At the beginning of a high adventure canoe trip our portage packs our packs weigh about 60-70 pounds. This is quite a load for some of us but time has proven that even our smallest Scouts can handle them very well. As the trip progresses we eat our way light and by the last portage out the packs are about 20-30 pounds lighter.
Summer weight sleeping bags are important to our packing plan. Ours are about the size of a loaf of bread when packed so they take up little room. We made lightweight fleece liners that compress down to the same size as the sleeping bag. Two sleeping bags and liners go into a waterproof bag for packing.
What happens at a Portage?
PFDs come off and get zipped around the canoe seat, portage packs come out of the canoes and the crew helps the pack carriers get them on and adjusted. Paddles slip into the side of the packs. Day bags get strapped around the canoe paddles in back or put on backwards so they ride in front. Once loaded and adjusted the pack carriers take off. Canoe carriers check the beach carefully for any stray gear, don their day bags (mine is a lumbar pack so no shoulder straps interfere with the carry) hoist their canoes and follow. As soon as one arrives at the end of the portage they drop what they are carrying and cycle back to help the others if needed.
At the other end of the portage the reverse happens, paddles come out, portage packs and day bags go back in the canoe, everyone dons their PFD and off we go.
Packing the Portage Packs
We rent the largest pack our outfitter offers and pack it according to the plan illustrated above. Everything needed for two paddlers to set up camp is in the pack: their dry bags, tent and sleeping pads. The pads go in first making walls for the inside of the pack. Everything else goes into the center of the cylinder the pads create. It’s important to shake the pack (hold the sides and give the contents a good shake down) to be sure you fill the bag from the bottom to the top and don’t leave any spaces. Miscellaneous things like our folding saw, fuel canisters, frying pan, etc. get wedged into any open space. Food bags go on top.
Since we have odd-numbered crews one of the packs holds the kitchen and one person’s gear rather than two people’s gear.
Know Your Portage Pack
Understand how to adjust your portage pack and you’ll have an easier carry. Take the time to find the load adjusting straps (on the belt and the bottom corners of the pack) be sure to loosen them before putting the pack on. Make sure the pack rides on your hips, not your waist, and tighten the hip belt first. The shoulder straps are next, snug them down firmly, clip the sternum strap across your chest and, finally snug up the load adjusters. Loose load adjusters transfer some weight to your shoulders, tight adjusters transfer weight to your hips. On a long portage you can use the load adjusters to transfer the load when either your shoulders or hips are weary.
A few extra dollars a day spent to upgrade our rentals to the lightest canoes available really pays off (we hire the ultra-lightweight Kipiwas and Winisks made by Swift).
On our first trip we made the mistake of not renting portage pads. Our Scouts could not be compelled to carry a canoe with the yoke (not that I blame them, my shoulders still burn when I think of those portages!) so they paired up to carry canoes and that’s more miserable than carrying them by yourself.
We rented yoke pads the next time out and that saved us some discomfort. What did the trick, though, were the pads we made that bolt on to the yokes – they really take the sting out of a carry! These pads are cheap and serviceable, easy to make and worth their weight in gold (I’ll bet if I set up shop and sold them at the mid-point of a long Portage we could finance our whole trip!).
Portaging a canoe is, at first, a disorienting experience. Having a 16-17 foot canoe on your head limits your vision and gives you an eight foot long nose and tail. Turning, negotiating obstacles, and climbing or descending all become a little more involved. With a bit of practice you’ll get the hang of it. Most longer portages in the park have a resting pole somewhere along the way so the canoe carriers can take a break without laying the canoe down.
Hoisting the canoe on to your shoulders and setting it back down takes some practice too. We’ve found that most of our Scouts (13-18 years old) can portage a canoe with a little coaching. At first it’s a pretty daunting task but when they learn how to adjust the yoke pads, balance the canoe and avoid obstacles they can carry one confidently.
Making Portage Pads
I used some scrap ½ PVC board (you can just as easily use a good marine grade plywood or solid wood – just be sure it will stand the strain and give it a coat of varnish). The pad is a 3” thick chunk of micro-cell closed-cell foam applied with contact cement. Cement a scrap strip of foam to the parts that bear on the wooden canoe yoke to prevent marking the yoke and to help hold the pad in place. 3/8” x 4 ½” carriage bolts are countersunk into the PVC before the pad is added. Thumbscrews and washers complete the assembly