How to Portage Your Canoe & Gear on Wilderness Trips

7-minute read

Portaging is part of canoe tripping in most wilderness destinations. Canada’s vast wilderness areas like the Quetico, America’s Boundary Waters and others like them offer many opportunities to carry your boat(s) and gear over land to the next body of water.

 man on a lakeside carrying a canoe

The one-person canoe carry (photo courtesy of Ian Finch)

Veteran canoe trippers have their portaging routine that works best for them. And casual wilderness trippers will benefit from following these tips to make their portaging as efficient and smooth as possible:

How to Portage a Canoe

“Portage” is pronounced differently depending on where you live. In the American Midwest it’s: “pôr′tĭj”. If you’re Canadian, it’s the French: pôr-täzh′ (you can hear them pronounced here). If you’re in the American northeast, it’s often referred to as “a carry.”

Portaging a canoe simply means to carry your canoe over a stretch of land. This is usually done by one person, because the others in your party will be carrying gear. You might be going around a stretch of rapids on a river, or overland from one lake to another.

This video from Friends of the Boundary Waters is a great intro to learn how to pick up, carry and put down your canoe on a portage:

The difficulty of doing this depends on your own strength, how quickly you learn the technique and the weight of your canoe.

These days many outfitters offer canoes that weigh under 50 pounds (made of materials like Kevlar or carbon fiber). These aren’t just easier for most people to pick up, they’re easier on your shoulders over the portages. They’re a wonderful option for those who are smaller or not as strong.

Heavier canoes (made of materials like aluminum, fiberglass or polyethylene) are tougher and better able to handle scraping and banging on rocks, though. Canoeists who are fit and strong will be able to handle the extra weight without much trouble.

Portaging Your Gear

The best tip for portaging your canoe trip gear is to pack light and pack efficiently. You want to get as much gear into or attached to your large packs as you can, without scattered items to carry in your hands (water bottles, extra shoes, etc.).

[See: The Best Canoe Trip Portage Packs]

Depending on how many people are in your group, how many canoes you have and the weight of your gear, you may have to take every portage twice to get everything over. If you’ll face few portages that are quite short, a couple trips on each one isn’t a big deal. But it you have a half-mile portage with a lot of gear, you’re looking at a 2-mile hike altogether. And that’s just one portage.

 2 people hiking along a canoe portage through young trees

Be sure all your items are accounted for on each portage (photo courtesy of Forged from the Wild)

Bending Branches ProStaff team member Joey Monteleone was a wilderness canoe trip guide in Canada’s Quetico Provincial Park for 27 summers. Here are some of his best tips for portaging:

  • Make sure you're physically prepared to portage. It’s much easier when you’re in shape.
  • Map out the portages for your planned trip carefully. Know the general vicinity and approximate lengths of each. Doing many portages every day is hard work.
  • Carry rope and double-sided Velcro® to lash items (fishing rods, paddles) to canoes, backpacks or belt loops. Bring soft-soled shoes to wear in the canoe and ankle-high boots to wear when portaging.
  • Step around objects rather than over them when possible. A fall carrying a canoe or heavy pack could be catastrophic. Be especially careful when it’s wet and muddy.
  • Be aware of habituated bears. They will sometimes lay in wait at portages to steal food packs.

 woman bracing canoe for another woman ready to portage

It can help to have someone brace the canoe for you as you pick it up or put it down, especially if the canoe is heavy (photo courtesy of Sharon Brodin)

Scott Oeth is a Registered Maine Guide as well as a veteran Boundary Waters canoeist. He also offers several portaging tips:

  • Yes, be in shape before a portaging trip. Work on core and lower back strength, especially.
  • Count your packs and recount them at the end of every portage before shoving off. If the color of your gear blends in with the forest environment, wrap a piece of blaze orange duct tape around a strap on each so they don’t get overlooked.
  • Wear sturdy footwear with good traction that can get wet. If the toes are closed, you’ll have less chance of injury.
  • If you plan on spring and/or fall canoe trips, invest in a good pair of tall waterproof boots that will keep your feet dry. Scott likes Xtra Tuff tall neoprene boots, or waterproof hunting boots.
  • Don’t front-carry a second pack—there’s too much loss of visibility and risk of tripping. Stack the second pack on top of the first, on your back.
  • When attempting rapids always do some risk assessment first: Can the group safely run them? How bad would an upset be? Can we portage some of the heavy packs, then run the canoes? Whitewater should only be attempted by those with experience.  As they say, “No one has ever drowned on a portage trail!”

men lowering a canoe down a cliff on a portage

Scott Oeth and team had to lower their canoes and gear with ropes down "Mountain Goat Portage" in northwest Ontario on this trip! (photo courtesy of Michael Branham)

When you plan your canoe trip, know ahead of time whether you’ll be able to take each portage just once. Be sure to allow enough time every day for any additional trips across each one.

Portages Vary Depending on Your Destination

Length, terrain and the level of difficulty varies widely for portages, even within a single wilderness area. It also varies from one wilderness area to another.

In some areas these portages will be well-marked and well-maintained. In others, you might be bushwhacking your way across. You’ll want to do your research to know what to expect for the destination you choose for your canoe adventure.

The closest wilderness canoe destination to our Wisconsin headquarters is the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) in northern Minnesota. With its 1,500 miles of available canoe routes to 1,100 lakes, this area has portages from just a few feet to a mile or two long. They’re maintained regularly by the US Forest Service and volunteers, and are quite well-traveled by its 250,000 visitors each year.

man taking a canoe pack out of a canoe on shore

(photo courtesy of @andweroam)

Canada offers several provincial parks for wilderness canoeing including Quetico, Algonquin, Killarney and Woodland Caribou. The best way to learn about them is to do an online search for outfitters that service each one. These experts will be a great source of information on the difficulty of portages and how well they’re maintained.

Portaging in the BWCAW, Quetico and other provincial parks will be very similar: rugged wilderness terrain through forest, a lot of up-and-down, with rocks and tree roots to navigate around or over.

In northeast US is the Northern Forest Canoe Trail (NFCT), a combination of wilderness and small-town environments. In the NFCT, portages may include a trip through town for a few miles to reach the next entrance point.

Canoeists there often rely on canoe carts to make their way over well-used and roomy portages. Then it’s possible to keep most of their gear in the canoe during a portage. NFCT offers a Cheat Sheet with many tips for canoeing the Trail, including portaging.

Canoe trips on rivers usually require less portaging than from lake-to-lake, sometimes none at all. You’ll typically find a river portage around rapids or waterfalls.

 woman portaging an aluminum canoe through the trees

(photo courtesy of Sharon Brodin)

Portaging is a significant part of many wilderness canoe trips. It’s one of the things that make these trips unique in outdoor experiences. Embrace them and enjoy the change from paddling!

Do you have paddle questions our friendly Customer Service Team can help you with today? Contact them: 715-755-3405 • [email protected]

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