and more litter the hull of the canoe. When you’re in the boat it doesn’t matter, but once you get to a portage now you have a bunch of little crap to carry. Do yourself a favour and eliminate the FRO (f***ing random objects). Get all loose items either inside a pack or barrel, or clipped to a pack or barrel, before you start portaging.

People standing on a grassy shoreline with canoes

Count Your Gear

Know exactly how much stuff you have before your start portaging. How many barrels, equipment packs and dry sacks do you have? How many paddles are there? And I know this will sound obvious but remind yourself how many canoes you have. I have friends you have gotten to the end of a portage, only to realize when getting into their boats that they’re missing one.

I once for to the end of a portage and realized I was missing a barrel and an equipment pack – because my campers had ‘dropped’ them not the side of a ravine! You can read more about that story in the below post.

Read More: My First Trip as a Canoe Guide: Lost Gear, Death Threats and More

Plan Your Attack

Before everyone starts getting gear and heading off down the portage trail, plan your attack. In this battle, it’s you against the portage. What general goes into battle without a plan? 

So before you all start moving, determine who will take what. If you leave people to decide on their own, you run the risk of getting to the end of the portage, realizing you’re missing a barrel or a single paddle. And then you need to go all the way back to retrieve it.

Loaded canoes before a portage

Don’t Clip Things to the Canoe

I know I just told you to clip all your FRO to something, but don’t clip it to a canoe. Use a barrel or equipment pack instead. Canoes are designed and built to balance perfectly on your shoulders when portaging.

When the canoe is resting on your shoulders, it shouldn’t dip forward or backwards (I’ve done short portages barely touching the canoe with my hands – that’s how balanced they are on your shoulders).

Once you clip something to the canoe all that handcrafted balance goes away. Now the canoe is lopsided and you must use effort to keep it balanced. Avoid extra effort; don’t clip things to canoes.

Group of girls in Temagami learning how to portage a canoe

Scout the Portage

Some portages can be confusing. The trail may not be well defined (like when you’re on the Canadian Shield), or it might intersect with a hiking trail or logging road.

I have taken the wrong turn on a portage at least a dozen times. Almost every time, I’ve been carrying a canoe with limited visibility and hadn’t scouted the portage ahead of time. Don’t follow my dumb mistakes.

The person in the front, leading the group, shouldn’t be portaging a canoe so they can see where the trail goes. If you come to a fork in the trail, have the group drop their gear and rest while you and someone else determine what trail to follow.

Help Each Other Out

Some people say to take all the heavy stuff – canoes and food barrels – on the first trip. If the portage is really short and easy, that is totally fine. If the portage is long or covers uneven terrain, buddy up.

One person takes the canoe, the other takes a lighter pack. That way, if the person carrying the canoe needs help or to trade-off, their buddy isn’t already struggling with a heavy food barrel.

Scouting a Rapid before a potential portage

Stay Together on Long Portages

If the portage is really long, say more than 1.5 km, have the person leading the group set a timer for 30 minutes. When the timer goes off, they should stop and wait for everyone to catch up.

This will keep the group together and avoid people getting lost. Sure, it’ll make the portage take a bit longer. But want to know what makes a portage take WAY longer? Losing someone from your group because you didn’t stay together.

Take Off Your Life Jacket When Carrying Heavy Things

If you’re carrying something heavy, like a food barrel or a canoe, take off your life jacket. It only takes a minute on either side of the portage to take it off / put it back on again. So you save very little time in keeping it on.

Barrel harnesses and equipment packs are designed to be worn without a life jacket. Especially if the barrel is heavy, you won’t get any back support if you have a life jacket on.

With a canoe, some people actually prefer the cushioning of a life jacket on their shoulders, but most people I’ve paddled with find it makes the yoke of the canoe slide around on their shoulders. Personal preference. Don’t let the lifejacket become FRO! Clip the jacket to the barrel and be on your way.

Don’t Leave the Paddles to the End

If you’re carrying a barrel or an equipment pack, take a paddle in each hand. No one wants to be the person at the end of the portage forced to carry a bunch of paddles in their arms.

Sign at Thunderhouse Falls

Take Breaks as Needed

Don’t be afraid to put the canoe down if you’re tired. Better to take breaks than get injured because you pushed yourself too hard. If the portage is really long, set a timer for yourself for when you’ll take rest stops.

This takes a daunting portage and breaks it into bite-size chunks. For example, on a 2-3 km long portage, I try to do 15 minutes portaging, 5 minutes resting. This is a marathon, not a sprint!

Have Snacks!

Keep high glycemic index snacks available. Portaging is hard. If someone in your group starts to feel tired or faint, give them a snack that will quickly raise their blood sugar. I find dates to be especially helpful.

Also, I love surprising my group with a good treat at the end of a long portage. I secretly carried 8 full-size mars bars in my barrel for a week in preparation for a long portage on the Noire River. It was raining and everyone was miserable, but immediately perked up when I whipped those out.

Wear a Bug Jacket

If it’s buggy, wear a bug jacket on the portage (and zip up the hood). While portaging, your arms are typically occupied and swatting mosquitos off your face becomes difficult. Save yourself a lot of discomfort and wear a bug jacket.

Two people portaging a canoe on the Coulonge River

Additional Resources

And those are all my expert tips! Have questions? Want to tell me what tips are working well for you? Let me know in the comments below!


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Hiking Pants

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