The Art of Canoe Portaging: Tips and Techniques for a Smooth Experience

Are you ready to embark on an adventure that involves carrying a canoe on your shoulders? Welcome to the world of canoe portaging! In this article, we will explore the art of portaging and provide you with a plethora of tips and techniques to make your portaging experience as enjoyable as possible.

Setting the Stage: A Canoe Tripper’s Dilemma

Imagine being on a canoe trip with a group of strangers, paddling down the serene Coulonge River. As the journey progresses, you casually mention that you don’t particularly enjoy portaging. To your surprise, one of your companions turns around, almost offended, and asks how a canoe tripper can possibly not love portages. “That’s half the job!” he exclaims.

Although you may not share the same enthusiasm for portaging, you acknowledge the importance of this task. Over the years, you have honed your skills and developed strategies to make portaging as painless as possible. In this article, we will delve into those strategies, ensuring that you have the best portaging experience imaginable.

The Art of Canoe Portaging

Lifting the Canoe Like a Pro

The first part of portaging involves mastering the technique of lifting the canoe onto your shoulders. While there are various methods, let’s focus on a modified version of the commonly used technique.

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Imagine resting the canoe on your knees, gripping the far gunwale with one hand. Instead of holding the close gunwale with your other hand, place it on the bottom of the canoe, allowing the canoe to rest along your forearm and the side of your bicep. Perform three big rocking motions, building momentum. Then, flip the canoe over your head, with the arm that was supporting the canoe now pointing upwards. Your elbow should be bent at a 90-degree angle, and the gunwale should rest on top of your bicep. Finally, maneuver yourself under the yoke.

If this description feels confusing, fear not! Watching a video demonstration can provide greater clarity. Click here to witness this technique in action. Take note that it’s always wise to practice with a lightweight canoe before attempting it with a heavier one.

Twelve Tips for a Painless Portaging Experience

Beyond the physical act of shouldering a canoe, there are numerous strategies that can enhance the overall portaging experience. Let’s explore some of these tips:

1. The FRO Dilemma

While paddling, it’s common for loose items to accumulate inside the canoe. Water bottles, sunscreen, and other random objects clutter the hull. However, when it’s time to portage, these items become an unnecessary burden. To avoid this, eliminate the FRO (f***ing random objects) by stowing loose items inside a pack or barrel.

2. Count Your Gear

Before embarking on a portage, ensure you have a clear inventory of your belongings. Count the barrels, equipment packs, dry sacks, and paddles. This may seem obvious, but it’s an essential step to prevent the unfortunate realization of missing gear at the end of a portage.

3. Plan Your Attack

Approach each portage like a well-prepared general. Before setting off, gather your group and determine who will carry what. This pre-planning avoids the risk of forgetting essential gear and retracing your steps unnecessarily.

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4. Clip Smart, Not to the Canoe

While we recommend clipping loose items to a pack or barrel, avoid attaching them directly to the canoe. Canoes are designed to balance perfectly on your shoulders during portaging. By maintaining this balance, you reduce the effort required to keep the canoe stable.

5. Scout the Portage

Some portages can be confusing, with poorly defined trails or intersections with hiking paths. To avoid getting lost, ensure the person leading the group can clearly see the trail. If there is uncertainty, drop the gear and scout ahead to determine the correct path.

6. Buddy Up

For longer or more challenging portages, consider partnering up. By sharing the load, one person carries the canoe while the other handles a lighter pack. This teamwork ensures that both individuals can offer support and prevents unnecessary strain.

7. Stay Together on Long Portages

On lengthy portages, it’s crucial to maintain group cohesion. Designate a timer to remind everyone to pause every 30 minutes and wait for the entire group to catch up. Though this may prolong the portage slightly, it significantly reduces the risk of losing anyone along the way.

8. Lighten the Load: Remove Your Life Jacket

If you find yourself carrying heavy items like a food barrel or canoe, take off your life jacket. The few minutes spent removing and putting it back on are worthwhile. Not only does it save your energy, but it also ensures that you have optimal support when carrying heavy loads.

9. Don’t Forget the Paddles

For those carrying barrels or packs, make sure to hold a paddle in each hand. This prevents the unpleasant task of cradling multiple paddles in your arms at the end of the portage.

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10. Take Breaks when Needed

Don’t push yourself to the limit; listen to your body’s cues. If you feel tired or fatigued, take breaks along the way. Setting a timer for rest stops during longer portages can help you maintain a sustainable pace and prevent potential injuries.

11. Prepare High-Energy Snacks

Portaging can be physically demanding, so it’s essential to have high glycemic index snacks on hand. If someone in your group starts to feel tired or faint, provide them with a quick snack to raise their blood sugar levels rapidly. Dates, in particular, offer a quick energy boost.

12. Defeat the Bugs with a Bug Jacket

When portaging through buggy areas, protect yourself by wearing a bug jacket with the hood zipped up. This safeguard prevents mosquitoes from distracting you while carrying the canoe, ensuring a more comfortable journey.


Portaging doesn’t have to be a dreaded part of your canoe trip. By following the tips and techniques outlined above, you can transform the experience into an enjoyable adventure. Remember, portaging is more than just carrying a canoe; it’s an opportunity to strengthen your teamwork, connect with nature, and embrace the challenges that come your way. So, next time you embark on a canoe adventure, confidently embrace the art of portaging and make it an experience to remember!

And if you’re looking for more canoe-related resources, check out the following articles:

Feel free to share your thoughts, questions, or your own tips in the comments below!