Once upon a time a group of fifteen-year-old girls set out on a fifteen-day canoe trip. They were accompanied by their two trip leaders through the lakes of Temagami, Ontario. The first seven days of the trip were spent dreading the upcoming Diamond Lake portage, a four-kilometer path affectionately nicknamed the Diamond Lake Death March.
The put-in of the portage was a thick swamp. The group was warned about it, but nevertheless spent close to an hour trying to move gear and extract people from its depths before the real fun began. The portage took hours, but relentless determination and Snickers bars doled out in the middle of the shadowy excuse for a trail helped them reach the end. For many of the girls, the Diamond Lake Death March was the most mentally and physically exhausting challenge they had ever completed.
Those 15-year-olds are now 21-year-olds, and some still think of it as a formative experience. Unfortunately, not everyone has a four-kilometer slog and six years of perspective to allow them to think fondly of portaging. If you have an upcoming portaging trip and need to learn to love hiking with a canoe—and fast—follow our expert tips and techniques.
Invest in carabineers
Avoid going crazy on portages by tying down anything loose. Scattered and unsecured items compromise efficiency on portages and can even add an extra trip back to the take-out. Buy extra carabineers and clip them to your pack to easily attach water bottles, sweaters and dry bags.
Get the right canoe yoke for you
How the canoe yoke fits your shoulders and neck will play a big part in portage comfort. Many people prefer a nice scooped yoke, but some swear by a flat one. Find one that works for you, and undertake a DIY yoke replacement if your current one is painful or uncomfortable.
Put canoes in the water first
Portages are hard work. Make them a bit easier by putting canoes in the water first at the put-in so they are ready to be loaded with gear. Bringing gear first and then piling it at the take-out to be placed in canoes after wastes time and energy. If you are carrying both packs and a canoe, wade into the water (if conditions are safe), flip the canoe onto the water’s surface and then place packs inside.
Take breaks on the portage trail
For your enjoyment and safety on portages, give yourself breaks. Just like any other strenuous activity, you are most productive if you schedule time to recharge. Keep your water and snacks accessible and stop for a breather or two on the trail. Hauling a food barrel and canoe on a seldom-maintained trail is a lot more bearable if you know each step is bringing you closer to a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup. Trying to get your kids to love portaging too? Double up on those snacks.
Invest in an ultra-light canoe
This author used to be skeptical as to how much better light tripping canoes could really be. Then a portage-heavy trip in Algonquin Park with a carbon H20 Prospector changed her mind. When you seem to walk as much as you paddle on a trip, every pound of weight on your shoulders counts. Hoisting a super light canoe is a treat and will make future trips considerably more pleasant.
Buy or use neck cushioning
After a few portages, your neck can become sore and raw from the yoke rubbing against skin. You can bring a small dish towel or t-shirt to wrap around the yoke, or even purchase a yoke pad to increase comfort.
Research your canoe trip route
Understand as much as you can about your canoe trip route before you go. Knowing how long your portages are and any critical details—like washouts, swamps and challenging take-outs—will make portages less work since you know what to expect. If you are prepared, you can better plan each day’s route and avoid too many surprises.
Use the paddle and pack trick
Every canoe tripper has found themselves fumbling along a portage trail with an armful of paddles sticking out in every direction. Doubling back an extra 700 meters for a single discarded paddle isn’t ideal. If you can carry a pack on your back and front, place paddles in the snug spot between your body and the front pack. This will keep them from moving around and keeps your hands more free.